Wednesday, 3 May 2017

King Cholera ......... stories of Public Health

We are a house of sickness. 

It was something we ate and now while fifty per cent of the family are laid up, quietly sipping the medication between bouts of sleep and the rest of us put on a brave face hoping that that we have been spared the worst I began reflecting on those awful diseases that stalked our cities, towns and villages just over 170 years ago.

Of these Cholera was regarded by many as the worst and was often referred to as “Deadly” or “King Cholera” It is an infection caused by contaminated food and water. The main symptoms are diarrhoea and vomiting, and if untreated will continue until the patient becomes severely dehydrated. In the final stages a cholera victim will bring up what was called rice water and is almost clear liquid with fishy smell and resemble living skeletons.

Its impact was always going to be worst in the overcrowded and unsanitary parts of the city where large numbers were crowded together in back to back housing and narrow enclosed courts.

Span Court off Artillery Street is a fine example of a court and survived into the 1960s.

There are vivid descriptions of these places in the 1840s by writers like Frederick Engels, Leon Faucher and Dr Kay, as well as official reports.

The Report of the General Board of Health on the Epidemic Cholera of 1848 & 1849, drew attention to the fact that in the Market Street district of Manchester half the cases of Cholera were from the inhabitants of courts and cellar dwellings, which were in close proximity to open privies where the water supply was of a “poor quality” often served several cottages and was generally only “turned on for an hour day”

More revealing are the case notes of Dr Henry Gaulter who experienced the first outbreak of Cholera during the May to December of 1832. He kept a detailed record of the first three hundred patients he attended describing their physical condition, the onset of the disease and their living conditions but was forced to abandon the exercise as the numbers increased.

 Here are the fit, not so fit and in many cases undernourished residents of streets which were overcrowded and dirty, like Martha Chorlton aged 57 of 10 John Street Ancoats, who lived in a “locality, crowding, filth, &c. Street in a very populous and poor neighbourhood.”*

Or Thomas Cavanagh aged 5 and his mother Elizabeth who lived at 5 Wakefield-street Little Ireland which “fronted an open area but an impure stream whose channel does the function of a sewer, passes by the door to adjoining field where it collects and stagnates: house and inhabitants very filthy: three children and two adults on a straw bed.” 

And so it goes on but not all the streets were dirty and not all those who would contract the disease were poor. The rich had servants who may have had relatives in the more depressed parts of the city and might walk the disease in by the servant’s entrance.

Nor should we forget that the wealthy often lived in close proximity to run down areas. So that very posh set of late 18th century houses on St John Street off Deansgate was just  next door to Spam Court and surrounded by roads where there was overcrowding and Cholera.

Perhaps also we should be careful not to over state the impact of the disease on the city. There were just over 142,000 people in the city of which according to Gaulter 1,325 died.  But then there is the danger of falling into that callous numbers game which judges deaths in terms of statistics while for the individual just one death is a tragedy.

And the chances were that for those who contracted it death was a pretty strong out come. So for those who caught Cholera in Manchester over 50% would die while in Chorlton on Medlock the figure was 38% and in Salford 30%. These are not odds that I would fancy.

Nor I think should we feel that it was just the cities and towns that suffered. Rural areas were equally unsanitary and diseases like typhus and typhoid were according to the Poor Law Commissioners real threats in the countryside.

Which of course brings us to Chorlton, and in the next few weeks I shall be reporting on child mortality, sickness and public health in our own township but in the meantime I am happy to say that the worst is over here on Beech Road.

Picture; Span Court, south side of Artillery Street, J.Ryder, 1965 m00211, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, & New Wakefield Street, Little Ireland today from the collection of Andrew Simpson

 Sources, Gaulter Henry, The Origin and Progress of the Malignant Cholera, 1833, London, & Appendix A, To the Report of the General Board of Health on the Epidemic Cholera of 1848 & 1849, 1850, London

* Gaulter

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