A Very Victorian Tragedy
There is a blue plaque outside 14 Sussex Square in Brighton that commemorates the time in 1838 when Lord John Russell lived in the house. This is not, however, a story about the great 19th century statesman, but the real and largely forgotten story of his wife, Lady Adelaide Russell.
If you were to stand on the pavement outside the house and peer up at the windows on the second floor you would be looking at what was in 1838 a bedroom. This was the room where at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on 1st November Lady Adelaide died. She was just 31 years old and had given birth to her 6th child 13 days previously.
The child, a little girl, survived and was later to be christened Victoria, in honour of the recently crowned Queen.
Adelaide died in the presence of her husband and despite having access to the very best medical knowledge and treatments then available. The physical pain she must have endured during those 13 days and her doctors’ utter inability to alleviate that pain is unimaginable and Lord John, who was a sensitive and loving husband, must have found his helplessness unbearable.
It was a terrible and devastating end to a marriage that lasted just three years, but let us first turn back to its beginning.
A Society Wedding 1835
The upper classes in 19th century Britain did not always marry for love and modern readers may sense a hint of expediency in the marriage of Lord John Russell and Lady Adelaide Ribblesdale.
Their wedding, a grand one, was held at St George’s, Hanover Square and at the time of their marriage in April 1835 he was 43 and she was 28. He was Home Secretary and, after Prime Minister Melbourne, regarded as the most powerful politician in the country. Politics had always been his life. Possessed of a strong sense of social justice that shaped his reformist ideas and dominated his public life, he had been an MP since the age of 21 but now in his 40s was marrying for the first time.
By contrast, Adelaide had been married before. At the age of 19 she had been married to her second cousin, Lord Ribblesdale, a man considerably older than herself and, following his premature death, found herself a widow with four young children.
She first met John Russell when he was down in his Devon constituency. She was petite and pretty and for a widow with four children remarkably “youthful looking”. Lord John was smitten and after a brief courtship the wedding followed.
Modern suspicions that theirs was a marriage of convenience may be rejected and are largely dispelled by several contemporary accounts.
For example, a few weeks after their wedding, Lord John and Lady Adelaide were spotted arriving at a ball and the witness, John Creevey described them thus: “My ears were much gratified by hearing the names ‘Lord and Lady John Russell’ announced and in came the little things, as merry looking as they well could be, but really much more calculated from their size to show off on a chimney-piece than to mix and be trod upon in company. To think of her as having four children is really beyond! When she might pass for 14 or 15. Everybody praises her vivacity, agreeableness and good nature very much so it is all very well”.
The waspish Creevey (a gossipy, letter-writing MP, himself) cannot resist joining the general mockery of Lord John’s small stature but, that apart, the words he uses are affirmative ones: merry, vivacious, agreeable, good natured. The picture that really emerges is of a genuinely warm and loving couple, comfortable in each other’s company. Lord John was later to say that his three years with his beloved ‘Addy’ had been the happiest of his life. Their first child, Georgiana, was born in 1836 and by the summer of 1838 Adelaide was pregnant again.
Arrival in Brighton, Autumn 1838
Autumn was the fashionable season in Brighton and Lord John and Lady Adelaide (Russell usually referred to his wife as ‘Lady John’) arrived at 14 Sussex Square in early September. They intended to stay until January of the following year.
The purpose behind their stay in Brighton seems to have been both recreational and medical: recreational because Brighton was the place to be; and medical because Adelaide was seven months pregnant and Dr. Robert Tayler, one of the most eminent physicians of the time and a trained ‘accoucheur’ (male midwife) was based just a few hundred yards away at The Royal Sussex Hospital.
Sailing from the Isle of Wight, the family arrived at Brighton’s Chain Pier on Saturday 8th September and they, (Lord John, Lady Adelaide, two year old Georgiana and a whole retinue of servants and nurses), were soon settled into their ‘marine villa’.
The very next day Lord John was on the coach back to London. Parliament may have been in recess, but matters of State always beckoned and Adelaide was left in Brighton to contemplate her pregnancy.
She wrote that she hoped for a boy (who would have been named John) but would be pleased with a girl as Queen Victoria had agreed to be godmother. In a September letter she wrote, “we rather wish for a boy but we should like to have the Queen’s name so much, I believe a girl would be well received”.
Georgiana, their first child, was to publish much later in her life, her own “Recollections”. She was just over two years old during the stay in Brighton and whilst admitting that her early recollections had been partially shaped by her older half-sisters wrote of her mother that: “[she was] very small and fragile and very pretty with blue eyes and fair hair”. Her only real recollection of the time: “what made a deep impression on my baby mind was the nurse in flowing garments who met us always when we came in from our walks and always said ‘hush!’”
