From the Archives: A Martyr to Plague

POST BY MAllen

A man with a torch walking alongside a cart of plague victims; a woman is holding a dead child. Chalk drawing by E.M. Ward, 1848, from the Wellcome Library, London

Ferdinand Poulton was the third son of John Poulton and elder brother to another member of the Society of Jesus, Fr Charles Poulton. Ferdinand was born in Northampton in 1605, graduated in humanity studies at St Omer’s College, entered the Society at Watten in 1625 and was professed of the 4 vows 19th September 1641. Since the Reformation, England had been a dangerous place for Catholics. Yet in 1640 he was sent to the College of the Blessed Aloysius (Lancashire District) where, under the name Ferdinand Palmer, he was a zealous missionary for many years. Anecdotes of Poulton’s work in the District, including his promotion of Sodalities and his concern for non-Catholic members of society, can be found in Br Henry Foley’s Records of the British Province of the Society of Jesus Vol. II. The Lancashire District was among the first of 12 districts when it was created in 1622, each of which it was hoped might form the nucleus of a future College in the event of the restoration of the Catholic faith in England, and covered the whole of Lancashire with Cheshire, Westmoreland and Stafford. The average number of Missioners was around  20 and was not without its share of suffering, counting St Edmund Arrowsmith, Fr John Worthington, Fr William Atkins and Fr Nicholas Tempest and others among those who suffered during the persecutions.

At this time England was not just a dangerous place to be for the religious. During 1665 and 1666 England was in the grips of what was to be the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague, killing an estimated 100,000 people which was equivalent to a quarter of the population of London. The outbreak is thought to have spread from the Netherlands and may have arrived with Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam, hitting first the dock areas just outside London and the parish of St Giles in the Fields in the winter of 1664/5, where poor workers lived in crowded, ill-kept structures. By the summer of 1665, plague was rampant in the City of London and many decided to leave, although the fate of those that did could be just as fatal. Villages outside of London refused to take more refugees and, unable to return to their homes in the city, many died of starvation and thirst in the hot summer.

Although concentrated in the City, the outbreak affected other areas of the country as well. There are few details known about Fr Poulton’s death, but what is certain is that while carrying out the dangerous work of a Catholic priest in a time of persecution, he heroically laboured in the relieving and comforting of the plague-stricken in Lancashire, until he himself was seized with the infection and died a martyr of charity, 6th May 1666.

If you would like to know more about Fr Ferdinand Poulton and the College of Blessed Aloysius, please contact the Jesuits in Britain Archives.