I could never have guessed when I was writing A Lancashire Lass that its publication day would see Blackburn in the news once again as a hotspot for another pandemic! This time it’s Covid19 that’s causing a problem for the families who live in the terraced streets of the town, but in 1832, the townsfolk were struggling against an outbreak of the feared ‘blue’ cholera. Fake news and controversial theories abounded then too. Many blamed the ‘demon’ drink, and even doctors were baffled by its cause. When I was writing, I felt thankful that we no longer live in fear of illnesses like cholera, but how wrong I was!
I hope that before too long we can dispatch Covid19 to the realms of historical fiction, but in the meantime take good care of yourselves and stay safe.
The 1832 Cholera outbreak
The summer of 1832 brought an outbreak of Asiatic cholera to Blackburn. It had been gradually spreading across the country since the first cases were reported in November 1831, despite efforts to quarantine ships coming from the Baltic. The first cases were in Sunderland and the disease seems to have spread to London on board coal ships from the Tyne. The victims’ extremities appeared to take on a blue tinge shortly before death, confirming that this was the feared ‘Asiatic’ or ‘blue’ cholera. The spread of disease was not properly understood and most doctors clung to the belief that cholera was spread by a miasma, a poisonous vapour which held particles of decaying matter and was characterised by its foul smell. In 1832, the advice given to patients was to eat and drink nothing until the sickness and diarrhoea had passed, and as it was also still common for patients to be bled, it’s possible that many of the deaths were actually caused by dehydration. There was an awareness that cleanliness was important and homes were cleaned and limewashed after cases were diagnosed, but it wasn’t until 1849 that Dr John Snow stated that cholera was spread through contaminated drinking water. It then took until 1854, when there was another cholera outbreak, for him to be able to begin to prove his theory by pointing to a single water pump on Broad Street in London that had poisoned hundreds of people. However it took many more years before his theory was taken seriously and it was not until sewers and drains and clean drinking water became commonplace that cholera was prevented.
Here are a couple of cholera posters I found online. They both advise against eating fruit! But number 18 on the second poster is very pertinent as we’re under partial lockdown again here in Blackburn – Let crowding of persons within houses and apartments be avoided.