Pandemic: Cholera 1832. Part 2

Guest blog by Textor

PART 2

The way in which the financial side of the 1832 cholera pandemic crisis was handled in Aberdeen reflects something of the social and economic climate of the period. Central government established rules and guidelines to manage threats to civic and commercial life while at local government level it was left to commercial and professional classes, ratepayers of some standing, to decide how the financial demands of cholera should by managed.

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In Aberdeen it was proposed that £4,500 would be necessary for the Board of Health to operate effectively. The question then was, how the money should be raised. Eventually it was decided against a specific compulsory local tax in favour of voluntary charitable contributions from better-off ratepayers. To this end local men-of-standing were identified and canvassed and £2,172 was raised. By the time the city came out of the crisis in May 1833 the Board of Health had £735 of this amount unspent. 

Monies were also raised in the County of Aberdeen, a portion of which was used to identify and forestall the entry of vagrants. This made some medical sense for many though not all physicians believed cholera to be contagious. Ratepayers in the County set aside £200 for constables to guard strategic points (such as the Bridge of Don) – protecting the shire from unwanted visitors. Somewhat akin to present-day migrant watches by July 1832 it was claimed 1,000 vagrants had been turned back from attempting to get into the County.
Cholera brought with it fear to communities. An incident at Skene Lane a fortnight before Aberdeen’s first case was identified demonstrates this.  Citizens on the lookout for carriers of the disease discovered a man collapsed on the roadway. He was seized, bound hand-and-foot and carried away to the infirmary at Woolmanhill where the hapless individual was diagnosed as drunk. The infirmary did not want him so the police were called and he was wheeled off in the Police Barrow: The mob cheered, the straps were firmly fixed, the cholera subject writhed and cursed, and the policeman went on with his barrow.

Not every incident connected with “mob” action had such a light-hearted (though not for the victim) tinge. Prejudice mixed with perfectly rational fears could excite communities sufficiently to result in threats of violence against those attempting to impose quarantine and other regulations. An incident at Wick found a Dr Alinson under attack and forced to seek refuge when fishermen threatened him at the quarantine hospital. He was rumoured to have been involved in scandals involving acquiring corpses for medical study and of killing patients in Edinburgh to supply the College of Surgeons with bodies for dissection. In Wick it was feared patients in the quarantine hospital faced the same outcome. Before dismissing this as irrational and blind prejudice it should be remembered that the 1832 Anatomy Act created the opportunity for surgeons to claim bodies of the poor for dissection. And who were the ones almost certain to die in quarantine? The poor. Not for them the prospect of a noble memorial stone cut in granite but the unceremonial disposal of their dismembered parts.

Before the Anatomy Act was passed, the poor or “lower classes” (as defined by the local paper) in Aberdeen hit out against the cavalier and at times illegal behaviour of the medical profession. In December 1831 the Anatomy Theatre in St Andrew’s Street was the scene of a riot when skulls, bones, and entrails were discovered on open ground. The building was attacked, wrecked and set alight while the anatomist was forced to run for his life. Nobody died. We cannot know whether the febrile atmosphere of a country threatened by the cholera epidemic helped provide an explosive edge to the “mob” but given that this was also the period of agitation for political reform and democratising of the parliamentary system the city’s streets where popular action occurred must surely have had a buzz about them we can only imagine.

Cholera visited Aberdeen very late in the day and never assumed the large epidemic proportions of elsewhere in the UK. Glasgow, for example, had thousands of deaths. Why Aberdeen had such a low number of cases is unclear. Within ten days of the first diagnosed case (27 August) at Cotton and Old Aberdeen there were a further nineteen cholera patients recorded on the register. The death rate among those affected was high – eight succumbed putting the death-rate at 40%. The spread of the disease was slow. By mid-September thirty-three cases were listed with fourteen recorded deaths. The gradual increase in numbers led Aberdeen’s physicians to conclude that while very dangerous cholera was not highly contagious, unlike scarlet fever. The editor of the Aberdeen Journal musing on the reason for so few cases in the town concluded that amongst other things it was probably the gracious interference of superior power-an interference which we shall ill-deserve, did we not gratefully endeavour to testify, as we best may, our humble acknowledgements.

With the spread of disease it became apparent it was the poor who suffered most. The first case occurred at a centre for textile production, at Cotton, and where textile and other workers lived. In late September cases emerged in the city, again among the poor, in the east end, where people lived cheek by jowl in crowded and at times insanitary conditions. By the end of the following month a total of ninety-two had contracted cholera with thirty-three cases fatal. In one particular week twenty-three fresh cases were diagnosed, mostly in the area of Park Street and Justice Street.

