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The 1866 Cholera Epidemic in Wales - Part Two: Ystalyfera

The summer of 1866 witnessed another outbreak of Cholera. The weather that year had been dry and the conditions for an outbreak were present. The village of Ystalyfera, in the upper regions of the Swansea Valley, was to experience the final epidemic in Wales. This outbreak is important because it was fully documented by the village doctor, James Rogers, before he moved to a new post as Medical Officer of Health in Swansea.

The report is important because it is a social document describing the living conditions in the valley, and demonstrates the abject poverty and social conditions suffered by the working classes of the period. It is often thought that the conditions in the emerging towns of Swansea, Merthyr and Cardiff were poor. In many ways they were bad, but in Ystalyfera there were conditions that would not have been tolerated in those new towns.

This is not to say that those in power did not care; in many ways they were important benefactors. They built schools, churches and played an important part in local life. In the case of Ystalyfera, James Palmer Budd and his wife Emily were responsible for the building of the local school in Pantteg as well as Holy Trinity Church. The local Iron Works was the hub of the local economy and this was the sole responsibility of Palmer Budd, while Emily Budd supported the social needs of the workforce and the community.

As was the case in other industrial parts of Britain it was the practice to employ a doctor to oversee the wellbeing of the workforce and their families. In Ystalyfera it was James Rogers, who had been the Medical Officer for the Iron Works since 1850 and hailed from Mumbles, Swansea and his assistant, J.R. James. Both these men worked tirelessly through the whole course of the epidemic and need to be commended for their selflessness and commitment to bringing those infected to recovery as and when they could.

The cause and course of the epidemic in Ystalyfera was dependent upon a number of factors, one of which was the geography of the valley and the village. Pantteg and Ystalyfera were built on a steep hill in rows of terraced housing. To aggravate the problem there was little provision for the removal of human waste, as well as animal waste, which was often collected to provide manure for the gardens.

Rogers and Jame had for many months predicted the possibility of a visitation and made it their business to advise the community of the dangers and the need to remove offensive waste. In the report Rogers wrote: “For many months before the advent of the Cholera in Ystalyfera I made it my business to pay house to house visits of inspection, and believe advised all my neighbours and patients, owners of property and occupiers generally, as to the means in their power of meeting the emergence should it arise [...] In dozens of instances I found large casks open on end, more or less full of pig’s wash which provident people who intended investing capital in a pig, had accumulated, some of them for months – some even within a few feet of the opening of their homes [...]The ash-heap in the garden at the back of the house was also an institution [...] which accumulated until the season came round for manuring the garden beds [...] behind one row of thirty houses of the Ystalyfera Company, if I remember rightly, between six and seven hundred cartloads of this, I have no doubt, very valuable manure was removed.”

There was also a distinct lack of privies and many built cesspools which were inadequate and posed a risk to the health of residents living below them as the contents “percolating ..... into the soil below them”. This in itself was a concern and may have contributed over the years to all manner of disease and the “pavement of the back premises was ‘squashy’ from this cause”.

Rogers in his report is conscious of the need to improve the social needs of the workers in his charge. As a Liberal, he was concerned that the plight of the working class could and needed to be improved, and that the iron and coal barons needed to invest in the health and wellbeing of their workers and families. Rogers was concerned in Ystalyfera with the quality of housing and highlighted the fact that many houses were damp and poorly ventilated and some were even below the level of the canal.

There was concern with the quality of the water supply and Rogers describes it as “scanty in quality” and in many instances no better than the surface water. In fact he reports that the quality was so bad that many of the workers drank freely of water from the canal. The canal was not the source of the epidemic but became polluted in the course of the disease, and the disease was particularly virulent in the houses below the canal level by seeping through and creating continual dampness. Even in the worst houses found in Swansea, Merthyr and Cardiff this level of poor housing could not be found, and contributed to the harshness of the disease in those houses.

The outbreak of the disease began on the 2nd August when it was reported that a number of cases of simple Diarrhea had occurred among some of the workforce during the previous days. On that evening the first case of Cholera was reported. The man, aged 19, had been suffering all day in work, and on his return he became worse and died the following day.

