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The Asiatic cholera Outbreak of 1849

19th Century Irish Imigrants
Throughout the 1840s large numbers of Irish refugees arrived in Liverpool, fleeing from the potato famine caused by blight. By the end of June 1847 approximately 300,000 had landed in Liverpool. There was already severe overcrowded in homes in the city and insufficient lodging- house places. As a result many of the refugees forced their way into the cellars which had been closed under the provisions of the Health Act of 1842, as unfit for human habitation.  In one instance about forty people were found sleeping in one cellar.

Dr. William Henry Duncan was born in Seel St in 1805. his former home later became The Blue Angel nightclub.  He graduated as Dr. of Medicine in 1829 at Edinburgh and returned to Liverpool where his work as a General Practitioner took him into the poorest quarters of the city. Doctor Duncan, had recognised that profound poverty, unemployment and poor sanitation in housing was associated with diseases such as typhus. His efforts and those of other like-minded philanthropists in the city led to action in Parliament, resulting in Duncan's appointment as the first Medical Officer of Health in the country in 1846, a massive task which would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Upper Frederick Street Wash House

Kitty Wilkinson

Dubbed 'the Saint of the Slums', Kitty Wilkinson was  responsible for saving many lives, in 1832, during the cholera epidemic, Kitty took the initiative to offer the use of her house and yard to neighbours to wash their clothes, at a charge of 1 penny per week, and showed them how to use a chloride of lime to get them clean. Kitty became the superintendant of  the first wash-house for poor people in Liverpool (and Britain) on Upper Frederick Street in 1842.

In 1847 Typhus claimed some 5,845 lives in the city. Although Dr Duncan repeatedly drew attention to the dire situation, and warned of a likely catastrophe. His words were not long in coming true. In 1848 Asiatic Cholera struck Liverpool. The cholera had entered Europe on previous occasions. This time it came to Liverpool by way of Glasgow and Dumfries when on 10 December 1848 an Irish family arrived in Liverpool by steamer from Dumfries where the epidemic was at its height. On landing one of the children was found to be suffering from cholera and both parents went down with the disease on the night of their arrival in Liverpool. All three died, and on the 15th December and woman residing in the same house who had washed the bodies and bed clothes of the deceased died after twelve hours’ illness. The first case diagnosed to be of Liverpool origin was on the 16th in a crowded house in Back Portland Street in the Vauxhall area. The victim was a girl about 14 years of age.

By the summer of 1849 several hundred people were dying each week, and ‘In Lace Street, one third of the ordinary population of several hundred persons are said to have died in the course of the year.

The 1849 epidemic burned itself out, and when cholera returned in 1854 its impact on Liverpool was much less severe. This was in no small part due to the activities of Dr Duncan and his aptly-named sanitary inspector Thomas Fresh. They believed that epidemics were caused by the miasma - the bad air caused by rotting animal and vegetable matter. They energetically applied the theories of the time - such as closing cellar dwellings and lime-washing affected houses - but they were working to a faulty theory. It was still more than 20 years before the germ theory of disease was identified by the Pasteurs in France. Ironically many of the measures that were taken - such as ventilation and simple disinfection - were in fact the right things to have done, but for the wrong reasons.



Liverpool Records Office
Liverpool Central Library
Maggi Morris and John Ashton

Robert F Edwards

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