About

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I have just started researching for a PhD in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, under the supervision of Professor Carl Chinn and with financial support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

There is still only a working title for my thesis, but the proposal is a case study of Birmingham and its administration between 1838-1852. This time frame falls within a period of immense change in British politics and society as the impact of industrialisation and urban growth became starkly visible. This was an age of sweeping political reform and immense social upheaval. Life appears to have been running at an ever increasing pace. Birmingham was one of a small number of towns at the forefront of this dynamic change, bursting at the seams with a population that was technologically innovative, culturally motivated and politically radical.

The period under consideration for this research was chosen as one which really represents the frontier between old and new styles of approach to local administration. This is an area which I hope to explore in more detail in my thesis. I am particularly interested in the interface between the ‘public’ and local authorities. I want to understand the extent to which public demand influenced reform at a local level and how local demands might have impacted on changes to national policy as well as consideration of how these new approaches to social management impacted on real lives. Another ambition for the thesis is to move away from the traditional ‘grand narrative’ approach of class conflict, so often applied to nineteenth-century Birmingham,  considering instead the rather more ordinary interactions of daily life. I have discovered that the minute books of both the Town Council and the Street Commissioners reveal an incredibly vivid insight into how Birmingham developed materially during the first half of the nineteenth century. Not through any poetic description or fanciful musings, but through planning applications, petitions of complaint and bye-laws. Such a vibrant and real image of the town emerged from these ‘mundane’ interactions that I thought it would be useful to share them. Hence this blog on an occasional history of the mundane.

Birmingham’s early Victorian history has too often been overshadowed by the towering presence of the later administration of Joseph Chamberlain. It has been written off as a time of civic stagnation. I want to contest this perspective by bringing to the fore the dynamic and often bold actions taken by Birmingham’s early civic leadership.

The majority of evidence sourced for this blog can be found archived at the Library of Birmingham, which offers a HUGE quantity of archival material for anyone interested in the history of Birmingham – and it’s not at all mundane!

The First Corporation Supper

On February 2nd, 1839, the Birmingham Journal ran an advertisement for a Town Hall dinner event to celebrate the institution of Birmingham’s first municipal corporation.

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Birmingham Journal, February 2nd 1839 © BritishNewspaperArchive

It was an expensive event, clearly not intended for the hoi polloi of the town. On the 21st February the Town Hall was decorated in fitting style. A further report in the Journal, published on the 23rd, revealed that,

Immediately above the mayor’s chair, in the way of a canopy, a large and very handsome crown, festooned with laurel and having a union jack waving over it. Over the vice-president’s chair, there was a splendid silk banner with the Birmingham Arms painted on it, and resting on the rail of the great gallery was the well-known symbol, the bundle of sticks surmounted by a cap of liberty, to indicate that freedom can only be upheld by union; and accompanied by a pair of scales, as emblematic of equal justice to all, the great purpose why liberty ought to be vindicated and maintained.

The symbolism of the decor was very telling, and perhaps slightly hypocritical given that the majority of ‘people’ had been debarred from the event by way of a prohibitive pricing policy. The mayor was clearly intended to be seated in a regal manner. It was William Scholefield who was granted this auspicious honour. His father was one of Birmingham’s first MPs and William would himself hold that seat a few years later. Scholefield, along with many of the other new town councillors, had also been an active member of the Birmingham Political Union, a Radical political group that had played a significant role in the establishment of  the Chartist Movement. The cap of liberty had been a hugely controversial symbol of Radicalism in the early part of the century when it was considered an expression of revolution and could get a man thrown in gaol just for displaying it. Now it held pride of place at Birmingham’s first corporation supper.

The silk banner bearing the Birmingham Arms was doubtless an expression of civic pride. Taken together, it is possible to come to a tentative conclusion that these men, Birmingham’s first municipal men, felt themselves to hold a vital position in ensuring that the town was properly represented. They were exciting times, the 1830s,  with the nation sitting in the cusp of modernity and at the very beginning of what would become recognised as the Victorian era. The railways were coming and life was running at an increasingly fast pace. Over subsequent months the municipal men would be faced with huge challenges and find themselves becoming very unpopular amongst the local community. But for now they made the most of their moment, celebrating the incorporation of the borough with good port, a fine dinner and a toast to what they earnestly believed to be a triumph of Radicalism.