The conditions that this young man lived in were typical of the worst part of the village and showed that the cause of Cholera was environmental. Through his account Rogers reports the unfavourable conditions that people in his charge suffered. Further, as the month of August continued more and more cases were reported of all age groups and it was apparent that it attacked the poorest classes.

Rogers was also concerned with the lack of medical attention, though he and his assistant worked long hour in conditions far from favourable. They worked exceptionally long hours, which he recounts: “during the 63 days of my attendance on these cases (generally beginning at five in the morning and going to bed seldom before half-past twelve or one o’clock and frequently called up at night as well)". He saw the needs for what would later to be called Health Visitors, who could provide the basic medical needs and relieve the doctor and his assistant to attend to the more difficult and pressing cases. It is also notable that at this time there was little in the provision of hospitals. The nearest were in Swansea, where there had been an infirmary from the early days of the 19th century, and Carmarthen, where one had been opened in 1856. Other than these it was left to the family to provide any basic care. As the century progressed isolation hospitals were built outside the confines of the communities to treat mainly smallpox, and as knowledge expanded, for the treatment of Tuberculosis.

Rogers' great concern was the collection of offensive materials in and around the village and he was convinced that it was the filth and unsocial conditions that were the carrier of the disease, refusing to recognise Cholera a being a water borne disease. This had been discovered by Dr. John Snow in 1854 when he noted that people in the north of Broad Street, Soho were unaffected while the people in the south of the street suffered. Extensive investigation by Snow showed that the two groups used different wells which were supplied by different sources of water. Rogers believed at this time that the disease was carried in the air as a poison and not as we now know as an organism that lived and thrived in water. However, a few years later, as the Medical Officer of Health for Swansea, he had come to the conclusion that it was contaminated water that was the culprit for the spread of the disease.

What made the year 1866 so important was the fact that there were great environmental improvements which removed the ability for the disease to spread. In Swansea where there was a case of Yellow Fever, the fact that these actions had been taken prevented its spread and confined it to the docklands where there were a very small number of cases.

These improvements included the removal of rubbish from the streets and the laying of paving slabs where possible. The towns also created a program of building reservoirs to supply good clean water to the growing population. These actions were to become the responsibility of the newly formed councils, which in many cases in Wales were controlled by the Conservatives, who had a reforming agenda.

James Rogers, towards the end of 1866, returned to his home town of Swansea as the Medical Officer of Health, which gave him the opportunity to advocate the many improvements in social and environmental issues that he saw as necessary. In 1870 he was elected as a Borough Councillor in Swansea and was later appointed a Borough Magistrate in 1875.

In 1878 he was appointed Mayor of Swansea and was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine for his work with the poor and sick of Swansea and the Swansea Valley. It was also during this time that he was the driving force behind the introduction of the Artisan’s Dwelling Act and though it was never fully implemented they did a great deal to help the ordinary artisans of the town.

James Rogers, JP, Mayor of Swansea (1878)

In 1881 he retired from public life and ceased to practice medicine the following year as his health became rapidly worse. He died in his home in Swansea on the 3rd November 1883 at the age of 65.

Like many other of his age James Rogers was a typical reformer, a staunch Conservative, when Conservative policy was radical, with a keen understanding of natural justice and fairness. He was a man who fought injustice with the courage of his conviction and was respected by those who knew him for his sincerity, his honest motives and conscientious. Physically he demonstrated a rough and brisk exterior but inwardly he was tender and sympathetic and a family man with ten children.

In the opening page of his report he quoted the maxim, “What is Local is Often General”, and the incidents he described in Pantteg were visible at that time all over Wales, within the industrial towns. However, it was due to men like Rogers who implemented reform in their own localities that collectively brought major social improvements and transformed our country.

In countries, such as the United States and the near continent, which failed to make the necessary changes for the better, disease continued to ravage their countries for decades. It was without doubt the work of these great reformers that made our country as great as it is today and many of these important men had their roots in Wales.


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'.

The picture included in this blog is owned by the City & County of Swansea: Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. It shows Mr James Rogers, JP, Mayor of Swansea (1878) by Agnes Vye Parminter (c.1836 - 1915).

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