Friday, 16 November 2018

William and Annie Norman. An unimaginable (these days) occupational death

In Dunedin's Southern Cemetery is an ordinary-looking headstone whose details chronicle an extraordinary story.  William Henry Norman died in 1918, just after the end of the Great War.  His wife Annie lived for nearly 80 years more.

William Norman worked in the wax vesta match factory in Caversham and lived in Fitzroy Street, not far from work.  He and Annie met in their early twenties and married after knowing each other for three years and being engaged for one.  They married at home and hired the MacAndrew Rd gymnasium for their wedding reception.

They had twins, which was a difficult proposition for a working-class couple, as they were then living on William's wages only.  Nevertheless, in her later years, Annie would describe those years as the best of her life.

In 1915 William fell ill with a disease which was then an occupational hazard of match manufacture - something known as "phossy jaw."

Phossy jaw occurs when the victim comes into contact with the vapours produced by white phosphorus.  It enters the body through decayed portions of tooth and begins with toothache and swelling of the gums.  It progresses with abscesses, tooth loss and, after about six months, necrosis of the jawbone.  The affected and dying area of the jawbone glows a greenish-white in the dark.  Eventually the dead portions of the jawbone fall off.  Brain damage is also an effect.  And, as you can imagine, it smells very bad.

Annie nursed William for three years while his condition worsened; slowly, painfully and inevitably.  Just before his death the upper jaw, William's skull, began to be affected by the creeping destruction.  Many might have felt that his death came as a release and a relief.

The following words are from Annie herself, interviewed in 1982 by Professor Tom Brooking for "the Caversham Project" - a study of the southern suburbs of Dunedin between the years 1881 and 1940.

"So anyway we got a roll of this, and my sister-in-law, she'd come down, that's one of my other sister-in-laws, and she did the dressing, rolled it, she had to pack all this stuff underneath here, and then he had a bandage right round his head, for - to keep the packing up, and all his food, it had to be minced, he couldn't bite, he had no jawbone you see.  But oh, he suffered terribly."

There was no compensation in those days for workers who died from the jobs they did.  Annie engaged a lawyer to extract 160 pounds from the company.  They lived on that and groceries and coal from the local Charitable Aid Board.  The local butcher helped out.

William and Annie's troubles weren't lessened by the fact that their last days together coincided with the Spanish influenza epidemic.  

"So on the Saturday Dr Carswell come in and he said, I'm not feeling well myself...He said, but if you need the doctor, he says, you put out a white cloth on the gate, try and knock it on to a bit of stick.  So my sister was there and she put it out and a doctor came in and he says to my sister, he says, how did you know about the white cloth on the gate?  She said, well Dr Carswell told us yesterday, he said, well that's just come out yesterday, the doctors were told to tell the patients.  And so anyway my husband died at night, and well, it was just as well because the poisoning was going into the top jaw...But it was very sad, but we couldn't do anything about it."

NORMAN.—On November 17, at his residence, 46 Fitzroy street, Dunedin, William Henry, dearly beloved husband of Annie Norman (after a long illness); aged 31 years. '"At rest." Private interment. "They grieved most who knew him best."—C. J. Thorn, undertaker.   -Evening Star, 18/11/1918.

For Annie and the children, there was little respite after William's death, they all became ill with  the Spanish flu.

Annie and her children moved in with her parents.  She lived in Caversham the rest of her life, only moving out to the Salvation Army retirement home Redroofs at the age of 103 and living there for another four years.  She was survived by a daughter, a son, six grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.

Eventually, the white phosphorus "strike anywhere" match was replaced with the now-familiar red phosphorus "safety" match.  Phossy jaw was forgotten by the world, only to return in recent years as a side effect of phosphorus-based medication for osteoporosis and treatment of bone cancer.

Southern Cemetery, DCC photo.

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