A Tale for Our Times: the Cholera Epidemic of 1832

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While we are all locked down, attempting to survive the ever-increasing threat of ‘The Virus’, I thought it might be interesting to share with you an incident in the early career of Dr. Samuel Gaskell. I wonder how many comparisons you can make with our situation today. It would be lovely to hear your views.

Samuel studied medicine in Edinburgh and in January 1832 (his graduation year) the city was hit by a cholera epidemic. Samuel had assisted with cholera patients during the winter months and, by May 1832, he had received excellent testimonials from James Syme, his professor of clinical surgery, and Dr. J Macintosh, his lecturer on the practise of physic.

This epidemic was not, however, restricted to Edinburgh. Manchester had also been hit by the disease and in November 1831 a subsidiary board of health had been set up to deal with the crisis. The Board set up two hospitals for cholera victims; one in Knott Mill, Deansgate, the other in Swan Street, New Cross, Ancoats. In July 1832, Sam moved to Manchester to begin work at the Cholera hospital in Swan Street, an old three-storey factory or workshop that had been converted especially for the epidemic. His colleagues were Drs. Charles Philips, George Shaw and William Charles Henry, the son of a friend of Elizabeth Gaskell’s cousin Dr. Henry Holland. During this period, another Dr. James Kay – later to become a friend of the Gaskell family – was working at the Ardwick and  Ancoats dispensary. He had just published his  The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Class Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832). Professor John Chapple explains how the work ‘drummed up a deal of animosity and Kay was accused of interfering with patients’ treatment in Swan St.. However,  Samuel Gaskell supported Kay’s denials of this charge’.[1] James Kay became Sir James Kay Shutteworth after his marriage in 1842 to Lady Janet Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. [2]

While in Manchester, Samuel Gaskell was close to his older brother, William who, during late September/early October had brought his bride, Elizabeth, to live in Dover Street. [3] They had been in Wales for most of the summer following their wedding, so may not have been in the city when Sam was involved in a body snatching allegation.  While middle-class cholera victims were treated at home, working-class victims were transported to cholera hospitals in special carts. The cholera hospitals provoked strong opposition: they were part of a system which inspected families in poor areas. Victims were often buried near the workhouse without ceremony, compounding popular fears of dissection. Cholera vans needed police protection and, at the height of the epidemic, visitors to the hospitals were banned.

On the 1st September 1832, 28 victims of the outbreak were buried; among them was John Brogan, a three-year-old boy who died in Swan Street Hospital. The child’s grandfather, who cared for him, was suspicious and demanded that the coffin be raised and the body inspected. A post mortem had not been deemed necessary, as there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. It turned out that the boy’s grandfather was justified; the child’s head had been removed and replaced with a brick.

Within a few hours a crowd of several thousand, carrying the coffin containing Brogan’s headless body, marched through the main streets of Manchester and riots ensued. Rioters broke the windows, pulled down a wall and forced the gates of the hospital. Some patients were taken home by their relatives, some walked out, while others collapsed and died. Beds, furniture and bedding were smashed and seized. Samuel Gaskell and his colleague, Dr. Lynch, resident medical officers at the hospital, were on duty at the time and were forced to escape over a wall. Eventually a troop of Hussars from the Hulme Barracks had to be called in to disperse the crowd. The Collegiate Church Sextons’ registers for September 2 1832 records that no charge was made for the burial of Brogan. The Church waived its usual fee of four shillings for an infant’s burial because Brogan’s corpse was incomplete. [4]

An enquiry by Board of Health ensued, but Samuel and his colleague were exonerated in the light of evidence which stated that Robert Oldham, the new dispenser of medicines, had been seen removing the head secretly at night. Moreover, the Board of Health were quick in their praise of the two young doctors. It became:

‘their duty and their pleasure to exculpate Mr. Lynch and Mr. Gaskell from all participation in this most unprofessional transaction and to testify to their continued approbation of the zealous, active and judicious services of these meritorious officers.

Oldham had absconded and was never found.

After this incident neither Samuel nor Lynch signed up to remain at the hospital in Swan St., perhaps because the cholera epidemic was then decreasing or perhaps because of their experience there.

By the end of September Samuel was house surgeon at the newly-opened Stockport Infirmary, where he worked for the next eighteen months. Here he had to deal with a continuous stream of emergencies which Chapple describes as the ‘severe industrial accidents that astonished visiting strangers’. [5] In 1845, Samuel presented a paper to the British Association at York,  ‘Table of Accidents brought to the Stockport Infirmary and Attended by the House Surgeon, in the Years 1833, 1834, and 1835’ which was included in The Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, September 1845. The paper was generally statistics on those admitted after industrial accidents: for men the age was between 5 and 50 yrs. with the majority of cases being between 10 and 18 yrs., and for women between 3 and 40 yrs., the majority being between 11 and 14yrs.  There was  little accompanying comment which made these figure stand out as a stark reminder of the hardships of industrial life.

[1] John Chapple, Elizabeth Gaskell the Early Years  (Manchester: MUP, 1997), p. 420-421 and https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/b489e047-e6b1-3992-aaa3-5e40e2147729?component=c1b663e9-011f-3367-83d4-bbf48f62a0f1

[2] It was in 1850 at a garden party hosted by Mrs Davenport at Capethorne Hall  to raise money for the Macclesfield Baths that James Kay and his wife, Lady Janet Kay Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe were introduced to Elizabeth Gaskell. Lady Janet and Mrs Davenport were cousins. In the summer of that year, Elizabeth was invited visit their summer villa, Briery Close in Windermere, where she was introduced to Charlotte Bronte.

[3] If the letter in Chapple and Shelston dated Oct 6th is dated correctly they must have arrived in Manchester on October 4th 1832. Further letters of Mrs Gaskell ( MUP, 2000), p. 21.

[4] Information from Chethams Library.

[5] Chapple, Early Years, p. 426

Diane Duffy