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Cholera in Wales

G Penrhyn Jones, National Library of Wales journal Vol X/3 Summer 1958.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article [Gareth Hicks 2002]


Asiatic cholera is a specific infectious disease of high mortality, characterized clinically by violent vomiting and purging leading rapidly to collapse, the choleraic stools having a typical appearance that is generally described as 'rice-water'-a term that well-illustrates their colour and consistency. The causative organism, the cholera vibrio, is a comma-shaped bacillus that was first described by Robert Koch in 1883. 1  The cholera infection is usually water-borne, flies also disseminating the disease by contaminating food and milk, and in India where the infection is endemic the movements of pilgrims in the spring and summer months contribute to the occurrence of periodic epidemic exacerbation. The disease attacks all ages, those debilitated by want of food and living in unhygienic surroundings are particularly prone to be infected. The social conditions that followed in the wake of the industrial expansion of nineteenth century Britain were fertile for the spread of epidemic disease, and cholera wrought a tremendous havoc in this country in its several visitations after its first appearance in 1831. Those epidemics, however, had the consequent virtue of on of nineteenth century Britain were fertile for the spread of epidemic disease, and cholera wrought a tremendous havoc in this country in its several visitations after its first appearance in 1831. Those epidemics, however, had the consequent virtue of stimulating the public conscience on matters of sanitary reform and the great improvement in the public health in the latter half of the nineteenth century can, in some measure, be attributed to the sobering and salutary lessons of that vicious disease. 2  In addition to promoting this corporate cleanliness, cholera was also a major force in a resurgence of godliness in the mid-century, and in Wales certainly the fear engendered by its mystery and mortality filled chapels and churches and gave added impetus to revivalism.

A less malign infection generally known as 'cholera nostras' or 'the English cholera' had been quite common in these islands long before the advent of Asiatic cholera or 'cholera morbus'. It was simply a summer diarrhoea generally resulting from contamination of food with the Salmonella group of micro-organisms. Although Lewis Morris described a 'cholera morbus' in Anglesey in July and August 1741 and another instance of it in July 1754, 3  those infections were almost certainly due to the so-called 'cholera nostras'. once true Asiatic cholera reached these shores there was no difficulty in recognising it as something quite new; it was, according to Creighton "a 'new disease' in a more real sense than anything in this country since the sweating sickness of 1485 ". 4  The four great cholera years in Wales were 1832, 1849, 1854, and 1866, and in the summer months of each of those years the disease caused several hundred deaths.

The first great epidemic wave had spread westward from India, reaching Moscow in 1830, St. Petersburg in June the following year, and appearing four months later in Sunderland where the first death occurred on october 20, 1831

By January 9, 1832, two hundred and fifteen deaths had occurred in Sunderland alone, and by the summer of that year the disease had taken toll of some eight hundred lives in nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne. 1  From North-East England the disease quickly spread to Southern Scotland causing three thousand one hundred and sixty-six deaths in Glasgow. In April the disease appeared in Hull and in Liverpool where one thousand five hundred and twenty-three deaths occurred. Leeds, Bristol, and Manchester were also soon afflicted as well as many other towns and sea-ports, the disease being especially rampant amid the shacks and hovels of the new industrial districts. 2

The spread to Europe of this hitherto purely Asiatic disease had raised considerable trepidation in Britain even before it arrived here, and some endeavours were made to anticipate its dangers. The Royal College of Physicians established a Board of Health in January 1831 to deal specifically with the cholera menace, and on August 12 the Board issued a long report to guide medical practitioners in the recognition of the first appearance of the disease, and in october a further description of the early symptoms was published. 3  In that month also, by an order in Council, a recommendation was made that every town and village, especially coastal ones, set up local boards of health with suitable medical representation on them and one of the doctors to act as correspondent with the Board in London. 4   Some places followed this advice with alacrity; Beaumaris, for example, established such a board, the town being divided into districts each with ten supervisors who were to report to the local board on the health and cleanliness of each district. 5 But it was not until the full impact of the 1832 epidemic was felt that the majority of such local boards were established in Wales.

Before the end of 1831 a Central Board of Health was established in Whitehall and although the Royal College of Physicians' Board existed alongside this Central Board for a short while it was soon superceded. 6  A further order in Council,.....................

.................... issued on February 29, 1832, required all established boards in England and Wales to remain in operation and to execute their duties concerning the disease, and every practitioner was required to make to his local board a daily report of all new cases of cholera and also of deaths and recoveries from the disease and 'any other disease anywise resembling the same'. A number of medical publications had appeared in the 1820's describing cholera epidemics in India by medical men in the service of the East India Company or in the navy or army, and the Central Board of Health arranged for consultations to be given by medical men with such experience of the disease. But in spite of these and other commendable preparations there was really little that could be done to delay the invasion of this devastating disease or contain its ravages. Nothing was known at that time of its mode of transmission; the ancient Greek doctrines were again invoked and for a time cholera was seriously considered to be the result of odours, emanations, and miasmas from the earth. 1  The infection was also, inevitably, considered to be the visitation of a Divine Providence on the vicious and an unfortunate catastrophe in the lives of the poor 2;  Daniel Jones referred to it as 'Llef yr Arglwydd ar Gymru . . .', and all that 'Y Gwyliedydd' could advise its readers in 1832 at the height of the epidemic was 'Ddarllenydd hawddgar, arfer gymmedrolder, ac ymddiried yn Nuw'. 3

