Preparations for an epidemic

5b

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.

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