King Cholera

Cholera was one of the most feared infectious diseases of the Industrial age. Indeed, it is still a major killer in the Third World and in areas where sanitation is poor.

Cholera first struck England in 1831, killing some 30,000 people in an outbreak lasting the best part of a year. The vast majority of these deaths were of people living in overcrowded slums with poor housing and little, if any, provision of clean water. The rate of death prompted several enquiries into the cause of the disease, including John Snow’s breakthrough in the 1850’s. Known as ‘King Cholera’ due to the way in which the disease mastered, controlled and decided the fate the people it struck on several further occasions in the 19th century. Pasteur’s germ theory and the subsequent identification of the cholera germ provided the scientific evidence required to force through change, and by the turn of the century, Cholera was no longer king.

Things to think about:

  1. Why was nothing done about poor sewage disposal and the lack of clean water in cities for such a long period of time?
  2. Why was Cholera such a deadly killer?
  3. What did people believe caused Cholera? What cures were attempted? (This can be answered through research conducted elsewhere, the following sources don’t address this point yet).

Source 1

The Cholera in Bradford; by October 420 deaths had occurred in the borough.

“….that dreadful scourge brought many facts before the Council to demonstrate the insufficiency of its powers in dealing with the sanitary condition of the town. The scourge in question was most destructive of life” in districts which “abounded with places presenting unmistakable evidences of the violation of the laws of health and common decency, and were the certain and prolific sources of pestilence. Notwithstanding this, the Council found their endeavours towards improvement retarded on all sides: on the one hand by the indisposition of private owners to effect any improvement” not forced on them by law;” and again, by the slow and tortuous process of the law”

Source 2

The first half of the nineteenth century saw cholera epidemics which brought about scenes of horror in many graveyards with heaps of bones and partially rotted bodies being dug up to make way for even more burials.

Diseases such as smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever and even malaria were prevalent in the Bradford area and there were cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849, 1853, 1854 and 1856.
Nor was Bradford known as a clean town. James Smith In his report for the Health Of Towns Commission in 1844 concluded “…of Bradford I am obliged to pronounce it the most filthy town I visited.” Central Bradford in the 1840’s is described as having “courts, yards and dingy alleys with overflowing privies, open cesspits, pig styes and slaughterhouses and effluent laden watercourses”.

Pete Crosier, Bradford College. Hosted on the BBC website at

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