Lieutenant-General Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, known as Lord William Bentinck, was a British soldier and statesman. He served as Governor-General of India from 1828 to 1835. In 1831, he wrote a letter to his brother, the Duke of Portland, in which William described the spread of cholera in India. (Read the Transcript of Pw H 287/1-3: Letter from Lord W.H. Cavendish Bentinck, Camp Bahadaghur [Bahadurpur], India, to [W.H.C. Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck] 4th Duke of Portland, Cavendish Square, London; 4 Dec. 1831 (Pw H 287/1-3) HERE)
Earlier than the descriptions Lord William Bentinck, cholera was noted in Jessore, India, in 1817. It spread quickly to Russia by 1823, to Hamburg, Germany, by 1831, and the first case in London was documented on 12 February 1832. Thankfully, only about 800 victims were named in the East London slums. “In 1832 more people died of tuberculosis than cholera, and a child born of a labourer in Bethnal Green had a life expectancy of only 16 years. However, cholera evoked a response in social terms, and a contribution to the development of public health, of far more significance that its effect on mortality at the time.
“Although the ‘Cholera Morbus’ is what we now call just cholera, the terms ‘Asiatic’, ‘spasmodic’, ‘malignant’, ‘contagious’ and ‘blue’ were also used to describe this new disease, generally thought to be a more serious form of the contagious cholera already well known. It was confused with, or thought to be the same as, ‘common’ or ‘English’ cholera, dysentery and food poisoning frequent in this country during the summer months. What actually caused the disease or how it was spread, was not understood until well after 1832 but it is now clear that the bacterium Vibrio comma, if drunk in water contaminated with infected sewage, causes a mild fever that usually gets better within a week. A poison produced by the bacterium however stimulates a profuse diarrhoea that may prove fatal if the vast quantities of water and salts lost are not replaced. Thus it is not a serious disease if treated correctly, but doctors in the 1830’s generally tried to restrict fluid intake, to prescribe emetics and purgatives, and even to bleed their patients, trying to ‘equalize the circulation’.
“The disease was first noticed among British troops in India, and vivid accounts appeared in the press of the effects of cholera in St. Petersburg, Russia. This first hand knowledge of the disease, and reports of the mortality it could cause in large cities, led the Privy Council to put all ships for Russia arriving in England under quarantine in January 1831. The Privy Council had set up a Central Board of Health in 1805, after concern about yellow fever arriving in Britain. This was reconstituted, and met daily from June 1831 to May 1832. It issued circulars and gave advice to parochial Vestry Committees, who were responsible for the precautionary measures taken within their own parishes.” (Mernick THHOL)
European cities attempted to contain the disease by placing all ships under quarantine. The London docks held ships in Standgate Creek, near Deptford, for ten days. A physician had to pronounce the ship disease free before it could proceed to unload and before men were allowed to enter the country. Unfortunately, this method was not completely effective in stymieing the disease’s slow march across London.
the last three days of this period to be bona fide employed under proper supervision in opening hatches …. and ventilating the spaces between decks by Windsails, and opening, airing and washing the Sailors’ clothes and bedding. [CBH Letter-book PC 1/93, 17 November 1831.]
Merrick THHOL also tells us (along more on specific cases), “During December and January there were a large number of cases of suspected cholera in London, and the prospect of an epidemic received a lot of attention. Even a play was produced, called ‘Cholera Morbus, or Love and Fright’, in which a man dispersed a crowd in terror by shouting ‘collar her’ after a girl who had picked his pocket, allowing her to run free. The Times thought this an outrage and an indecency.
“Of the 48 cases investigated by the Central Board before February, probably only one or two on the river were the Asiatic cholera; the illness of John Potts received the most attention, although it was only dysentery. He was a sailor recently arrived from Sunderland on the collier Mould, and waiting to work north on the Dirt. Taken ill with vomiting and cramps, he was removed to Shadwell Workhouse, where he soon died, on 18th January. A postmortem examination was performed, and a twenty-inch length of his intestines carried to the Central Board at Whitehall by the parish beadle. The inquest was held in the George and Dragon public house on Shadwell High Street, and was attended by representatives from all the neighbouring parishes, but the verdict was that ‘the deceased had died by the visitation of God, from natural causes, and not from the Cholera Morbus’.”
By 1832, the disease reached Britain for the first time. Reports from Nottingham say that the first victim was a Mr T. Farnsworth of Lees’ Yard, Narrow Marsh. The disease spread mainly through the poorer districts, until it affected some 1,000 people and caused nearly 300 deaths.
Very unusual remedies against cholera were advertised in the press. The University of Nottingham website quotes: “In the absence of proper understanding of the medical causes of cholera, people were persuaded to try a variety of preventatives and cures which were advertised regularly in the press. Cures ranged from mixtures of tincture of rhubarb, salvolatile and essence of peppermint, to Dr. Norris’s Fever Drops (described as ‘Most efficacious’) and concentrated Ilkeston water, the latter being credited with the cure of Mr. Hollingworth’s son.” (see Extracts from Nottingham Journal 4 and 25 August 1832 HERE) Nevertheless, according to an 1849 report of the Sanitary Committee of the Borough of Nottingham, ‘this terrible scourge the Cholera fixed itself in 1832 in Streets and Courts filthy, ill ventilated and crowded with inhabitants too poor, dirty or dissipated to procure necessary food or use the most common means to secure health’. [source: Records of The Borough of Nottingham, Vol. IX, 1849, p. 71]
From the East Midlands Collection Not 3.D14 FIE: Extracts from Henry Field, The date-book of remarkable and memorable events connected with Nottingham and its neighbourhood, from authentic records. Part 2, 1750-1884. (Nottingham: H. Field, 1884), we learn something of the spread of the outbreak.
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