The cholera reached Flint early in May 1832 and a local board of health was established there on the seventeenth of the month. 4 The disease quickly spread to Bagillt and then to Holywell where its onset coincided with the celebrations occasioned by the passing of the Reform Bill. 5  Before the end of July forty-nine deaths had occurred in Holywell and the disease had now spread widely in North Wales. In the previous September, after one of John Elias's more powerful sermons, a religious revival had started in North Wales, and the new epidemic of cholera now heaped the fire. Robert Ellis Ysgoldy said of the disease 'Bu ymweliad y pregethwr arswydus hwn yn foddion i brysuro yr adfywiad crefyddol rhagddo ...'   6  During the Holywell epidemic the chapels were full of worshippers as early as five in the morning. 7  The disease visited Abergele, Llanrwst and Llandrillo, 8 and a number also died in the villages of Llangernyw and Llanfairtalhaearn. 9 The cholera was particularly severe in Denbigh and Daniel Jones, Parc y Twll, wrote a graphic eye-witness account of the infection in the town---a description somewhat reminiscent of Boccaccio's narrative of the plague in Florence. The disease appeared in Denbigh on 9 June 1832, and in less than a month it had caused ....................

.................... thirty-four deaths, most of them in a few days at the end of the month. 1  After describing a number of deaths that had occurred with great rapidity, Daniel Jones wrote

'Ond yn yr heol hon, a elwir Street Henllan, ac oddiamgylch i'r ty lle yr oeddwn i y pryd hynny, ac yr ydwyf yn bresenol yn ysgrifenu y llinellau hyn, y gwnaeth yr haint echryslon hwn y galanastra mwyaf. Torrodd i lawr mewn ychydig ddyddiau tros bymtheg ar hugain o eneidiau i'r byd tragwyddol yn yr heol hon yn unig !!  Pump o gyrph meirw yn mynd o'r un ty; sef gwr a gwraig a phlentyn a dau eraill oedd yn lletya yno. Pedwar o dy arall yn agos, sef y wraig a thri o'r plant ... Mor wahanol oedd yr olwg ar y bobl yn y Ffair hon [Ffair Dinbych, Mehefin 27], ragor un ffair a welwyd o'r blaen yn yr oes hon ! Pobl y wlad yn cyrchu i'w cartrefi am y cyntaf, yn ffoi megis rhag byddin o elynion arfog ! yr ieuengtid gwamal wedi sobri, gwedd eu hwynebau wedi newid, yn ofni ergydion angau bob tarawiad amrant ! a phawb yn rhyfeddu a synnu, pa'm ni wedi ein harbed, a chynnifer wedi eu torri i lawr. !'   2

Apart from Sundays, when the places of worship were full from the early hours of the morning, few people were to be seen on the streets, apart from the doctors visiting house after house, and the hearse going to and fro. The dead were quickly buried, in their clothes, in deep trenches in the churchyard. On the first Sunday in July at six o'clock in the morning 'yr oedd y capel mawr a elwir Capel Canol ... yn lled lawn o bobl; a'r olwg mwyaf sobr arnynt a welwyd erioed o'r blaen', and the following Sunday there were over seven hundred present at the Methodist Sunday School. 3   Eight doctors were in attendance on the sick and dying, four of them being members of a medical board which had being constituted on July 4---they were John Williams, M.D., Richard Phillips Jones, M.D., Dr. Hughes and Robert Jones, an apothecary. 4 Associated with these medical men was a young student-practitioner, Evan Pierce, who set up in permanent practice in the town the following year. He had already seen the ravages of cholera in Musselburgh and Portobello when he was a medical student in Scotland, and it was following his exertions in that epidemic that he returned to Denbigh to recuperate only to be involved immediately in giving further medical...............

................... assistance. 1 The disease abated in the town towards the end of July and on the 27th prayers of thanksgiving were said in the church, and on August 2 William Rees ('Gwilym Hiraethog') in the Nonconformist chapel gave similar thanks 'a chymaint fu yr arddeliad 1 The disease abated in the town towards the end of July and on the 27th prayers of thanksgiving were said in the church, and on August 2 William Rees ('Gwilym Hiraethog') in the Nonconformist chapel gave similar thanks 'a chymaint fu yr arddeliad ar ei weddi fel y bu hi'n destun siarad am flynyddoedd lawer ar ol hynny'. 2

At about the same time as the cholera was rife in Denbigh a similar sharp outbreak occurred in St. Asaph, where the Bishop took an active part in constituting a local board of health, Lord Mostyn being also a member. 3  The disease now spread further west, and Dr. O. O. Roberts, who was later to become a well-known Radical pamphleteer, was largely instrumental in establishing a similar board in Caernarvon on July 18. 4   Dr. Roberts had already visited Dublin during the month to make personal observations on the cholera so as to be 'more fully acquainted with the nature and causes of the disease', and it was at a public meeting in Caernarvon where he 4   Dr. Roberts had already visited Dublin during the month to make personal observations on the cholera so as to be 'more fully acquainted with the nature and causes of the disease', and it was at a public meeting in Caernarvon where he described his Dublin experiences that it was resolved to set up the local board. 5  Cholera occurred in Caernarvon during August and the early part of September causing thirty deaths, the Carnarvon Herald stating on September 22 'The terror and dismay which reigned in this town during the prevalence of the disease can never be forgotten by the inhabitants'. Soon afterwards the disease appeared in Beaumaris. The local papers were curiously reticent about reporting the cases of cholera that were occurring in parts of North Wales at this time, but this may have been a studied oversight in view of the visit of the Princess Charlotte and her daughter, the future Queen Victoria, to Anglesey during August. 6   They attended the Royal Eisteddfod in Beaumaris on the 28th of the month, the North Wales Chronicle on the 14th stating 'Meantime we are happy to inform our distant readers that Beaumaris, Bangor and Carnarvon are rapidly filling with visitors from all quarters, allured thither not only by the anticipation of the approaching Eisteddfod and Regatta, but also by the knowledge of the fact that while an alarming pestilence has been raging in England, Scotland and Ireland the population of this part of the Principality has never been known to be more healthy than at the present moment'. A few days later the Reverend Robert Humphreys, a Wesleyan minister, who was on his way to Beaumaris from Llanidloes with his family was advised at Bangor not to proceed to his destination as the cholera had broken out there. He rejected the advice and died there of the .................

