Britain in the time of Cholera.
I have been researching the life of a Dorset land surveyor called John Martin. He is important in the story of Child Okeford as at various times he mapped the parish and was responsible for the inclosure of the remaining common land in 1845. It was he who ordered the construction of the lower common road. He is unusual because he wrote diaries some of which have survived and are held at Dorset History Centre. The entries are, to say the least, laconic and at first sight the entry from 21st March 1832 seems to be of little interest. It was curious however for, although he was a Churchwarden and clearly devout, Martin rarely if ever recorded religious festivals. My initial thought was that this was Ash Wednesday was quickly laid to rest by an internet search which showed it to have been on the 7th March. But if this was not one of the conventional fast days what was it? Another internet search revealed a story which is both extraordinary, fascinating and apposite.
On or about the 1st November 1831 a ship docked in Sunderland that had voyaged from the far east. Within a few hours of docking four members of one family, father, son and grandson fell ill and within a matter of hours three of them had died. The fourth, probably the mother, was taken to hospital where she too succumbed. After her death the nurse attending her also died.In the early 19th century specific bacteria as the cause of disease was unknown. As a result many diseases that caused diarrhoea were simply labelled as ‘Cholera’. What worried the authorities in Sunderland was that before they died the victims extremities had turned blue, confirming this to be “Asiatic or blue” or true cholera.
Within a month the epidemic had spread nationally with few parts of the country escaping the disease. There were sporadic outbreaks across the south west of England including at Bridport where a dozen people died [and one recovered]. In London there were over three thousand deaths but the true toll was never known. Today we know the cause of the disease is a bacteria and that it can be transmitted through infected food or water. It produces such copious and dramatic diarrhoea that fluid loss causes circulatory collapse and death. None of this was known in the 1830’s of course and an alternative explanation had to be found as to why the pestilence had come.
On the 11th May 1812 the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated leaving thirteen children. His family were awarded a massive financial endowment by Parliament and his oldest son, also Spencer, was granted a substantial government pension, educated at state expense and became a member of Parliament at the age of 22. He was a deeply religious young man. On Thursday 26th January 1832 Perceval rose to his feet in the House of Commons and cried “I spy strangers”, the traditional way of emptying the House of all but the members. He then gave what must have been one of the most remarkable speeches the House had ever heard.
According to Perceval “The state of the nation was truly deplorable” and it “trembled on the verge of destruction…Pestilence is now in the land, and we ought to hasten to address the throne to proclaim a fast and holy day in the land. We have here the truth. We have departed from our God and God has departed from us. And unless this nation come on their knees destruction is on us.”
His argument was complex; on the one hand the poor lacked the deference due their betters, “no man could calculate on subordination in any society” there were disorders in every district and the “houses of the nobles and gentry[were] being regularly entered and pillaged.” Furthermore even the ruling classes were divided there being “a frightful collision of the two Houses of Parliament”. On the other hand whilst “The rich lived in luxury and plenty; the labourer in a state of actual starvation and a degree of distress that would harrow up your very souls.” The nation should, he said, consider its ways – and mend them. But if his criticism of the nation was severe, his criticism of parliament was quite extraordinary. “You sit here [said the Hon. Member] as a body of infidels…This house meets here and talks on public affairs as if there was no God….You are all infidels.”
Quoting extensively and at length from the Bible he sought to prove that cholera could never be defeated by man alone. In response to the sinfulness of the nation “The Lord shall smite thee with a pestilence, mildew, fever &c until thou art destroyed.” The answer to the cholera problem was for parliament formally to approach the King [William IV], who, as head of the Church, would intercede with God on the nations behalf. Perceval moved that “an humble address be presented to the King to order a day for a general fast and humiliation.”
The reaction of the other members can only be guessed at but stunned silence was probably the order of the day. The newspapers merely noted that, at the conclusion of the speech, “After some pause” the motion was seconded by Mr Weyland. The other members were non plussed. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, one of the most famous radical politicians of the time, turned the argument against Perceval by quoting from the book of Isaiah in which it says that the real fast was to “loose the bands of wickedness to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free.” The real fast, he said “was one that would feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” Nobody was quite sure what this would involve.
Clearly rattled, the Government spokesman, Lord Althorp, [who happened to be Chancellor or the Exchequer] said that he did not approve of such discussions in public and denied the charge of infidelity. Whether it was a mild befuddlement on his part or one of those skills that politicians learn at the despatch box but in the course of his speech he succeeded in giving the impression that if Perceval withdrew the motion the Government would, in any case, call for a day of prayer without involving the King. The point was immediately picked up by other members of the House who asked him if this was what he meant and the poor Lord recognising inevitable defeat, and being unable to avoid the politicians worst fear, having to give a straight answer, agreed that it was.
