The ‘Land of Death’ in which we dwelt was Newington, hemmed in by Lambeth, Southwark, Walworth, Bermondsey, and other gloomy parishes, through which the pestilence stalked like a destroying angel
in the deep shadows of the night and the open noon of day.’

Thomas Miller ‘Picturesque Sketches of London’ published 1852.

As cholera swept across mainland Europe from 1830, reports of the potential high mortality in large cities appeared in the national press. The Privy Council reconstituted a Central Board of Health, originally set up in 1805 over concern about yellow fever, to advise parochial Vestry Committees responsible for precautionary measures within their own parishes. An ineffectual quarantine was introduced upon ships coming from the Baltic which enraged merchants who, suspicious of the motives of government and the threat to trade, believed it would not work.

Many people thought cholera was an exaggerated threat. At the start of the 1830s, Britons were more concerned with a big political topic: parliamentary and voting reform. After the Lords defeated the passing of the first Reform Bill in 1831, rioting ensued and a revised Bill was passed in June 1832, redistributing some power from the traditional land-owning elite to workers and the manufacturing middle classes in rapidly growing industrial cities. These latter groups suspected cholera was being used to distract the populace from Reform and were inclined to be more concerned with gaining political representation and avoiding disruptions to commerce.

The Church of England attributed cholera to divine punishment. Its members, predominantly the upper class from the south of England, declared, with Parliament backing, a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the disease. The dissenting industrial and manufacturing districts in the north mockingly joked that if God was angry, it was probably because Reform was being stalled and hadn’t the poor fasted enough already.

Pro-Reform ballads were printed and pasted over cholera warning handbills distributed by the Board of Health. One read ‘They tell such tales our hearts to fear, of cholera raging there and here, but bread, pudding and good cheer, will drive the cholera morbus away from here.’

People diagnosed with cholera were often forcibly removed in the name of public safety to special hospitals where many died. Scandal was rife that medical schools, desperate for bodies to dissect, were paying grave robbers to plunder burial grounds. Outrage spurred Parliament to pass a ‘Dead Body Bill’ or Anatomy Act in 1832 which provided the bodies of paupers not claimed within 48 hours by family members able to pay for internment, to be available for dissection. This fuelled suspicion that patients in these cholera hospitals were being killed for their bodies. Many families hid their sick or resisted their removal.

The complex social response to epidemic disease was demonstrated by eight major riots in Liverpool, the crowd’s anger directed at the local medical fraternity. This issue was of special concern in the city as in 1826, thirty-three bodies had been discovered which were about to be shipped to Scotland for dissection. In Manchester, a crowd attacked a local cholera hospital after a man discovered his three-year-old grandson had died there and had been beheaded. The mob, believing the child had been murdered, took the headless body around the town to drum up support.

 The first official death was recorded on 26 October 1831 in Sunderland. From there it quickly spread to Newcastle where reports from the medical observers were conflicting. ‘Several cases of cholera morbus appear to have occurred, but opinions are different as to whether they are native or foreign. It does not appear that any more cases occur than usual at this time of year…and but for the prevalence of that disease on the continent they would in all probability have been unnoticed.’

In London, a play was produced called ‘Cholera Morbus, or Love and Fright’ where a man terrified a crowd by shouting ‘collar her’ after a girl had picked his pocket. The Times called this an outrage.  There were a number of cases of suspected cholera in the Capital before it officially arrived in February 1832. The illness of sailor John Potts received the most attention. After dying of dysentery in the Shadwell Workhouse, a post-mortem was performed where a 20 inch length of his intestines was carried to the Central Board in Whitehall. The inquest in the George & Dragon pub on Shadwell High St concluded that he had died by the visitation of God.

The first proper cases included the death of a Rotherhithe man employed to clear a ship from Sunderland. Curious Londoners went to view the body and by the middle of February there were 16 victims, mostly in Southwark. Many still thought the disease was vastly overstated. The Atlas published an opinion piece saying that the victims were in the crowded borough of Southwark indicating that it would be confined to the ‘ill-fed and ill-clothed’ and that the respectable ranks of life and fashionable society were sure to be spared.

The medical men of London, however, were far more concerned and in the face of a possible epidemic the gallery of the House of Commons was unattended by any who did not have an urgent need to be there. As a precaution, the passages and lobbies were sprinkled liberally with chloride of lime. Schools were directed to be closed and interment of cholera victims should take place as quickly as possible. When the body of John Mahony who lived in Tooley St, Southwark (home of many poor Irish) went unburied for several days for the customary wake, the instruction was to take the body by force. Victims’ clothing was either boiled or burnt and the room in which they died fumigated.

By August numbers had dramatically increased. Mortality rates were increasing with the summer heat. Now almost any mild bowel problem was thought to be cholera. Even 12 horses that died of a rapid febrile disease at a Limehouse brewery were believed to be victims of the epidemic.


References

  • Durey, Michael: ‘The Return of the Plague; Gill & MacMillian Humanities, 1979.
  • Hamlin, Christopher: ‘Cholera, The Biography; Oxford University Press, 2009. 
  • Landers, John: Death & the Metropolis; Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Morris, Robert D: ‘Cholera 1832 – The Social Response to an Epidemic; Croom Helm, 1976. 
  • Richardson, Ruth: ‘Death, Disease & the Destitute; Penguin, 1988.

To cite this post : Gareth Miles, “The Scourge of the Nineteenth Century: Cholera in England (Part II)”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), April 28th, 2020. [On line] 


Gareth Miles is a Education and Outreach Officer at the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret. He is involved with the museum’s education programme and leads historical and medical walks around the local area.

The Scourge of the Nineteenth Century: Cholera in England (Part II)