 .............. disease on the 31st of the month. 1  Newtown, Montgomeryshire, also suffered a severe epidemic, with seventeen deaths from the disease. These occurred mostly in November when William Slyman, then an apothecary in the town, 'extended himself to the utmost attending every case with the most fearless devotion ...' 2  The towns of the South Wales coalfield experienced the more severe outbreaks of the disease, however, both in 1832 and in the subsequent epidemic years.

Cholera appeared in Newport on June 24, 3  but the infection was relatively mild and caused only thirteen deaths. On July 26 a vessel, the Mary Ann, arrived in Swansea with two of her crew dying of the disease. The local board of health then made some efforts to eliminate nuisances 3  but the infection was relatively mild and caused only thirteen deaths. On July 26 a vessel, the Mary Ann, arrived in Swansea with two of her crew dying of the disease. The local board of health then made some efforts to eliminate nuisances and to encourage cleanliness and ventilation of houses, but by August 9 the disease had claimed twenty-two victims in the town, the figure rising to fifty-six a week later. Subscription lists were started in order to supply medicines to the poor and on August 24 public services of supplication were held in the churches. The disease had now spread to Llanelly, and by the end of the month to Briton Ferry, and at Neath and Carmarthen local boards of health were established in anticipation of its arrival. 4   The Cambrian on September 8 remarked 'The greatest number of cases presented themselves on Sunday and Monday last, and we fear it is with much truth that the cause is to be attributed to the excesses of the preceding evenings'. The disease continued in Swansea until the middle of September, and just as it was dying out there it flared up with some intensity in Merthyr Tydfil. 5  The epidemic commenced in Merthyr on the first of the month and extended rapidly; 6  a local board of health was constituted with J. J. Guest and Anthony Hill among its members, but the disease continued to spread until about the middle of October. The last of the disease was seen in Merthyr on November 19---for the time being. There had been over six hundred infected persons of whom about one hundred and sixty had died. 7   William Rowlands ('Gwilym Lleyn') was a Wesleyan minister in Merthyr at the time of this epidemic and he has described how the disease spread through the town and of the increasing demand for the services of ministers of religion. On 7   William Rowlands ('Gwilym Lleyn') was a Wesleyan minister in Merthyr at the time of this epidemic and he has described how the disease spread through the town and of the increasing demand for the services of ministers of religion. On September 21, 1832, he wrote 'Yr wythnosau diweddaf, bum yn cynal amryw gyfarfodydd gweddio Cymanfaol mewn undeb a gwahanol enwadau crefyddol yn y dref a'r ardaloedd. Yr oeddynt yn gyfarfodydd lluosog a da lawn yn wir ...' 8

The disease was also serious in Haverfordwest and Builth, 1  and a number of deaths also occurred at Margam and Aberavon. Margam established a board of health in August and Aberavon followed suit in October. 2   W. Llewelyn, a medical practitioner in Margam, published a pamphlet on a 'Mode of Treatment of Spasmodic Cholera' in September 1832, in which he described his treatment of about twenty cases of cholera in the Aberavon district at that time, using calomel, morphia and salines as his therapeutic agents. He stated that by using that method he lost only one patient.

Accurate statistics of the 1832 epidemic in Wales are not available since the Registrar-General's Department was not established until after that date, its first annual report being issued in the year 1839. Creighton 3  gave the following mortality figures for cholera in some Welsh towns during that epidemic:

                         Deaths                                               Deaths
Newport              13                              Denbigh           47
Abergavenny         2                              Caernarvon      30
Merthyr Tydfil   160                              Flint                18
Swansea            152                              Newtown         17
Haverfordwest    16

The disease had virtually burned itself out in Wales by the early months of 1833, although a recrudescence did occur in London and in a number of scattered localities in England. No further cholera epidemic of note occurred in Britain until the severe and widespread infection of 1848-9.   4

The cholera of 1831-2 taught the lesson of the great need for sanitary reform, and among the recommendations of the Poor Law Commission---itself one of the first fruits of the Reform Act of 1832---was for the establishment of a Royal Commission to enquire into the state of towns in the kingdom. The housing conditions in the expanding industrial towns of South and North-East Wales were, like those of the Midlands and Northern England, the legacy of unrestrained individualism. Those houses, such as they ire into the state of towns in the kingdom. The housing conditions in the expanding industrial towns of South and North-East Wales were, like those of the Midlands and Northern England, the legacy of unrestrained individualism. Those houses, such as they were, made by small jerry-builders and local carpenters, were run up for the maximum profit and with the miminum of responsibility. They were erected back to back on the cheapest available site, without ventilation or drainage. The intervals between the houses which passed for streets were unpaved and often followed the line of streams serving a conduit for excrement. 5   In the narrow Glamorgan valleys, furthermore, the geographical conditions gave rise to added problems of sanitation and drainage, the houses ...............

