Warning: this article contains themes of death, disease, and suffering.
Cholera reached Britain in 1848 and over the course of almost two years claimed over 52,000 lives. It was the third of six major outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century and, as with previous cases in 1817 and 1829, originated in India and spread around the world quickly. Inadequate sanitation was a major contributing factor, a problem endemic in most British towns of the era. In ports such as Plymouth, the situation was worsened by the regular arrival of passengers by boat unwittingly spreading the bacterium, in large part due to poor hygienic practices and an inadequate understanding of the spread of diseases. That is not to say Victorian Britons were oblivious to the causes of cholera, they were certainly on the right track. It was a commonly held belief that bad smells harboured diseases (the ‘miasma’ theory) and discerning upper-class types were known to keep bowls of lavender petals and other floral matter into which they would dip their fingers in the misguided belief that this would cleanse them. Bacteria, the actual cause of cholera, was not discovered until 1854.
Tackling the cholera pandemic in Britain was largely a matter for doctors, local health and sanitation inspectors, and civic authorities tasked with clearing slums, widening streets, and providing more efficient drinking water, sewerage, and drainage systems. However, as with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the police played an important part in protecting public health. In 1848, the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act was passed which gave local authorities the powers to deal with ‘nuisances’, those being:
- Filthy dwellings and other buildings.
- Foul/offensive ditches, gutters, privies, cesspools, and ashpits.
- Accumulation of rubbish, dung, and offal.
- The keeping of livestock in unsanitary conditions.
One only has to look at the court cases of the era to see enforcement in action. The Plymouth and Devonport Advertiser reported on 2nd August 1849 police attendance at a house on Plymouth’s Higher Lane to inspect a complaint about pigs kept in conditions so filthy to be injurious to health. The owner of the property, which was contiguous to other houses full of the sick and dying, was reported to court and the animals forcibly removed by the constables. It was around this time that ‘the cholera’ had spread to Devonport and Stonehouse, towns in their own right in this time. A note in the Plymouth Borough Police Watch Committee Minutes dated 22nd August 1849 states that a police inspector was posted to one of Plymouth’s cemeteries “for many weeks due to the cholera outbreak”. The duties of the police inspector are not commented on, however it is possible it was simply an attempt to keep the peace; during an earlier outbreak in Exeter, the authorities attempted to establish a dedicated burial ground for cholera victims which met with strong local opposition. Instead, they attempted to bury the dead in established cemeteries, which caused a riot.
It seems the police were often directed to ensure that those in positions of authority did not shy away from their responsibilities. A sad case was reported in the Plymouth and Devonport Advertiser on 1st November 1849 of a woman with an infant-in-arms interrupting the Plymouth Court session to plead for help feeding herself and her family. The woman, not named in the article, was the resident of a local workhouse overseen by a Mr Edwards. One of her children had already died from cholera and her husband was so ill from it that he could not work. Mr Edwards refused to pay the family any money until such time the woman’s husband recovered. At the request of the Mayor of Plymouth, a police constable was sent to the workhouse to “communicate his opinion”.
During a meeting of the Board of Health in Plymouth in late August 1849, which had representation from the police, a most peculiar situation was discussed. Mr Sims, a dentist who lived on South Street, had lost his wife to cholera but refused to allow the body to be taken away. Either through extreme grief or an unsound mind, Sims told the authorities he intended to dissect her head and threatened to shoot anybody who tried to put the body in a coffin!
In September 1849, a group of men were reported for carelessly disposing of items of bedding upon which cholera victims had died into the river at Keyham Bridge. Knowing the items to have been hazardous, the police ordered the men to burn them, but the men instead opted for an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach which landed them in trouble with the local Board of Health.
Those in society who were both health conscious and keen to see where their taxes were being spent sometimes performed their own experiments to test the efficiency of the local street cleaners. Stonehouse Lane and Quarry Court, generally considered ‘low’ areas, were quite neglected and cholera cases very high. In October 1849, one resident of Stonehouse Lane deliberately left a pile of horse manure outside his front door to see how quickly it was cleaned up. It was still there in December! In response to repeated reports of overflowing toilets, stagnant cesspits, and generally abhorrent conditions in the Stonehouse Lane area, the exasperated Plymouth magistrates thought it quite appropriate to send the Superintendent of Police to conduct an inspection! Similar problems were reported in the central west area of Devonport, in particular an area known as ‘The Cribs’ which was a dank network of lanes and tunnels with a dense population and not much sanitation.
Over 3,000 people died from cholera in Plymouth, Devonport, and Stonehouse. Other coastal towns like Bideford, which had thriving ports, also suffered as sailors and passengers came ashore already infected and spread it amongst the population. Over the border, the Cornish fishing village of Mevagissey suffered 125 deaths of a population of 1,800. The age-old miasma theory led many to believe that the smell of decaying fish was to blame, and other fishing villages and ports such as Looe and Falmouth experienced similar death tolls. There were no county police officers in Cornwall at the time (they didn’t arrive until 1857), and the enforcement of new sanitation laws was left to local authorities and unpaid parish constables. The cholera pandemic waned towards the end of 1849, however there were three more visitations of the deadly disease in the nineteenth century, in 1863, 1881, and 1899.