THANKS to the development of sanitation and advances in hygiene pioneered by our Victorian forefathers, the scourge of cholera has largely been eradicated from the western world. The epidemics of the 19th century killed thousands in the Black Country, where many lived in dirty, overcrowded, mean dwellings, without clean drinking water or any adequate means to dispose of human waste.
Bilston was hit especially hard by the epidemic of 1832 when, in little over a month, around one twentieth of the town’s population was killed by cholera. The following is an account of how the disease affected the town and the surrounding area, written by the historian William White just a couple of years after the epidemic.
“In vain did the inhabitants of Bilston, and other places in the South Staffordshire mining district, imagine in 1832, that the dense atmosphere of smoke which surrounds them, would protect them from the ravages of that baneful malady the Asiatic cholera, which in that year visited nearly every part of the kingdom, as well as many foreign countries, carrying death to thousands and sickness to millions. This modern spasmodic plague made its first appearance in England at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland, at the commencement of 1832; but it did not approach this district till the months of June following, nor did it assume here its most malignant aspect, till the beginning of August, when the work of death commenced and continued in full vigour for about a month in each parish, and in a less degree for five or six weeks afterwards.
"Its whole continuance in the district was about four months, and within that period, out of a population of 160,000 souls, it swept away about 2,300, and afflicted with serious illness nearly 10,000. But in this catalogue of suffering, a melancholy pre-eminence must be ascribed to Bilston, in which town several whole streets were nearly depopulated; extensive manufactories were stopped by the mortality of the work people; coffins, which could not be made fast enough in the town, were imported in cart loads from Birmingham, and stood piled up in heaps in the yard of the hospital, awaiting the last breath of their future tenants; of the resident medical practitioners, two were carried off by the disease; and of their survivors, one was attacked when on duty in the hospital, fell down on the floor, there bled himself, and whilst yet unable to rise, had to perform the same office for an attendant, who fell prostrate by his side. From August 4th to September 29th, there were in Bilston no fewer than 3,568 cases of cholera, and 742 deaths; the latter amounting to one-twentieth part of the whole population, and nearly 600 of them occurred in August. For the support of the hospitals, the burial of the dead, and the relief of the thousands of distressed poor at this awful period, in the twelve parishes and townships in the South Staffordshire Mining District, numerous subscriptions were raised by the benevolent both here and in other parts of the kingdom, to the amount of about £15,000.
“The public subscriptions in Dudley, Kingswinford, Walsall, West Bromwich, Willenhall, and Wolverhampton were raised chiefly among the inhabitants or proprietors; but in the other places, they were for the most part contributed by friends at a distance, or strangers. At Bilston, the number of widows by cholera was 131, and orphans, under 12 years of age, 450; but happily their distress was greatly alleviated by the liberal subscriptions of the benevolent; and a charity school has recently been established for the education of the destitute children, many of whom lost both their parents in this dreadful visitation, which is said to have wrought a considerable improvement, both in the moral and religious conduct of the survivors. Aided as it has been by the contributions of distant sympathizing friends, and by a recent revival of the iron trade, Bilston has again assumed its wonted aspect of cheerfulness and prosperity. On Oct. 16th, 1833, the Rev Wm. Leigh, AM incumbent of Bilston, was presented by his brother magistrates, the assembled at Stafford, with a silver epergne, and four dishes and covers, ‘as a token of their admiration of his unremitted exertions in the discharge of his arduous duties, during the awfully pestilential visitation of Cholera with which his chapelry was affected in 1832’.”
The disaster that hit Bilston and the Black Country in 1832 was made worse by a lack of medical knowledge in treating the disease. The above mentions doctors bleeding patients, a practice which would have only made them weaker. The following is a description of some cholera remedies published in the 19th century:
“Aromatic confection, two drams; prepared chalk, two drams; sal volatile, two drams; tincture of opium, one dram; tincture of ginger, four drams; tincture of kino, four drams; cinnamon water, six ounces. A tablespoonful to be taken every two hours until relaxation ceases.
“Another remedy:– Bicarbonate of soda, eight grains; tincture of opium, eight grains; tincture of ginger, two drops; tincture of catechu, one dram; aromatic confection, ten grains; chalk mixture, two ounces. If there is much pain, add from three to five drops of creosote to the chalk mixture. A wineglass full to be taken when necessary.”
These treatments would have had little effect, other than the opium they contain dulling the patient’s pain. Today cholera is treated by simple re-hydration and antibiotics but in the 1830s nothing was known of this. Doctors did not know what caused the disease. Some argued that it was carried by bad air or “miasma”, hence the Bilstonians’ confidence that the smoke of the Black Country would keep the disease at bay. Others thought that cholera came from the sea and that the Black Country was far enough inland to be safe. It was not until 1854 that a London doctor, John Snow (1813-1858), established the link between cholera and contaminated drinking water. The micro-organism that causes cholera was not discovered until 1883, when it was isolated by the German bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843-1910), who, in the course of his career, also discovered the anthrax bacillus and the tubercle bacillus.
There have been seven cholera pandemics recorded in human history. The first was 1816-1826; it began in Bengal and by 1820 had spread across all India. 10,000 British troops and unnumbered Indians died. The disease reached China, Indonesia and the Caspian Sea.
The second cholera pandemic was 1829-1851. The disease spread from Asia to Europe, reaching England in 1832. 55,000 died in the UK and 100,000 died in France. In the same year cholera, carried by shipping, reached as far as Quebec, Ontario and New York and by 1834 it hit the Pacific coast of North America. A second outbreak in England came in 1848-49, claiming another 52,000 lives.
The 1852-1860 pandemic mainly affected Russia, killing over one million, but in 1853-54 10,738 Londoners died.
The fourth pandemic of 1863-1875 affected mainly Europe, North America and Africa. In 1866 90,000 died in Russia, 165,000 in the Austrian Empire, 50,000 in the USA, 30,000 in Belgium and another 30,000 in Hungary. In 1867 113,000 Italians perished from cholera. The effects were not so bad in England as improvements in sanitation were beginning to take effect.
The fifth cholera pandemic of 1881-1896 claimed 250,000 lives in Europe, the last time Europe was seriously afflicted with the disease, and 50,000 in the Americas. 90,000 died in Japan, 60,000 in Persia and 58,000 in Egypt.
Europe was largely unscathed by the sixth pandemic of 1899-1923 but Russia (500,000 deaths) and the Ottoman Empire were both hit hard. 200,222 died in the Philippines and 800,000 in India. 1910-11 saw the last outbreak in the USA, when 11 died on Swinburne Island, New York City. The seventh pandemic, 1961-1970s, began in Indonesia and spread to India, the USSR and North Africa.
In the last two years there have outbreaks of cholera in Iraq, India, Vietnam, Congo and Zimbabwe.
Famous victims of cholera include, Inessa Armand, mistress of Vladimir Lenin, d.1920; George Bradshaw, publisher of railway timetables, d.1853; Charles X of France, d.1836; Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian military theorist, d.1831; William Godwin, author, political philosopher and father of Mary Shelley, d.1836; Georg Hegel, German philosopher, d.1831; James Clarence Mangan, Irish poet, d.1849; James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States, d.1849; Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Russian composer, d.1893; and William J. Worth, US general, d.1849.