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A Terrible Pestilence
Cholera in Barwick 1832

The Barwicker No 8
December 1987

In the log book of the Rector of Barwick-in-Elmet, the Rev. W.H. Bathurst, there is the following entry for the year 1832: In the autumn of this year, several of the inhabitants of the village were attacked by the Cholera, commonly called the Asiatic or Spasmodic Cholera. An account of the deaths which took place is subjoined. Those whose names are underlined were inmates of the poor-house. The last two names are those of the Governor of the poor-house and his daughter. (The burial dates are taken from the church register).

Taken Ill
John Hemsworth Aug 21 Aug 22 76 Aug 23
Joseph Beanland Aug 24 Aug 29 26 Aug 23
Elizabeth Bean Aug 23 Aug 25 58 Aug 25
Thomas Morritt Aug 25 Aug 27 72 Aug 27
Mary Ann Kemp Aug 26 Aug 28 50 Aug 28
Henry Hemsworth Aug 27 Aug 27 39 Cramp Aug 27
John Hewitt Aug 27 Aug 29 68 Aug 29
Richard Firth Sep 3 Sep 5 68 Cramp Sep 5
Ann Hewitt Sep 4 Sep 8 22 Cramp Sep 8
Joshua Ward Sep 12 Sep 14 50 Sep 16
George Winterskill Sep 15 Sep 16 56 Cramp Sep 16
John Dixon Sep 15 Sep 16 75 Slight Cramp Sep 16
Charles Naylor Sep 24 Sep 25 73 Sep 27
William Gibson Sep 28 Sep 29 66 Cramp at first Sep 29
Jane Gibson Oct 2 Oct 2 28 Cramp Oct 1?

The disease had spread from Bengal, appearing in Moscow in September, 1830. Throughout 1831, it drove its way across northern Europe. In Britain, quarantine regulations were declared for all ships from Russia and the Baltic, and these were extended to the west European ports when cholera reached Hamburg. Ships from these ports had to call at a series of quarantine stations. For the customs officers who controlled the smaller of these, the increase in work was too much to handle and cholera broke the net.

The first confirmed case of Asiatic cholera in the British Isles was in Sunderland when, in October, William Sproat, a keelman, died. With our present-day knowledge, the answer to the cause is simple. The micro organism, cholera vibrio, established itself in the victim's intestines, invariably entering the body by way of the mouth, after the potential victim drank water which had been infected by the excreta of another cholera sufferer. It was also spread on infected food. Although infected water supplies was the main means of spreading cholera, flies and infected bedding and clothing were also causes. They transferred the vibrio to hands and food, and so into the mouth and stomach.

The symptoms of cholera developed in three stages. First the patient became listless and depressed, a little deaf but not unwell. Then, he or she would have an uncomfortable sensation of heat in the pit of the stomach. This would be followed by violent vomiting and diarrhoea, which caused a massive loss of body fluids. This resulted in the "thin rice water" evacuations, which contained part of the damaged lining of the intestines. Then there were the muscular cramps mentioned in Mr.Bathurst's log. Dehydration did widespread damage to many organs, especially the circulatory system. The pulse and temperature dropped and excretion of all body fluids ceased. Most deaths occurred at this time. If the patient did not die, there was terrible fever, which needed careful nursing.

In June, 1831, a central Board of Health was appointed, mainly comprising members of the aristocracy. In November, it was replaced by a new board chosen for its medical experience. This advised an extensive network of local boards, empowered especially to separate the sick from the healthy.

The first job of the local boards was the early detection of the disease. "Expurgators" were to go to the house of the victim with carts and conveyances to take the victim to hospital. If the patient recovered, he or she was to be taken to a convalescent home. All contacts would be put into an isolation house. The three buildings were to be separate but in the same enclosure. Those who refused to go to hospital were to be isolated in their own houses with "SICK" painted on the door. The disease spread most rapidly in dirty and crowded parts of big towns. In the winter of 1831-2, the Board recommended that the streets should be cleaned and nuisances (the name then given to heaps of rubbish and sewage) removed.

