Monday, May 2, 2011

'Probably General Debility': The death of Little Joseph Fitzpatrick, aged 6

Last July I wrote about discovering that my maternal grandmother had a little brother named Joseph, a brother about whom nothing was known until I came across him in the records. Recently I discovered the site of Joseph's burial, the story of which I will share with you tomorrow. First I would like to recount the story of Joseph, a story which began with my discovery of him on the 1901 U.K. census. Joseph, then aged 5 years, is recorded in the census as the middle child in a family which in 1901 included two other siblings, eldest sister Mary Angela (my maternal grandmother), then aged 6 years, and their baby brother Thomas, then aged 2 years.

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. On the 18th day of October of 1901 Joseph had marked a birthday; however, just one month later on 19th day of November, at the age of 6, Joseph was 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. 

Casual labourers 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  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, and I imagined them running and playing in the streets, making new friends, and exploring new places. I see Joseph's little face, and picture grasping his tiny hand, but this is all a fantasy. The history of the place and the time is known to me, but I 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.

Footnotes and References:

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.

Liverpool County Library
Blackwood's Magazine, 1901
Lancet Journal of British and Foreign Medicine, 1908.


  1. This is such a powerful story. I'm constantly amazed when I learn of the strength our ancestors had just to survive. My thoughts are with Joseph today and others on our planet who currently face the same issues of survival.

  2. Hi Kathy,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I feel the same way you do. Our ancestors must have had a singular kind of strength. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that it is the 21st century and some human beings still have to face such hardship. It is unconscionable.


  3. How sad, but as you say, surprisingly common for the turn of the Century. Researching the local history and economic climate of the time, as you did, gives an insight into how our families lived. Poor little Joseph.

  4. Hi Jo,

    Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate that you appreciate the task of contextualizing the lives of our ancestors within the history of the day. Doing so has really helped me to understand what so many had to endure.


  5. Such a moving post. It's so sad to imagine a 6-year-old slowly starving to death. What a wonderful thing you've done by remembering and writing about him in such a sensitive way.


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