Cemetery tales: typhoid and death by beer barrel.

A visit to New Zealand’s Cromwell cemetery

There are few cemeteries that don’t have a typhoid story to tell.

Typhoid fever is a contagious bacterial infection that can be controlled by vaccination, but it was a different story in years gone by.  (Tens of millions of people have died from this disease and thousands continue to do so, particularly in developing countries).

Still holidaying, I came across this grave in the South Island town of Cromwell on my usual cemetery wanderings. Four Scally children died within one month from typhoid in 1874. They were 7, 6, 5 and 3. One year later, their mother Ellen and sibling Margaret (almost a year old) died from the same disease. Ellen was 29.

The Scally family's gravestone tells a sad story. Five children and their mother dying of typhoid.
Four Scally children died of typhoid in one month. Their mother and sibling died of typhoid a year later.

There are other historic graves telling a similar story of pioneering hardship in the cemetery. Below is a photo of the Goodger family grave.

George drowned, aged 53. His son Henry (14) and daughter Mary Anne (12) died from typhoid on the same day three years earlier. (There are no records of the cause of death for the other family members but because his wife and infant daughter died within a month of one another one can assume the deaths could be attributed to disease or childbirth complications.)

The Goodger family grave in the Crowell cemetery, New Zealand
The Goodger family grave. Patriarch George drowned, aged 53. His son Henry (14) and daughter Mary Anne (12) died from typhoid three years earlier, on the same day. 

Cromwell’s first cemetery was founded in 1865 and, like many cemeteries, contains unmarked pauper graves.

Many Australian cemeteries in rural and regional areas have at least one of these graves pictured below, referring to a horse accident. It seems New Zealand is the same.

John Garrett, killed in a horse accident, aged 32. He lies in the Cromwell cemetery in New Zealand's South Island
John Garrett was killed aged 32 by “the fall of his horse”.

However one cause of death I have never seen before on my cemetery wanderings lies on the gravestone of 26 year old Joel Chapman. He was killed by a landslip in 1875. The cemetery records show there are several men buried in this cemetery that were killed by “fall of earth”. Landslips and rock falls remain a daily event in New Zealand. These days though authorities are better at monitoring and predicting them.

IMG20170702150705
Joel Chapman was killed in a landslip in 1875. He is one of several men killed “by a fall of earth” to be laid to rest in the Cromwell cemetery.

And so the Litany Street cemetery in the small South Island town of Cromwell, like all other historic cemeteries, provides an insight into the difficulties of pioneering life.

Other causes of death of people in this cemetery, as listed by some great work by the Dunedin Group of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists and members of the Cromwell Family History Society, include: appendicitis, teething, whooping cough, childbirth (there are many of these), dropsy, pleurisy, cancer (just one), pneumonia, congestion of the lungs, dysentery, exposure, bronchitis, diarrhoea, tuberculosis (just one) and “cardiac”.

And then there’s poor ol’ George Hayes who died on 24 Dec 1874. His cause of death is listed as: “Accident (barrel of beer fell on him)”.

IMG20170702150502
The Litany St cemetery, Cromwell’s first cemetery.

Lisa Herbert regularly wanders through cemeteries. She’s the author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an amusing and informative workbook for those who want to have a say in their funeral.  Your ideas, funeral plans, and your life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed.

The second edition is currently available in Australia for $18.95 delivered. Purchase here.

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