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Cholera on the streets of 19th Century London

 Cholera on the streets on 19th century London

From the early to the mid 19th century, the economy of Britain was feeling the strain of its war with France. Troops returning from the Napoleonic battlefields were discharged into communities where job opportunities were scarce. The agricultural and industrial revolution were placing a burden on rural communities and the peoples response was to move to the urban cities, London in particular.

By the middle of the century the population had soared to 2.5 million and it was growing.

    • London was straining at the very seams of its fabric, quite literally.
    • Properties were in a very poor condition, damp and rotten.
    • Many families were crowded into tiny dwellings with no sanitation, that is,  no drains or sewers to speak of and over 200,000 cesspools.
    • No formal rubbish collection and animal markets and slaughter houses adding to the problem, with animal waste left to rot in the streets.

Most of this odorous material was discharged into the River Thames and the quality of water was deteriorating at an alarming rate.

    • The city was prone to outbreaks of the disease cholera, for which doctors did not seem to be able to agree upon either cause or cure.
    • 1831 saw the first cholera epidemic in which 13,000 died.
    • Spread through the bacteria laced faeces of its victims the disease terrified the public, its onset was rapid with death occurring often within 24 hours.

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Cholera was called Asiatic Disease, known to occur in the slum dwellings in India

Questions were asked, was this to be the result of our Empire in India, would the cost to the British public be disease?

    • The disease caused the medical community to be split into two camps, the contagionists and miasmatists, i.e it was either spread person to person or it hung around in the ether, lingering in the miasma of those ‘unsanitary’ places.
    • The great sadness is, that the miasma theory had much more influential support than the contagionist theory and so, down the path they all went, to finally create a chaotic mess in their attempts to resolve the problem.

Edwin Chadwick, the city’s Sanitation Commissioner produced a most uncompromising  paper in which he stated his own belief that cholera was the result of atmospheric impurities produced from the rotting animal and vegetable waste which lay on the streets of London. The fact that people were living in densely populated squalid housing only exacerbated the whole problem.

The result was, for the city’s cesspools to be closed.

    • This single move caused untold damage. What sewers existed, were overwhelmed by the extra burden and within a space of six years 20% of the cesspools had been closed and all the waste poured into the River Thames.
    • Whilst removing the waste from the houses where people lived, he contaminated London’s main water supply.

Whilst Chadwick and his influential cohort of miasmatists built an elaborate scheme that would strengthen the Great Cholera Epidemic, people such as John Snow were developing the theory that the disease was a water borne disease.

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The second cholera epidemic

By 1848 London was hit by a second epidemic and although the figures vary, the death toll could have been as high as 50,000. 

Finally the Metropolitan Sewers Commission was established which was supposed to deliver a project to ensure that cesspools and house drains were connected to sewers for the first time. Chadwick sat on this board which failed to deliver any practical solutions until the arrival of Joseph Bazalgette.

Joseph Bazalgette, an engineer, more used to building railways than to considering the sanitation needs for one of the world’s most densely populated areas of the world, was a persistent, tenacious and hardworking individual whose skills and determination would be the saving of London from disease and stink.

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