The Cholera Epidemic of 1832
On the 28th of February, 1832 at around midnight, Bernard Murtagh, a 34 year old cooper who resided in a lodging house on Quay Lane Belfast, a narrow street near the River Lagan, became violently ill. Described as a man of irregular habits he had been suffering from diarrhoea for two or three days previously but had not complained of any other symptoms when he went to bed following his usual supper of stirabout and milk. Around midnight his condition worsened and towards morning was accompanied with intense cramps and vomiting, the fluid (from both ends) described as whitish and like milk or meal and water. He was seen by Surgeon McBurney the following morning and was found to be in a state of extreme weakness and collapse, extremely cold and without a perceptible pulse at the wrist. A mustard emetic was administered around midday after which he appeared to revive a little. However, this proved only to be a temporary respite and he died between 7 and 8 p.m. that evening some nineteen hours after becoming ill. Murtaugh had become the first recognised victim in Ireland to have died from what was then perceived as a new a frightening disease from the East, Asiatic cholera, though in truth it was new only to the West.
Epidemics usually started in the Far East and it was therefore known as "the Asiatic Cholera". Ireland was struck repeatedly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but most severely in 1832, when about 3,000 people in Belfast were infected and about 500 died. An isolation block was opened behind the Fever Hospital in Frederick Street and large plots for burial of paupers were set aside in Clifton Street and Friar`s Bush Graveyards. These areas were used again for victims of the Great Famine and now form green spaces to remind us that in the past infectious diseases, both in epidemics and isolated cases, were the main cause of death. There was another outbreak of cholera in 1848-9, and further cases throughout the century as argument raged over the need for improved sanitary arrangements. Deaths from local outbreaks are specifically recorded in graveyards in Annahilt, Ardglass, Ballymore, Larne, Moira and Mullaghglass, and deaths abroad are often noted on gravestones here.
In Ireland alone around 40% of those who contracted cholera between 1832 and 33 would die as a consequence and in some areas mortality rates were as high as 76%. In a second outbreak during 1848/49 mortality rates were even higher, with the disease finding easy prey in the form of a population severely weakened by Famine and its associated illnesses. Belfast’s mortality rate at just 16% was however, much more favourable than anywhere else in the country and was significantly lower than Dublin or Cork who experienced rates in excess of 40%.
Nineteenth century Belfast was Irelands only industrialised town and outwardly appeared successful and prosperous. Described by one commentator as looking as if it ‘had money in its pocket and roast beef for dinner’. However, while industrialisation had created opportunity, it also created serious social issues particularly in the provision of housing, water supply and sanitation. Housing for the labouring poor was laid out in a grid pattern of confined and insanitary courts, lanes and alleys, commonly consisting of two story buildings occupied by two or more families. Few houses were provided with piped water and over 7,000 houses were supplied from public fountains, by water carts, or from pumps sunk by landlords. Sewers were often constructed to deposit their effluent directly into the town’s main watercourses and high tides and flooding regularly carried effluvia back onto the streets and into the homes of those who lived in their vicinity, making sanitary conditions and their likelihood of contracting serious illnesses inherently worse.
When cholera came however, Belfast appears to have been as well, if not better prepared to combat the disease than most. The initial response was the remit of the Police Commissioners and of an ad hoc and hastily formed Board of Health. Working closely together, a systematic programme of street cleaning and of whitewashing and fumigating houses was instigated. Temporary hospital accommodation was provided in the grounds of the towns Fever Hospital with Dr Henry McCormac placed in charge. McCormac combined a strict isolation policy with treatments which included bloodletting and the administration of calomel (mercury), opiates and dilute sulphuric acid. Though mortality in the hospital was much higher (22%) than for the rest of the town there does appear to have been less resistance in Belfast to the idea of going to hospital than was the case elsewhere. In Dublin for example, opposition was such that carriages carrying the sick to hospital were occasionally set upon, the patients ‘rescued’ and the carriages thrown in the Liffey.
When Cholera finally came to Lurgan in the autumn of 1832, it relentlessly swept through the town. The moans of the sick and dying could be heard down every street. The air was thick with the smell of disease and decaying bodies. The pattern was repeated all over Armagh as the following headstone inscriptions show:
Mullaghglass Old graveyard, County Armagh
Sacred to the memory of Andrew Pollock, late of Newry, who fell a victim to malignant Cholera on the 17th of June 1832, aged 35 years His body here alone remains, his soul has fled to worlds on high, he died with more than Christian peace, he died Possessed of Christian joy At midnight when the cry arose the bridegroom commes, awake, arise, his lamp trimmed and burning bright, he sprang to meet him in the skies This small tribute of respect was created by his wife Anna Pollock, daughter of Samuel Magowan of Armagh.
Ballymore Church of Ireland graveyard, County Armagh
Sacred to the memory of William Loftie Esq, JP, Under whose fostering care as agent for XXXV years Tandragee flourished, and the estate and tenantry congenially prospered On his resignation of this ardous agency, it was well purposed[sic] by many tenants who could well appreciate a faithful pattern of genuine Christianity and uprightness to cheer his declining years with some token of cordial affection and respect; but Alas! the malignant cholera denied them the grateful opportunity, and in sorrow they substitute this humble but sincere tribute to his memory Died Nov 7th 1833 aged 62 years.
A letter written by James Pedlow of Drumgor in 1834 to relatives in America gives a vivid picture of life in the area in the 1830s. The letter retains the spelling and grammer of the period.
13th of the 4th month 1834.
