Gran Smith (Jane S Cameron)034

A friend gave me a copy of Call the Midwife for Christmas – I missed the television series.  It is about the job of midwives in the UK in the early 1900s and is quite fascinating.   The author, Jennifer Worth, devotes a chapter in the book to Rickets.  I have only ever heard of Rickets because my paternal grandmother (Jane Cameron, born 1890) had suffered as a child.  She was very short with bowed legs.  I knew that was an effect of Rickets but have never known or thought any more about it.

In her book, Worth explains that Rickets is a malformation of the bones caused by a lack of Vitamin D in the diet.  Since Vitamin D comes from milk, meat, eggs as well as from the sun, I find it hard to imagine that my grandmother didn’t have lots of these.  It is also found in fish oil and she was a fishmonger as a young woman!  I don’t know if her parents were fishmongers.  Worth believes that Rickets was more common in girls than in boys and her explanation is that boys were often favoured by mothers and given more food and also that they spent more time outside in the sun.  If this is true, then I wonder if my gran’s twin sister (Rose) also suffered.   Rickets was prevalent in poor children who lived in industrial cities partly because of the density of the buildings and also because children worked in factories, workshops and workhouses rather than playing outside.  Certainly Jane and Rose Cameron grew up in the city of Dundee but I don’t know yet how poor or otherwise the family was.  I imagine they were poor because my grandfather came from a family of farm and domestic servants.

Getting back to Rickets,  the symptoms are often a deformed spine due to many crushed vertebrae, a bent sternum and a twisted and/or a barrel-shaped ribcage.  The reason gran’s legs were bowed was due to bones that bent under pressure of carrying her body.  Worth also points out that “the head can be large and square shaped with a jutting flattened lower jaw” and says that often the teeth drop out.  Not only that but children with Rickets had a lower immunity to infection and constantly suffered bronchitis, pneumonia and gastroenteritis!  As if that wasn’t enough, women who had Rickets were unable to give birth naturally and required a caesarian section.  In fact I was horrified to read that one of the Midwives’ instruction books said “if a woman is in labour for more than ten or twelve days, you should seek a doctor’s aid”!!! This was until the 1930/40s and my dad was born in 1925 (his sister, my Aunt Christine  1922).  I know now my grandfather went through the horrors of war; did my grandmother go through horrors of rickets, poverty, malnutrition and childbirth?

Once again, a little bit of information throws up more questions than answers in terms of my family history research.

Now I think of my grandmother in a very different way.  I have thought back to how she looked and am looking at old photos trying to see what other signs of Rickets there might be.  Her face looks normal.  I see her clothing is loose so I don’t know and no-one ever talked about it.  My memory of Gran Smith was a quiet but cheery woman who loved the wrestling.  She and my grandfather fought a lot but, as I may have mentioned before, Grandpa died of a broken heart just months after Gran died.  Whatever Gran’s reality, she did well; she passed away at the age of 90.

Now I want to find out more!  My grandparents were just my grandparents.  I thought of them as always being old, it never occurred to me of course that they were once young. Only now am I finding out the harsh reality of what their younger lives were like – and it keeps me awake at night.