Death from Climacteric Decay: William POOLE (d. 1869)

Online death indexes for England and Wales provide limited information about an ancestor’s death. Many common names and listing the registration of death only by the quarter of the year mean that the researcher must order a death certificate to verify the identity of the person shown and to obtain a specific death date.

William POOLE’s death in 1869 was found in the online Cambrian Index, an abstract of articles appearing in the main Welsh newspaper of the time.


Although other entries in the index made it clear that 2 Fisher Street in Swansea was the home of Herbert Brooker POOLE, William’s grandson and my husband’s great-grandfather, I ordered the death certificate to document that fact.

Not only did the certificate confirm the name of William’s grandson, but it gave an unusual cause of death which I had never encountered while doing family history research or in reading 19th-century literature and history.

POOLE William - d1869 - GRO Death Cert - Crop - Left

Extracts from 1869 Death Certificate for William POOLE Source: The General Register Office for England and Wales

Extracts from 1869 Death Certificate for William POOLE
Source: The General Register Office for England and Wales

An online search showed that the cause of death was more commonly known as “climacteric decay.” The definition of this “disease” is found in A Dictionary of Practical Medicine (Vol. 1) by James COPLAND, published in 1858: “General decline of the vital powers, at the age of senesence, without any evident cause.” Other sources give the alternate term “senile decay.” To put it in the language of modern obituaries, William, 81, died of “natural causes” or old age.

Copland’s book gives detailed information on all aspects of climacteric decay, noting that the sixty-third and eighty-first years of life “were called the grand climacteries, as the life of man was supposed to have reached its allotted term.” Without such treatments as oxygen masks, feeding tubes, chemotherapy, and bypass surgery, medical men of the time and the community at large would likely have agreed that a person’s life could not be extended indefinitely.

Copland lists too many symptoms of the disease to quote in full, but the following list gives a good idea of its nature.

It usually comes on insensibly. The patient first complains of fatigue upon slight exertion; his appetite becomes impaired; his nights are disturbed or sleepless, and his mornings unrefreshed. The tongue is somewhat white; the pulse a little accelerated; the face extenuated, occasionally slightly bloated; the body emaciated, and the ankles and legs disposed to swell. The urine is not deficient, but the bowels are sluggish, and pains, with vertigo, are occasionally felt shooting through his head and various parts of the body, but are not possessed of the rheumatic character.

Copland points out that this “simple” form of the disease is usually complicated by a disease of one or more organs. Even if William had the simple form and displayed only some of the listed symptoms, he probably would have required considerable attention, most likely from his grandson’s wife, Mary (JONES). At the time of William’s death, she and Herbert Brooker had two children, Herbert William, just over two years of age, and Perceval, who was less than three weeks old, making her a member of the “sandwich generation” well over a century before that term was coined.

Two years later, the 1871 census of the POOLE household lists two female servants. Also residing in the household is Herbert Brooker’s 61-year-old widowed aunt and Mary’s 17-year-old single sister. One or both of these women might have been resident in 1869. However, even if they helped with William and the children, Mary, the 24-year-old mistress of the house, would likely have been responsible for supervising household and caregiving tasks and making sure that everyone was properly fed, clothed and generally taken care of. She may also have been involved with the textile-dyeing business located at the same address.

In the middle of so much activity, if Mary had had the leisure to read up on William’s condition, would she have agreed with the reasoning in the following excerpt from Copland?

This disease is more common to men than women, probably owing to the more tumultuous and exhausting life passed by them – to their greater exposure, during the preceding terms of existence, to the numerous causes of mental and corporeal exhaustion incidental to the states of modern society and civilization.

Although Herbert Brooker was present at and registered his grandfather William’s death, “certified” after the name of the disease would seem to indicate that the cause had been determined by a doctor who had been treating him. Copland lists suggestions for the treatment of the disease.

The simple form of this disease requires tonic and cordial medicines, with generous diet, a dry wholesome atmosphere, change of air, the occasional use of the tonic and deobstruent mineral waters; agreeable occupations and amusements; and, above all, the consolations arising out of the recollection of a well-spent life, and confidence of the future.The best aperients are, in such circumstances, rhubarb or aloes combined with gentian, quinine, quaiacum, or myrrh, or with the carbonates of the alkalies and the balsams.

The treatments sound not unlike those administered by full-time attendants in Victorian spas. Which household members would have been charged with providing “agreeable amusements” and “changes of air” and mixing up the various aperients? And how did they manage to keep “a dry wholesome atmosphere” in a house with dyeing works on the premises?

Copland warns that the treatment should be monitored closely so that the patient’s “constitutional energies” are neither raised nor depressed too quickly. Did William’s doctor think it prudent to call in often, even daily, to examine the patient’s progress and to revise the details of his care? How much did he bill for his services?

Studying such background material can give a better idea of the circumstances of life, illness and death at the time, but still leaves much room for speculation about the person involved. I like to think of William as a kindly old man with a twinkle in his eye who, despite his infirmities, could tell stories from his long life while his great-grandchildren played at his feet, and who peacefully slipped away surrounded by his loving family.

Research Notes

Birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered online with a credit or debit card from The General Register Office (GRO) for England and Wales. See the Resources page for details.

A Dictionary of Practical Medicine (Vol. 1), pp. 336-338. Accessed 12 Sep 2012.

The Washington Post does not allow the terms “old age,” “natural causes” or “heart failure” to be used in obituaries; a specific cause must be stated.

Herbert Brooker POOLE’s aunt, Ann ROE, was the widow of Edwin Manley POOLE who died in 1866. The 1861 census shows that William POOLE, as well as Ann’s father Richard ROE, as living in Edwin’s house; they likely moved to Herbert’s house sometime after 1866. Mary’s unmarried sister was Susan JONES.

Online message boards indicate that some 19th-century death certificates list the cause of death as “climacteric decay not certified.” It seems likely that such persons were without the means to pay for frequent doctor visits, perhaps diagnosing the disease from what they had observed among relatives and friends and coping as best they could.

To Do List

Although census records list William as a tailor, find out what qualified a person as a “master tailor.”

This entry was posted in COPLAND, JONES, POOLE, ROE, Surnames - Family, Surnames - Other and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Death from Climacteric Decay: William POOLE (d. 1869)

  1. Betsy Shafer says:

    always wondered why i was decaying . . .


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