I received thy letter dated 10th May, 1832. Dear James I am almost recovered after three months suffering in gitting a tooth drawed got my jaw cloave and it beilded for 2 months then came off a piece of my jaw the size of two beans. When my jaw was cloave my teeth came so close that I could hardly put the thickness of a penny into my mouthe. The are some better and I expect the will mend. My bowel closed that I hod to take a physicke 3 or 4 times every week for 4 weeks. Thank God I have my life a little longer. I am living single yet keeps a house keper and is dowing perty well.
I sometimes think I will mary, but I no that I am tired of keeping housekepers. My dauter lives ner me. Is dowing perty well. The have a pice of land, keeps a cow, has a breave goesery, keeps 4 loomes going for the market weaving cambrick.
They have a son and a dauter and aperes to soon have the third. One Nancy Pedlow has been very poorely this long time she does not get good health. Henery is failing fast, he is verey little. David Pedlow was verey bad for more than a year, he is beter and able to hold his fathers plow this spring. The have mounted four damask loomes with mesheens on them that I cant describe. They have no simpels or lashings but works with wier and pesthard. The expence was great, one cost more than £60. Thomas Pedlow made the mesheens, he is said to be the greatest and best In making them in Ireland.
Henry Pedlow Juner is a very nice young man, he is a good working boy and good to father and mother.
Edward Pedlow is dowing a dale in farming. He has bought John Maginess place for £90, sold it in 2 yers at £105, bought Oan Heers place and Robert Lyness place. His brower Thomas is mared to Yalow Hal Lavertys dauter, the are dowing as the can.
Edward has five or six sones Henery and a dauter, the are dowing better than the were. Mary Ogle and children lives in Tormira. I asked her if she had aney thing to write but she had nothing but Dear James I rejoice to no that thee and thy family is well. It might satisfy thee that thee left this place farming and tread is bad here. Pertatoes was sold this summer from 5 to 8 pence per hundert, oatmeal 8s to 10s per hundert. This yer pertatoes sells from 1s 6d to 1s 3½d per hundert, oatmeal 9s to 10s per hundert, beef 3d to 5d per lb, butter 6d to 7d per lb, ferken butter 8d to 8½d per lb, pork £1 to £1 7s per hundert, wheat this yer is from 8s to 10s per hundert. There is hardly an old diaper wel to be seen in Lurgan market o/s or 8s 4d sells and has been sold at 10d to 1s 3d per yrd. I was telling thee of Brownlows great works in the mantues (Montiaghs), how he banked in the lan, built a steem mill on the side of Lough Gullen and dreaned it dry. But all has gone to nathing.
This winter past was verey wet, it broke down the bank of the lan and overflowed. The wine mill at Tory Handlings for dreoning the Closet is out of use. It would take 5 liket it to do, so the Closet is floaded and Lough Gullen ful again.
The fever is in 5 houses within five mile of me, 2 corps left one house this day. I cant remember well all the dethes that hapened since I rote but James Boys, Janey Boys and Joseph Greer and Oan Heer and Will Bontons wife are all parted this life. Moses Boys mared Will Bontons dauter and were drounded going to Scotland.
Our friends all esceped chilar (cholera) that reaged through this countery, 35 died in Lurgan in about 10 days. Tanderagee was worst. Portadown had but some 10 dethes. Armagh had great dethes. The dethes in Belfast and Newery was so great that one might think the 1/4 was ded. But all is well this long time. I was gretley fritened when I herd of John Thomsion the red (reed) maker. I saw him on the first day in good helth, and he was ded on 4 day.
We have stile some parteywork here. A man called Branan, a Pepis police officer began to beat a we boy. Others would not let him the pack rose to parteywork, the police fired on the mob. The prestands of the police fired over their heads. The pepies fired low, shot one boy in the ne, another in the leg. The last happened in Portadown, it is to be tried in Dublin.
Now, Dear James, I have wrote all the account I no concerning our family and aney thing thee want to no ask me in thy next letter and I will answer thee.
William O'Neal and Pat O'Neal that treaded to Ameraca and had a shop in Quebec - a young sister and brower with them - they are both ded.
William came home 2 yers past and ded. Pat was buered about 3 months ago here.
Now, Dear James to conclude I bid thee farewell, wishing thee and they famely every blessing that God may send.
By the end of the first epidemic over 400 people had died in Belfast alone and cholera, as did on-going preventative public health provision, passed quickly from public consciousness. Thus, when cholera returned to Ireland in 1848 practically nothing had changed in the way it was fought. However, during this second epidemic, the efforts of Belfast’s new Board of Guardians, the physician and sanitary reformer Dr Andrew Malcolm and additional sanitary powers granted to the new Town Corporation by town improvement legislation arguably prevented a much higher death toll than was experienced elsewhere. The Guardians, for example acted in defiance of the Poor Law Commissioners when they opened the Belfast Workhouse in 1841 with ten beds for the reception of the sick, rapidly increasing this to 100. The Corporation introduced new housing regulations and were granted additional sanitary powers, giving them more authority to require landlords and property owners to remove nuisances and pave streets. However, by 1848 Dr Malcolm reported that there continued to be a ‘lamentable deficiency’ with regard to the removal of offensive remains. As fears of choleras immanent arrival grew the influential Malcolm rose to the fore to guide the municipal authorities. A Sanitary Committee headed by Malcolm and specifically aimed at dealing with cholera in the first instance was formed in 1848. The Committee published and distributed reports, magistrate’s orders were issued for the removal of nuisances, poor families were provided with straw bedding, houses were whitewashed and new sewers were constructed in some parts of the town.
Despite the preparations however, fatalities were almost treble those of 1832.
Our thanks to Nigel Farrell and the Belfast Newsletter for their contributions to this article.