This month’s letter is one of thousands between William Gladstone and his eldest brother, Thomas. It is contained within folder number 444 in our Glynne-Gladstone Archive. There are 122 letters housed in this folder and the very first letter, dated 9th January 1856, begins with William Gladstone’s sympathy towards Thomas’s wife, Louise, and her sudden, unknown illness.
Once we reach letter number 5 in this folder, we discover that it is whooping cough that has befallen both Louisa and two of their six children, Louise and Merry. Although survival rates for whooping cough were much higher in the 19th Century than the 18th, when it was recorded that 3,246 individuals died from whooping cough in London between 1749 and 1764 , it could still prove fatal in young children during the Victorian era.
William Gladstone says that his brother’s children have unfortunately caught the illness from his own children;
“I learned that your family had caught the whooping cough, apparently from our children, & that in respects to Louise it particular has been severe.”
On the second page of the letter, William hopes that a “partially favourable change in weather” will improve the health of Thomas’s family. Additionally, William gives a brief account of the health of his own children by stating “it has not gone beyond the two youngest”. Herbert and Henry Gladstone were the youngest and would have been 2 and 4 years old respectively at the time of this letter.
Thankfully, both William and Thomas’s family survived their bouts of whooping cough, with Herbert going on to become the Home Secretary from 1905 to 1910, and responsible for the Workman's Compensation Act and the Coal Mines Regulation Act. The Act improved working conditions for miners and workmen, with its aim being to reduce the risk of accidents and poor health.
You can read the entire 1908 Coal Mines Regulation Act here.
 Weston, Robert. ‘Whooping Cough: A Brief History to the 19th Century’, Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, (2012) Vol. 29, (2) p. 335
Kit Johnson, Graduate Work Experience student