The 1866 Cholera Epidemic in Wales - Part One: 1832-1866

The 20th of October 1831 was a bleak and dismal day for Britain. It brought from the near continent the harbinger of death, through the port of Sunderland, the first reported case of Cholera. Cholera had been known for many years and had been an enemy of the Indian army before the English army of occupation had arrived. Yet it had never reached the shores of Britain and it was assumed by those in power that the Channel would act as a barrier and keep our land free of this scourge.


How wrong they could be. By the 9th of January the death toll in the North of England had risen to 215, before moving first to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Glasgow, where the recorded death toll soon rose to 3,166. Spreading like an uncontrolled bush fire, by the 24th of June 1832, the first case was reported in Newport, South Wales, where it took its first foothold in Wales. Further disaster struck on the 26th of July, when a vessel named the Mary Ann sailed into Swansea with its deadly cargo of two shipmates on the brink of death, suffering from Cholera.


Cholera was a disease that struck the poorest of people. It was what we would call today an environmental disease, in other words caused by poor living conditions, and in particular a lack of clean and wholesome water. The industrial towns of Wales lacked all the conditions that today would be demanded as a minimum standard. From the attached table it can be seen that no part of Wales escaped and by the end of 1832 all parts of industrial Wales, both in the north and the south, had suffered.


There also seemed to be a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the epidemic among the authorities. Princess Victoria (later to become Queen Victoria) was scheduled to visit Beaumaris in August 1832 where the National Eisteddfod was being held. One local newspaper even claimed 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 present”.


One of the first doctors to work with and fight the scourge of Cholera was George Gwynne Bird. Bird spent his whole life looking for the cause and treatment of Cholera and many of the reformers who followed him look upon his work as a guide during further epidemics.


George Gwynne Bird was born in Crickhowell, the son of a surgeon and the eldest of ten children. As was the custom he was apprenticed to his father at the age of 16 when he began his early training, gaining experience in the treatment of accidents at the local iron works. At the age of 20 he continued his training at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital London, where he qualified as a Surgeon. After assisting his father for a few years to gain further experience he was appointed Surgeon himself. Bird remained in Swansea where he had made an outstanding contribution to the health of the town, eventually being appointed Physician and later Consulting Physician. As well as his remarkable work in Swansea Hospital he also held the post of Medical Officer to the Swansea Goal and House of Correction as well as the President of the Provincial Medical Association (1853). He died in 1863.



The Cross Keys, St Mary's Street, Swansea (1852)

The first outbreak in 1832 was mainly restricted to the seaports of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea and it was Swansea which experienced the most devastating visitation of all the other towns. Merthyr Tydfil also saw a great number of deaths and it is freely acknowledged that the sanitary and living conditions there at this period were appalling. It was the conditions that the working classes were exposed to that contributed to the high levels of death from Cholera once it had taken hold. In the towns of Swansea and Cardiff sanitary conditions were equally as bad and it was the failure of basic hygiene and the removal of human waste that led to the disease spreading. This had been the responsibility of the ruling classes who were in the main unwilling to use their wealth on the relief of the poor.


Following the great Reform Act of 1832 was the enactment of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. This act had a profound effect upon the lot of the lower classes and brought about the birth of local government as we know it today. Hence, the responsibilities which had once been the prerogative of the local gentry and Justices were now placed in the hands of an elected local council. The result of the act was that many reforms were put into place which may have had a beneficial effect upon the towns of England and Wales.


The Victorian period was a time of national prosperity and industry thrived. However, to thrive it needed manpower and this came from two quarters. From the rural villages of Wales there was an influx from the declining farming communities. At the same time, between the years 1845 and 1852, Ireland was blighted with a potato famine, which caused great suffering and encouraged millions of Irish families to seek a better life.


Irish migrants flooded into Wales, many with the intention of finding a ship and seeking advancement in the New World of America. However, for many reasons thousands settled in Wales, finding employment in local industries as labourers. Within a few years they had established ghettos in many of the large towns and particularly in the ports. Worse still, they were prepared to accept conditions that were unacceptable to others, believing that even the worst conditions in Wales were better than what they had experienced at home in Ireland.


It is no surprise that the second wave of Cholera struck in 1849, even though a Public Health Act had been passed and attempts made in some towns to put the necessary provisions in place. For Gwynne Bird the deaths from Cholera in the 1832 outbreak were unacceptable, but it did nothing to prepare him for the outbreak which was to occur a few years after he had completed his work on the disease. For us today the question is – why was there such a substantial increase in the fatalities in 1849? The only answer to this question is in the sudden, in historical terms, growth of the new industrial towns and their lack of adequate facilities, including the supply of water and the removal of sewerage. This outbreak was far more virile than the previous epidemic and it had a dramatic influence upon all the industrial towns of Wales. This breakout spread very fast and was responsible for the death, in large part, of these towns.


Secondly, why were the fatalities in the outbreak of 1853/4 much less than the visitation of 1849? One answer to this question could simply be that those who were susceptible to the disease or who had survived the disease had acquired a natural immunity.


It was during the epidemic of 1854 and the discovery of Dr. John Snow in Broad Street, Soho, London, that the cause and method of contamination was discovered. The results of his conclusions were published in 1856. This discovery was surrounded by controversy since Dr. William Budd of Bristol had published a pamphlet a few years earlier in 1849 claiming that Cholera was waterborne.


Yet some medical practitioners did not necessarily agree with the discovery. James Rogers, who was to become Medical Officer of Health for Swansea, in 1867, stated that the cause of the disease was in the air, though he did recognise that stagnant water and the inadequate removal of sewerage, was not conducive to good health. However, we must be careful with some of his remarks. At the time he had only just been appointed Medical Officer and it is possible that he had no wish to upset the Borough Council and to burden the ratepayers of the Borough and to increase the rates, which many considered high. However, since there is no evidence to support this view it must be put down as conjecture.


For the outbreak in 1849 we are better placed to study the statistics and the Medical Officer for the new Board of Health of Swansea, in his first report attached a supplementary report dealing with the 1849 epidemic. In the report Dr W.H. Michael makes the point that the severity of the epidemic was felt in the area where there was either a poor supply of water or no supply at all. It was striking that the greatest number of deaths in a single location was Greenhill, the home of the Irish community in Swansea.


It was soon discovered that the most effective method of prevention was the removal of offensive waste from the streets, together with substantial improvements in the living conditions of the local workforces including the supply of good, clean water.


This work was completed in the years following the epidemic of 1866, together with the means to provide good clean water to the houses of the workmen by the building of reservoirs. It was these simple improvements to the Victorian environment which saved the country not only from further epidemics of Cholera but from the spread of other endemic diseases, including Yellow Fever, which was discovered in Swansea in 1867.


Coming Soon: Part 2 - The 1866 Epidemic in Ystalyfera

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D. Gerald O. James is a Writer and Historian based in Ammanford. He is the author of 'In the Footsteps of Saints and Sinners: Llangiwg Church Past, Present and Future'.


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