The York cholera epidemic of 1832 affected at least 450 people and caused 185 deaths in a city population of 25,357. It arrived in June, lasted till the end of October and was part of a pandemic – “The Pestilence of India” – which caused alarm and distress across the globe affecting major cities such as New York where there were large concentrations of people.
Dr Margaret Barnet’s list of the York streets where cholera cases were identified is shown below. Except for those in italics, none had sewers or effective drains. In national terms, York was the 85th town to be hit in the country where, in total, cholera touched 431 towns and villages, affected 85,528 people and killed 31,376. The disease created great fear not least because, at the time of the outbreak, cause and cure were entirely unknown although the authorities sensed that poor hygiene and squalid living conditions played a part.
Causes of cholera
Scientific medicine was still in an early stage of development when “The Pestilence of India” first struck. Medical opinion was divided between the dominant miasma hypothesis of disease – caused by “bad air” – and the notion of contagion – disease passed on by contact with a diseased sufferer. Although germ theory had roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was not until the early nineteenth century that the role of micro-organisms was confirmed. However, the profession remained hard to convince, hence the importance of Dr Snow’s research.
Dr John Snow (1813-1858), born in York, discovered how the disease is transmitted: chiefly in water from the faecal matter of those affected. Drawing partly on observations during York’s later and more severe cholera outbreak of 1849, Snow published his ground-breaking evidence in 1855. In the previous year, 1854, Filippo Pacin, an Italian anatomist, had isolated the bacterium involved. Together, their findings on the source and transmission of cholera answered the mystery of the disease, though it is less clear at what time they became aware of each other’s work.
None of this was known in 1832. However, the form that the disease takes was well recorded and deeply distressing: sudden, prolonged and watery diarrhoea is followed by vomiting, cramps and severe dehydration which can often lead to death within a few hours. Others developed fever and, even with signs of recovery, there could be further complications from pneumonia. Although cholera rarely occurs today in developed countries, it remains endemic in other parts of the world such as Somalia and Yemen.
How cholera reached York
In 1831 the epidemic made its first UK appearance in Sunderland. From there it seems to have travelled along rivers – this was shortly before efficient highways and the arrival of the railway in York. York had ample notice of the likelihood of the disease’s arrival when Leeds and Selby were affected and, following Privy Council advice, the city took clear precautions. Before its arrival, nine lectures on cholera were given by York’s newly-established Medical Society; the York Board of Health was reconvened; parish officers were instructed to inspect every house and to order, or to provide for, cleaning and whitewashing, and the removal of waste from privies, soil holes, ash heaps and urban pigsties. Some open sewers were covered over; special rates were raised for the Board of Health; and a house close to St George’s churchyard was reserved for potential victims.
None of that prevented Thomas Hughes, a hard-nosed waterman, from ferrying a party of vagrants, from Selby and elsewhere, across the River Ouse to York races on 28 May. Hughes, who lived in the notorious “Hagworm’s nest” just off Skeldergate, was the city’s first cholera victim. The formal name of the “nest” was Beedham Court. It had twice been the starting point for the city’s much earlier outbreaks of plague. Five families shared a single privy; its cess pit was apt to flood the court; and a dunghill stood at its end. The dwellings were also damp and overcrowded. Before he fell ill, Hughes visited the Anchor Inn across the Ouse in Water Lane. The landlord died the next day, as did Hughes’s neighbour, a sawyer, though Hughes himself seems to have recovered.
Site of the burial ground
Much as Charles Dickens described London’s graveyards in Bleak House, York’s parish burial grounds were already overcrowded, their graves unduly shallow and entirely ill-suited for accommodating the infected victims of a rapidly-spreading epidemic. Graves six-foot deep were required to contain infection. Local politics soon became involved and what was commonly a parish responsibility soon became a civic one. The first thoughts of the Board of Health were to use the city’s moats or ramparts. This proved controversial, yet the matter was pressing: Privy Council orders were for cholera burials to take place within 12 hours of a death. Within the first week of the epidemic, the problem became critical and a Board of Health subcommittee agreed to allocate a patch of corporation land between Thief Lane and the former site of some dog kennels for the burial of cholera victims. This is the graveyard that can be seen today close to the railway station.
Controversy over the use of this land did not end there; argument raged over the duration of the lease. The corporation favoured a time limit but relatives were dissatisfied about this. By contrast, parish burials were in perpetuity. There was also uncertainty over where the dead of any future cholera outbreak might be buried. The corporation split along party lines – Whigs versus Tories – and the majority vote was to let the land to the church for 60 years with the Archbishop of York paying a peppercorn rent. Not satisfied by the vote, George Hudson, a leading local Tory, sided fiercely with the Archbishop – but against the Dean of York – in arguing that, since the ground had now been consecrated, it could not be for a limited period. Hudson appealed for a legal ruling from London. The appeal was upheld and it is owing to this early political triumph of Hudson’s that the burial ground remains intact to this day.
The burial of cholera victims also became a highly emotive matter for the people of York. Following a further Privy Council ruling – this time that cholera victims’ funeral services should be held out of doors and not inside churches – they were resentful of what they saw as disrespect for their deceased relatives. The family of a Mrs Fleming, for example, forced their way with her coffin inside St Michael’s Church, Spurriergate, insisting that, as was customary, her funeral service be read there. The church was fumigated and whitewashed before any further services could take place.
York residents were fearful too of the possible spread of infection from repeated funeral processions in its thoroughfares. A troubled crowd once threw a coffin into the river. We now know, from Dr Snow’s work, that this action was far more hazardous than the procession itself. Nonetheless, morbid curiosity drew many into the streets and, for public protection, funeral marches were soon directed into the wider and more airy streets. Nor was it always easy to cross the river with a coffin for burial in the newly dedicated cholera graveyard.
Lessons of the epidemic
Meanwhile, other practical matters connected with managing the disease ran no more smoothly. Though a covered cart was appointed for cholera burials and bodies were ordered to be wrapped in tarred cloth, two of the men employed were tried and transported for robbing one of the corpses. In addition, the cholera “hospital” was unable to cope; only six beds were provided and supplementary accommodation had to be built nearby.
In the year of the great Reform Bill, the epidemic suggested that much wider reform was required; driven by contingency and short-termism, the parish unit and the rates system were plainly inadequate. Corporation provision was severely wanting too; the lack of an efficient city-wide system of public health, drains, sewers, waste disposal and of a clean water supply for all was powerfully highlighted as was the absence of an effective administrative structure for their delivery. The York Waterworks did not serve all citizens and the disease was at its worst in the poorest localities where clean water was unavailable and sewerage arrangements informal.
Tragically, the lessons of the 1832 epidemic were not acted on to good effect; an epidemic of typhus followed in 1847 while cholera returned, with renewed force, in 1849. On a positive note, the epidemic brought many individual acts of kindness and collective ones too. For example, the inhabitants of Minster Yard sought out and assisted their close-packed neighbours in Bedern – 98 families, 67 in single rooms – attending to their lack of food and adequate clothing.
Margaret C. Barnet, ‘The 1832 Cholera Epidemic in York’, Medical History, vol.16, issue 1 (Cambridge, 1972), 27-39
- Durey, The First Spasmodic Cholera Epidemic in York, 1832, Borthwick Papers no.46 (York, 1974)
York streets affected by cholera
Little Blake Street
Long Close Lane
Mucky Peg Lane
St Denys Yard
St Sampson Square
- Durey’s slightly later research (1974) found additional streets where cholera had struck including Fossgate, Scarborough Parade and Tanner Row.
© Graham Frater