Leeds nostalgia: the cholera outbreak of 1832

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The Ebola epidemic is nothing new. Before modern medical knowledge became available we were all vulnerable to the devastating impact of disease. So begins John Brooke, who will be delivering a lecture to the Thoresby Society on November 4. He will be looking at how the epidemic of 1832 affected the city of Leeds.

His talk is topical given the current ebola epidemic sweeping Africa.

Mr Brook said: “The Leeds cholera epidemic of 1832 claimed the lives of 702 people. In the month of August alone 257 people died from the disease.

“Although the water-borne disease respected neither age nor status, the majority of the victims lived in the squalid streets, yards and folds that were a feature of Leeds at the time.

“Robert Baker, the district surgeon to the Leeds Board of Health, did much to highlight the dingy houses and cellar dwellings, with their lack of sanitation and water that were home to the working classes.

“His sanitary map of the town, produced in conjunction with his 1833 report, plotted the areas in which the disease prevailed and was considered to be far ahead of anything that had previously been attempted.

“Although, as we now know, his conclusions incorrectly linked the epidemic to the polluted atmosphere surrounding the filthy streets, with their dung heaps and stagnant pools, the report did highlight the shortcomings that needed to be addressed.”

en cholera first arrived in London in 1832, it was thought to be spread by a “miasma” or bad smell in the atmosphere. The theory was supported by leading figures in public health at that time, like Edwin Chadwick and Florence Nightingale, who held sway over public opinion.

Like all conurbations, Leeds was susceptible to outbreaks of disease and even before 1832, it had to contend with repeated waves of typhus, of which there were more than 60 cases reported in 1814.

Cholera broke out in 1826 but more seriously in 1832 and the health services of the day were wholly unequipped to deal with the number of cases it produced.

A specialist cholera hospital was created in St Peter’s Square in Leeds and of the 2,000 cases presented to it, some 700 died.

In 1833, it was generally agreed something needed to be done to create a better drainage system. A committee comprising six physicians and 33 surgeons agreed a joint declaration that year calling for better sewage and paving in some of the most squalid areas of the town, together with new measures to ensure streets were kept clean and they went further, calling for an Act of Parliament to enable them to enforce such measures.

Baker would later present a detailed report to the corporation of Leeds but that report, submitted in 1839, painted a picture which was even worse than that which existed in 1832.

He observed: “The streets become the receptacle for ashes, filth and refuse of every description until they become far above the original level and offensive beyond all measure at all times and during all seasons.”

He pointed out the practise of keeping livestock to supplement family incomes only exacerbated the problem. He spoke of funding an Irish woman sitting in a pig sty covered in muck and of children, including brothers and sisters, up to the age of adolescence sharing beds. Additionally, people struggled to get fresh drinking water in Leeds, with some areas up to a quarter of a mile away from the nearest source. He said Leeds was a “very unhealthy place” but on that score it was, arguable, no worse than other large cities.

Speaker Mr Brooke was a headteacher in Yorkshire for 25 years and a part-time inspector of schools for a further seven years. He now lectures on the history of education, transport, housing and public health for the Workers’ Educational Association and other bodies. He recently wrote Cruel Lives: A History of Some West Yorkshire Epidemics, and has other publications to his name.

He was Chairman of Lightcliffe cricket club for eleven years prior to becoming President in 2012, and is secretary of the Lightcliffe History Society.

The Thoresby Society was founded in 1889 as a historical society.

John Brooke’s talk will take place on Tuesday, November 4 at 7.125pm at the Friends’ Meeting House, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9DY.

Further information is available from the secretary Alan Slomson, who is contactable via e-mail: a.slomson@leeds.ac.uk, or by phone on 0113 278 7861.