How cholera first struck Ely in 1832

PUBLISHED: 16:00 31 May 2007 | UPDATED: 12:32 04 May 2010

WHEN cholera reached Britain in October 1831, the British Government was quick to act sending out a circular on October 20, 1831 advising that: In every town and village commencing with those on the coast there should be established a Local Board of Heal

WHEN cholera reached Britain in October 1831, the British Government was quick to act sending out a circular on October 20, 1831 advising that:

"In every town and village commencing with those on the coast there should be established a Local Board of Health.

- Separating the sick from the healthy by the provision of proper houses.

- Purifying houses in which patients have died.

- Victims should be buried in detached ground in the vicinity of the house.

- The fewer the attendants on the sick the better.

- There should be a period of 21 days convalescence.

- Suspected cases must be reported immediately."

In response to this the Watch Committee in Ely met on Friday, November 11 and agreed to form the Ely Board of Health which would meet every Monday in the Shire Hall at 11am. In addition, a public meeting was held on the November 14 to inform local inhabitants of the precautions to take to guard against the introduction of the disease to the town, which had been divided into four districts.

The Board of Health also agreed to take on the cleansing of sewers and watercourses and the members were to visit each house to ensure that 'due attention was paid to cleanliness and ventilation'.

The winter of 1831/32 passed with no sign of the cholera.

Then on March 17, 1832 disaster struck. Joseph Layton, a 69-year-old labourer who lived in Walpole Lane, now Silver Street, went to work as usual.

He was taken ill while he was threshing and was sent home; by 11pm that night he had died.

A post mortem on the Monday confirmed that it was cholera and by that evening four more people had died, three of them young children, two from Broad Street and two from Potters Lane.

Whilst reports in the press tried to play down the seriousness of the situation the Ely Board of Health was very worried about the outbreak.

On March 20 it decided to meet everyday and wrote to Lord Hardwicke to ask if the Militia Depot could be used as a hospital to isolate the new cases of cholera. Beggars were to be stopped before entering the town and told that if they were caught begging they would be removed from Ely or put before the town magistrate.

The Ely Board of Health also wrote to the Chief Bailiff for the Isle, William Watson, to warn him about the presence of cholera. The assizes for the Isle had been due to take place in Ely on March 30, sensibly this was changed by Watson to take place at Wisbech.

Far from causing panic the arrival of cholera in Ely polarised public opinion.

Many simply refused to accept that it was cholera and believed that the furore was being whipped up by medical men who had never seen a case of Asiatic Cholera Morbus and were therefore incapable of deciding if this disease had reached Ely. People also felt it was merely an excuse for an attack by those in power on the poor living conditions experienced by the working classes.

The middle classes in the town were apparently unperturbed as well and felt that people were dying from natural causes and old age and rather than cholera. They could justify this because the areas of the outbreaks were confined to the poorer residences in Ely.

The Board of Health did everything it could to convince the people of Ely that cholera had reached the town; it even called in 10 doctors from the area who signed a certificate that in their opinion this was the illness that 'is described as at present prevailing in London and the North of England.' The Board of Health notices that went up in the town were pasted over by a notable Ely radical, an attorney named William Claxton who lived on the market place. His notices written in ink stated:

"NO Cholera at Ely

The parsons' liars

And doctors pickpockets"

He was so incensed that victims were forced to notify doctors of the disease, and be charged for the call out. The incidence of cholera was amongst the poorest of the community, who could little afford the payments to 'the greedy quacks'.

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