‘ A revolting’ scene: The Pritchett Street Murder

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At 8:15 am on Sunday, March 5th 1876,  Police Constable Oram of the Third Division found himself in the kitchen of Isaac Elwell. He had been called to number 4 court, 5 house, Pritchett Street by a woman in some distress. Oram described the kitchen as ‘having the appearance of a slaughter house’. Isaac Elwell was lying on an old coat on the floor of the kitchen, still alive, but in a very dangerous state. The Daily Post reported that ‘the floor was covered for a space of several yards with blood, among which were a number of small pieces of flesh’. Elwell himself was in a pool of blood, his right arm described in the report as ‘frightfully mutilated’, providing a further and very graphic account of numerous cuts along Elwell’s arm, right to the shoulder. When PC Oram lifted the poor man’s body, he found a small clasp knife, which was presumed to have been the weapon used to inflict the injuries.

Elwell was barely clinging to life, crying out for water as the surgeon, Mr. Joyce (who had been called for at the same time as Oram) carried out an examination. The surgeon shook his head and advised the police officer that  Elwell’s case was ‘hopeless’. Nevertheless he was sent to the General Hospital, transported on a handcart with an old door for a stretcher on which to carry his rapidly failing body. At the hospital it was discovered that a main artery had been sliced and Elwell, ‘in spite of every attention’ died within half an hour of his arrival.

An inspection of Elwell’s house revealed a scene of great disarray. The furniture was ‘very much disarranged’ and spattered with blood, ‘as if a great struggle had taken place’, and spots of blood were also found on the pantry door. Oram began making enquiries among the neighbours, and by 11:30 am a 36 year old woman named  Mary Ann Boswell was under arrest on suspicion of the murder. Mary Ann was described as a nail stamper, and lived at the same address as Elwell. In fact, she was his common law wife of more than a decade, and the pair had three children together. According to witnesses it was not a happy relationship,  that ‘they were both of dissipated habits, and that he was addicted to drinking’. Elwell was married to another woman, with whom he also had children, but they had been separated for a number of years.

On Saturday afternoon Elwell and Boswell went out together, returning to the house on Pritchett Street around 4pm. After tea ‘as was his custom’ Elwell headed back out ‘evidently for the purpose of drinking’. At around 10pm on Saturday night Elwell and Boswell were seen quarrelling on Brearley Street and Elwell was reported to have assaulted Boswell and pulled her bonnet off. The witness stated that Elwell was clearly drunk. Neighbours heard arguing coming from the Pritchett Street house at 1am on Sunday morning, and a ‘noise resembling the smashing of crockery’. Shortly after this time a widow named Mrs Tain saw Mary Ann Boswell and her three children out on the street; Mary Ann was crying and said that Elwell had ‘turned them all out on the street’. The kind widow offered to take Mary Ann and the children in for the night.

At 8am on Sunday morning, Caroline Clements, a relative of Mary Ann, went to the house on Pritchett Street. She said that the door was locked and, upon knocking, was aware of the sound of low groans and ‘her suspicions excited that something was wrong’, she alerted the neighbours who helped her to break the door down, finding Elwell in the condition as described above.

Mary Ann Boswell’s statement:- Emphatically denying the charge, Mary Ann confirmed that she and Elwell had argued in Brearley Street and after he assaulted her she went ‘elsewhere’, only going back to the house to check on him at around half past midnight. She claimed that ‘he was drunk, kicking about and making a great disturbance’. It was then that she left with her children and went to stay with Mrs Tain. She said that when she last saw Elwell he did not appear to be injured.  However, she did ‘intimate’ that she had  two men, whom she did not name, had entered the house and assaulted the victim. It is not clear if Mary Ann actually saw this happen, and if so at what time she witnessed it. But Elwell had been subjected to a violent assault just a few weeks earlier, when he had been so badly injured that he had to attend the General Hospital for his wounds. This happened shortly after yet another violent altercation with Mary Ann.

