Asiatic Cholera (also known as Cholera Morbus or Spasmodic Cholera) began in the Ganges Valley Delta, India in 1826. It spread into Persia and then by 1929, it was in southern Russia. It spread along sea routes across Europe and reached the UK in 1831. The British Ambassador in St Petersburg wrote to London in 1830, warning them of the raging disorder that was a sort of plague. Russian ships were put into quarantine as they entered British ports. However, the process was not strictly regulated. By 1831, the disease had reached Berlin, Hamburg and entered Britain via the port of Sunderland in October of 1831.
Cholera is a bacterial disease that is usually spread through contaminated water. Symptoms include severe diarrhoea and dehydration. Left untreated, cholera can be fatal within hours, even in previously healthy people. Modern sewage and water treatment have virtually eliminated cholera in industrialized countries. However, in Victorian times, things were very different.
Due to the industrial revolution, cities and towns in England saw mass migration from the countryside with looking for work in factories and work houses. Often, cities could not cope with the influx of people. There was a shortage of housing and people had no choice but to live in slum housing. Slums were overcrowded and had no sewage systems. Victorian cities were smelly and dirty places, smoke from the factories combined with human waste piled up in streets and basement cesspits made living conditions poor. Factory and human waste travelled down streets and into rivers where it was drank by citizens.
Cholera is spread through faeces or by eating food that is contaminated with the bacterium. Citizens were unknowingly eating and drinking contaminated foods and water. The cause of cholera remained unknown until in 1849, British doctor John Snow published an article in in which he stated that cholera was contracted though drinking water. However, doctors and scientists did not believe Snow and remained convinced that it was spread by breathing in vapours.
Cholera was also known as ‘King Cholera’ and claimed over 50,000 lives across the UK, 402 of them were in Sheffield, including John Blake, the then Master Cutler. Those infected in Sheffield were carried to the workhouse on Kelham Street, the upper floor of which was used as a ‘recovery house’. Initially the victims were buried in local churchyards, but with the rapid spread of the disease, the rising death rate, and public anxiety, a more appropriate place of burial was required. People who lived near churchyards complained about bodies being carried through the streets on carts. They also raised concerns about living near to the crowded churchyards.
In early August the 12th Duke of Norfolk, one of the town’s principal freeholders and a local public benefactor, provided a plot of unconsecrated land for the burials in an area known as The Park or Norfolk Park. Most of the victims had been buried hastily in unmarked graves on the land, which was initially known as the Cholera Burial Ground. Out of the 402 victims of the disease 339 were buried in the grounds. In 1834, construction began on a monument, in a position adjacent to the burial ground and visually prominent from the town and beyond, financed by public and private subscription. The monument was completed in 1835.
In 1848–49 there was a second outbreak of cholera, this was followed by a further outbreak in 1853–54. Following epidemics of influenza and typhoid in 1837 and 1838, the government was forced to carry out an enquiry into sanitation. The results of the investigated by Edwin Chadwick inspired the Public Health Act of 1848.
Sheffield responded to the epidemic by building a network of sewers as well as building the reservoirs at Redmires, between 1833 and 1854. The reservoirs were to provide clean drinking water via an open water course which led to the Hadfield Dam situated in Crookes.
In the 1870s, Sheffield got a sewer and drainage system. However, Sheffield’s industries were still dumping their waste into the River Don, which was heavily polluted and smelly. To combat this, the Blackburn Meadows sewage treatment works was opened in 1886.
Thanks for reading.
The Making of Sheffield by Melvyn Jones