A previous blog looked at the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918/19 and Manchester’s role in it, comparing it to the current coronavirus pandemic. In this blog the focus is 1832 when cholera came to Manchester, looking at how the town (Manchester was not yet a city) was affected. We can also highlight differences and similarities with the Spanish Flu and coronavirus.

Events in Manchester were often referred to as the cholera epidemic but they were part of the second cholera pandemic which reached Europe in 1831. It reached London in 1832 spreading to other parts of the UK, with 55,000 deaths in England alone. In Manchester there were 1325 reported cases and 674 deaths. The disease first came to the UK in October 1831 (from an infected crew on a ship docked in Sunderland). The first case in Manchester was that of James Palfreyman, a coach painter, on the 17th May 1832 – he died 3 days later (1).

Cholera, which still exists to this day, although primarily in the third world, is rarely transmitted from person to person as influenza and coronavirus are. It is contracted mainly from drinking unsafe water or food contaminated by bacteria. The symptoms include severe vomiting and diarrhoea, with the skin often turning a bluish-grey colour. It is a disease of poverty with poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water being crucial factors. At the time of the 1832 pandemic this was not known. It wasn’t until 1854 that Dr John Snow made the link between the disease and contaminated drinking water.

So how did this particular pandemic affect Manchester in particular? It goes without saying that Manchester, as a growing industrial town, with thousands living in crowded unsanitary conditions, would have a significant number of cases. Many lived in crowded housing, including cellar dwellings as shown in this picture (from Manchester Libraries’ Local Image Collection, ref. m08388)


In fact the number of deaths was above the national average: 60% compared to 38% (2). However the infection rate was lower and this may be because Manchester had more sources of water supply (2).

That the poor were most affected was inevitable and this fact was, indeed, recognised at the time. One Dr Lyon, in an appendix to the Special Board (which was set up specifically to deal with the cholera in Manchester), stated that cholera victims were most likely to be “those who occupy crowded, dirty, and ill ventilated dwellings; Those who are ill-clothed, and ill-fed.” (2).

What is perhaps particularly redolent of the period is the attitude to the poor. It could be said they were almost blamed for catching the disease. An article in The Guardian (2nd September 1832) commented on their “disregard for precautions” and made a link between this and their “drunkeness”. This attitude was not uncommon. Even the Special Board did not show great concern for the welfare/improvement of the poor: “What these Special Board members feared was transmission of cholera to the middle and upper classes. They also feared having quarantine affect the city.”(2)

The Irish in particular were viewed in a derogatory light. Many of them lived in dire conditions in an area known as “Little Ireland” (an area south of Oxford Road Station where the River Medlock forms a loop). Such views of the Irish were not new and persisted even amongst those who could be seen to be on the side of the poor. In his famous work The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) which highlights Manchester, Engels states: “ The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by Irishmen ….Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them”. In the 1832 pandemic such was the concern about “Little Ireland” that a special sub committee of the Special Board was formed specifically to deal with that area.

It can, however, be said that the feeling was mutual, as it were. Many of the poor had a deep mistrust of authority. “Some members of the poor and working class chafed under the paternalistic new management of what was traditionally a private concern, namely residential cleanliness, personal hygiene, and the rights of hospitalization and internment efforts.” (2)

Many were distrustful of the medical profession and were concerned about grave robbing. They also resented not being able to abide by proper burial rites because of the need to bury cholera victims quickly. Their fears were not unfounded and in September 1832 “…one of the worst uprisings in England directly related to the cholera outbreak” (2) occurred in Manchester. Around 1000 people rioted as a result of a surgeon removing the head of a 4 year old cholera victim in order to dissect it.

Cholera victims had to be buried in a special burial ground – at Walker’s Croft Burial Ground now buried under Victoria Station. Remains found there were, in recent times, exhumed and moved to Southern Cemetery. This was amongst a range of measures decided upon by the Special Board. The board first met in November 1831 with the specific aim of dealing with a cholera outbreak in the township of Manchester. They also set up several cholera hospitals such as those at Jordan Street (Knott Mill) and Swan Street. The Special Board also had the power to raise funds, collect information on cases and organise street cleaning. They held landlords accountable but did not concern themselves with improvements in housing for the poor and had little communication with factory owners.

It was actually at local level that decisions were taken and regulations enforced. We are used to, in the current pandemic, getting direction from Public Health England at national level. Yet in the 1830s there was no real public health structure. “In the absence of national public health legislation, the British government failed to implement a concrete plan to address the impending threat of the epidemic.” (2) There was a Central Board but their role was only advisory. It was down to local authorities to enforce regulations.

As with Dr James Niven during the Spanish Flu pandemic there was an individual who stood out in 1832. He was Dr Henry Gaulter who documented the first 200 cases in his work The Origin and Progress of the Malignant Cholera in Manchester. Then, as with now, collecting information about the spread of the disease was crucial and this was probably a very early example of the systematic collection of information about an infectious disease. It is thanks to Dr Gaulter that we have detailed records of 200 individual cholera victims and his records (free to view via your library account on the Findmypast website).

Map showing location of the first 200 cases of cholera (Manchester Libraries map collection)

Finally the impact on the economy was another factor that caused much concern as it does in the current crisis. The Guardian (2nd September 1832) commented: “The progress of the cholera is said to have caused a stagnation of trade in every branch”. The fact that the Special Board were concerned about the effect of quarantine on trade has already been stated. In fact there was no quarantine and it was felt the people would not take kindly to be confined to their homes (there had been riots in other countries) – hence the setting up of the designated cholera hospitals.