Dora R. Hannan (1909-2001): Illness, Health & Disability – Writing Lives

Dora R. Hannan (1909-2001): Illness, Health & Disability

“Both my parents were very compassionate people, sometimes when one of us lay awake softly grizzling to ourselves with toothache in the middle of the night, Mum would creep in to us, candlestick in one hand and in the other, some oil of cloves and cotton wool with which to soothe the offending gum, and there she sat with us till the pain eased a little, or we dropped off to sleep, and if we hurt ourselves Dad would say, “I wish I could bear that pain for you, my dear.” [p. 22].

A photo of a girl quarantined after her brother contracted Scarlet Fever

Dora and her family had suffered some tragedies. Firstly, Dora’s would be older brother, John, tragically died at six months, “A victim of the scourge whooping cough” [p. 3]. The whooping cough was quite a wide spread disease, with 545 per million individuals reported to have died of it from 1901-10 (Benjamin, 1964). Diseases such as these are said to have been spread by overcrowded and unsanitary housing, as well as poor cleanliness in the streets (Woods, Watterson & Woodward (1989) (cited in Atkins, 2003)), this led to new regulations that required houses to have “Wider streets, open space at the rear of every house, enhanced windows and drainage, and individual privies that could be emptied without waste being transported through the house” (August, 2007:97) to prevent such spreading through better sanitation. It is also discussed however, how cow’s milk may have helped spread such diseases. Through poorly regulated conditions, “Particles of manure, dust from the cowshed, [and] dirt from the railway wagon” (Atkins, 2003), all added to the contamination that the milk may contain. In 1906-7, in the London town of Wilesden, the death rates per thousand showed a significantly higher amount of infants dying from the whooping cough that were fed off of artificial milk, the rate being at 46.2, as opposed to the smaller amount of 11.5 for those surviving off of breast milk (Atkins, 2003). This shows the numerous ways that diseases were spread during this time, and the ease in contracting them.

Martha’s Death Certificate, Provided by Dora’s Great Nephew

Unfortunately for the family, they were to lose another child, as Martha, the oldest girl, tragically died following a fall in the school playground at aged 11. After speaking with a member of Dora’s family, her great nephew, he stated that this was the story that had been passed down from the family, as well as being stated in Dora’s memoir, and provided me with a copy of her death certificate. The death certificate however, states that Martha had died from Tuberculosis Meningitis (TB Meningitis) and Heart failure. TB Meningitis is first caused by contracting Tuberculosis, which again, being the single greatest cause of death in 19th century Britain (Atkins, 1999), is spread through bacteria in the air, perhaps down to the poor sanitation of 19th and 20th century housing and housing estates. Similarly to the whooping cough, Tuberculosis was known to have been transferred easily through cow’s milk and beef (Atkins, 1999), again showing the numerous possibilities of individuals contracting such diseases. With the family living near an isolation hospital however, seen here: “Some days when we wanted a change from the rec: we ventured further afield, out through the gate at the far end, across the railway bridge and along what seemed to me a most depressing and frightening road, for it was bounded by a cemetery and prison on the left hand, the Workhouse on the right, and at the end the isolation hospital” [p. 12], both causes of contraction are equally as likely, with the diseases not being far from their home.

A Map of the Walk That Dora Describes, Including the Prison, Workhouse and Isolation Hospital

It is said that poverty is linked with disease (Jones, 2013), and therefore the contraction of such could harm one’s economic and social positioning, due to the disgust surrounding illness and diseases, as the better-off often feared the urban masses threat to society, with their over crowdedness and wide spreading of diseases. This is evident in Dora’s description of the isolation hospital, as she explains her fear of the germs within, “It was the latter of the group of buildings that which scared me most. Imagining the immediate vicinity to be teeming with germs, I always hurried by as fast as I could, my mouth and nose covered with my handkerchief till I was almost stifled” [p. 12]. It is no wonder though that Dora held such a strong fear to this, with two of her siblings dying of such diseases, and often witnessing others on her street suffering in similar ways. “On occasions, the fever van, as distinct from an ordinary ambulance, would come down the road where we lived, to take some unfortunate being away, and this really filled me with horror. I felt sure we would all catch the dreaded illness, as scarlet fever and diphtheria were quite common, and I thought I would surely die if they took me away from mum” [p. 12]. I have discussed in a previous post (See Habits, Culture and Beliefs for more details) that Dora’s family often tried to separate themselves from the typical working class, and this may be perhaps why the emphasis of the cause of Martha’s death was placed on her fall in the playground, rather than the diagnosis of Tuberculosis. As illness and disease was so looked down upon, it may have been important for the family to separate themselves from the stereotype surrounding this. Fortunately for Dora and the family however, they did not suffer from any more tragic events following the contraction of illnesses, but it did come close.

“The only illness I ever suffered was measles with complications, and this nearly proved fatal, William and I were ill together, but whereas he developed bronchitis with his measles, I had double pneumonia. Most of this period is, of course, very hazy, but I can remember that when we had recovered enough to get up, we were so weak we could hardly stand and had to learn to walk again. … I learned afterwards that it had been touch and go for me, the doctor had ordered linseed poultices on my back, and my mother couldn’t bring herself to put them on hot enough, so the services of a retired nurse, … were requested, … she saved my life, and I still bear the scars of her treatment to this day” [p. 13].

To read more about the spreading of other diseases, see this post on Frank George Marling, by Kennet (2018).

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Works Cited:

357 HANNAN, Dora R., ‘Those Happy Highways: An Autobiography’, TS, pp.36 (c.20,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Atkins, P. (1999) Milk Consumption and Tuberculosis in Britain, 1850-1950. Order and Disorder: The Health Implications of Eating and Drinking in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. pp. 83-95.

Atkins, P. (2003) Mother’s Milk and Infant Death in Britain, circa 1900-1940. Anthropology of Food. [online] URL: Date Accessed: 16/04/18

August, A. (2007) The British Working Class 1832-1940. Pearson Education: Harlow.

Benjamin, B. (1964) The Urban Background to Public Health Changes in England and Wales, 1900-50. Population Studies. 17(3) p. 225-248

Jones, H. (2013) Health and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain. Routledge: Oxon.


Kirby, D. (2016) Scarlet Fever: Once Feared Victorian Disease Infecting Hundreds of Children a Week. The Independent. [image] URL:  Date Accessed: 16/04/18

Historic Hospitals (2016) The Hospitals Investigator 10. [image] URL:  Date Accessed: 16/04/18

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