Cholera, flu, whooping cough: welcome to the 1830s

Cholera, influenza, the 1830s saw epidemic succeeded epidemic across the UK. And Cumbria was no exception.

Epidemic, pandemic, lockdown, social distancing… 2020 has shaken the world and Mankind’s view of itself. It’s a modern shock, and a first-world shock, of course (not to diminish the impact anywhere, at any point in history). The last big epidemic in the UK was the the 1957 Asian flu pandemic. Our ancestors never shared our pre-2020 complacency.

The 1830s: ‘a time of much sickness’

In 1830s Cumbria (as the rest of Britain), epidemics/pandemics were a constant threat to life. I’ve lost the source for this partial quote, but it:

…was a time of much sickness of other kinds — the Asiatic cholera of 1831-32, the influenza of 1831, 1833, and 1836-37, and the general unhealthiness of the year 1837.

1832: the cholera epidemic

The annual meeting of subscribers to Carlisle Dispensary, in February 1833, included a report on the previous year.

The ‘first unqestionable case of cholera’ had occurred in the city on June 13, 1832 and it soon became ‘general’. 

‘But it was always principally confined to the dwellings of the poor, the intemperate and the dissolute’.

Continuing this theme – which seems to blame the victims for suffering this bacterial disease – the report continues that cases always rose at the start of the week, ‘after the indulgence of Saturday’.

Medics were ‘undecided’ as to whether it was a contagious disease or not, and had no idea how to treat it, as the report admits: 

‘every variety of treatment has been recommended and adopted, with every variety of success’

while some severe cases recovered with no treatment at all.

Cholera theories – and action

At least Whitehaven Infirmary’s annual report of 1833 comes down against a theory that cholera was produced by malaria.

Between June 13 and November 23, medical officers from the Dispensary attended 371 cholera patients in the city.

On July 7, 1832, the Carlisle Patriot named those who had died at home from cholera over the previous week:

Mrs Jane Forsyth, of Caldew Brow, aged 64: John Boys, of Bridge Street, aged 50; Mrs Mary Davidson, Irish Gate Brow; Mrs Martha Clark, Annetwell Street, 42, and Isabella, her daughter, aged 8; Mrs Mary Verson, of Ritson’s Lane; John Burdsal, of Court Square, aged 17; Mrs Eliz Collins, Water’s Buildings, aged 40; Mrs Elizabeth Laird, Damside, aged 34…

And: Robert and Alexander Wilson, of Collier Lane, aged five. These two children were twin brothers: they were uncommonly cheerful the evening before they died, took ill nearly together, and expired about the same time.

There were a further 13 cholera deaths that previous week in the House of Recovery – of 25 patients admitted.

Folk in Caldewgate and Shaddongate didn’t have hand sanitiser, but they did have brooms and buckets and turned out every morning to ‘commence a general cleansing of the street’. Which had already had ‘a very beneficial effect in purifying the atmosphere’. 

By the end of July, cholera had also ‘taken root’ in Whitehaven, with cases also reported in Workington and Maryport. In Maryport, 14 of 16 patients had died within hours of showing symptoms. The death rate in Whitehaven was 1 in every 3.4 cases.

A quack ‘cure’ for cholera – and everything else!

Meanwhile, Carlisle Board of Health had taken to task one Thomas Hudson, of 9 West Tower Street, who was going round selling ‘Morison’s Pills’.

Dr Edger addressed the chairman in ‘terms of severe animadversion’ on Hudson’s conduct. He had met Hudson at a patient’s house in the night, and Hudson had advised the patient to disregard Dr Edger’s professional advice. 

Which Carlisle Dispensary apothecary William Frederick Hildebrand said he had seen Hudson ‘putting down people’s throats in the street’.

Mr Hudson said the principle of the pills was that they cured ALL ailiments, on the basis that all ailments were caused by impurity of the blood. 

Given that James Morison’s vegetable pills were basically a laxative, they were probably the last thing to give to cholera patients.

Thomas Hudson was convicted by Carlisle magistrates for failing to report a case of cholera (one he had ‘treated’) to the medical authorities. He was fined 20 shillings (£1) plus 20 shillings costs. Morison’s Pills ranged in price from just over one shilling a box to the Family Packet at 11 shillings.

Family ‘bubbles’

When someone died of cholera, their bedding and clothing were washed, their home ‘cleansed and purified’ (with lime and whitewas) And Carlisle Board of Health advised that only those ‘absolutely required’ to be there should attend funerals.

The1833 epidemic: influenza

The flu epidemic started in London, in April 1833. 

In May 1833. the Carlisle Patriot reported that Lord Lowther had been alarmingly indisposed at his house in Ceveland Row, from the prevailing epidemic. 

His lordship (William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale)

“still went to the Commons to vote, and now convalescent. 

Cumberland East Liberal MP William Blamire, however, was unable to attend his parliamentary duties because of a severe attack of the prevailing epidemic

The Westmorland Gazette, reporting that influenza had reached Kendal in May 1833, called it ‘unpleasant but not dangerous.’ Which relative to the cholera the previous year… 

But of course, flu can be deadly

On June 15, 1833, the Patriot carried a death notice that gives the cause.

At Penrith on the 6th, of the prevailing epidemic, John Rawson, in his 69th year. 

John Rawson was a watchmaker and silversmith in Penrith for more than 40 years. He had, through his ‘industry and perseverance acquired a comfortable independence which seemed to be his main object in life’. he obtained it and enjoyed it.

A deadly combination

Going back to May 1833, it was reported that whooping cough was ‘extremely prevalent’ in the village of Bothel and neighbourhood.

Some children were ‘also attacked by the prevailing influenza epidemic and several have expired under the combination of maladies’.

The infant daughter of a Mr Howe was one victim, aged just ten months. And a labourer named Hodgson, residing near Mealsgate, lost three children out of four through the same cause. Other local children were reported to be dangerously ill. 

Clap for carers

The Carlisle House of Recovery’s committee, in 1833, thought city folk should be congratulated on on the immense advantages of the hospital. A class of diseases (severe and communicable) had previously been looked on with a degree of horror which, thanks to hospital, was now unknown.

A celestial cure

in September 1833, the Westmorland Gazette reported on a lecture on astronomy, given by a Mr Low, of King’s College. Mr Low predicted that Halley’s comet, expected the following month, would not (as some astronmers had said) destroy the Earth.  Instead, it would purify the atmosphere of infection, and epidemics such as cholera would go clean out of the world.

The comet actually didn’t show till 1835. The rest needs no comment!