Smallpox and Archaeology

Newsletter 3. June 1997.

In the Steps of Edward Jenner

Robert Holt, Rector of Finmere from 1790 until his death in 1802, was a remarkable clergyman. Just three years after a Gloucestershire doctor, Edward Jenner (left) discovered how to vaccinate against smallpox, Holt had inoculated more than 300 Finmere residents. This is remarkable story has been researched by Anita Bilbo. It is a testimony to the dedication, observation and inspiration of village doctors and clergymen.

Smallpox was a virulent disease that, in Jenner and Holt’s days, killed one million people in Europe every year and left countless numbers blind, scarred or deformed. There was no treatment until Jenner observed that people suffering from cowpox, which has similar but milder symptoms, were protected. To test his observations he injected eight-year old James Phipps with blood from Sarah Nelmes who was suffering from cowpox. Six weeks later, he inoculated James with smallpox itself. James fortunately survived and this 1797 experiment is now a medical legend.

Robert Holt was in close contact with London doctors and obtained his smallpox vaccine in 1799. Like Jenner, Holt had observed the immunising effect of cowpox. He describes several local cases in The Medical and Physical Journal in 1799. Holt was, nevertheless, apprehensive when he embarked on his vaccination programme:

[My] fears were soon removed as I found all [villagers] impressed by the belief that the cowpox caught in the natural way was a certain preventive of the smallpox.

He continued with the story of Elizabeth Smith who was then twenty-five years old:

I inoculated [her] in both arms to ensure the probability of infection. On the sixth day she complained of headache and pain … [but] she had no indisposition of consequence enough to prevent her performing her usual work with ease.

And so he continued until he had inoculated 300 people. Just three years after Jenner’s revolutionary demonstration of the power of vaccination, Finmere was effectively free of smallpox. Holt’s foresight brought him considerable credit—John Abernethy from London wrote:

Rev. Mr. Holt, Rector of Finmere … [is] a gentleman whose character is highly estimable for benevolence, learning, and love of science … He took a kind of parental interest in the sufferings and welfare of his parishioners.

In November 1799, Holt sent vaccine to his friend in St Helens, the Reverend William Finch, who then introduced vaccination to Merseyside.

The Open Day: Sunday June 29

Find out more about Finmere’s history. Tell us more about Finmere’s history. These are the themes of our second Open Day at the Village Hall from 2.00pm to 5.00pm. We’ll be serving tea and cakes. Our exhibition will highlight many of the discoveries we have made about Finmere’s history.

The Open Day is also an opportunity for you to bring along photographs, memories and documents. Small photographs are important as they record the lives of Finmere people, memories tell stories of daily life and documents provide valuable information about people and properties.

Treasure Hunt

We’ll also be organising a treasure hunt based on historical clues around the village. Entry forms (£1) will be available at the Village Hall from 1.30pm. Last entry 3.00pm. A free pen with every entry and a prize for the winner!

Early Finmere

It is unlikely that there was a recognisable village in the parish much before the eleventh or perhaps twelfth century. We will be tracing the development of the medieval village in future newsletters. Here we look at earlier settlement in the parish, drawing on research by Barry Cranfield.

A Roman Bypass?

The most obvious earlier feature today is the Roman road which runs from Alchester to Towcester.

The former Roman town of Alchester lies to the south of Bicester between the military area at Graven Hill and the A41 dual carriageway. As you drive from Bicester to Finmere you are following the line of the Roman road which, from the railway bridge at the Shelswell Inn, forms the east edge of Finmere parish. It continues as a rough track, Mere Lane, past the Red Lion. Thereafter it can be traced as a line in the hedgerows across the fields to Water Stratford. From Water Stratford, the tarmac road follows the Roman line to Stowe Park where it is preserved as the avenue to Stowe School.

Although the Roman road cuts along the east side of Finmere parish, there is no convincing evidence of Roman settlement here. In 1927 Roman coins and pottery were found near Coldharbour, the name of a house on Mere Lane. Archaeologists conducted a small exploratory dig here in 1996. Nothing was found and it is possible that the 1927 finds were not from Finmere.

Our Coldharbour is apparently named after Coldharbour Farm on Featherbed Lane at the south end of Mixbury parish. Aerial photographs show a Roman or pre-Roman settlement just to the south of this farm. Perhaps, then, the two Coldharbours have become confused? We need to explore the history of both Coldharbours to resolve this.

Early Photographs

The photograph in our May newsletter was taken on May 12 1937 at the old Village Hall. It records a celebration of the Coronation of George VIth and the present Queen Mother. Further details at the Open Day.

Burials and Settlements

Although there is currently no certain evidence for Roman settlement in Finmere, there was earlier settlement here.

Bronze Age farmers often buried their dead under circular mounds, or “barrows”, surrounded by a ditch. The ditch provided soil for the mound and helped define its edges. During construction and quarrying, ditches are revealed as distinctive areas of soil, usually softer and darker. These soil differences also affect the way that crops grow and, under the right conditions, this can be seen from the air as a “crop mark.”

Several archaeological features are known from Finmere, including a number of "ring ditches" marking the sites of Bronze Age barrows. These provide evidence of where these early people buried their dead but we have yet to find their settlements. A later Iron Age farmstead, however, has just been uncovered on the new bypass (5 on the map). This would have housed an extended family and been surrounded by small fields.


O. Bronze Age barrows

1. Bronze Age palstave (axe)

2. Possible hut circles or barrows

3. Worked flints (prehistoric)

4. Coins and tools (date unknown)

5. Iron Age farmstead

6. Roman settlement (disputed)

7. Two Civil War cannon balls

8. Possible road (Roman?)