On 9 February 1832, cholera arrived in London. The Government acted immediately and the Cholera Act was passed. This enabled two privy Councillors to make, renew or revoke rules and regulations to prevent the contagion spreading and for providing relief for the sick and the speedy interment of the dead.

In July, the epidemic was spreading rapidly and the local boards were given the power of entry to "any dwelling house, hut or cabin", upon receiving a certificate signed by two medical practitioners. "Hog-styes, slaughter houses, lodging houses and drains, ditches and cess-pools" were to be inspected. The same order required that the dead be buried within 24 hours and that special burial grounds be acquired.

How was the disease treated? In the early months of the epidemic, bleeding the patient was the basic course of treatment. It also involved the use of laxatives to which was added a little brandy and sometimes opium. To counter the cold of the patient's skin, they applied heat in various ways: hot bricks, linseed, mustard and bean poultices, a "cataplasm" of hayseeds and warm sand or salt. Some doctors used a hot air bath. Many used laudanum, some used mustard to clear the stomach and others tobacco as an enema.

The nearest the doctors came to modern treatment was the saline infusion into the veins. This countered the drastic dehydration caused by the vibrio. However, most of the medical profession used a combination of treatments and there was much experimentation and adaption.

Cholera reached Barwick in August 1832 as the Rector's log shows. There is no record of those people who caught the disease but then recovered. It is interesting to note that the inmates of the workhouse who died were men and indeed older men. Segregation had prevented the spread of the disease to the women inmates. These men were the last of the victims to die so that we can conclude that cholera was brought to the workhouse from the village. They all died shortly after being taken ill and were buried either the same day or the day afterwards. There is no evidence that their bodies were buried anywhere but in the churchyard.

The Barwick Parish Vestry Book records on 28 August 1832:

"Resolved that for the present it is not necessary to establish a Board of Health. Resolved that the overseers shall keep Brandy, Laudanum, Floods, Medicines, etc. by them. Likewise desire Mr.John Farnery of Stanks and Mr.George Cowper to keep them for the use of any person attacked by cholera. That the overseers give leave for the person attacked to send for the medical man they have the most confidence in (Mr.Frobisher, Mr.Ellerton or Mr.Scratchard) who are all desired to report in case of cholera. In case any patient dies the medical gentleman is particularly requested to send a certificate to Rev. Bathurst stating the complaint the patient died of.
It is certified by the apothecary that the beds should be destroyed, the overseers and committee men to make an arrangement with the owner for price and this expense to be paid out of the subscription when it is ascertained that the bed had been destroyed. This meeting desire that the jury go round and examine the town to see if there are any nuisances and get them removed."

It seems obvious that the most that was done in Barwick was to ease the death of the victims and, once they were dead, to take steps to prevent the disease from spreading. We must try to imagine the terror of the Barwickers, and the sorrow too, when they saw friends, relatives and neighbours struck down and buried with such necessary speed. It must have been a very sad time for all.

What explanation was given generally for cholera in 18321 Views differed widely. Many, including the Royal College of Physicians, claimed that cholera was "communicable by touch from person to person". Their opponents believed that the disease spread without any contact and was caused by changes in the atmosphere, vapour from the earth or rotting vegetation.

Many people thought that Providence played some part in causing the epidemic. They had their Bible along with a chosen cholera medicine on the shelf. Cholera was a reminder of the frailty of man and the power of God. Anyone who wanted to avoid cholera needed specific advice on which misdeeds to avoid in order to be safe from the wrath of the Lord!

The medical world was ill-equipped socially and technically to deal with the disease. There were cholera riots in some parts of the country as the doctors gave the impression of self-interest and failure.

During the winter of 1832, the effect of the cold brought about a decline in the death-rate from the disease. In December 1832, the Central Board of Health was dissolved. "The Quarterly Review" in that year referred to cholera as "one of the most terrible pestilences which have ever desolated the earth". It killed 32,000 people in Britain in 1831 and 1832.

Despite the tension brought about by cholera and the violent popular reaction, British society rapidly returned to normal. Barwick, in spite of its sad losses, was probably no exception.

Hazel Bantoft

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