What do you think? Was Elwell the victim of ‘persons unknown’, or did Mary Ann reach the end of her tether and resort to horrific violence? What about the story of Mrs Tain? It seems a bit different to Mary Ann’s – and how had the door come to be locked, if there had been intruders?

Hair loss: a caution against ‘violent exercise’

From an advert in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, February 4th 1839. *Other hair restorers were doubtless available* 

The Hair:- “In cases where total loss of hair takes place, it will be found to originate from various causes, but in particular from violent exercise, for thus the perspirable fluid is secreted in too great an abundance for the healthy condition of the Hair, which becomes gradually destroyed – a relaxation of the beautiful and delicate bulbous roots first occurs; then the acidity, which is natural to the perspirable fluid, injures the medullary or colouring particle of the Hair; a change of hue takes place, and after a short period baldness is invariably the result.” [From the 31st edition of a Treatise on the Hair by Alex. Rowland and given (gratuitously) with each bottle of Rowlands’ Macassar.
Agent:- M. Elmore, Perfumer, &c., 31 Bull Street, Birmingham.

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‘Mysterious Tragedy in Birmingham’

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The Illustrated Police News of October 29th, 1898 carried the dramatic illustration and story of a woman who had been gagged and murdered in her bed. The crime took place at number 60 Latimer Street. This road no longer exists, but was near Bath Street. It was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the inner ring road. The victim is named as Miss Mary Aliban, aged ‘about sixty two years of age’ and the report suggests that she had in the past been an ‘inmate of Winsor Green Asylum’ (clearly a misprint).

The picture is a bit startling, depicting how poor Mary might have suffered at the hands of her murderers. A smaller, inset picture shows her collecting rent, for she was in possession of some properties which, the report reveals, gave her a moderate income of about thirty-two shillings a week. She was in the habit of collecting her rent with the assistance of two boys, whom she employed to carry her money bags. Neighbours described a woman of ‘miserable disposition’ and many reported that the ‘chink of coins’ could be heard from her home as she counted up her savings.

The house in Latimer Street was a front house, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, occupied by Mary Aliban. The back of the house was occupied by someone else.  Mary was usually an early riser, but on Thursday her shutters remained down all day. A neighbour recalled seeing her shortly before 11pm on the Wednesday evening ‘fetching some beer’, and appeared ‘in her usual health’. The unusual occurrence attracted the attention of some of her neighbours, who found that the front door was open, prompting them to call for a police officer.

Police-officer Waters entered Mary Aliban’s house and went upstairs to her room, where he found her body, on the bed ‘a piece of calico tied tightly around her neck, a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, and both arms tied to the rails of the bedstead’. The evidence pointed to the act having been carried out by a labouring man, or men (as the illustration garishly suggests). ‘The arms were tied with cheap silk handkerchiefs, of the description usually worn by men of the labouring class when dressed up.’ The piece of calico, pulled so tightly around Mary’s neck and which was likely the cause of her death, had been torn from a garment pulled from a box near the end of the bed. Strangulation was assumed, undertaken with violent determination. Knuckle marks were seen on the victim’s face, and it was suggested that there had been two assailants, one who attempted to suffocate her with his hands while a second found the material with which to strangle and gag her. ‘It was abundantly clear that the murderer, or murderers, had carried out their work with the utmost ferocity.’

The motive had, doubtless, been Mary Aliban’s cash. One of the bags which she used for rent collection was found empty on the floor. The second, described by her neighbours, was missing altogether. There was no sign of forced entry and it was concluded that ‘whilst the victim left the house for the supper beer on Wednesday night the murderers had entered unobserved and secreted themselves in the cellar until their victim had gone to bed’.