............... being built in terraces one behind the other and dominated by overhanging coal tips. Several families were often crowded into single dwellings, and innumerable lodgers, many of them Irish immigrants, added to the congestion. 1   Similar conditions of wretchedness were also present in the crowded slums of the old country towns such as Brecon, Carmarthen and Caernarvon. But it was the mushroom growth of Merthyr Tydfil in the early decades of the nineteenth century that typified par excellence the worst excesses of mid-Victorian industrial squalor. There the stage was set for epidemic infections of all kinds and in 1849 Merthyr, with a population of fifty thousand and the largest town in Wales at that time, suffered a cholera death roll of over one thousand four hundred---a mortality rate second only to that of Hull in the whole of the kingdom.

The Health of Towns Commission investigated the state of Merthyr in 1844   2, and Sir Henry de la Beche, reporting on the drainage and sanitation of the town, wrote 'In these respects the town is in a sad state of neglect; with the exception of some little care in the main streets and regulations about removing ashes before the doors in Dowlais, all else is in a miserable condition. From the poorer inhabitants, who constitute the mass of the population, throwing all slops and refuse into the nearest open gutter before their houses, from the impeded course of such channels and the scarcity of privies, some parts of the town are complete networks of filth, emitting noxious exhaltations. Fortunately the fall of the ground is commonly so good that heavy rains carry away some of this filth. There is no Local Act for drainage and cleansing, the Highway Act being that in force, and the chief lines of road appearing to be under the Commissioners of the Turnpikes. During the rapid increase of this town no attention seems to have been paid to its drainage and the streets and houses have been built at random, as it suited the views of those who speculated in them'. The chairman of the Board of Guardians in Merthyr, together with two surgeons and an attorney, testified to the accuracy of the Commissioner's Report, adding that the few public sewers were cleansed by rain-water only and that 'such a thing as a house drain was never heard of here'. The scarcity of privies was such that 'in some localities a privy was found common to 40 or 50 persons, and even to l00 persons and more'. Pumps and wells were the chief sources of water but these were intermittently fed by surface water undoubtedly heavily contaminated by house refuse. Most of the houses were merely two-roomed cottages, the upper being an ill-ventilated bedroom generally containing three beds. According to the Report they were often very small, eight feet by ten feet and eight feet by twelve feet being not uncommon. In the most wretched part of the town---the 'Cellars' near Pontystorehouse---there lived one thousand five hundred persons in a 'labyrinthe of miserable tenements and filth'. Three years later the Report on Education in Wales confirmed that 'in a sanatory point of view the state of Merthyr is disgraceful to those who are responsible for it . . .', adding 'this is the case nearly all over Wales; but in a dense population ................

......................... the consequences of such neglect are more loathsomely and degradingly apparent'. 1  This Report also mentioned the notorious 'China' district of Merthyr as a 'mere sink of thieves and prostitutes, such as unhappily constitutes an appendage to every large town and is not peculiar to Merthyr. Few, if any, of the workmen live in it ...' 2  It was that part of the town which suffered the worst ravages of the 1849 epidemic.

The sordid social conditions at Merthyr at last stimulated a further inquiry by the General Board of Health, 3  and on May 15 1849, T. W. Rammell, a Superintending Inspector, commenced his enquiries at a public meeting of the ratepayers of Merthyr and Dowlais in a church vestry in Merthyr, 'the only public room in the place'. He explained the object 3  and on May 15 1849, T. W. Rammell, a Superintending Inspector, commenced his enquiries at a public meeting of the ratepayers of Merthyr and Dowlais in a church vestry in Merthyr, 'the only public room in the place'. He explained the object of the proceedings---to inquire into the sanitary conditions of the district generally, and he pointed out that in Merthyr the death rate was higher than the average. 4    Frank James, clerk to the Board of Guardians, 5  then translated into Welsh the substance of Rammell's address, adding that the owners of cottages were deriving large incomes from their property, and as long as they could recieve such rents 'they cared not two pins what became of their tenants'. The Reverend Evan Jenkins, rector of Dowlais, then made what Rammell himself described as able speech, 6  in which he referred more particularly to the conditions in his own parish, then with sixteen thousand inhabitants. Jenkins stated that within five yards of a place abounding in impurities he had upon one occasion seen thirty able-bodied Irishmen playing cards in one house, and thirty-five occupied in the same manner in another house---all residing within the influence of heaps of human ordure and other filthy accumulations. The stench was intolerable. Sir John Guest had assured him that there was no legal remedy in existence for such a state of things, and the magistrates at Merthyr had confirmed that assurance; he was of the opinion that the inhabitants should therefore avail themselves of the new Public Health Act in order to compel the ere was no legal remedy in existence for such a state of things, and the magistrates at Merthyr had confirmed that assurance; he was of the opinion that the inhabitants should therefore avail themselves of the new Public Health Act in order to compel the owners of houses to give the poor those accomodations to which they were entitled. The rapidly growing audience received this speech with acclamation. Rammell now adjourned the meeting to a large room in the Bush Hotel but there again the space was inadequate and the proceedings had to be continued in front of the market.......................

................. place. Several hundred were now in the audience, a large proportion of them working men. Things became rather boisterous, many not being in favour of the application of the Act in view of the possibility of rents being raised in consequence. Rammell stated however 'I cannot omit to mention here that this [working] class, who appeared to be very violently prejudiced against the proceedings at the commencement of them, and who had been called together by misrepresentations purposely to quence. Rammell stated however 'I cannot omit to mention here that this [working] class, who appeared to be very violently prejudiced against the proceedings at the commencement of them, and who had been called together by misrepresentations purposely to oppose it, paid impartial attention to the arguments which were brought forward by the various speakers in the course of the day, and broke up at length with an evident disposition to treat the matter upon its merits'. 1  Thomas Stephens 2  was also at this meeting and spoke in favour of the introduction of new health measures; he was supported by Dr. T. J. Dyke, the district medical officer, and by J. L. White, a Dowlais surgeon.