Through November reported cases fell away before more incidents emerged in Windy Wynd and the Vennel; areas that housed the poor. A description of the Vennel comes from the poet William Scott:

Vagrant Lodgers-

                                                 Wi tinklers, knaves, pig wives, and cadgers,

                                                The coarsest kind o’ Chelsea sodgers,

                                                          Like beggars dress’d,

                                                In holes and dens, like toads an badgers,

                                                          Here make their nest.

High occupancy where cleanliness was difficult to ensure increased the danger of contracting disease. The most shocking outbreak occurred in the fishing community at Fittie (Footdee)  where in November “with some virulence” fifty-six cases of cholera appeared out of a local population of about 480. It was calculated that the occupancy of each house was four persons per room. The Board of Health was particularly scathing at the state of drainage at Fittie. Aberdeen Town Council was the landlord.

By the end of the epidemic Aberdeen had 260 diagnosed cases. Mortality was high, 105 persons died which, however, was small compared with Glasgow where over 3,000 died between February and November 1832. In our current Covid-19 pandemic habits have changed. The emphasis on hand washing has been particularly important, even men, it is claimed, have taken to washing after going for a pee. Back in 1832 the Board of Health patronisingly commented that even the lower classes [resorted to] unwonted cleanliness in response to its injunctions. In 1833 the city’s charitable Dispensary reported on the impact of cholera highlighting a subsequent slackening in demand for their assistance from the poor. This they put down to three factors: cleaner housing; more fever wards at the infirmary; and “full employment” of the labouring classes, enabling them to have a marginally better standard of living, better diet, clothing and furnishing.

However, this apparent improvement in personal cleanliness among the poor was unsurprisingly not matched by significant improvements in the housing available to them. When doctors Kilgour and Galen reported on the sanitary state of Aberdeen, they described ill-ventilated properties with gutters running with all sorts of filth. People without privies (dry earth or bucket non-flush lavatories) and sewers had no option but to dump human waste. Dunghills built-up at doorways. The Gallowgate, with about 170 houses, had ten privies used by about 500-600 persons. Bad as this was at nearby North Street there was not a single privy. As for the availability of fresh water it was estimated that just under 6,000 persons lived in homes with their own water supply in a population of around 58,000 in Aberdeen at the time. All others relied on public wells distributed across the city. Attempts at cleanliness by poor tenants was further frustrated by the very high occupancy rates in accommodation. A Dr Keith reported crowding was fearful. His colleague Dr Dyce’s opinion was that with the first case of fever in a poor family came the likelihood it seldom ceases until all its members have been attacked.

As much as some local ministers considered epidemics to be a kind of divine retribution Boards of Health concentrated on the disease being a sign of an active and toxic agent which might be stopped or mitigated against by social measures such as quarantine, whitewashing walls and improvements in hygiene. The role of Christian God in sending cholera their way to chastise sinners might have occupied their private thoughts but their main preoccupation was with providing some form of active intervention.

Cholera, like Covid-19, is a product of Nature. Both are organisms capable of living in and harming the human frame. To this extent at least epidemics are “natural disasters.” But just as these harmful organisms can evolve so, too, can the human-social context within which they might find a home.

Both in 1832 and 2020 the economically vulnerable in society have suffered high infection rates. In both pandemics greater precautions could have been set in place prior to the outbreaks; there were no providential reasons why conditions could not have been other than they were. The NHS should have been better prepared for a pandemic as epidemiologists have been predicting one for decades.

Despite what Bob Dylan might say about the loss of lives on the Titanic there is understanding of pandemics, whether the one in 1832 or 2020. Grounded in the appearance of a harmful organism does not mean they are Acts of Nature. The way in which these organisms hit populations is dependent upon the state of scientific knowledge and divisions of wealth and power across society. The poor of Aberdeen occupied insanitary housing because of such divisions not because a God so decided. Equally the way in which the NHS found itself ill-prepared for pandemic despite decades of warnings speaks of economic and ideological priorities rather than an act of nature. Dylan’s song Tempest is wrong. We can understand and we can change things.

2 Comments to “Pandemic: Cholera 1832. Part 2”

  1. Just as I was perplexed by TC’s comment on part one I am baffled by his remarks here. The article is an historical piece with a hint that the past might well find an echo in the present. And yes “second hand news” but isn’t all historical description more or less that? What exactly TC means “bears no relation to reality” is a puzzle. Equally puzzling is his “any sensible person”. And by the way the article had no intention, nor does it, of encouraging a laugh at the expense of victims or perpetrators of the horrors of pandemics..

  2. FAB second hand news described by a third person grabs your interest and encourages a laugh or two but it bears no relation to reality which any sensible person would clearly determine.

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