A strange and scary disease is killing people all over the world. Medical opinion is divided and it is very difficult to get an accurate picture of what is going on. Authorities are trying to avoid panic, travel has been suspended and false news is rife. All of this happened with Charles Dickens picked up his pen in August 1856 to write a letter to Sir Joseph Olliffe, Doctor at the British Embassy in Paris.
I recently discovered the letter while my research in the life of the great writer’s correspondence. In it, Dickens thanked the doctor for alerting him to an outbreak of diphtheria in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the coast of northern France while he was vacationing there. Three of the writer’s sons were actually in school at the time, preparing for the new semester. Dickens told the doctor: “I have no doubt that we are in the healthiest situation here and in the purest house. If you were to command us anyway, we should obey. “
Diphtheria was little known at the time and was referred to by the public as “malignant sore throat”, “Boulogne sore throat” or “Boulogne fever”. Its scientific name, diphtheria, was conceived by Pierre Bretonneau and refers to the leathery membrane that develops in the larynx as a result of bacterial infection. It was dangerous, contagious and often fatal. The disease spreads in the same way as COVID-19 – through direct contact or breath droplets.
In the letter, Dickens raised the case of Dr. Philip Crampton emerged. He was on holiday in Boulogne at about the same time as Dickens when two of his sons, ages two and six, and his 39-year-old wife died of diphtheria within a week. Dickens wrote:
Little did I know about anything as terrible as poor Dr. Crampton.
With the spread of the contagion across the Channel from France to England, scientific research accelerated and until 1860 – Four years after its first discovery in England – the history, symptoms, and communicability of the disease were better understood.
Boulogne was then a popular meeting place for the English, who numbered 10,000 (a quarter of the population) in the 1850s. dickens liked the city what he called “as picturesque, picturesque, good as I know” because he could remain relatively anonymous. He could enjoy the pleasant summer weather, which was conducive to his work. Boulogne was about five hours from London by train and the Folkestone ferry, which ran twice a day.
He wrote parts of Bleak House, Hard Times and Little Dorrit there and made it the focus of his journalistic piece. Our French water point, published in his journal Household Words. Dickens developed a warm relationship with his French landlord Ferdiand Beaucourt-Mutuel, who offered him excellent accommodation – both in Boulogne and in later years in the hamlet Condette where he had brought his lover Ellen Ternan into a love nest.
Dickens must have been concerned about reports in the press about the “Boulogne sore throat” and sent his sons to England for security reasons. The French medical authorities downplayed the extent of the infection, which unfortunately coincided with an outbreak of typhus that killed Dickens’ friend, the comic book writer and journalist Gilbert Abbott à Beckett. À Beckett had also been on vacation in Boulogne and – in another tragic turn – when he was terminally ill, his son Walter died of diphtheria two days before he was attacked by typhus himself.
In a letter to the Times dated September 5, 1856, a group of prominent Boulogne doctors stated that “with few exceptions, the disease was confined to the poorer areas of the city and the most needy of the population.” A few days later, on September 12, a person who called himself “Another sufferer of Boulogne fever” wrote to the newspaper that he had lived in the same guesthouse as À Beckett and that his wife had developed diphtheria. He concluded his letter with the request:
If you can save valuable space for this letter, it can also be helpful to warn people who intend to cross the Canal to Boulogne.
This prompted another letter from the Boulogne medical authorities on September 16, questioning the claims of “Another Sufferer”, pointing out that the “panic” was “almost entirely limited to passing visitors” – despite the doctors admitted, “Certainly we would not advise anybody to bring a child into a home who has recently had a bad sore throat. Misinformation about the epidemic was widespread: guest houses and tour operators continued to unreservedly promote Boulogne as a vacation destination. Even the hotel where À Beckett died covered up the real cause of death.
As a journalist, Dickens was very sensitive to fake news. In his letter to Olliffe he noted:
We had general knowledge that there was such a disease among children abroad, and two of our children’s little friends even died from it. But it is extremely difficult to discover the truth in such a place. and of course the city dwellers are particularly afraid of me knowing because they have so many resources to make it better known.
In 1856, those who were careful and thoughtful had a better chance of survival, and eventually life returned to normal for Dickens. His sons went back to school in Boulogne and he would return many times.
A diphtheria vaccine was not developed until 1920, although it was not offered free to children nationally until 1940. Vaccines against COVID-19 are now being rolled out and hopefully life will get back to normal for us too. We’ll be returning to our vacation destinations – maybe even Boulogne to be in the Steps of Dickens in a city he loved so much.