Rammell's report did not appear until 1850 long after the inhabitants of Merthyr Tydfil had paid a heavy price for its neglected state, for it was only six days after the public meeting in Merthyr that Asiatic cholera again made its appearance in the town. A fortnight later, when commenting on the new visitation of the disease, the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian added 'and the localities in which it has made itself known demonstrate with considerable clearness the importance and wisdom of the late agitation for sanatory reform . . .'

The second great cholera epidemic in Britain had again spread from the East, reaching the German shores of the North Sea in 1848 and appearing in Edinburgh at the beginning of October. Reaching Glasgow in November, it made the festival season of that year one to be long remembered, causing nearly four thousand deaths in the city. It was not until the following summer, however, that the peak of the epidemic was reached in England and Wales, where fifty-three thousand two hundred and ninety-two deaths occurred.

The first case of cholera in Wales in that epidemic appeared in Cardiff on 13 May 1849, and in the subsequent months the disease made enormous ravages in the South Wales valleys. A considerable increase in mortality occurred in Cardiff towards the end of May and the outbreak reached its height there in the early days of June; on the 7th fourteen people died of the disease. In the vicinity of the Glamorganshire Canal twenty-four persons died as a result of the disease and Dr. John Sutherland cited this of May and the outbreak reached its height there in the early days of June; on the 7th fourteen people died of the disease. In the vicinity of the Glamorganshire Canal twenty-four persons died as a result of the disease and Dr. John Sutherland cited this as an example of putrescent mud producing cholera---'On the 26th of May the end of the canal nearest the sea was emptied in order to admit repairs of the lock. By this process a large surface of black putrescent mud was exposed to the direct action of a hot sun, and the result was, that very offensive effluvia were immediately perceptible'. The adjacent houses escaped the disease 'except those close to the side of the basin, and the reason for such a selection will be sufficiently obvious'.: 3   The registrar of the Cardiff sub-district, however, although accepting such a possibility, ascribed the infection '... still......................

.................... more to the very crowded state of the streets and houses of the poorer localities, to which the disease has thus far chiefly confined itself '. 1  One hundred and thirty-eight deaths had occurred in Cardiff by June 23, and there were many deserted houses in the town, more especially the Irish lodging houses. Sutherland made some recommendations to the Board of Guardians on general hygenic measures, and Rammell started a somewhat belated investigation of the sanitation of the town . 2  The disease continued unabated however, causing sixty-nine deaths in July, ninety-one in August, and fifty-five in September. When the infection finally disappeared about the middle of November it had claimed three hundred and ninety-six victims.

It was during May also that the disease appeared in Newport--- 'in one of the filthiest streets of the town', causing eventually a mortality of two hundred and forty-six. In Monmouth seventeen people died in the town workhouse. The extent of the infection in the crowded mining townships was well illustrated by the fact that in Tredegar there were one hundred and fifty-seven deaths, two hundred and ten in Aberystruth and only nine in Abergavenny itself. 3  From the Ebbw Vale Ironworks Dr. J. A. Bean wrote to the Royal College of Physicians that owing to '... the general ignorance of the inhabitants who would not follow out our directions and the immense deal of sickness, we were unable to pay much attention to the cases as we could have wished' . 4

Cholera appeared in Heol-y-Giller, Merthyr Tydfil, on May 21, when a child of four was infected. 5  The disease then quickly spread in both the upper and lower districts of Merthyr, six deaths occurring in the 'Cellars', Pontystorehouse, before the end of the month. The Board of Guardians introduced some measures for cleansing the town, and the General Board of Health, at the instigation of J. J. Guest, assigned Dr. Sutherland to the area. He proposed dividing Merthyr into nine districts each with a supervising medical officer. 6  The epidemic however continued its inexorable progress. Twenty-two people died on June 7 and again on June 9, a total of three hundred and forty-nine dying during that month, with Caedraw, 'China', and Penydarren taking the brunt of the disease. The dead were now being quickly buried with little fuss, public prayer meetings were constantly held; on July 18 the Reverend T. E. James wrote 'Yr wyf yma yn Merthyr heddyw, a golygfa ryfedd sydd ar bobpeth. Mae y Geri Marwol yn gwneyd difrod arswydus ar liaws mawr o'r trigolion, ac y mae ei ddinystriadau yn ddychrynllyd o ddisymmwth...' 7  On July 26 as many as thirty-six died of the disease, and on..................

................... July 31 Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary 'I am sorry to say the accounts of the cholera at Dowlais are fearfully bad. They are beyond anything I could have imagined, sometimes upwards of twenty people dying in one day, and eight men constantly employed in making coffins ... one of our Infant School-Mistresses is dead. One of the medical assistants sent down from London is dying, and the whole place seems in a most lamentable state'. Although cholera killed five hundred and thirty-nine persons in the Merthyr district in July the infection did not reach its height until August. By the second day of that month the daily death roll had reached thirty-six. There were, of course, no hospital facilities in Merthyr at this time, but irty-nine persons in the Merthyr district in July the infection did not reach its height until August. By the second day of that month the daily death roll had reached thirty-six. There were, of course, no hospital facilities in Merthyr at this time, but Guest at his own expense had made up a refuge for the healthy at the Plough Inn, and a similar refuge was established in Dowlais. Frank James gave notice that a night dispensary for cholera cases was available with free medicine for the sick. 1  The terror continued, and William Edmunds said that 'Nid oedd nemawr dy yn dianc heb brofi pwys y fflangell geryddol hon! ... Cludid rhai ar gerti, tua'r gladdfa, o ganol gruddfanau ac ocheneidiau torcalonus y gweddwon a'r amddifad ... Dyma'r amser y gwnawd mynwent ar Bant-coed-Ifor; o herwydd nad oedd caniatad, na lle i'w claddu yn un o fynwentydd y dref '. 2   And complaints were being made that those graves were too shallow. Scores of people were now locking up their houses and leaving the district. The heroic rector of Dowlais, Evan Jenkins, collapsed as a result of his great services to 2   And complaints were being made that those graves were too shallow. Scores of people were now locking up their houses and leaving the district. The heroic rector of Dowlais, Evan Jenkins, collapsed as a result of his great services to his parishioners, but later recovered. 3