A regular feature in the newspapers of that time was the column entitled Fashionable Journal, essentially a listing of the Brighton arrivals, engagements and departures of the of the so-calledfashionable people. So it was no surprise when the Brighton Gazette in October published the happy news: “Lady John Russell. Her Ladyship’s accouchement took place on Friday 19th inst. at the marine villa of Lord John in Sussex Square, Kemp Town and with her infant daughter is doing well. Her Ladyship now has six children, four by her first husband and two by her second husband.”
“A Melancholy Event”
A week later the tone had changed utterly: “Death of Lady John Russell – we regret to have to announce the death of Lady John Russell which melancholy event took place at 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon at the residence of ...”
The Brighton Guardian tells the story with much greater and rather grim detail.
“With the most painful feelings we have this week to announce the death of Lady John Russell, which melancholy event occurred on Thursday afternoon at the residence of Lord John, no. 14 Sussex Square.
Her Ladyship who was exceedingly partial to Brighton had come here to be confined under the care of Mr Tayler. Lady Russell was safely delivered on the 20th ult of a daughter and suffered less on this occasion than in any former accouchements.
From the first however it was observable that her Ladyship was extremely debilitated, she gradually grew weaker and notwithstanding the most careful attention and all the aid that medical science could afford at length became exhausted and on the 13th day after her confinement her life was despaired and at three o’clock the same afternoon she expired in the presence of her disconsolate husband.
The Duchess of Bedford [her mother-in-law] had sat up with her Ladyship the whole of the preceding night.
Her Ladyship was 32 years of age. Her Ladyship was the eldest daughter of Thomas Lister Esq. of Armitage Park, Lichfield. She married first Lord Ribblesdale by who she had three daughters and a son (the second child) – the present Lord Ribblesdale. On the 13th April 1835 her Ladyship was united to Lord John Russell by whom she had two daughters both of whom are living. Her Ladyship was said to be a most amiable woman and exceedingly fond of literary pursuits.
The remains of her Ladyship were placed in the coffin on Friday and will be removed tomorrow under the direction of the family undertaker, for interment on Saturday at Chenies near Chesham in Buckinghamshire.
Lord John had engaged 14 Sussex Square until January but in consequence of the melancholy event which has just taken place the house is given up and his Lordship and family will this morning quit Brighton for Bedfordshire. The Duke of Bedford [Russell’s father] and part of his family have already left Brunswick Terrace where they had purposed making a lengthened stay. The Duchess of Bedford takes her departure today.”
Russell was devastated and took sanctuary in Hertfordshire. He thought he was being punished by God for meddling in the affairs of other people and seriously contemplated retiring from public life. But he didn’t. After a few months he returned to public life and eventually remarried - but that is another story. This is Lady Adelaide’s story and what are we to make of the story of a young woman giving birth to her 6th child and dying despite the very best that “medical science” could offer?
Medical Science 1
What was the medical science available for women giving birth in the late 1830s?
There were no dedicated Schools of Obstetrics, there was little understanding of microbiology and there were no anaesthetics. In fact, it was thought harmful for pain relief to be administered to women about to give birth.
Maternal mortality was frighteningly common at this time and its principal causes were haemorrhaging and, in particular, the hidden assassin that was known as puerperal fever - blood poisoning caused by bacterial infection. It seems most likely to have been puerperal fever that brought about Lady Adelaide’s death.
Maternal Mortality: Death in Childbirth
There is no doubt that maternal death in childbirth was horribly frequent in late-18th and early-19th century Britain. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.
- Four of Jane Austen’s sisters-in-law died giving birth (and people wonder why Jane never married).
- Princess Charlotte, George IV’s only legitimate child and heir to the throne died on the 6th November, 1817 after 50 hours in labour. Both mother and child died, had this not happened there would have been no Queen Victoria and no Victorian Age.
- Early feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, died of puerperal fever 11 days after giving birth to her daughter. The daughter on this occasion survived and was to achieve celebrity as Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein”.
These, of course, are just the famous women who history remembers but what about the others?
Statistics are hard to come by because there was no official registration of births and deaths until 1837; it is not without irony that the 1836 Registration Act was introduced under the jurisdiction of the then Home Secretary, Lord John Russell.
There have, however, been attempts to quantify the scale of maternal mortality during this period: an article entitled The Start of Life: A History of Obstetrics (Postgraduate Medical Journal, Vol 78, Issue 919) used parish records to estimate maternal mortality at 1 in 200, that is one death of a mother for every 200 pregnancies.
