Rumours of plague? Mortality crises in 16th century Cornwall

In May of 1591 deaths began to spiral at Redruth. That year saw burial numbers in the parish registers hit a figure nine times higher than the usual. Yet by Christmas the crisis was over and burials had reverted to their normal level.

Sudden short mortality crises like that at Redruth suggest an airborne infection, such as the ‘sweating sickness’ of the early 1500s. Pneumonic plague is another possibility, although plague mortality usually occurred slightly later, peaking from July to September. A third possibility is famine or poor nutrition caused by food shortages. Although burials in Redruth in 1591 were consistently higher than normal all year, there was no sign of the mortality peak of early spring that might be expected if famine were the cause.

Plague was reported in the period 1589-93, spreading out from Plymouth. Many decades ago Norman Pounds identified mortality crises in Morval, St Neot and St Columb Minor. At St Columb it was particularly severe, with a pattern that closely mirrors the classic plague mortality. That said, there is no evidence of any similar mortality crises in these years in the registers of St Erth, Gwithian and Mawgan in Meneage in the west, or at St Breward in the east.

Redruth’s neighbour Illogan experienced a similar mortality crisis in 1591, but the worst months in Camborne occurred much later, in the early winter of 1593, when deaths rose to ten times the normal level. The localised nature of these mortality crises and their dispersed timing might raise some questions about the cause. Was it simply plague or were there additional or multiple causes?

A similar mortality crisis at Camborne beginning in August 1547 more neatly fits the bubonic plague pattern. This event, when deaths that year were again over ten times the norm, is intriguing as it occurred less than two years before the rising of 1549. Unfortunately, at this date there are very few parish registers available to see whether other Cornish parishes experienced a similar crisis at the same time.

The whole issue of mortality crises in Cornwall in the 1500s and 1600s requires more research, especially as no Cornish data were used in Wrigley and Schofield’s classic The Population History of England 1541-1871.

The Black Death in Cornwall

In these uncertain times we need a topic that can take our minds off our current problems. It’s always a good idea to put things in perspective by considering those who are in a more unfortunate position than we are. That was exactly the position for people in Cornwall 671 years ago to the day.

In 1348 a ship from the Continent had brought the bubonic plague, later known as the Black Death, to Dorset. In the absence of handy vectors such as mass rapid transport facilities, it took several months for the plague to spread along the south coast of the British Isles. But spread it did. Those who claim that Cornwall’s ‘remoteness’ can somehow reduce the effects of Covid-19 are sadly mistaken. Even in 1349 its peripheral location could not prevent the arrival of the plague, probably by boat, by March 1349. The worst wasn’t over until November of that same year.

Reliable data on the spread of the disease was even worse then than now. One measure of its impact was the institution of new clergy to replace those who had died. In the decade prior to 1349 the average annual number of replacements in Cornwall was 4.2. In the year from March 1349, 85 new clergymen were required. This implies a clerical death rate of around 40%, which is quite close to general estimates of the mortality of the Black Death. Cornwall’s population fell from around 90-100,000 in the 1330s to between 50 and 60,000 by 1377. Although not all in one go. The bad news for the current ’herd immunity’ advocates is that there was a second, almost equally bad, outbreak in 1360-62, after which plague became endemic for two to three centuries.

Scourging was a popular remedy for the Black Death. Its effectiveness against the coronavirus is not yet known.

In Cornwall mortality is thought to have been highest around river estuaries on the south coast and in towns, probably reflecting trade links and population densities. Truro in 1378 was described as ‘almost entirely desolated and waste’, while in 1410 it was still ‘much impoverished by pestilence and death’.

Many farms and smallholdings suddenly became vacant. In Moresk manor around Truro in the early 1350s around half had no tenant, while on the poorer, upland soils of Wendron around two thirds of holdings were unoccupied. In the long-term depopulation became the norm for a century and a half. The 45 inhabited sites in Wendron in the early 1330s contracted to just 31 by the late 1400s. Arable land reverted to waste or became pasture, prices plummeted, and tin production collapsed to 20% of its early fourteenth century peak in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.

Yet the economy bounced back surprisingly quickly. Vacant landholdings were snapped up by formerly landless families, tin production had recovered by the 1380s, onerous feudal services tended to disappear, wages rose. For those who survived, the late 1300s and 1400s was a time of opportunity as Cornwall’s economy diversified and grew faster than elsewhere.

On the other hand the plague periodically returned. This period also saw frequent wars and occasional periods of food shortage and famine. Horsemen of the apocalypse tend to travel in groups.

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.