by “The Digger” – November 2014
One of the more sobering sights to be found amongst the headstones and vaults in our local places of rest is the mound in the north-eastern corner of Friar’s Bush graveyard in the Stranmillis area of Belfast. This mound is known locally as “Plaguey Hill” or “Famine Hill” in official graveyard records. This grassy hillock contains the remains of hundreds, if not thousands, of poor souls who succumbed to the diseases of cholera and typhoid that were prevalent in the early to mid-19th century.
In the 18th century the Moravian minister at Ballinderry, by the shores of Lough Neagh, had recorded deaths of infants and children in the area who had “departed in the smallpox,” a common cause of death amongst the young during that time. The minister also records in 1849 that prayers were said for “the removal of the cholera” and adds that “through the great Mercy of God there have not been any cases of the terrible disease in our neighbourhood since April.” Previously there had been five deaths in Upper Ballinderry and three in Lower Ballinderry.
In the late 19th century there was a story centering in the Lisburn area that made the press nationwide. In 1886 the Reverend Joseph Atkinson Stewart, curate of Derriaghy Parish Church, attended a meeting in Belfast to assist a leprosy mission in India where it was estimated that there were no less than 135,000 lepers. It would be doubtful that the Rev. Stewart would have dreamt that this dreaded affliction would be found almost on his own doorstep.
The fate of John Evans, born c1885, at Rangoon, Burma, was soon to be the focus of attention across the country, island and kingdom. He was believed to be the son of Sergeant James Evans, 3208, a Welsh soldier with the 68th Foot Light Infantry who saw service in India. It is recorded by the local press that at the age of ten John Evans returned to Ireland with his family. It was alleged that he contracted leprosy whilst residing in India.
In 1891 the Evans family were residing in the Annacloy/Culcavy area of Hillsborough in a house provided by the Hillsborough Linen Company. John, who was employed as a millworker, resided with his mother and brother Robert, a factory worker. They were parishioners of the Rev. F.W. Hogan, Eglantine Parish.
The Lisburn Board of Guardians were first alerted to the plight of John Evans in mid June 1891. The assistant clerk of the Board had received a report from a local medical officer. At the time John Evans was blind and an application had been made for outdoor relief which would provide financial assistance to allow his mother to look after him as they were unable to seek out any institution that would give treatment. We learn from the newspaper reports that the Evans home was convenient to three others in the immediate area. Naturally there was an element of self-preservation on the part of others and there were reports received by the Board of Guardians at Lisburn stating that the family were being isolated by the community. Milk for the family was being left in the middle of a field and when visited by officialdom it was discovered that they had little food as “no businessman liked to see the mother of the leper come into his shop.” John’s brother was forced to leave work although his fellow work colleagues made a generous gesture and decided to make good his loss of earnings whilst not in work. He was also checked for the disease but the results proved negative.
The reporting doctors to the Board recommended that the patient should be isolated and in turn the Board sought guidance from the Local Government Boards. They in turn stated that in their opinion John Evans could be kept in a ward in the workhouse if a number of precautions were invoked. Discussions took place locally and it was suggested that the patient could be placed in the old cholera hospital or a purpose built detached building in the grounds of the workhouse which would also accommodate his mother. Mr. J. Theodore Richardson, J.P. and chairman of Hillsborough Linen Company stated that the company would contribute £20 towards the cost of such a structure. The company had resolved to put the family out of their house, forcing the Board of Guardians to make a decision. The house was later pulled down by the company.
In late August 1891 it was reported that a place prepared by the Guardians would be ready for John Evans but hearing the news, he resisted moving and stated he would do so only if compelled to do so by the law. The Board decided to withdraw his outdoor relief payments at the end of August. His mother was unwilling to come to the workhouse with her son, and she was reported to be visiting her daughter who was residing in London at that time. There was a fear that if John Evans did not move into the building provided for him at the workhouse, and he was not financially supported, then there was the possibility that he would be at large and pose a risk to the public. On Saturday 12th September, 1891 John Evans finally entered the workhouse and took refuge in the purpose made building which had enclosure space for exercise. It was reported that it was surround by 5 foot high wooden paling with a locked entrance gate accessed from the workhouse.
The unhappy resident decided to escape the following day, and despite his lack of sight, he managed to reach the main road and commenced walking towards Hillsborough. He was later stopped in the vicinity of the cemetery at Hillsborough Road, Lisburn. The news of his escape caused much alarm amongst local people returning home from church. It was said that John Evans was “galled” at the fact that he felt like he was a prisoner. He tried a similar escape two years later but he was returned to the workhouse by police. The Board of Guardians engaged the services of a man from the workhouse to attend to Evans and they paid 3 shillings a week. Over the years a number of caretakers would come and go, some complaining about the man’s general conduct.
Outside of the workhouse environment here were people who sympathised with John Evan’s plight. Agnes Isles, a missionary to the blind, was one of those people who frequently visited him. She engaged in prayer with the unfortunate man and read him portions from the Bible. Other organisations sent him cards of the alphabet in Moon’s type which was a form of lines and curves representing letters, designed for those who had no sight. It was reported that he adapted to this new skill and was able to read specially formatted books. He was also the recipient of extra sugar and eggs from charitable sources.
On the 5th of May 1895 the former millworker, John Evans, aged 30 years, passed away at the Lisburn Workhouse. His death certificate records the cause of his death as leprosy, which had been certified by the medical profession for a period of 16 years. The national press reported his death adding that at that time it was believed that he was the only leper in the UK.
Evans’s last caretaker, named as Billy Gilmour, was awarded 30 shillings compensation from the local authorities for the destruction of his clothing and bedding which was ordered for health and safety reasons.
The summation of an article relating to his death published in the Lisburn Standard reads – “After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.”
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