During the not infrequent puerperal fever epidemics this figure could rise alarmingly to between 4 and 16 deaths per 200 pregnancies. One estimate suggests that perhaps as many as half a million women died in childbirth in England and Wales during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as Lady Adelaide’s death illustrates, privilege and wealth afforded no protection.
Medical Science 2
So what was the medical science applied during Adelaide Russell’s accouchement?
The young Queen Victoria kept a detailed personal diary and this unlikely source provides a clue. In an entry for the 27th October, she records reading about Lady Adelaide’s condition in “...a letter from Lord John giving but a bad account of her; she had leeches on her head”.
Hirudo Medicinalis, medicinal leeches, were used extensively in the 1830s (see drawing 1) for a wide variety of ailments and diseases. In one year alone, England imported 6 million medicinal leeches from France.
Adelaide’s accoucheur, Dr Tayler, would have had the leeches attached to her head with the intention of reducing the fever. As a method for reducing the bacterial infection in her blood it would at best have been useless and may even have been harmful in adding to her physical debilitation.
The stark truth is that in the century before the discovery of antibiotics there was little or nothing that doctors could do to halt the lethal progress of blood poisoning once it had taken hold. But in another terrible way doctors were to blame.
“The Vector of Infection”
In the 18th and early-19th centuries it was believed that puerperal infection was spread by ‘vapours’ that passed by some mysterious process from woman to woman.
Women traditionally handled childbirth at this time, with most babies delivered by village midwives or older female relatives. The practice of using trained doctors as male midwives began in France in the 18th century.
They were known as ‘accoucheurs’ and eventually both the practice and the name spread to England. By the 19th century, the use of accoucheurs was becoming increasingly popular amongst wealthy families. It is therefore no surprise that Lord John engaged the services of Dr Robert Tayler as Adelaide’s accoucheur in Brighton.
Dr Tayler was a very eminent physician. He was one of the three founders of the Sussex County Hospital in 1828. Later he was one of the original Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons and more pertinently in his early career he trained under a man named William Newnham who was regarded as the most eminent accoucheur of his time.
Lord John must have believed his wife was in safe hands yet, in a very literal sense, Tayler may well have been responsible for her death.
The truth was that puerperal infections were not spread by mysterious vapours, but by bacteria-infected instruments and unwashed hands. It is almost certain that Dr Tayler himself, or one of his staff, unintentionally transmitted the bacteria that infected Adelaide’s womb.
The “vector of infection”, to use Oliver Wendell Holmes’ sonorous phrase, was nearly always the doctor.
The implications of this were so terrible that for decades the medical profession refused to accept a growing body of evidence that this was the case. The stark and simple truth is that doctors and their assistants did not wash their hands.
A decade after Adelaide’s death, a Viennese doctor, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss, was struggling to understand the fearsome death rate in his obstetric unit until he observed that students who had been handling cadaveric material in the post mortem room would routinely move to help women in the obstetric unit.
He instructed them to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime and almost immediately the death rate declined.
Hand washing before and after medical procedures (later with carbolic soap) soon became routine throughout Europe and death rates from puerperal infection decreased through the latter half of the 19th century. This continued into the 20th century, dropping steeply in the late 1930s with the advent of antibiotics.
Nowadays in Britain death rates from postnatal blood infection are, thankfully, infinitesimally small.
Researched & written by David Jackson. December 2016.
I am conscious that the story of Adelaide Russell has segued into the rather grim history of 19th and 20th century maternal mortality.
As a history it is actually quite uplifting, charting as it does a story of scientific progress, medical improvement and the general reduction of human misery and pain. However my primary intention was not to write history but her story: the story of Adelaide Russell.
It is the story of a previously healthy and happy young woman whose life was cut short, leaving behind a grieving husband and six motherless children. I believe it is a story worth telling in its own right and also because it is emblematic of thousands of other similar but untold and forgotten stories.
Postscript. One of the pleasures of history is that we have the benefit of hindsight. We can view the actions of people in the past, secure in the knowledge that we know what is to happen in their futures. With that in mind I will end with another extract from the private journal of a youthful Queen Victoria.
It is dated 28th October, 1838 and Lord John had just missed a meeting with Prime Minister Melbourne: “I’m very cross with Lord John”, she wrote rather petulantly, that he “did not come for urgent business, on account of that whimsical little wife of his having some pain or other which his staying couldn’t prevent...”.
A week later the whimsical little wife was dead.