Mary Aliban was probably in possession of considerable savings, most of which she carried about with her in an old carpet bag. One neighbour, Mrs Hewlett, claimed that Mary had once asked her to feel the weight of the bag, ‘I lifted it up’ said Mrs Hewlett, ‘and it was remarkably heavy for its size’. A search of the house found some cash overlooked by the murderer/s – police found a quantity of gold, silver and copper to the value of £108, hidden in a saucepan. Most of the neighbourhood were aware that Mary carried her savings around with her, and that she might have a considerable sum of cash in the bags she persistently carried around, or got others to carry for her.

For some time police were at a loss as to the identity of Mary’s murderer/s, but a breakthrough came through the witness statement of yet another neighbour who recalled seeing two youths leaving Mary’s house at 8am on Thursday morning. She thought they were about nineteen or twenty years of age and  of the ‘peaky blinder class’. On Friday afternoon police received information from the landlady of a lodging house in West Bromwich regarding the ‘extraordinary behaviour’ of a tenant named Frank Jones, who had bought copies of each evening newspaper as they were published, taking them to his room to read. It was soon found that Jones, who was unemployed, had previously lived in Latimer Street, and would have known of Mary’s supposed fortune. On being searched he was found to have a sovereign, which he claimed to have found when he was walking back to his lodgings in West Bromwich, admitting that he had been in Latimer Street until one o’clock on Thursday morning. ‘There is no trace of the second man supposed to be involved in the affair, nor is it known how much money has been stolen from the house.’

What do you think? Do you reckon it was Frank Jones who murdered Mary? And did he act alone? If so, what might have happened to the money? 

Dr Church’s Steam Carriage

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Experiments with steam transport dates back possibly to as early as the 17th century, but it was with the expansion of road links in the later 18th century that interest in developing efficient forms of transport really took off.  I came across the following extract when browsing through Langford’s for information on something totally unrelated, but it is very easy to go off on a tangent when looking through his fascinating, somewhat quirky, account of Birmingham’s history.

Being a town built on manufacture and trade, roads and transport were incredibly important to Birmingham. One of the key reasons for the founding of the town’s first improvement body, the Street Commissioners, was to ensure that roads and byways were kept in order and it was this body that would later oversee the arrival of the railways.  So it is perhaps of little surprise that the minds of Birmingham’s innovative businessmen were absorbed in attempts to perfect modes of transport. If you travel along Broad Street today you will see a gold-coloured statue of three men, all members of the Lunar Society,  contemplating a document. One of those men depicted is William Murdoch, an early pioneer of steam transportation, although the other two men in the statue, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, did try to talk him out of it. Nevertheless, interest in the use of steam in road transportation continued to capture the imagination and in 1835 the London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Company was formed, following the successful patenting of a steam carriage by Dr William Church of Birmingham. The account in Langford’s seems to describe an early outing of his patent – very likely the one in the picture at the top of the page. It must have caused some excitement in the town and I wonder what the Brums thought of it as it trundled along.

Langford’s A Century of Birmingham Life, 1741-1841 was published in two volumes in 1868, and there should be a copy available in the Local History section of the Library of Birmingham. This is taken from volume II.

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Birmingham Illuminations: 1814

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When I was a child my family used to take an occasional coach trip to Blackpool around October time, to see the lights. We would spend the day at the seaside, maybe one or two rides in the amusement park, a blustery walk along the pier and fish and chips on the front. As a child I rarely got to see the lights. The coach would make its way along the promenade slowly on the way home, so we could take in the spectacle, but I was invariably asleep before we had ventured much further than the car park exit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of excitement about seeing the lights and as a family from Brum on a limited income, we certainly travelled far enough to see them.

In Georgian times, before electricity, there was a similar urban fascination with light displays. London famously had a very large display in April, 1789, to celebrate King George’s recovery from ‘madness’. These early illuminations were created with the use of gas lamps and transparencies. A transparency was usually a piece of paper, often coloured and not actually transparent as we understand it, but sheer enough for light to shine through. I found the following report of an illumination in Birmingham in Aris’s Gazette of June 13th, 1814.  Illuminations were a celebration, so it seems likely that this particular display would have been connected to the recent abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte  in April of that year and the imminent visit to England of the Allied Sovereigns of Europe. Some of the descriptions of the illuminations more than hint at it. Whatever the occasion actually was, it must have been a very lovely sight in the pre-gaslamp streets of Brum. And no coach journey required!

