Cholera kills while tradesmen complain

PUBLISHED: 11:26 14 June 2007 | UPDATED: 12:32 04 May 2010

IT was not only the radical elements in Ely society who were concerned about the cholera epidemic. Tradesmen in the city were up in arms because their trade was being affected by the loss of earnings, which in their view, was as a direct result of the sca

IT was not only the radical elements in Ely society who were concerned about the cholera epidemic. Tradesmen in the city were up in arms because their trade was being affected by the loss of earnings, which in their view, was as a direct result of the scaremongering whipped up by the Board of Health.

Under the board's instigation, the Assizes were relocated to Wisbech. Anyone with any sense avoided Ely and those who normally came to the market from the local villages, by-passed the city. All this, in the opinions of the trading fraternity was a malicious slur on the town and unfounded in reality.

One irate landlord of Ely Trinity wrote on March, 29, 1832 "my disgust is only equal to my indignation at seeing our town through causes, but slightly founded, deprived of an Assize and sessions, making an impression upon strangers not easily to be removed." He believed that the whole problem had been raised as a result of "the alarm of a few old women" who had over-reacted without due cause.

However, within two or three days of this letter being printed in the Cambridge Independent Press, 10 new cases of cholera had been notified to the Board of Health and nine of the victims had died. The problem now was to allay the fears of the ever growing reality of the situation and most importantly to find somewhere to isolate the patients. At the time, there was no newspaper printed in Ely and therefore the Cambridge and Bury presses had a free hand. People living in the city had to make do with printed notices and word-of-mouth.

It was probably quite understandable that the Cambridgeshire Militia did not wish to use their depot in Ely as a hospital for the sick. They appeared to be quick to claim that unlike most other barracks, which usually had a number of unused rooms suitable for use as a hospital, the "depot in Ely is full of very valuable articles" for which F.C.J Pemberton, their Colonel who penned the letter, was personally responsible.

By April 7, 1832 50 cases of cholera in Ely had been reported with 22 deaths, the following day this had reached 73 cases with 29 deaths.

The situation was now beginning to sink in.

Separating the sick from the healthy was an impossible task and the houses where these cases had broken out were in the poorer places with tenements close together. The Militia Depot could not be used and there was simply nowhere else to put them at the present time.

Desperate for a solution, the Board of Health attempted to prevail upon the parish officers to clear the two workhouses and turn them into temporary hospitals. On April 9, however, nine more cases were reported and, of these, seven were people living in the Holy Trinity workhouse in Fore Hill. The situation was getting out of hand and the Ely Board of Health felt extremely compromised by the scare campaign.

Looking at a map of Ely, showing where the cases occurred, there is a pattern of where they occurred: Back Hill, Broad Street, Potters Lane, Buggs Hill (now Cambridge Road), Smoke Alley and Gaol Lane (Barton Road), with others in Annesdale, Bridge Road and West End.

To the majority of the inhabitants of Ely, cholera was linked in their mind to the abject poverty of these areas, but, of course, at the time they did not know that the link was the water source of these residents. For the majority who succumbed, it was the river that had caused the problem.

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