Guest post: Brain fever | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Guest post: Brain fever kills travelling businessman, by Richard Tisdale

1801 Brain fever kills travelling businessman

Sitting in the graveyard of St Chad’s Church in Shrewsbury is a curious headstone.

It belongs to a man called Benjamin Beach. But it doesn’t contain just the usual religious platitudes you’d expect to find – it tells the story of the poor man’s sad and painful demise at one of the town’s most popular inns.

St Chad's
St Chad’s

You have to look closely and carefully to read what’s written as years’ of weathering has taken its toll slightly – that said, it’s fared better than other newer headstones around it.

By making the picture black and white, and making other slight adjustments to the image it becomes easier to read his story….

If you can’t read it from this image below, I’ve done my best to transcribe it.

Benjamin Beach
Headstone of Benjamin Beach

To the Memory of Mr. BENJAMIN BEACH who on a journey of business in the capacity of a traveller from London was taken ill of fever of which after a few days he died at the Fox Inn in this town on the 5th day of July 1801 in the 28th year of his age. Greatly respected and regretted by all…

I am unable to make out the rest of what’s written.

So what more can we find out about this poor man, and the dreadful affliction that killed him?

Well, I’ve scoured the newspaper archives and found reports of his death in the papers which give us vital clues.

Beach death notice
London Courier & Evening Gazette | 15 July 1801

From this clipping you can see he worked at Mark Lane in London.

Mark Lane was the location of London’s Corn Exchange. It brought together the agents of farmers from across the country who were buying and selling oats, beans and grains of all types. There were other merchants there too, wine for example.

Mark Lane Corn Exchange
Mark Lane Corn Exchange, 1808

So it’s a fair bet that our Mr Beach was an agent working for Messrs. Tenant and Bowman, in the corn trade, and had either come to Shropshire to carry out his business or was just passing through.

But there’s another reason why Shropshire is significant. By checking out the parish records there is only one entry that matches.

Shropshire baptisms
Shropshire baptisms, Stanton Lacy, 1773

Benjamin Beach was baptised at Stanton Lacy, near Ludlow in Shropshire. At least a couple of hours drive in a horse drawn carriage back then.

His parents were Benjamin and Betty.

So perhaps he was also visiting family. The fact he was buried here would suggest his family were happy for him to be buried in the county, nearer home, and perhaps saw it as an unnecessary expense to bring him back to the village.

Death didn’t just target the old in those days, but it would have still have come as nasty shock to his family when they got the news of his untimely passing. But what killed him?

Brain Fever

Chester Chronicle death
Chester Chronicle | 10 July 1801

In the 18th and 19th Century Brain Fever was a very well known and feared affliction.

It apparently had many causes and symptoms, summed up very well on the scholarly website JSTOR Daily:

‘Brain fever’ came to mean an inflamed brain — one characterized by headache, flushed skin, delirium, and sensitivity to light and sound. ‘Many of the symptoms and the post-mortem evidence were consistent with some forms of meningitis or encephalitis’, writes Peterson. However, it’s unclear if all ‘brain fevers’ had their roots in contagion. Rather, ‘both physicians and laymen believed that emotional shock or excessive intellectual activity could produce a severe and prolonged fever’.

Even more than 80 years after Benjamin Beach died people were still convinced it was a real thing; it struck down this poor choir boy from Warwickshire in 1883.

Death from fright
Gloucester Citizen | 8 December 1883

The source of Benjamin Beach’s brain fever will always remain a mystery but at least he died somewhere nice…

The Fox Inn — A lovely place to stay

At the time Mr Beach visited the Fox Inn it was one of the most popular Inns in town and had been for some years. On Princess Street, it was first mentioned in a record dating back to 1626 which refers to it as ‘the sign of the fox’.

Fox Inn location
Location of the Fox Inn

One of its most popular landlords was Mr Richard Pinches who ran it between 1757 and 1774. It held lots of events and was a popular hotel for travellers, being a stone’s throw from the corn market in the Square.

An inventory (Shropshire Archives) of the Inn during Mr Pinches time in the 1760s makes the place sound wonderful with various rooms such as the Yellow Room, Green Room Blue Room, and Forrest Room.

Fox Inn inventory
Fox Inn inventory

From the inventories, we learn that the inn had a wonderful selection of drinks too, Brandy, Rum and something called Mountain Wine.

The Fox closed in 1861 and was demolished, replaced by a working men’s hall. It is now an antique shop and there is a plaque referring to the hall.

Mr Beach’s family

So back to the journey of Benjamin Beach. A 28-year-old London merchant, originally from Stanton Lacy near Ludlow, who would travel up and down the country as an agent buying and selling corn for farmers. At the beginning of July 1801 he’d been passing through Shrewsbury, when he was gripped by brain fever while staying at Fox Inn. After just a few days he succumbed. Word would have been sent to his employers at the London Corn Exchange, and to his family, which it turns out was big one.

So who were they?

Well we know his parents were Benjamin and Betty but from looking at the parish records of Stanton Lacy it appears he also had siblings. Sisters, 24-year-old Decima,  Sarah who died in 1772 aged nearly 3, and 36-year-old Elizabeth. Brothers, 34-year-old John, 29-year-old Thos, and 27-year-old Joseph.

There was also a larger extended Beach family. However I can find no record of our Benjamin getting married – so we can only assume he died a single man.

Notices were put in the paper announcing his sad passing and expressing the regret of those who knew him. What we don’t know is when he last saw his family. Was he traveling back to London after having made a passing visit home to Stanton Lacy while on business, or were his parents and siblings eagerly awaiting his return after some time away? We’ll never know.

But from just spotting a long forgotten headstone with a curious inscription in an old graveyard we’ve managed to discover a quite a lot about the respectable young man who left a sleepy village in Shropshire, went to the capital to make his fortune, but whose ambitions were cruelly cut short.

RIP Benjamin Beach

Read more from Richard at his website: News From The Past


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