Birmingham Illuminations
“The following description, we fear, will be necessarily imperfect; some of equal interest with those described may possibly have escaped our observation:-

High Street
Mr. Powell, Swan Hotel – A very novel and brilliant display of variegated lamps. In the centre was a transparent likeness of our venerable monarch, with circles of lamps diverging to a considerable height, over which was a square frontispiece, consisting of four pillars and a capital, the pillars wreathed with lamps and by a mechanical contrivance kept in constant motion. At the base the word ‘Peace’ in large characters; the tout-ensemble had a most splendid and striking effect.

Mr. Richards, Silversmith – A large transparency representing, in the upper part, Peace, Justice and Prudence; below them Britannia crowning the bust of Pitt and trampling on the badges of despotism. On the left a cherub guarding the crown and blowing the trumpet of fame over the British Navy. Beneath the emblems of commerce, agriculture and industry.

Messrs. Beilby & Co. – Britannia, her spear and shield upon the ground, in the act of kneeling upon the latter, gratefully receiving the blessings of Peace; a lion at her side couchant and cornucopia. Motto:- ‘The blessings of Peace restored”.

Mr. King – Two transparencies, illustrative of Isaiah

The Castle Inn – Portraits of ‘The Saviours of Europe’, Wellington, Hill, Graham, Platoff and Blucher.

St. George’s Tavern – Several transparencies, with inscriptions, and a brilliant display of variegated lamps.

Nelson Hotel – Several transparencies, with a display of variegated lamps.

O. and H. Smith – A transparency with the word ‘Peace’ very tastefully formed by a combination of agricultural implements, musical instruments, cornucopia, &c.

The report also stated that Nelson’s Statue had been illuminated with ‘at least 500 lamps’ – this is the same statue that can be seen in the Bullring today, just down near Starbucks and Selfridges.

Among the many other displays reported is a rather grand sounding one at Mr. Chandler’s on Dale End, ‘A transparency representing Time bringing Louis XVIII to the throne, in the presence of the Allied Sovereigns, the Duke of Wellington and two prelates; Peace extinguishing the Torch of War; with the genius of Pitt hovering above, bearing a scroll which was inscribed ‘My Country saved’ and ‘England has done her duty’. While over on Bull Street Mr. Henry Evans had on display ‘a gigantic figure of Peace, ten feet high, with her hands extended over the Earth on which she had just alighted. Her benign aspect dissipating the clouds of war and desolation’. A rather less poetic and more pragmatic display could be seen at the bank of Messrs. Coates, Woolley & Co. on Cherry Street – a simple illustration in variegated lamps read ‘Trade Revived’. Well, this was Birmingham after all!

You can read hundreds and hundreds of newspapers online by subscription to The British Newspaper Archive, including Aris’s Gazette. Or you can head to the Library of Birmingham, floor 4 and have a look at them for free on microfilm. Birmingham’s amazing archives are under persistent threat from local government cuts. Please support our local resources in any way you can. Once they’re gone, we can’t get them back. Cheers. 

Happy Birthday Birmingham History Galleries

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It’s four years since the wonderful exhibition ‘Birmingham, its people, its history’ was opened at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BM&AG) and it’s still there and free (though donations are always welcome!) for anyone to go and visit. Charting the history of the city from earliest times to the current day, the gallery contains a wealth of objects, images, information and interactive devices which really bring the history of Birmingham to life.  Taking up half of the top floor, where the oldies among us might remember seeing the ‘dinosaur’, the gallery is fresh and vibrant and an asset to anyone researching local history.

In the gallery you will find a scale model village of Birmingham in medieval times. Look behind you and you’ll see a map showing how the city’s population has grown and how the boundaries have expanded. There is a recreation of Freeth’s coffee shop where you can hear some of the ballads that he penned.  The dynamic role played by locals in the protest against slavery is well covered, along with other political activism which defined Birmingham in the early nineteenth century.

