The Tragedy of the Hearn Family

The tragedy of the six Hearn children in Thornbury graveyard

In the 1830s, the Hern/Hearn family lived in Lashbrook at what is now Lashbrook Farm.   In the 1841 census they are shown with four children, Mary, Elizabeth, Grace and John:

Hearn family







Sadly, in 1846 three of these children, and one not born until 1842, died. Only Mary survived. The inscriptions on the gravestones are as follows:

2303 In memory of Grace (Hern) daughter of John & Ann Hern who died 14 June 1846 aged 8¾ years. My parents & relations dear, prepare to come unto me here: provide I pray for die you must, and lie as I do in the dust.

2205 In memory of Ann (Hern) daughter of John & Ann Hern who died 22 June 1846 aged 4 years. Farewell dear parents cease to mourn, Unto my God I must return: Twas He that gave me to your store, and took me hence for evermore.

2204 In memory of Elizabeth (Hern) daughter of John & Ann Hern who died 25 June 1846 aged 11 years. My parents dear grieve not for me, Since I am gone before: Twill not be long I hope all we, Shall meet to part no more.

2203 In memory of John (Hern) son of John & Ann Hern who died 26 June 1846 aged 6¼ years. Happy child thy life is ended, All thy mourning days are o’er. Gone by Angel bands attended, Safely lodged in Jesu’s care.

By the 1851 Census, three more children have been born so they had Mary, now 18, Matthew, John and William. However, in 1859, tragedy struck again and two more of them die, leaving them with just Matthew and William, Mary having grown up and left home. The inscriptions on the gravestones are as follows:

2202 In memory of Samuel (Hearn, son of John & Ann Hearn of this parish, who died 5th Novr. 1857 aged 4½. The lovely bud so young so fair, Call’d off by earthy doom: Just came to show how sweet a flower, In paradise could bloom.

2201 In memory of John (Hearn) son of John & Ann Hearn who died 6th Dec 1857 aged 10 years. Grieve not dear parents at your loss, Your loss will be my gain: Prepare yourselves to follow me, Never to part again. These 6 children died of one disease.

I therefore bought the death certificates for Ann and John junior and these show that all of the children died of ‘croup’. The word croup comes from the Early Modern English verb croup, meaning “to cry hoarsely”; the name was first applied to the disease in Scotland and popularized in the 18th century.   Diphtheritic croup has been known since the time of Homer’s Ancient Greece and it was not until 1826 that viral croup was differentiated from croup due to diphtheria. Croup due to diphtheria has become nearly unknown in affluent countries in modern times due to the advent of effective immunization, but in the past it was feared since it was one of the most common causes of death and killed almost all of the children it affected.

It seems quite likely that they had diphtheria rather than the less serious viral croup as it was clearly very contagious and fatal to children who should have been old enough to recover from the latter disease. For fans of Poldark, it is diphtheria that is meant when they talk of the ‘putrid throat’ which killed baby Julia Poldark.

The family stayed on in the farm and after John’s death in 1867 his son William took over the farm until they left to move to Peters Marland some time between 1891 and 1901.

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