This seemed to the majority of members present a reasonable compromise, but for Perceval it was no straight forward matter, for he now found himself in an even deeper moral bind. “After the tardy admission and reluctance to order a fast he thought it had been consented to more to get rid of the motion than from any sense of the danger threatening the land.” In this he was almost certainly correct but if so it implied that the house was not only full of infidels but hypocrites as well. He did not know what to do for if he proceeded with the motion there was an even greater risk to the nation. As he explained “He was unwilling to force the house to an act which”, being hypocritical in its nature, “would certainly bring down the judgement of God on the country.” On the other hand if he withdrew the motion he would be consenting to an act of parliamentary expediency with the risk that God would know that they did not really mean it and which would render the fast meaningless. He chose the lesser of two evils and withdrew the motion.
In the event parliament found it had little choice but to approach the King and on the February 6th the William IV made a Proclamation for a General Fast in which he called for his loving subjects to “send up our prayers and supplications to the Divine Majesty for averting those heavy judgements which our manifest provocations have most justly deserved.” It was he said important that the “people may humble themselves before God in order to obtain pardon of our sins”.
In such a way then was the cholera to be defeated and in the absence of any knowledge of microbiology and sanitation who can say that it was not a reasonable option?
Well the poor for starters. The Poor Man’s Guardian [Motto’s “For the People”, “It is the cause; it is the cause” and “Knowledge is Power”] and which was “Published in Defiance of the Law to try the power of right against might”, objected to the fast. They pointed out that the one factor that doctors agreed upon which invited the disease to attack was “the want of proper food.” They ridiculed the very notion of the fast, for although the rich were not to eat meat, they were allowed as much fish, eggs, vegetables and wine as they could afford. On this criteria the only way the poor could fast was if they were to eat less food all round and “absolutely starve”. If going without meat was sufficient evidence of fasting then the the poor fasted for 313 days of the year based on the assumption they could afford meat on a Sunday.
And so the nation awaited the day of the fast which some in the press had already named “St Perceval” day. The reaction to calling a day of fast had occasioned some concern amongst the authorities. They were aware that the poor were in a state of agitation and the day before the government issued a notice prohibiting all processions and gatherings during the Fast day. Such gatherings were it was claimed inconsistent with the reverence due to religion. The truth was they feared revolution.
It was a day that was not without incident. To start with there were political shenanigans in parliament, for this was the year of the “The Great Reform Act” and “Every method that trickery could devise was used for the purpose of throwing the third reading upon the Fast day.” Perceval’s previous accusation about the Commons and Lords being divided was a less than veiled reference to the act. As the time of the fast approached [midday] Perceval stood up in parliament and began another very long diatribe against the members. He had not proceeded more than three sentences [albeit long ones] when, seeing the writing on the wall, large numbers of members left the house and the debate was abandoned. The reformers were furious and the verdict of the press was no less damning, “Mr Perceval perhaps an amiable, but certainly a very weak man, delivered one of the most extraordinary effusions that has ever been heard within the house. He cannot escape the imputation of being influenced by temporal considerations.” In other words he deliberately sabotaged the debate and reform was postponed to another day.
Meanwhile outside of Parliament a massive meeting of the working classes had been called. By eight in the morning 20,000 people had assembled in Finsbury Square and by midday there were estimated to be about 100,000 present in the surrounding streets. Bang on midday just as the fast started many of them set off in procession towards Tottenham Court Road. Their scouts however detected a large number of police in a side road and as they proceeded a fight broke between the police and the marchers. Eventually as more police arrived the leaders of the march ordered it to disperse. The remainder of the crowd, still present in Finsbury Square, stayed peacefully enough until half-past eight in the evening when the police forcibly dispersed them.
In the country at large it appears that the fast was observed patchily. Oddly there are no newspaper accounts of the reaction to the fast in Dorset. Given the prevailing social conditions it is difficult to believe that it was not observed scrupulously in rural Dorset. In larger towns across the country on the other hand there are numerous accounts of the fast being positively flouted with more festivity than fasting; what we can be sure of is that in his house in Evershot John Martin did keep the fast and in the course of things the 1832 cholera epidemic gradually subsided. It was not the end of the cholera in Britain nor the end of the Great Reform act.
An outbreak of the disease in London in 1854 led to a physician, Dr John Snow demonstrating that infected water supplies were the cause, and a smaller outbreak in Dorchester, in the same year, led to a local clergyman, Henry Moule patenting the first practicable toilet, known as the earth closet. Both men in their own ways helped towards the final eradication of the disease in this country – but theirs are another set of stories. Despite Perceval’s efforts the Great Reform Act did eventually pass and on 20th December 1832 John Martin headed for Ilchester to vote. The first time in his 52 years that he was able to do so.
The content of this post has been compiled by the author from articles published by the British Newspaper Archive to which he has a paid subscription.