It’s 2021 and we’re still battling the covid-19 pandemic. As we get vaccinated and try to keep ourselves safe, the experience of living through covid may harbour historical interest in another time whereby a pandemic struck Sunderland, a one which was in contrast to today far more gruesome and deadly. Here we tell the grizzly tale of the Sunderland Cholera Epidemic, where this chilling disease emerged on Wearside and claimed hundreds of lives…
In 1831, the town of Sunderland was booming. An explosion of shipbuilding, coal mining and glass making had transformed a small and obscure fishing village on the Southern mouth of the river wear into one of the Industrial hubs of the world. The growing town had started to engulf the adjacent settlements of Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth. Its achievements were extraordinary at the time, just decades earlier the Wearmouth Bridge had been constructed becoming what was at that time the largest iron span bridge in the world. A few years earlier, the Hetton Colliery railway, the world’s first ever commerical railway line, spanned from the coalfields of County Durham into the ports of the Wear. The town was at the frontier of Britain’s industrial revolution and a changing world.
However, the newly developing town was about to face its first serious challenge. The transition to an industrialised way of life had led to rapid urbanization in Britain and a change in living conditions, which saw population sizes not only boom, but also be brought together like never before. The new urban working class lived in densely compact spaces and crowded streets with questionable levels of hygiene. Old Sunderland in particular was famed for its slum areas within the East Side of the city. Not surprisingly, the conditions were hazardous and ripe for an outbreak. 1831 would be that year, whereby a deadly disease was spreading throughout the European continent with a purported origin in India. Described as “Cholera Morbus” by doctors, the pathogen inflicted severe vomiting, Diarrhea and Muscle cramps on its victims, spurred and spread by unsanitary water and unhygienic conditions.
The British government was concerned at the spread of the disease in Europe, not least when it began spreading across the Baltic region and Northern Germany which had substantial sea links to Britain. The Privy Council issued a declaration that all incoming ships had to be quarantined from the affected regions. However, this rule was poorly enforced and then on October of that year a ship from the Baltic subsequently docked in Sunderland. By the 23rd, the first local case emerged with a man named William Sproat. After three days of illness, he died. However, the authorities were not aware of the circumstances pertaining to his death and failed to recognize what happened. It would not be until November that local doctors finally admitted Cholera had struck Sunderland.
But other problems remained in hindering the local response. News of the outbreak immediately had a hindering effect on trade and the local economy. Local business people formed an “anti-cholera party “in response to the development and placed pressure on the Doctors to retract claims a local outbreak was occurring. This caused a national scandal and a temporary boycott of Sunderland. Thus not surprisingly such denialism saw the disease inevitably keep spreading. Attempts at cover-up saw local quarantine efforts fail and the illness eventually spread to neighbouring Gateshead and Newcastle, eventually causing a nationwide pandemic throughout the following year.
Racism and xenophobia also played a role in the outbreak. Because the circumstances surrounding its origin were not known, many took the opportunity to blame Irish migrants as carriers of disease, with Irish being treat largely as 2nd class citizens in this given era. A Guardian reprint of an 1831 newspaper finds individuals in North Shields scapegoating “Irish vagabounds from Sunderland” and “Irish cobblers” as responsible for the outbreak. It would nevertheless pose significant changes in UK health laws and in 1832 the Cholera Morbus Prevention Act was passed by Parliament, granting more powers to local health boards in attempting to handle the epidemic.
However the response of the government did not change a lot. Doctors at that time did not actually understand how the disease spread from person to person. They believed it was contracted by smell, which created unusual practices such as attempting to bathe streets in vinegar, lime and other strong smelling substances, all to no avail. The outbreak would go on to claim up to 215 lives in Sunderland and 52,000 or so nationwide. In Sunderland itself, the dead were buried in a mass grave in Hind street (present day travel lodge) who were moved to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery in 1988, as well as in Villiers street. The growing number of local deaths and overflow of corpses would in fact be instrumental in the creation of the Bishopwearmouth cemetery in the coming decades.
By 1832, the first wave of the disease was reportedly eradicated from the area. However the failure to adequately address the causes and also the structural problems in the way people lived, would also bring about a 2nd epidemic in Britain 17 years later in 1848. Although the world we live in today has changed drastically from this era and we do not live in 19th century slums anymore, it goes to show nevertheless that the lessons of history are never truly lost.