Cholera in the large towns of the West and East Ridings, 1848-1893.
This study discusses the three cholera epidemics in 1848-49,
1853-54 and 1865-66, focussing on how the disease was
experienced and acted upon, as well as its impact in the four
large towns of the West and East Riding of Yorkshire
(Bradford, Hull, Leeds and Sheffield). It does this
comparatively and sets cholera outbreaks in the context of
local social, administrative and geographical factors. The
main thesis is that historians should not talk about the
national experience of cholera for the period 1848-66, rather
they should recognise different experiences and impacts
between towns, through time and at different levels of
society. A subsidiary argument, however, is that the scares
which occurred in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s can be considered
at the national, even international level.
In 1848-49 there were major differences in mortality
between the four towns, with Hull and Sheffield at two ends of
the spectrum nationally and regionally. In 1853-54 and 1865-
66 none of the four towns experienced a major epidemic, though
they did experience exceptional levels of public health
activity, such that an 'epidemic consciousness' can be
identified. While nationally there was an incremental fall in
cholera mortality over the three later epidemics, in the four
towns there was a single fall after 1849. As each threat
passed there was growing confidence that cholera was
Controllable, though it never lost its power to 'shock'.
In 1848-49 there were major differences between the towns
in levels and forms of activity both to the approach and the
containment of the epidemic. This was due to a number of
Variables: social relations and class attitudes, the role of
the medical profession, theories of cholera's etiology
(including the gradual adoption and adaptation of Snow's
ideas), local reactions to relations with central government,
the intensity of the mortality crisis and past experiences of
epidemic diseases. The most striking feature in 1853-54 was
the lack of variation in official actions across the towns.
DUring and after the 1866 epidemic a two-tier approach was
adopted, with cholera increasingly seen as a port disease.
Was cholera the local sanitary reformers' best friend? The
answer given is no, but this is qualified in several ways.
The commonest middle class view of the later epidemics
Was that those who suffered were culpable, due to their
ignorance and fecklessness. In other words, the problem was
not so much the disease as the people. Working class
reactions to sanitary reform were not characterised, as is
often said, by ignorance or hostility, rather they were varied
and patterned. Actions were guided by a specific, usually
local, understanding of urban disease ecology and of the wider
determinants of health and disease. This knowledge of the
local physical environment was linked to views on rights and
responsibilities. The working class did not share the one
dimensional environmentalism of the sanitarians; instead they
Contended that many other factors were determinants of health,
not least wages and hours of work.