The Merthyr epidemic began to abate towards the end of August, but did not finally disappear until November. Although the Registrar-General in his annual report for that year referred to Merthyr as 'Death is always busy here ... the indifference with which life is sacrificed and lost in the mining districts is inconceivable' the magnitude of this tragedy certainly emphasised the acute necessity for a responsible municipal authority, and the Local Board of Health remained in control of the district from 1850 until 1894, when its powers were transferred to the new Urban District Council. 4

It was on May 21 also that the epidemic started in Neath, increasing rapidly until July 17 when eighteen people died, a total of two hundred and ninety-six deaths occurring during the month. Taibach also had a serious epidemic, and in Aberavon a public prayer meeting attracted two thousand people to the market place. 5  Only seven deaths occurred in Brecon, all except one in the Union Workhouse, but a serious epidemic broke out in the Crickhowell district. Again, Swansea, Llanelly and Carmarthen suffered severely.

G. T. Clark, a Superintending Inspector of the General Board of Health, commenced an enquiry at Swansea on May 21 into the state of sanitation of the town similar to that undertaken by Rammell at Merthyr. He was given considerable assistance by G. Grant-Francis, who inspected the worst parts of the town with him. They found the water supply very inadequate, the sanitation dirty and inefficient, and they took particular exception to one filthy court known as 'Little Ireland' with Green Hill and High Street also highly unsatisfactory.   1  These were the districts that suffered the heaviest mortality in the cholera epidemic that appeared in the town some six weeks later. The disease broke out among the prisoners in the gaol on July 6, and W. H. Michael, in a long manuscript report to the Cholera Commission of the Royal College of Physicians, described how the death of one of the prisoners from the disease led to the premises being 'thoroughly washed out by a water-engine worked by the policemen of the Borough and Chloride of Lime plentifully sprinkled on the floors ...' 2 Three days later, David Jones, one of the policemen employed died an acute death from the disease. He lived in Bethesda Row, and soon several other cases occurred in that neighbourhood. Michael included in his report a rough map of Swansea, showing a red line running west to east from Town Hill through Pleasant Street across Orchard Street to the river, and he remarked '... it appears strange that the disease should have been so confined to this [north] part of the town and that the pipes of the Waterworks Company should extend to the exact limitation of the prevalency of the disease. South of the Red line ... there was in no street more than one case, and North of that line the inhabitants were but scantily supplied with water as the level of the resevoir does not permit water to be supplied to the higher parts of the Town'. The public water supply at Swansea at the time of the epidemic can therefore hardly be blamed since the spate of cholera occurred where the supply came directly from the river, from the easily contaminated pumps and from vendors' carts. 3  The disease continued to be active in Swansea until the end of October, causing altogether two hundred and sixty-two deaths. It was during September that the peak of the infection was reached in Llanelly, especially in the......................

.................. districts of Wern and Forge, and at the same time in Carmarthen, Priory Street, Alltycnap and Dame Street suffered severely. 1   Kidwelly also experienced a sharp epidemic, particularly around Water Street and Bailiff Street. This was the town indicted by Hugh Williams, the redoubtable defender of the Rebecca rioters, two years previously; he had accused 'the corrupt Corporation of Kidwelly' of several misdemeanours, among them---'For neglecting the improvement of the town and to promote its comfort and sanatory condition' . 2

The 1849 epidemic also caused scores of deaths in a number of North Wales towns. Holywell suffered a severe visitation during the second half of July, with a recrudescence of the disease in the autumn. Cholera appeared in Flint on August 20 and quickly spread to the surrounding villages of Northop and Halkyn. Two cholera deaths occurred in Wrexham Workhouse about the middle of August, but the town itself escaped very lightly. Welshpool, however, experienced a severe epidemic, and several fatalities occurred in the crowded slums of Powell's Row and Back-road, with the result that the public and private sanitary arrangements of the town were immediately overhauled. Several deaths also occurred in Newtown after the appearance of the cholera there on August 24; William Slyman, now a local medical practitioner had written to the Royal College of Physicians on August 6 enclosing '... a proof of a small pamphlet which I am preparing for the press. There is so much indifference manifested here and in most parts of Wales about the Cholera and the means for its prevention are so totally neglected that I considered a pamphlet ... might be a means of arousing the public from their apathy . . . I intend getting it translated into the Welsh language ...' It was translated by the Reverend David Davies, curate of Llanwnog.   3

When G. T. Clark visited Bangor early in June 1849 to enquire into the sanitary condition of the city, Dr. O. O. Roberts drew his attention to the generally defective drainage, adding also that when 'any epidemic breaks out Beaumaris and Carnarvon suffer excessively'. Beaumaris however escaped lightly in the 1849 infection, Bangor had a few deaths, but Caernarvon was severely stricken. The first case in Bangor occurred on July 9, and still more after a mis-diagnosis of a cholera death on board The British Queen off Bangor at the end of the month. 4  The infant ..................

