Ystalyfera - the cholera outbreak of 1866


For a more general coverage of the subject (with Swansea/Neath area coverage) see also Cholera in Wales by G Penrhyn Jones, National Library of Wales journal Vol X/3 Summer 1958.

From History of Pontardawe & District by John Henry Davies, 1967


It has been taught that cholera was caused by Vibrio cholera (Koch, 1886) and there was no reason to suppose that it was air borne.
At Ystalyfera, beyond all doubt, the culture ground of the Vibrio cholerae was the human body, and the discharges from it were the source of contagion. They infected the ground, the water or the immediate surroundings of the patient, the poison finding the entrance into the bodies of the healthy by means of food and drink, which became contaminated in various ways, e.g. by flies. Contaminated water was the most important, particularly in places without a public water supply. The dangerous species of cholerae was found " in excreta, contaminated water, soil, or sewage "

Dr. James Rogers, Ystalyfera, in 1866, described Ystalyfera;

" As a village on an abrupt hill side without any drainage, with very few privies, nearly all being on cesspools, many of them on higher ground than the neighbouring houses, were loathsome nuisances, percolating their contents into the soil below them; and in the instance where the first case of cholera occurred, the pavement of the back premises was ' squashy ' from this cause."

" That water supply was very scanty in quantity and very uncertain in quality, being little better than surface water, percolating through the shale tips and the drainage of the coal seams and colliery workings; so scarce was the water in the Iron Works that it was a common practice with the men to drink largely of the canal water, which was conveyed in pipes through various departments for the purposes of the Works. This water received the surface drainage of nearly all the houses in the village. In one house - an inn, the landlady fell a victim to the disease, and it will not appear surprising when I state the fact that in the yard at the back of the house, less than thirty feet square, were two pigsties, two privies on cesspools, fowl houses and a well; the said yard being wholly undrained, and it could have been effectively done for a less sum than five pounds - the poor woman had been warned of the dangerous condition of her premises - she had ample means, being a wealthy woman of her class, and one of the most cleanly women in her house I had ever met with. An open gutter running from this same yard into a field adjoining alongside the hedge, in front of a row of houses gave off a noisome stench. In these houses, several cases of the disease occurred." ( A Sketch of the Cholera Epidemic at Ystalyfera in the Autumn of 1866 by J Rogers, 1867)

The graveyards, some of them crammed with the dead, in one case, that of Pant-teg, standing on higher ground and surrounded by houses, the others unfit for the purpose of burial, became marked centres of virulence during the course of the epidemic. It was said that many bodies were conveyed to Llangiwg Church cemetery to be buried as cholera victims after being refused in other cemeteries. The poor who died in the Pontardawe workhouse were also buried there.

To-day, great improvements in water-supply and sanitation have nearly abolished waterborne diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, enteric fever and the like.

In 1849, cholera swept scores of important persons at Brynamman, and the first who fell a victim to the disease was William Herbert, Cwmnantmoel.
In the same period, cholera took many at Ystalyfera and people hastened to the chapels for refuge.'
In 1866, cholera took the lives of hundreds in the villages. People, terrified by the suddenness with which cholera claimed lives, attended chapels and scores of men and women became members of Pant-teg Independent chapel. At Craigcefnparc in the choleric epidemic of 1866, eighteen cases occurred, of which only one died.