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Beyond the nineteenth century the gallery includes a hugely informative and poignant section on war-time Brum and you can have a sit down and listen to real stories, related by real locals, remembering the good times and the bad. Through the twentieth century you should find things that stir your own memories. And there’s a great interactive table that has images of Birmingham provided by BrumPics.

Currently (2016) some of the items are not on display, including the iconic HP sign. This is because of the building works going on outside the building, which have been causing vibrations, putting  some displays at risk. But the Birmingham History Galleries are definitely worth a visit.

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Dr Dunn’s Wonderful Cures

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The following is a notice taken from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette of October 5, 1801, when Birmingham was a rapidly growing Georgian town. It is interesting to note that Dr. Dunn claims his botanical approach to be successful where ‘other remedies have been tried in vain’. The mention of ‘gravel’ refers to kidney stones, ‘King’s Evil’ was scrofula, a glandular disease and ‘secret disorder’ most likely refers to venereal disease.  It is a shame there is not more detail on what vegetation he prescribes – at least not without providing a sample of wee!

Dr. Dunn, by having many years experience in prescribing REMEDIES for some thousands of people afflicted with the most obstinate and painful DISORDERS, can, with great satisfaction to himself, assure the Public that he has performed many WONDERFUL CURES  by Herbs and Vegetable substances only, after all other remedies have been tried in vain; and as his former success has by no means deserted him, those whom he undertakes to cure may be assured of receiving immediate benefit, which will terminate in perfect cure.
He cures all Disorders in the eyes and deafness of many years standing; also pains and giddiness of the head; convulsions, and all other kinds of fits and nervous complaints; likewise windy and all other disorders in the stomach and the bowels; and is astonishingly successful in curing asthma, coughs and consumptions; also the dropsy, leprosy, scurvy, rheumatism and gravel; white swellings, cancers, King’s Evil, wens and fistulas without cutting; likewise piles and ruptures, scald heads and ulcers. He cures debility, or impotency, and all disorders of the genital system; and cures a secret disorder in all its stages without restraint of diet or hindrance of business &c. and as he highly esteems public approbation above the sordid motives of pecuniary emoluments, it is not to be expected that he will undertake to cure any person whom he judges incurable.
Persons applying personally, or sending a statement of the case with their morning urine, may have his advice every day in the week, from nine in the morning until nine at night, at John Fordes’s, Seedsman, No. 26, High Street, opposite New Street, Birmingham.

‘Cholera’: an early 19th century interpretation

In the last quarter of 1831 news of a fatal cholera outbreak in Sunderland, believed to have originated from a ship which had been allowed to dock without quarantine in the city’s port. It sent alarm bells ringing across the country.  The government issued emergency regulations for civic administrations to control the outbreak, but nevertheless it spread mercilessly across Britain, claiming at least 30,000 lives by the following summer. In 1831 there was still limited knowledge of how disease was spread or how best it should be treated. Below is a letter to the editor of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, taken from the edition of November 21st, 1831 and presenting what appears an authoritative presentation of the causes by T. Langston Parker, a surgeon at the General Hospital.  The claims really reflect ideas of the time, that disease could be spread by touch or by ‘miasma’, by which was meant bad smells or atmosphere. Parker refers to it here as an ‘effluvia’. 