........................ son of a surgeon was the first victim of cholera in Caernarvon on June 25, the disease eventually causing sixteen deaths in the town, mainly at Turkey-shore and High Street. A brisk epidemic also occurred in Holyhead, commencing at the end of July but being most fatal in the early part of October; in the first three weeks of the month the Reverend Charles Williams, Perpetual Curate at Holyhead, attended the burials of thirty-one of the victims. At Amlwch the infection was confined to the port where twenty-two deaths occurred, hardly any of them certified by a doctor. 1

Before the end of the year the epidemic wave was over, having caused, according to the Registrar-General, four thousand five hundred and sixty-four deaths in Wales.

Cholera Deaths in some Welsh Towns in 1849   2

                              Deaths           

                   Deaths

Newport                 209

Welshpool       34

Pontypool                 61

Newtown           6

Tredegar                 203

Holywell         46

Aberystruth             223

Flint                 35

Crickhowell             95

Caernarvon      16

Cardiff                   396

Holyhead         42

Neath                     245

Amlwch           22

Margam                  241

 

Maesteg                   33

 

Bridgend                 50

 

Merthyr District  (1682)

  • Upper Merthyr     1005
  • Lower Merthyr      462 
  • Gelligaer                 30
  • Aberdare               185

 

Ystradgynlais         107

 

Llanelly District       45

 

Swansea                 262

 

Carmarthen             102

 

Monthly Deaths May-November in the Registrar Districts of Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and Neath, 1849

                                           May      June   July   August   Sept.  Oct.     Nov.

Cardiff                                 39       135      69       91        55        3         1
Merthyr Tydfil                     16       349    539     548      190      37         3
Neath                                     5         80    296     260        84      10         -

In the autumn of 1853 another cholera epidemic suddenly appeared in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, causing over one thousand five hundred deaths in a matter of two months, but it did not spread elsewhere and abated as quickly as it came. However, in 1854 the disease re-appeared in England, London being now the chief focus of the infection with its ten thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight deaths. One of the most severely afflicted of the parishes of South-East London in that epidemic was that of the vicar of All Saints, Rotherhithe, Robert Jones, scholar and historian, and later editor of Y Cymmrodor. At the height of the contagion '... he worked hard, fearless of danger, administering medicine to the poor, and visiting the dying. He was himself stricken with the malady, but recovered'. 1

The 1854 epidemic now spread to Wales causing nearly a thousand deaths in the latter months of the year, the disease again being much more prevalent in the industrial south. It visited Cardiff during August and by the end of the month it had made its almost inevitable appearance in Merthyr Tydfil. 2  The Merthyr Board of Health met the challenge with some alacrity but with little success, and by the middle of October the disease was causing an average of twenty deaths a day in the town. Although less extensive than the 1849 epidemic, 3  it was nevertheless a particularly fatal infection, the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian on October 20 remarking 'The attack had been extremely fatal during the present visitation, and medical assistance, except in the early stages, had proved comparatively unavailing'. William Roberts ('Nefydd'), was in Merthyr on October 16, attempting to arrange a conference on education to be held there a few weeks later. He was persuaded to postpone his plans '... in consequence of the state of the Cholera just now in Merthyr; that people in general are afraid to come rthyr on October 16, attempting to arrange a conference on education to be held there a few weeks later. He was persuaded to postpone his plans '... in consequence of the state of the Cholera just now in Merthyr; that people in general are afraid to come to Merthyr now, even when they have important business to transact, and therefore that it would be very likely that even the friends of Education would be much the same, from ten to twenty being every day carried off by the Cholera'. 4  By the 17th of the month it was reported however that '... the long processions which were seen each evening in the streets of Merthyr have become less frequent ...' 5  A sharp and very fatal outbreak occurred in Brecon causing fifty-four deaths, eight times as many as in 1849. North Wales again escaped lightly with a total of only thirty-four deaths, nineteen of which occurred in Newtown.

Deaths from Cholera in some Welsh Towns in 1854

Cardiff ... ... ... ... ... 225

Merthyr Tydfil ... ... 455

Neath ... ... ... ... ... ... 54

Brecon ... ... ... ... ...   54

Haverfordwest ... ...   40

Cardigan   ... ... ... ...    4

Newtown ... ... ... ...   19

Holywell ... ...  ... ...    2

Bangor ... ... ... ... ...     3

The fourth and virtually the last great cholera epidemic in Britain occurred in the years 1865-6. It differed from its predecessors in arriving along a new route, this time from the Middle East, appearing in Southampton in the autumn of 1865. The disease did not arrive in Bristol until April the following year, but it then quickly spread to a number of other seaports, emigrant ships being potent carriers of the infection. In May, Liverpool experienced a heavy mortality, and by the 25th of the month a doubtful case of cholera had occurred in Swansea, rekindling old fears. 1 The next day the Merthyr Telegraph headed its editorial 'Is the Cholera Coming?', and remarked 'One great cause of the terror with which the Cholera is regarded by most people arises from the fact of our being ignorant of its nature'. The fears were justified for during the summer months of 1866 the disease again made havoc in the industrial districts of South Wales. Local authorities still had a lot to learn, for even in that year the Registrar-General in his annual report could remark 'While the industry of Wales is making rapid strides, its sanitary condition is rapidly deteriorating, as due arrangements are not made for the accommodation or instruction of an increasing population; and thus in a country every way by nature favourable to health, both as regards air and water, epidemics find footing and prove destructive'.  2

Swansea and Llanelly again experienced a vigorous epidemic. Although only two cases had appeared in Llanelly by July 27, within a month one hundred and fifty people had died in the district. The local newspapers apparently minimised the extent of the disease in Swansea during August, but it was none the less an advancing infection, and by the middle of September it was causing an average of fifteen deaths a day. On the 27th the Cambrian hoped that '... we have now passed through the heaviest of this fearful visitation ...'

