The mound-unmarked and common graves.
Photo credit: Leslee Barron-digital artist

Life story retold by Jan Clark

Susan Ballard was born in Reading early in 1818. She was baptised at St Mary’s Church on 1 February with her father Thomas and her mother Charlotte in attendance. They had married in December 1816.

Nothing is known about where the family lived in Reading or what was Thomas’ occupation. However, in 1850 Thomas died in St Mary’s workhouse; he was 63. He was given a pauper burial on 25 January. By the time her father died there, Susan had already been an inmate for nine years. She was admitted to the workhouse in 1841 when she was 23 and had been working as a servant.

Susan spent the rest of her life in the workhouse. At some point she had contracted scrofula, tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, which was disfiguring and debilitating. It results in ulcerous swellings, mainly on the neck.

The illness was extensively documented in Victorian workhouses and among the urban poor. Contributory factors were poor diet and unsanitary living conditions. Now, it is much rarer and treatable with antibiotics. Then, one of the only remedies was an improved diet, not always readily available in the workhouse or in impoverished homes where malnutrition was common.

It’s not clear whether Susan’s mother Charlotte ever entered the workhouse. In 1861, when her daughter had already spent 26 years as an inmate, she was living at 15 Southampton Street and working as a laundress. She was still living there in 1878 when she died in August that year. She was buried in the cemetery, probably in a common grave, on 9 August.

Susan, her daughter, having spent almost all her adult life in the institution had not lived so long. She was 53 when she died and had a pauper burial on 29 May 1869.

Susan suffered from a disfiguring illness which made it impossible to obtain work outside the institution and to lead normal lives. The treatment was not yet available which would have enabled her to do so. It’s just one example of how the advancement of medical science has improved lives and life expectancy since the time in which she lived. However, it should not be forgotten that in the twenty-first century the effects of austerity and particularly the growth in child poverty have led to the reappearance of some historical diseases: rickets and scurvy – the effects of poor diet and malnutrition.

Buried in Section 25, mound