Smallpox was a feared disease. The mortality rate was around 33% for adults, and as high as 80% for under-fives. If you were lucky enough to survive, you would be scarred for life with disfiguring pock-marks. The last case of smallpox in the UK was in 1935 (82 years after compulsory infant vaccination was introduced to England), and it has been officially eradicated worldwide.

The burial records of Wing do mention the odd person as dying of smallpox. If it is reasonable to assume that all such deaths would have been a noteworthy event, then we can spot a potential outbreak beginning in November 1803 with the death of baby Sarah WINMILL. A month later Elizabeth GREEN, whose residence is listed as Northchurch rather than Wing, was buried. Then at the end of April 1804 Francis JENNINGS and William RODWELL died two weeks apart.

Extrapolating from our four deaths using the average mortality rate gives us around a dozen infected people people in Wing over this five-month period. The population was then around 1000, so this suggests that around 1% of the village caught smallpox at this time. This doesn’t sound like a high number, especially considering people were living in generally overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. However, there were some more significant epidemics earlier in Wing’s history – in 1684 fifteen people died over a three-month period, and in 1775 five people died over a three-month period.

Smallpox pustule gauge, used post-vaccination to confirm your ensuing pustule was large enough that the vaccine was considered a success.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images L0057753; CC BY 4.0

Smallpox victims in Wing’s burial registers 1546 to 1909:
Frances ALLEN buried 26 Dec 1683
Ann KING buried 10 Jan 1683/4
Daniel ELLIOTT buried 15 Jan 1683/4
Daniel ALLEN buried 15 Jan 1683/4
George ELLIOTT buried 30 Jan 1683/4
Elizabeth SAUNDERS buried 31 Jan 1683/4
John ARNOT buried 1 Feb 1683/4
Widow LANE buried 3 Dec 1683
William SAUNDERS buried Dec 1683-Feb 1683/4
Edward SAUNDERS buried Dec 1683-Feb 1683/4
William ELLIOTT buried 9 Feb 1683/4
Henry LUCAS buried 27 Feb 1683/4
Richard BATE buried 20 Feb 1683/4
Benjamin ROWE buried 22 Feb 1683/4
Mr ROWE buried 16 Mar 1683/4
William CATES buried 8 Sep 1690
Francis JORDAN buried 12 Sep 1690
John FOWLER buried 25 Feb 1697
Mary RICKARD buried 2 Aug 1701
John LOCK buried 14 Jun 1714 (employee of Earl of Chesterfield)
William HORE buried 2 Jul 1714
Thomas WEST buried 9 July 1714 (employee of Earl of Chesterfield)
Gabriel LYON buried 27 Jul 1715
Rebecca MUNDAY buried 25 Dec 1723
Thomas REDDALL died 13 Apr 1724
Jane RICKARD buried 29 Apr 1726
Elizabeth SANDERS buried 26 Dec 1727
Sarah BARNES buried 30 Nov 1735
Isaac WEBB buried 14 Feb 1775
Hannah OAKLEY buried 19 Mar 1775
Sarah BARNES buried 19 Mar 1775
William JEFFS buried 26 Mar 1775
Betty PRATT buried 15 May 1775
Sarah ELLIOTT buried 15 Apr 1790 aged 7m
Sarah NEWENS buried 8 Dec 1791 aged 1
Henry CULVERHOUSE buried 17 Nov 1793 aged 38
Sarah WINMILL buried 29 Nov 1803 aged 19w
Elizabeth GREEN buried 27 Dec 1803
Francis JENNINGS buried 25 Apr 1804 aged 64
Willm RODWELL buried 9 May 1804
James PAGE buried 4 Aug 1838 aged 8

There was also the death of 7-year-old Frederick Hobson on 9 June 1863. Although the burial register doesn’t note him as dying of smallpox, the Leighton Buzzard Observer states that the family, who had come from London in May, fell ill with smallpox shortly afterwards (the other four family members recovered). In November of that year the inquest of Sarah Dimmock (who had not died of smallpox) as reported in the Leighton Buzzard Observer states that husband William Dimmock had had smallpox in May and was recovered by August.

In 1911 the Luton Times reported a proposal for Wing to contribute to a district council scheme for a smallpox hospital. The parish declined on the basis that it was cheaper to erect a temporary building and burn it down once any outbreak was over. The matter didn’t rest there, with subsequent reminders the following year that there really should be some plan in place, after which Wing joined the Leighton Buzzard smallpox hospital scheme at a rate of £12 per year. It does seem curious that smallpox was still considered such a problem given that the majority of the population should in theory have been vaccinated in the previous six decades.