During August a number of sanitary precautions were instituted in Merthyr, largely through the efforts of T. J. Dyke, now the Medical Officer of Health for the town, and the presence of the disease in Cardiff and Cwmbach by the middle of the month stimulated further efforts by the local health committee. Before the end of the month however, Dyke had already reported three cases of cholera in the district. The first died in typical circumstances---'The patient was a married woman, aged thirty years, who died after eighteen hours illness. She resided with her husband and three children in a two-roomed, ill-ventilated tenement, underneath the Duffryn Arms, Canal side. The room was excessively dirty. The family lay upon a filthy mattress placed upon a damp sodden floor. The husband is employed in the Plymouth Iron Works, but he spends most of his wages on drink &c....' 3  By September 8 forty-four deaths had occurred in the Merthyr district. At Dowlais, where typhus had been raging some three months previously, the new visitation of cholera prompted the Dowlais Company to open a temporary hospital to deal with the cases. But this proposal to collect together a number of cholera victims to ensure a more adequate treatment engendered such local ...................

................ antipathy that soon after the first patient was admitted some of the Dowlais workers rioted, burst into the building, and insulted the nurses. When the miners threatened to strike if the hospital continued, the Company had no alternative but to abandon the project. 1  Before the end of the month the disease had spread to Aberdare, Mountain Ash, Ystradgynlais, Pontypridd and Caerphilly, but it generally declined in South Wales during October. It was during that month, however, that the disease was particularly active in North Wales, coinciding there with a severe epidemic of scarlet fever.

Soon after a schooner from Garston had arrived in Holyhead early in October, two fatal cases of cholera occurred in the town, and Dr. Walthew, the medical officer for the Holyhead Union, advocated the establishment of a temporary hospital. But the Board of Guardians were particularly supine in their efforts to contain the disease and the only house the relieving officer could find that would accommodate sick persons was a lodging house belonging to one Caddy Owen. This was also used by the Guardians for the reception of young orphan girls; it was also an acknowledged brothel. It was not surprising therefore, that the Daily News in a diatribe against the Holyhead Guardians considered them '... incapable of discharging the most elementary of their functions'. 2   Of some eighty inhabitants of Holyhead who contracted the disease, twenty-seven died, twelve of them in the space of a fortnight.

The disease appeared in Caernarvon early in November, spreading rapidly in the poorer parts of the town and in the gaol. Four hundred and seventy-one individuals had contracted the disease before Christmas and of these sixty had died. The continuance of this infection, which had by now regressed in most of England and Wales, induced John Simon of the Medical Department of the Privy Council to send Dr. Seaton to Caernarvon to investigate the sanitary conditions and to advise the local authority. Seaton, who was already well acquainted with the pestilential slums of the East End of London, assured the mayor, Llewelyn Turner, that he had '... never in all his experience witnessed anything so bad as the undrained portions of the town, more especially the crowded courts, which were indescribably abominable sinks of disease.' 3   Turner himself was well aware of those conditions and he had made considerable efforts to 'cleanse the Augean stable', as he put it, before the onslaught of the cholera--- 'my grave assistant'. During the epidemic, as the energetic chairman of the local health committee, he supervised the work of the scavengers, the cleansing of the courts, and the summary demolition of some of the worst habitations. In his exertions he had the valuable support of the Reverend J. C. Vincent, 4  vicar of Llanbeblig, who visited all the haunts of the disease and attended at the bedside of the dying. Robert Ellis ('Cynddelw'), who was a Baptist minister in Caernarvon from 1862 to 1875, co-operated with Vincent in visiting the homes of the cholera victims. It was a ........................

........................service that demanded considerable courage on the part of both men, and their charity earned them general esteem. Cynddelw did not support the local demand for public prayers to allay the wrath of the supposedly Divine visitation, firmly proclaiming his own opinion that the disease was simply a consequent of the pollutions and stenches of the town. 1

Holywell was again visited by an acute epidemic. Following its appearance in both Flint and Holywell in the early part of October 1866, the disease reached its peak at the end of the month, abating early in November, but followed by a sharp exacerbation in Bagillt. One particular well, which was contaminated with sewage, was probably the nucleus of the Holywell outbreak. Ruthin also experienced a sizeable epidemic that resulted in eleven deaths in the district, and Wrexham did not escape. It was only a year since the registrar of Wrexham had reported that 'A vast majority of the cottages in this town are never limewashed from year to year; sewerage is unknown; stagnant filth meet the eye in every bypath, and in places of public resort'. 2

Cholera Deaths in some Welsh Registrar Districts in 1866

                       Deaths

The last time that Asiatic cholera gained a footing in this country was during the summer months of 1893, when it was again imported from Western Europe. The initial outbreak took place on Tyneside in June, and within a month the disease had spread to London and to Cardiff. Although of minor extent the epidemic had a particularly high case mortality---47% according to the Chief Medical ................

.....................Officer of the Local Government Board. 1  In Wales the outbreaks were small and scattered, and deaths were few. 2  The relative insignificance of that last abortive epidemic was in itself a testimony to the progress made in Wales in the care of the public health during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

I wish to acknowledge the valuable advice of Mr. Bob Owen, Croesor, Mr. W. W. Price, Aberdare, and Dr. Leslie Wynne Evans, of Cardiff. I am also greatly indebted to Mr. A. E. Fountain, Librarian of the Ministry of Health, and to Mr. L. M. Payne, Assistant Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians.

G. PENRHYN JONES.

Llangwyfan.


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