When a cholera epidemic struck England during the 1830s, it led to widespread fear and tens of thousands of lives lost. In major cities, cramped conditions and poor sanitation only exacerbated the disease, especially among poor and working classes. Cholera spread throughout Europe and into the Americas, devastating men, women, and children for decades.
In the midst of the cholera outbreak of 1831 and 1832, Anne Lister - the main character in the BBC series Gentleman Jack - struggled to manage her ancestral home in Yorkshire, as well as her love of travel and personal passions. While Lister experienced her own challenges, England attempted to overcome the mysterious cause and spread of cholera. From its first appearance in the country to the epidemiological discovery made by John Snow more than 20 years later, cholera not only reshaped medical knowledge in England but also upended traditional social and political norms. Here's how cholera arrived in England and what happened during its initial onslaught.
Cholera, caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae, has its origins in India but didn't leave the subcontinent until the early 19th century. Cholera began with severe diarrhea that left an individual weak, pale, dehydrated, potentially delirious, and feverous.
In 1817, an outbreak of cholera in the Ganges River Delta, most likely caused by contaminated rice, spread to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. On the island of Java in Indonesia, cholera claimed the lives of 100,000 people.
During the early 1820s, cholera entered China, Japan, and parts of Russia. People traveling on ships, including British soldiers from India, spread cholera until the outbreak slowed by 1824.
When cholera broke out in India again in 1827, British Governor-General William Bentinck described it as follows: "Its first [strike] on its first appearance is always most violent and fatal. This last[s] for three or four days; the disease then mitigates and in about nine or 10 days [it] almost disappears."
According to Bentinck, cholera took the lives of 10,000 men in nine days. He marveled at how it struck some soldiers but not others, quickly resulting in a victim's demise. Bentinck's own cook was "taken ill at 8 am and [perished] by 8 pm."
During the cholera outbreak of 1827, British officials in India commented on its transmission, cycle, and effects. British Governor-General William Bentinck didn't think cholera was contagious but it did, in fact, spread all the way to England by late 1831.
Carried by contaminated ships, cholera reached the port of Sunderland, where the River Wear meets the North Sea. British authorities had taken steps to avoid cholera, quarantining ships arriving from Russia and all Baltic ports, but to no avail. William Sproat, a keelman living in Sunderland, reportedly became ill on October 23, 1831, and passed three days later. No one told doctors or authorities about his passing until four days after the fact.
Sunderland was slow to admit there was a cholera problem in town, in large part because it would result in trade restrictions on outgoing ships. Thus, local doctors were hesitant to assert their patients had cholera. According to reports, 215 people in Sunderland perished from cholera. The malady spread to nearby Gateshead and wiped out another 165 people in December 1831 before ravaging the country.
In addition to being "Asiatic," cholera was called "cholera morbus," a term that provoked parliamentary action in early 1832. "The Cholera Morbus Prevention Act" gave the King's Privy Council, or any two members of it, authority "by any order or orders... to revoke, renew, alter, and vary all such rules and regulations, or to substitute any such new rules and regulations, as to them may appear necessary or expedient for the prevention... of the said disease, called cholera, or spasmodic, or Indian cholera."
The act also tasked boards of health in cities, towns, and districts to remain vigilant in taking steps to prevent the spread of cholera. They were to keep records of "new cases, deaths, and recoveries" reported to them by physicians. Doctors, for their part, were subject to penalties and punishments if they "neglect or omit" to report any cases they saw.
Ideally, the act kept a closer account of cholera and greatly extended the authority of the boards of health throughout England. It did little to prevent cholera's spread, however. From 1831 to 1832, roughly 32,000 people succumbed to cholera in Britain.
Introducing pleasant smells like myrrh and camphor were meant to negate the pollution or miasma that people believed cause cholera. With little understanding of what caused cholera, it was widely thought miasmata, or decaying organic matter, created bad air and spread the disease.
Miasma dated back to Greek medicine when Hippocrates wrote about the effects of the seasons and winds on health. People had commonly believed bad air was toxic and connected to epidemic disease until germ theory came to fruition. During the 19th century, the links among filth, odor, and maladies explained the horrors of cholera and allowed theories about prevention and cures to emerge.