31 Days of History: York in the time of cholera

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As cholera ravaged much of Asia and Europe in the early nineteenth century, gradually creeping closer and closer to Britain, and the townsfolk of York began to grow ever more concerned at the prospect of an epidemic in the city.

At the first meeting of the York Medical Society in February 1832, the fear of cholera was at the forefront of the city’s medical minds to such an extent that the first nine lectures were devoted to the subject of the disease.

Cholera can become rife in areas with poor sanitation and spreads through the drinking of water or eating of food that has been contaminated by the feces of an infected person, and is a particularly unpleasant illness. As the condition worsens diarrhoea begins to severely dehydrate the victim, eyes turn glassy and sink back into the face, the skin begins to wrinkle due to a lack of fluid, and however frightening the oncoming threat of death can be, the loss of the body’s water means that no tears can be shed. The sickness comes on quickly, and a sufferer can produce 10–20 litres of diarrhea a day and can kill within hours.

In the spring of 1832 as cases began to be reported in Leeds, Hull and Selby, York began to take the precautions seriously, and the horrible prospect of the preparation of mass burial pits reflected the seriousness that the issue. The City rejected the idea of turning the moats and ramparts around the city into graves, and officials were sent to ensure that the filthy parts of the city were cleaned up.

On 28 May a ferry traveling up the Ouse from Hull stopped in York and a number of vagrants traveling to York for the races stepped off the boat bringing the deadly bacteria with them. The Captain of the ferry, Thomas Hughes, lived in Beadham’s Court at Skeldergate, which was also know in the city as The Hagworm’s Nest. Once home he made his way to The Anchor on Water Lane for a well deserved drink, and possibly to quench the raging first that had come upon him as he sailed his boat towards home? He then went on to see his uncle who lived next door to a lodging house. Soon the landlord and maid at The Anchor had fallen ill, as had a number of the guests at the lodging house. The nightmare scenario had become real, cholera was in the city.

The vagrants spread the disease further into the city, and a young woman who had spent the night with one of the men was the next victim. Her family took her clothes back to Malton where the bacteria was spread further. Cases began to pop up in the Shambles, and a commode lent to a family by the landlord of The Anchor spread the bacteria. The commode was so dirty that the family gave up on trying to clean it and instead threw it into the Ouse. In 1832 York’s water supply came from the river and the addition of the bacteria to the city’s main source of drinking water was very bad news for the terrified citizens. The more people who came down with the illness, the more infected sewage that poured forth into the river, where drinking water was drawn daily.

Not knowing that the disease spread quickly through water the city decided to embark on a campaign to clean roads, ditches and moats in areas that had been hit by the epidemic, with quicklime (calcium oxide). The areas of York affected were Aldwark, Bedern, Bootham, Castlegate, Castlemills, Coppergate, Cross Alley, Friargate, Goodramgate, Gillygate, Grape Lane, Garden Place, all of Hagworm’s Nest, Hotham’s Lane, Hungate, Holgate, Jubbergate, Layerthorpe, Lendal, Little Blake Street, Long Close Lane, Muggy Peg Lane (now Finkle Street), Monkgate, Marygate, Minster Yard, North Street, Neutgate, Petergate, Paver Lane, Patrick Pool, Palmer Lane, Swan Street, Skeldergate, St Andrewgate, St Deny’s Yard, St Saviourgate, Sweep Alley, Spurriergate, Shambles, Tower Street, Thursday Market (now St Sampson’s Square), Trinity Lane, the Water Lanes, Walmgate and Wellington Row. Of these, only eight had working drains.

There were arguments over where the dead should be buried and concerns that the graveyards wouldn’t be able to take the huge numbers of dead that was feared. Eventually it was agreed that an area just outside of the city walls, near where the station is now situated, would be used to bury the dead. The resentment of the inhabitants of Micklegate was made clear in a number of disturbances by residents who were worried that the positioning of the burial ground near their homes would expose them to the disease. One disturbance ended with a coffin and body being thrown into the river in a show of disgust at the choice of burial ground. Some morbid mothers even took their children along to the grave site to show their children the spectacle of the bodies being buried.

Poor understanding of bacteria and epidemics led some people to be killed by the attempted cures, such as the injection of whisky into a victims body. Other ‘cures’ included the administering of opium and mustard emetics. It would be later on in the century that scientific advances would lead to the cholera being better understood. In 1854 York born John Snow, worked out that a cholera epidemic in London was spread via infected water.

By October the epidemic was on the wane and the number of cases was reducing. In five months, out of a population of around 25,000, there were 450 confirmed cases of cholera of which 185 died. Members of the clergy believed that the epidemic had been of benefit to the city’s christians as it had forced them to think of scared things. It would be years until the unsanitary conditions in York would be improved, and the people continued to live with the threat of cholera returning to their streets.



Reference: ‘The 1832 cholera epidemic in York’. M C Barnet

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