Cholera
To the Editor of Aris’s Gazette

Sir,
Allow me, through the medium of the Gazette, to offer some remarks upon the problematic nature of the Epidemic Cholera. It is evident that a specific virus or poison is the sole cause of all pestilential diseases, in which class the cholera of Asia holds a conspicuous rank. The origin of this virus is due in the first instance, without doubt, to a combination of atmospheric causes which we cannot appreciate, such as electricity, heat, moisture, sol-lunar influence, marsh-miasm or malaria. This appears incontrovertible, since we find cholera originating in those countries where pestilential diseases appear most frequent and fatal, and where, at the same time, such diseases are both epidemic and contagious. However this virus or poison may have originated, it is manifest, from the evidence of facts, that the same combination of causes which produced it are not necessary to its propagation. It may be propagated by contagion; an individual, or a number of individuals, having become diseased from exposure to the first combination of causes, throw off from the body a contagious virus which is capable of producing a disease of a similar character in a healthy individual. Admitting this as one mode of propagating diseases whose character is contagious we must not forget that a similar combination of atmospheric influences may produce the complaint without exposure to contagion; and here one fact may be established that in the present state of our knowledge admits of no dispute, viz.- that all contagious diseases may become epidemic, and that they are most commonly at the same time both epidemic and contagious. This theory of cholera is the only one that can explain and reconcile the conflicting and contradictory statements with which we are on all sides overwhelmed and perplexed. When any doubt exists as to the contagious nature of a pestilential disease, the profession and the public should always decide in favour of contagion, since “no harm can come of taking up the contagious theory”. When cholera is propagated by contagion, or from exposure to human effluvia, the contagious atmosphere is limited to a certain extent around the diseased person, the poisonous effluvia becoming innocuous as it is mingled with and diffused by atmospheric air. Mr. Hermann of Moscow found the air immediately surrounding persons suffering from cholera to contain a peculiar principle, similar to that separated by Moscati from infected air. This contagious effluvia may attach itself to certain articles of clothing or merchandize, of which silks, furs, and woollen goods are the best retainers. A neglect or ignorance of this fact appears to have added in a marked manner to the spread of the cholera at Moscow. All persons do not become diseased on exposure to the matter of contagion. An individual pre-disposition appears to be required, which renders the body susceptible of being diseased by contagion. Poverty and its attendant evils, nervous irritability, characterized by fear or anxiety, bowel complaints, cold, errors in diet, and in intemperance, form the chief causes which pre-dispose to cholera, whether epidemic or contagious. Three persons out of every hundred were the subject of pre-disposition in Moscow.
The atmospheric, or animal effluvia, or virus, producing cholera acts directly upon the nervous system; whether this system may be primarily affected, or whether it become so secondarily from change produced in the nature of the blood, is a point which at present is undetermined, and indeed it is of little consequence since the natural connexion of the nervous system and the blood is so intimate that one cannot possibly be affected without disease or disorder being produced in the other.
It is most probably that the primary impression of the person which produces cholera is made through the organs of respiration on the blood, and secondarily in the nervous system, the blood itself being unduly carbonized and unfitted for the natural stimulus required by the nervous and muscular organs. Hence the diminished irritability of the heart and arteries, the cramp and spasm of the muscular organs, the oppression about the chest, and the torpor of the brain and senses.
The discharges and alteration of the secretions of the bowels and stomach in cholera, are either secondary effects of this general nervous depression, or arise from the direct application of the contagious principle to the internal surface of these organs, most probably from the former. On the nature of disordered secretion, such as that noticed in cholera, I have a remark of some importance to offer, which probably in some measure both the preventative and curative remedies adopted with regard to this disease. The healthy secretions of the body present, on analysis in a state of health, a slight excess of acid or alkali – but under a depraved or disordered nervous influence, or from irritation, the nature of these secretions becomes changed, the acid being rendered alkali and the alkaline acid. It appears from the most minute chemical analysis that the fluids formed in the stomach and bowels are, in a state of health, sensibly alkaline, and that these secretions become acid when the nervous influence which presides over the secretions becomes deranged.  In cholera the fluids voided contain a great proportion  of acetic and butyric acid which was detected by the analysis of M. Hermann, of Moscow. The blood of cholera patients always contains more or less acetic acid in which, in a state of health, a solution of alkaline salts only can be found. These facts, which do not appear to be generally known, are of the greatest importance, both in the prophylactic and curative treatment of this alarming disease. The discovery of acetic acid in the blood of a person afflicted with cholera is due to Dr. Walker of St. Petersburgh.
Since there seems to be so great a disposition to the formation of acids in the fluids of the body in cholera, every kind of ailment should be avoided which tends in the production of acidity in the stomach and bowels. Such are vegetables, particularly green ones, fruits, malt liquors, above all, poor beer, bottled ale and porter. British or French wines with ardent or neat spirit. The acid which commonly assists in malt liquors should be neutralized previous to drinking by carbonate of soda. All indigestible substances which do not immediately form acid, should be carefully avoided, as the irritation which they cause in the stomach may produce a change in its secretions. Mild cholera having prevailed epidemically during the last three months, errors in regimen solely are not unlikely to change the mild into a malignant or fatal disease.
I remain, Mr. Editor,
Your most obedient servant,
T. Langston Parker
34, St. Paul’s Square,
Nov. 16, 1831

