A Little Girl’s Death from Measles by Ellen Maki, Ph.D.

My mother’s middle name was Agnes, and for most of her life she disliked the name. She disliked it so much that she said she could not imagine why her parents had given her such a name. I think I know why she was given the name, and I think that the answer is measles.

In 1891, my great-grandparents, Daniel and Alice Owen, were living at 13 Halefield Street, St. Helens, in what was then Lancashire, in England. Daniel was working as a chemical labourer, possibly at the glass works nearby. The couple had a young family: 5 daughters ranging in age from 4 to 12 years, and one son, my grandfather George, who was just 1 year old.

Map SW Lancashire with caption

No doubt the family coped with the usual childhood illnesses: croup, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and measles among them. Although measles has now been nearly eradicated in many parts of the world, that was not the case in 1891. In fact, in his annual report for 1891, the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths in England, stated that in Liverpool, just outside of St. Helens, measles was endemic – there were regular occurrences of measles in the area.

When the 1891 census was taken on 5 April, all of the children except for baby George were recorded as scholars. The girls were probably exposed to measles in early to mid-April, likely at school, because sometime in April, 4-year old Agnes Owen came down with the measles.

Newpaper clipping with caption

At a meeting of the St. Helens Health Committee on 14 May 1891, the medical officer reported that during the previous five weeks there had been 200 deaths. That was up sharply from the same period in the previous year, and the medical officer attributed that increase to 14 measles deaths, and 91 to chest problems. He also added that 90 of the total deaths were children under the age of 5 years. It is difficult to imagine nowadays that nearly 50% of the deaths were young children.

The St. Helens medical officer’s report highlights the reason that measles is concerning to both parents and health authorities: it can lead to very serious complications, including respiratory problems such as croup, bronchitis, and pneumonia, especially in children.

Cause of death

When Agnes contracted the measles, she was one of the unfortunate children who went on to develop bronchitis. On 1 May 1891, three days after her fourth birthday, Agnes died from measles complications. She was one of the children the medical officer had included in his report of measles deaths to the St. Helens Health Committee on 14 April 1891.

Several girls in the next generations of the Owen family were given the name Agnes. No doubt the siblings cherished the memory of their sister. Although I cannot be certain, I suspect that my mother was given her middle name of Agnes in honour of the aunt that she never met.


  1. The National Archives. London, England. 1891 Census of England and Wales. St. Helens, Lancashire. RG 12 / 3019 / 44. Page 12. ED 6. SN 66.  http://home.ancestry.ca/ : accessed 12 April 2016.
  2. Registrar-General of Births, Marriage and Deaths in England. (1892) Fifty-Fourth Annual Report. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. p. xviii. https://books.google.ca/books?id=F_31N5-vkCYC : accessed 12 April 2016.
  3. Liverpool Mercury. (1891) The Health of St. Helens. 14 May. Liverpool Mercury. p. 8h. Collection: British Newspapers 1710-1953. http://www.findmypast.com/ : : accessed 11 April 2016.
  4. General Register Office of England and Wales. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death. St. Helens, Lancashire. 1 May 1891. Owen, Agnes. Copy dated 28 May 2003.
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