Cholera and charity in mid-nineteenth century London


Between 1848-9 some 14, 137 Londoners died of Cholera. It was the second major outbreak of the disease to hit the capital in the 19th century and it was not to be the last. At first it was thought that cholera was spread by ‘bad air’ (a ‘miasma’) but later the pioneering work of John Snow established that it was water borne. This led Jospeh Bazalgette to overhaul the capital’s sewage system and ensure that Londoners have had safe drinking water since the late 1800s.

The newspaper reports of the London Police courts were (as regular readers will have seen)  generally concerned with the petty criminals, drunks and brawlers that were trouped before the capital’s ‘beaks’ to be sent for trial at Old Bailey or the Surrey Assizes, imprisoned in a house of correction for a few months, fined or otherwise admonished. Just occasionally however, they paused to reflect some of the other tasks these courts performed as part of their wider role as administrators of social relations in London.

In October 1849 there were two reports of the use of charity at the courts (one of which that related directly to the distress caused by the recent cholera outbreak). The disease not only killed thousands but it also left others bereaved, orphaned and weakened by its ravages. Many of the those that died were members of the urban poor; weakened by years of endemic poverty they often lacked the strength to fight disease. They were also the people that (as Snow’s investigation in Broad Street later in 1854 demonstrated) were forced to share a communal tap.

One report (from Westminster) informed the readers of the Morning Chronicle that the presiding magistrate had managed to distribute money to over 140 people or families, giving them 5 to 10 shillings each. By my calculation that suggests that the people of Westminster had donated something in the region of £100 (or around £5000 in today’s money) to the Westminster magistracy for the relief of those suffering the effects of cholera and its repercussions. Quite apart from the loss of breadwinners or the need to leave work to nurse the sick the poor would also have had to find money to bury their loved ones. This charity must have been very welcome.

A second report, from Thames, detailed individual donations ‘to the poor man Bushell’. These included ‘half a 5L note from a poor sailor’, the same from ‘a lady’, plus smaller offerings of 2s 6d from several people (some who gave names or initials, and others who wished to be anonymous).

Bushell had appeared before the Thames magistrate on the 19th October to ask for help. He had been Custom’s House officer in the City but had fallen on hard times. He spoke in court of his misfortune and his inability to support his wife and five children (the youngest of whom was a ‘babe in arms’). His landlord was trying to take possession of his property and evict them and his wife was now too ill to look after the children. He had approached the Poor Law authorities but what they offered was too little for the family to survive on.

This approach must have cost him plenty in terms of his pride and social standing and perhaps because of this when the readers of the The Morning Post  or Chronicle read his story they reacted so positively, sending small and large sums to him via the magistrate’s office.

This shows us that the Victorian public – like so many in today’s society – were willing to dig deep to her others deemed worse off than themselves. It also illustrates the multi-functional role that the Police Courts played in 19th century society.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 24, 1849]

On Friday 28 October I will be talking about the London Police Courts and the cases heard there at the National Archives in Kew. The archives are having  Night in the Archives Event (tickets only) contact the NA directly for details

One thought on “Cholera and charity in mid-nineteenth century London

  1. A very interesting blog, today, I thought. Wish I lived nearer to the National Archives, but I hope your talk on Friday goes well.


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