Preparations for an epidemic

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Cholera swept across the globe from 1829, perhaps beginning in China and causing tens upon thousands of deaths on its route. It reached Britain in October of 1831, generally believed to have arrived on a ship which docked in Sunderland. One of the first tragic victims there was 12 year old Isabella Hazard who lived near the docks. After attending church twice on Sunday she fell ill and died the following day. The government responded quickly, introducing legislation mandating that all civic authorities must institute a board of health and take immediate preventative action. There was still little understanding of the transmission of disease at that time, general theory was focussed on ideas of ‘miasma’, the spread of disease through bad atmosphere. The cholera epidemic was a global disaster and in Britain more than thirty thousand died. This was not as lethal as other fatal diseases of the day, particularly TB, but nevertheless it was a dreadful event that caused untold misery and suffering.

Birmingham was a notable exception. There was one death attributed to cholera, in July 1832, but otherwise the town remained completely free of the terrible impact of the disease.  Professor Ian Cawood of Newman College University and the late, brilliant Dr. Chris Upton, suggested that the attitude of the  Board of Health established in Birmingham in 1831 was a significant factor in that prevention, as it insisted on a programme of cleansing the town and creating a healthy environment. This was perhaps in line with the prevalent thinking on ‘miasma’. The minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners includes an entry for a special meeting held on November 7th, 1831. This really shows that the town administration was fully committed to working cooperatively in deflecting cholera and the success of the programme is remarkable.

The following minutes are taken from the records of Birmingham’s Street Commissioners, held by Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography at the Library of Birmingham,  this volume reference MS 2818/1/1/6 Please support our local archives and heritage which are under constant threat of funding cuts from the local authority. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for ever.

On November 5th, 1831,  special meeting was held at Birmingham’s Public Office ‘for the purpose of considering what steps it may be proper to take in reference to the statement which appeared in the London papers of today, announcing the appearance of cholera in London.’ Birmingham was far from the ports, but with the ever improving transport system, the coming of the railways and the masses of bodies travelling to the town for work,  the disaster that had recently struck Russia and other parts of the continent, must have appeared imminent. Action was urgent. It was decided to form a committee – this was in advance of a government mandate requiring the establishment of Boards of Health – which would include representatives from the General Hospital as well as administrative officials and ‘clergy of all denominations’.  High Bailiff Oliver Mason presided over the committee and coordinated with the Street Commissioners and Guardians of the Poor to ensure that all recommendations of the new committee were carried out. At a meeting of the Street Commissioners held two days later, the extent of the programme was presented.

  • The Commissioners were instructed to clean all the town sewers and ensure that streets were swept and cleansed thoroughly; in response to the instruction they  ordered the Paving Committee to open and clean all the sewers and drains in the town and to employ as many extra hands as would be necessary to ensure that the roads were kept clean; special attention was called to the cleansing of courts and small passages and ‘the neighbourhoods of the houses in the lower classes’. John Dester, the town’s chief sweeper, received instruction to ensure that all of the town’s occupants swept their portion of the footpath every day
  • The Overseers of the Poor were responsible for ensuring that the homes of the poor under their responsibility were cleansed and whitewashed and ‘proprietors of small houses be respectfully and earnestly requested’ to take similar precautions in their own properties. All with ‘as little delay as possible’

These procedures, which included the whole community of the town, were really very advanced, particularly in the attention given to the sewers. It would have placed a strain on local services and inculcated the sort of expense that was usually baulked in those straitened times. But in the face of an impending crisis, the whole town came together, and it was this early ‘community spirit’ combined with level heads and rational organisation that helped to save Birmingham from the cholera.