Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

A plague on all your houses!

By Valerie Henstock

It is currently an overworked subject and we may need a change of diet but, when it comes to plague, we as historians, can appreciate the long view. The Corona pandemic has taken centre stage recently but the following, more local, references may be of interest to us in Nottinghamshire:

On 1st August 1832 Maria Baldwin, a visitor to Orston Hall near Bingham wrote to one of her correspondents:- ‘I am grieved to say the Cholera is spreading very rapidly in towns and villages very near this place it is generally feared by medical men the alarming disorder will still increase more in the Autumn, from the season and likewise the infection likely to be brought by the numbers of Irishmen who are allowed to come to England to be employed during the harvest; the Magistrates are very strict in this neighbourhood in ordering all Beggars to be taken up, which is highly proper, as one, a woman, was seized in a village near Newark a few days ago with the Cholera, she was immediately put into a cart and taken away.’ The Nottingham Date Book at the same time records: - ’that dreadful scourge, the Asiatic cholera, appeared in Nottingham early this year in August the epidemic broke out with alarming violence. In the seven days ending the 24th of that month, 41 new cases were reported to the local Board of Health and 18 deaths’. The disease ‘prevailed in its most fatal form in imperfectly drained and ill ventilated localities.’ The death rate peaked at the end of September and then tailed off in November. In all 600 people recovered and 330 died. [Later figures from the Sanitary Board’s report were 1100 and 289 respectively]. A Cholera burial ground was hurriedly established on land donated on Beck Street and the Nottingham Board of Health spent £749 plus £200 given to patients for food, blankets etc. We are today urged to ‘follow the science’ but it is clear from the above sources that the spread of the disease was, at that time, attributed to poor housing and to persons outside polite society. Nottingham was most fortunate to have a local engineer, Thomas Hawksley (1807-93) whose idea of a pressurised water supply greatly contributed to the improved health of its inhabitants. This, together with housing and road improvements, meant that the next time cholera visited the city the numbers dying were appreciably lower.

Hawksley oversaw the construction of over 150 waterworks nationally and is remembered with gratitude by the populations of Birmingham and Liverpool as well as his native city. The first significant modern example of a plague was as a result of the lifting of the siege of Newark in 1646. The people, who had been caught up in a six months ’lockdown’ when sanitary conditions in the town were exacerbated by greater numbers than usual, fled to their homes in villages in the area and gave their friends and relatives the kiss of death. The parish registers for the months following show peaks of burials, some villages resorting to plague pits. The rector of Sibthorpe notes in his burial register: ‘In the year 1727 we had a violent shock of an earthquake which was felt in most parts of the kingdom, after which a most grievous sickness ensued (called the New Distemper because unknown before), which swept away an abundance of people of all ages and sexes for which no cure was to be had. The parish in a great measure escaped the contagion. In London the Bills of Mortality for several weeks were very great, some amounting to 900 and above.’

In the light of this it is understandable that Thomas Gilbey, an 18th century vicar of Gamston near Retford, memorialized in his parish register this recipe to protect against the plague:

‘Take a pennyworth of dragon water, a pennyworth of olive oil, methradate a penny and treacle a penny. Then take an onion and fill it full of pepper, and when you have scraped it, then roast it and after that put it to the liquor and strain and drink it in the morning. And if you take the same at night, lay soap and bay salt to your feet and sweat upon it and, with God’s help, you shall recover.’ N.B. Don’t try this at home!

Editor’s Note: 53,000 people in England and Wales died in the 1831/32 outbreak: the victims were mostly from the poorest sections of the population in the insanitary districts of industrial towns.