31st August 1854. Cholera!

Writer, physician and traveller, Samuel Smiles in his ‘Thrift’ (1875), criticising laissez-faire: ‘Nobody’ is to blame: when typhus or cholera breaks out, they tell us nobody is to blame’…poignant as his own father died of cholera in the 1832 outbreak.(1)

Today in 1854 an outbreak of cholera was detected in Soho, London. It was traced by physician, John Snow to the old Broad Street water pump. 

Snow in 1849 had advanced the theory in, ‘On the mode and communication of cholera’, demonstrating that cholera, a bacterial infection, was spread by contaminated water supplies.

He tested his theory by removing the handle of the pump in Broad Street, (now Broadwick Street), Soho, in the process he founded the statistical science of epidemiology.

It was back in October 1831 in Sunderland, when cholera arrived in Britain, the first victim being William Sproat, a keelman, but the Authorities were in denial until November.

The Privy Council ordered a quarantine of all ships from Russia and the Baltic, the source of the infection, and The Central Board of Health was reconstituted, previously set up in 1805, to deal with Yellow Fever.

Many local merchants fearful of loss of trade, formed an ‘anti-cholera party’, causing many doctors to retracted their diagnoses: the result was a national scandal and a boycott of Sunderland.

However with limited powers, it was left to ineffectual Parochial Vestry Committees to deal with outbreaks, as best they could.

The Cholera Morbus Prevention Act of February 1832, gave increased powers to new local authorities, but too late to prevent widespread disease.

240 died in Grimsby and The London Gazette reported that so many died in Exeter Gaol that they were buried without an inquest.

In Bilston 692 out of a population of 14,500 died, where the local brook provided water and sewage outflow.

In Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, the Author’s home-town, serious outbreaks came in 1832 and 1849. Tunbridge and Nantwich, relying on the river for drinking or often polluted public wells suffered.

In 1847 a seafarer returned to Throckington in Northumberland carrying cholera, which infected the whole village, which was wiped-out never to be rebuilt.DSC_0493CholeraNotice500px

In 1848 the great epidemic, left thousands dead, particularly in cities such as London where excrement lay everywhere and cesspools seeped into water wells. The Thames was a giant sewer as well as being the City’s principal reservoir.

An investigation into public health, led by Edwin Chadwick resulted in 1848 Public Health Act, that required all new houses to have a water-closet, privy or ash pit.

It also created Local Boards of Health to improve sanitation especially water supply, street cleaning, sewage and slaughterhouses.(2)

The first Chief Medical Officer was appointed in 1855.

A public house named after Dr. John Snow now stands on the site of the pump: he was teetotal.


Exeter 1832 removing a body, in cholera outbreak and washing bed-clothes in the stream.

Exeter 1832 removing a body, in a cholera outbreak and washing bed-clothes in the stream.

Many places erected public drinking fountains as at Midland Road, Bristol

Many places erected public drinking fountains as at Midland Road, Bristol.

(1) The 1851 Census recorded a population growth of only 90 since 1841, a major blip on previous trends, not surprising considering the major outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

(2) These Boards of Health became part of the Municipal Boroughs in 1873, and Urban Districts in 1894.



Ref: wikipedia,org/local_boards_of health.

Ref: homereports/Pam Gilbert/Image of Poster.

Ref: freepage.history/Image of Tap.

Ref: Nantwich web.com/web.

Ref: historyhome/public-health/Image of Exeter.





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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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