Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Probably General Debility": Joseph Fitzpatrick, aged 6 years

In June I wrote about discovering Joseph Fitzpatrick on the 1901 U.K. Census. Joseph, aged 5, is the middle child in a family which at this point includes two other siblings, eldest sister Mary Angela, aged 6 (my maternal grandmother), and baby brother Thomas, aged 2.

By 1907 the Fitzpatrick family has returned to Ireland. In the 1911 Irish Census, Thomas and Mary Angela are both listed in the record, as are siblings John, Leo, and Francis; however, of Joseph there is no account. What happened to him I wondered? Searching in both Irish and U.K. materials, I discovered him in November of 1901. Between March and November of that year Joseph had marked a birthday, but on 19 November 1901, at the age of 6, Joseph is dead.

Having learned that Joseph died during the family's residency in Liverpool England, I applied to the U.K. General Register Office for his death certificate. When I received the document I was shocked by what I read. This is the certificate:

The cause of death is listed as "probably General Debility". How on earth does a six year old child die from 'General Debility', a cause which since the 18th century has been used to account for the death of persons of very advanced age? I was truly shocked by this. Further research was a necessity.

Liverpool in the early 20th century was a densely populated city, made more so by the influx of Irish labourers crossing the Irish Sea in search of work. Joseph's father Thomas has been described as a "coal labourer"{1}, a "general labourer", and a "dock labourer"{2}. An article in Blackwood's Magazine for 1901 estimates that a stevedore (i.e. someone who loads and unloads cargo from ships) earned on average about £2 a week; however, casual dock labourers might only make 8-12 shillings. They were subject to abuse by employers who might release them without notice, or short them in their wages, actions for which they would have no recourse. More likely than not Thomas Fitzpatrick falls into the latter category of casual labourer. Many Irish were employed as casual labourers in the South Docks area of Liverpool, jobs for which they would be chosen from among a large group of individuals. Under such conditions it would have been very difficult to provide for a wife and family of 3 children.

Courtesy of Liverpool County Library

The Blackwood's article emphasises the importance of the waterfront as a source of employment for Irish immigrants and describes it as "a magnet for close settlement". At the time of the March 1901 UK Census the Fitzpatricks are living in rooms in Great Howard Street; by November they have moved to 50 Paget Street. It is in 50 Paget Street that little Joseph dies. Both homes lie in close proximity to the docklands, and both are in densely populated areas in which the living conditions are, to put it mildly, less than ideal.

In 1901 the infant mortality rate among this population is very high, and there is a cause of death which appears more often than should be the case; that cause is "general debility". General debility is a phrase used in reference to children to describe death by emaciation. In other words, it is likely that little Joseph Fitzpatrick aged 6 starved to death. General debility would manifest in a slow suffering, a general weakening and wasting of the body. One night he would have gone to sleep, never to awaken again.

I have cried for this little child, one whom I never knew, and could never know. When I first discovered him I used to dream about him and my grandmother on their adventure in Liverpool, thinking them fortunate to have been able to accompany their father as he travelled from their homeland for work. I imagined them running and playing in the streets, making new friends, and exploring new places. I see his little face; I imagine grasping his tiny hand, but this is all a fantasy. I knew the history of the place and the time, but hoped that somehow they might have lived outside of that history, so to speak.

That phrase "probably general debility" will hold a place in my mind for a long time to come, and I will never forget little Joseph Fitzpatrick.

Liverpool County Library
Blackwood's Magazine, 1901
Lancet Journal of British and Foreign Medicine, 1908.
{1} Thomas Fitzpatrick is named as a coal labourer in the 1911 census of Ireland.
{2} Thomas Fitzpatrick is named as a dock labourer on his son's death certificate, and as a general labourer on the 1901 UK Census.


  1. Another cause of death to consider would be that he possibly had a malignancy. There are a lot of childhood cancers and the pollution in that time frame could have led to that development.

    If there were other children that died in the same time frame I would suspect malnutrition or perhaps a vitamin deficiency.

  2. An interesting point Claudia; however, according to The Lancet Journal of British and Foreign Medicine (1908) "general debility" in children means emaciation and is an actual cause of death. Although the inclusion of the word 'probably' does give one pause, the death certificate mentions no other pathologies, so I have to assume it is correct. Jennifer

  3. This made me cry. Makes you want to hold him.
    Wonderful historical knowledge you have passed to us. thanks

  4. Thanks Hummer! and Claudia! I really appreciate your comments. Cheers! Jennifer

  5. How very, very sad. Sometimes when I'm searching for an ancestor who I believe to have died young, I find myself hoping that it's not true, or that the circumstances weren't horrible -- in the same way I hope for the safety my children. It's an awful realization to learn the facts in a situation like little Joseph's. Tears for him, and then for his parents, too....

    You did very nice research for this post. I appreciate seeing a photograph of a UK death certificate/record. I'm hoping to find ones for several of my ancestors. I just have to keep digging. Maybe some day they'll index the names of the parents or spouses for the death certificates.


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