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What it's like to lose your babies to measles

This year’s global measles epidemic is the worst since 2006. For New Zealander Jenny Abrahamson, the disease’s resurgence recalls the heartbreak of an earlier generation.

From the Diary and Memoirs of John Allen Giles (1808-1884)

May 6, 1837, Saturday. As I was going downstairs in the evening, Anna, who had been sitting with our little boy Henry Douglas laid up with measles and whooping cough, shrieked out to me to come back. I hastened up again and found the dear little fellow in a dreadful fit of epilepsy.

May 9, Tuesday. For the last three days our poor little boy has had but little rest, and this day at 3 o’clock in the morning he breathed his last. We were, or ought to have been, prepared for this result, seeing that the convulsions had come upon him sometimes twice within an hour. Mr Jackson, our medical man, was most attentive, but evidently all aid was fruitless. Anna, Henry Dickinson (Anna’s brother) and myself had sat by him all the last three nights. He was better on Sunday, and at one time passed four hours without a fit, but that constant enemy the whooping cough never left him for long, returning with fresh force at intervals. At ten to three on Wednesday morning, the poor baby was again in a fit. It was his last. As I held him on the pillow in a sitting posture, he died. We both witnessed the departure of life from his little body, and the dear little “Dicky”, as we used to call him, was no more. [He was 13 months old].

May 13, Saturday. In the afternoon we buried our dear little baby in the large vault under Bow Church. Returning home, we soon found our attention called to other objects. Our eldest boy William Arthur had been attacked by measles and whooping cough, at the same time as his brother, and he now began to be seriously unwell. He made some curious remarks about his little brother when dead: “Is Dicky up in the sky, Mamma?” and when he kissed the little lips for the last time, he said: “How cold Dicky is; was there no fire, Mamma?”

May 16, Tuesday. Arthur was still seriously ill. The measles seemed to have produced great weakness, and his poor little body was a mere skeleton. (The doctor, Mr Jackson, recommended sending for Dr Davis, who was famous for his knowledge of diseases of children, and he “gave an opinion unfavourable to Arthur”.)

May 20, Saturday. Our dear boy was a little better.

May 21, Sunday. Arthur was not worse, but perhaps slightly better. His constant cry was “Toast and water”, “Thirsty”.

May 22, Monday. Mr Jackson gave tonics to the little boy, but he got weaker, and spoke with difficulty.

May 23, Tuesday. The poor little child was very ill and restless, asking to be moved every quarter of an hour. At midnight the poor boy was now dreadfully weak, and no longer asked for anything. We placed him in our bed between us.

May 24, Wednesday. This day cut short all our hopes and fears about our only remaining boy. At an early hour this morning his eye became dull. Anna tried repeatedly to make him take some nourishing drink, but without effect. At a quarter before 7 o’clock she offered him some, but he said “No, no”. She said to him, “Arte, Arte, where’s Papa?” upon which he threw back his arm over me, as I lay beside him in the bed. At 7 o’clock his breathing became thick: the dreaded cough was coming on, but want of strength prevented it; one or two long gasps for breath succeeded, and my poor child was gone. His third birthday, if he had lived so long, would have been the 10th September. It was not 2 months ago that I found him in the long passage of the City of London School running up and down among 300 of the boys, all of whom seemed as delighted as he was. He was a general favourite with all our friends, and an especial favourite with my father. The boys of the City of London School had a holiday this day, being the 18th birthday of the Princess Victoria.

May 29, Monday. On this day we conveyed the body of our dear little William Arthur to Bow Church. My father, my brother Frank and Henry Dickinson followed the coffin: the same awful vault was opened. And the same sad ceremony gone through. The coffin of the younger child again lay before us, and the sexton promised to place them one on the other. And so we saw the last of our dear little boy. His death took place on the birthday of the Princess Victoria and his funeral on that of the King; and so two days of public rejoicing were to us days of mourning.

Allen Giles. Image/Supplied

Proud lineage

My relation John Allen Giles (known as Allen) was a cleric, teacher and prolific writer who became the first headmaster of the City of London School, which opened in 1837. He was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history and a fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Reverend Giles wrote of his children’s deaths in 1837. He and his wife, Anna, had four more children, two sons and two daughters, and he became curate of Bampton, Oxfordshire.

But a book he wrote, Christian Records, about the age and authenticity of the books of the New Testament, would lead to conflict with the Bishop of Oxfordshire,  particularly after he penned a sarcastic response to the bishop’s demand that the book be withdrawn.

Giles was charged after inadvertently performing a marriage ceremony for a pregnant maid outside the permitted hours. He was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment and, although released after only a few weeks, the case cost the family their home and fortune.

His diary records: “My foolish inattention to the law got me into trouble, and enabled the Bishop of Oxford to wreak his vengeance on me for the sarcasm contained in the last letter I had addressed to his lordship.”

Ninety-two years later, his namesake Allen Giles, my great-uncle, founded the Cheeseman ski club in Canterbury, New Zealand. The club celebrated its 90th anniversary in September.

The deaths of Henry and Arthur meant the loss of children who never had a chance at life. Who knows what potential those boys had? Their brother, Herbert, born after their deaths, became a British consul in China, and later professor of Chinese at Cambridge University. He is known for the Wade-Giles Chinese romanisation system, and many publications.

Measles was declared eradicated in the UK in 2017 but it is now back, causing severe illness to people there and here in New Zealand.

Babies are particularly vulnerable as they can’t receive the vaccination until 12-15 months old (or six months in Auckland). If people got themselves and their children vaccinated,  the measles horror story could be consigned to the past.

– Jenny Abrahamson

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.