Leeds Cholera Epidemic – ‘King Cholera Strikes!’
AD 1832 – King Cholera Strikes!
by Richard Smyth
It began in Sunderland, slum-ridden, smog-choked, some 80 miles to the north-east of Leeds. Who was the first? It may have been Robert Joyce, dead from a horrible sickness in the autumn of 1831; it may have been twelve-year-old Isabella Hazard, who, on a Sunday in October, fell ill after attending church and was dead within a day. The death on 23 October of Hazard’s near neighbour, sixty-year-old shipworker William Sproat, confirmed the suspicions: cholera had arrived in England.
For many, the news is not as terrifying as it might have been. As, indeed, it ought to have been. The word ‘cholera’ is widely used in the nineteenth century to describe any illness that causes vomiting and diarrhoea. Generally, this means dysentery and food poisoning. After visiting the scene of the outbreak in Sunderland late in 1831, the Leeds doctor Charles Thackrah publishes a book recalling a ‘cholera’ epidemic in Leeds in 1825, which ‘produced severe effects and considerable alarm’.
Thackrah surveys the progress of the 1825 disease in Halton, Chapel Allerton, Kirkstall and inner Leeds. He also travels to the south and west, to Wakefield (where the symptoms of an afflicted patient in the lunatic asylum included ‘stools resembl[ing] cold oatmeal gruel’), Hanging Heaton, Batley, and the badly-affected town of Gawthorpe (‘inhabitated chiefly by weavers who, though not generally poor, are dirty in their persons and have their houses more than commonly filthy’).
“Leeds has never seen anything like the Cholera Morbus”
This ‘English cholera’ seems to have been grim indeed. Could the ‘Spasmodic’ or ‘Malignant’ cholera, newly arrived in Sunderland, possibly be any worse?
No, concludes Thackrah. It is true, he concedes, that the English cholera claims far fewer lives than malignant cholera is known to have done in India, where it originated. But this is a consequence of the climate and food of that country, and the habits and character of the Indian people. It does not mean that the malignant cholera is a different disease.
‘Could an Indian army, with its train of followers – enfeebled, debauched and fatigued, deficient in protection from the weather, deficient, especially, in nourishing food – have been encamped in England in 1825, we should have beheld, I conceive, the most appalling form of the disease,’ Thackrah wrote.
The words have a sourly ironic ring. Enfeebled, fatigued, deficient in food and shelter: the description matches the poor labouring classes of Leeds’ industry-soiled slums as well as any ‘Indian army’. But the important point is that Thackrah is simply wrong. Leeds has seen its share of disease, from bubonic plague through to typhus and tuberculosis. But it has never seen anything like the Cholera Morbus.
Prior to its appearance in Sunderland, physicians have tracked the progress of the disease across Asia and Europe. It has first been noticed among British troops in the Bengali town of Jessore. In 1823 it reaches Russia; press reports of the devastation wreaked in St Petersburg causes considerable unease among British health authorities.
“Spread like wildfire”
In 1831, quarantine is imposed on shipping from the infected Baltic ports: Hamburg, Riga, Danzig. But, at Sunderland, the quarantine is breached. From there, the Cholera Morbus spreads through the cities of England like wildfire.
In Leeds, as elsewhere, it takes only a small spark to trigger an outbreak. The Dock family are Irish immigrants. They live in Blue Bell Fold, a slummy cul-de-sac near Marsh Lane, just north of the Aire in the Bank district of the city. They make a meagre living as weavers.
Their son is two-years-old in the spring of 1832. On the morning of the 26 May the boy is taken ill. At 5 o’clock that same afternoon, he dies. The next day, a child of the Docks’ neighbours, the Tobins, is also struck down. In no time at all, twelve people in the district lay dead. The epidemic has taken hold.
“He sinks in a few hours”
Charles Thackrah describes the gruesome symptoms of the Cholera Morbus.
“Ask the sufferer his first symptoms, he wrote: [and] he seems to know or recollect none. They have either been slight, or present agony has rendered him forgetful of past and minor pain. Ask him what he suffers, he answers in a faint or broken voice ‘Oh my stomach! Oh the cramp!’ Observe his countenance: it is darkly suffused. The eyes have an expression of indifference to external objects; the pupils are contracted, the vessels of the conjunctiva injected.
The tongue, ears and nose – indeed, the whole surface – is cold as a stone and more or less purple. The extremities are especially chilled; grasping the feet we feel a continued convulsive motion of the tendons. No pulse is to be found in any of the arteries and scarcely a beating even in the heart. The wretched man sometimes writhes with cramp and utters a cry; he is then still, and seems unconscious of surrounding objects. After a time, perhaps, a faint attempt at reaction takes place: the skin is rather wanner and a clammy sweat breaks out; the cramps cease, but the heart and arteries soon give up the struggle. He sinks in a few hours, often without any other marked symptoms, and dies so placidly that the bystanders are not aware of his exit.”
“Thirst ardent, tongue red…”
Further details come from a French doctor, François Boisseau. In 1832 he compiles a dossier of cholera symptoms he observes as the disease swarms westward through the Russian empire: ‘Slight spasms were felt in the limbs, then dejections and vomiting of an aqueous matter mixed with whitish mucosities and sometimes worms were ejected from the stomach… the evacuations soon became violent… the cramps extended to the muscles of the abdomen and chest… the eyes became hollow, fixed and depressed in the orbits… thirst ardent, tongue red on its whole surface… excruciating pains and burning heat in the stomach and intestines.’ It was, it’s clear, a truly horrible way to die.
The Cholera Morbus is as mysterious as it is awful. For one thing, no one knows how it spread. Most experts in contagion at the time still believe the disease is associated with ‘miasmas’, or foul smells. And there are no shortage of these in industrial Leeds.
The bleak reality is that the disease spreads not through the smell, but through the source of the smell: sewage. The accumulated filth of a city like Leeds is a breeding ground for the bacteria that causes cholera. The bacteria’s lethal effects are triggered when a person drinks water that is contaminated with sewage. And, for the poor, the water is pretty much always contaminated with sewage.
It’s hard to overstate the foulness of Leeds’ industrial slums in the early 1830s. Since the turn of the century, an uncontrollable population explosion had seen the number of people living in the city leap from around 53,000 to 123,000. Every nook, cranny and rat-hole in the town is occupied, maybe by a single worker, more often by a family (or several families). This poses obvious problems. Soon the city’s streets – most unpaved and undrained – are slick with excrement and waste water. Rivers of raw sewage run in the gutters.
Blue Bell Fold typified these conditions. The grim cul-de-sac stood by the bank of a stream carrying industrial effluent from the city’s mills and dye-houses to the river. The river, according to a local journalist, is clogged with:
“…the contents of about 200 water closets and similar places, a great number of common drains, the drainings from dunghills, the Infirmary (dead leeches, poultices for patients, etc), slaughter houses, chemical soap, gas, dung, dyehouses and manufacturies, spent blue and black dye, pig manure, old urine wash, [and] all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances.”
There is little fresh air, little sunlight. Homes are cramped, and work – in the city’s mills, dyeing plants or factories – is back-breaking. These are, quite simply, cholera conditions.
Extract taken from ‘Bloody British History: Leeds’ by Richard Smyth.
Published by The History Press.
Available via thehistorypress.co.uk for the 10% discount of £8.99