Cholera in Cornwall: the Victorians’ coronavirus

Not strictly Victorian perhaps, as it preceded Victoria’s reign by five years. As if the endemic typhoid, typhus and dysentery, not to mention the measles, mumps and whooping cough that every year cut a swathe through thousands of infants, were not enough, in 1832 cholera arrived in Cornwall. Outbreaks periodically panicked local authorities into the 1850s, in which decade effective measures to control its spread were finally put in place.

Rumours of a new and terrifying disease began to filter into Britain in 1830. This one began in India rather than China. However, even without the handy vector of aircraft to rapidly transform a local problem into a global pandemic, cholera inevitably made its way west, the slowness of its approach possibly adding to the trepidation.

Cholera is a bacterial disease which causes copious diarrhoea and severe vomiting, with subsequent dehydration, cramps from loss of salt, and shock, leading in some cases to death. It was spread mainly through water supplies infected by poor sanitation. The authorities in the 1830s were aware of this, the general public less so. Even without social media to spread misinformation, many useless remedies were touted (and sold), such as mercury, opium, ginger and rhubarb or the application of leeches. None of these had any effect on the disease, although (in the case of opium in particular) they may have made the consumer less worried.

Cholera arrived in Britain on a ship that brought it to Sunderland in October 1831. From there it gradually spread south and west, reaching Plymouth in June 1832. Summer was the worst time for cholera and in one week in August there were 141 deaths from the disease in Plymouth.

The Tamar proved no barrier. The first case in Cornwall was a woman who died at Bodmin on her way from Devonport to Port Isaac on 28th July. A mob tried to prevent her burial in the town and was only dispersed when more special constables were rapidly sworn in.

The outbreaks in Cornwall began in villages near Plymouth and at Newlyn in the west, presumably brought by boat. Padstow was also badly hit, with 107 cases and 19 deaths. So was Hayle, where 14 of the 26 victims in late August/early September lived in one area – Bodriggy Lane. Altogether 308 people died of cholera in Cornwall in 1832.

Nonetheless, the arrival of the disease had triggered the establishment of boards of health in the towns. These set about issuing orders for removing pigsties, privies and cess pits. But, as always, once the immediate threat was over and it was obvious that it was the poorest rather than the better off who carried the brunt of the suffering, action became less vigorous.

While sporadic outbreaks occurred thereafter, as at Falmouth and Helston in 1833, it wasn’t until 1849 that another major cholera scare hit Cornwall. In that year it was centred on Mevagissey, where 125 died out of a population of 1,800. According to the newspaper, almost half the residents fled the town. The paper commented that ‘sanitation [was] a word which had probably never been heard in Mevagissey where the effluvia of decaying fish made the atmosphere intolerable to the delicate nostrils of all those who were not natives of the place’.

Mevagissey – a sink of cholera in 1849

That year saw an even higher mortality rate at Kingsand in the far east, where 93 died out of a population of 790. Other areas affected were Looe, Truro, the Redruth district and again Hayle. It’s noticeable that the deaths tended to cluster either in crowded towns or in fishing ports.

Finally, in the 1850s action began to be taken to rid towns of pigsties, stables, open cesspits and mounds of unsavoury ‘rubbish’, while new drainage and sewerage systems were built. In Truro in 1853, 641 out of 691 ‘public nuisances’ were removed, which indicates the scale of the problem. Even then the supply of clean drinking water had to wait. Mid-century Truro was supplied from 29 wells, the water from several of these being declared unfit for consumption as late as 1884.

You can read more about Cornwall’s cholera outbreaks in Rowe and Andrews’ article in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 7 (1974), pp.153-64 on which this piece is mainly based.

2 thoughts on “Cholera in Cornwall: the Victorians’ coronavirus

  1. Thanks Bernard. I’ll use some of this article with my New Zealand Year Nine and Ten classes. It will be part of the explanation of the great emigration of the Tauiwi ( the new comers) to the New World. With diseases and pollution it is understandable why people would have wanted to leave for a pristine new country.

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  2. If you visit Padstow churchyard you will find out about the history of the cholera outbreak in the 1860s my family members stories who succumbed were passed down to me but is now being lost

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