Cholera riots…!

Sometime during the night on May 29th, 1832, a woman that went by the name of Mrs Clarke died. Her death was one of a series of events that sparked-off widespread rioting in Liverpool during the summer of 1832. A summer that played host to a number of “cholera riots” across various towns throughout Great Britain.

It all began that very afternoon, when Mr Clarke called for a doctor. The couple lived in a tiny cellar in Perry Street, in the east end of Liverpool, just along the wharf. The doctor was called in for a bout of persistent diarrhoea. At the time Mr Clarke had already been ill for several days. Mrs Clarke had just fallen ill that day but was clearly suffering more than her husband. The doctor’s diagnosis was clear — cholera. That evening Mrs Clarke was to be taken to Toxteth Park Cholera Hospital by way of a “palanquin”, essentially a makeshift cart carried and transported on the shoulders of several men.

What met the doctor and the Clarkes when they emerged from the cellar onto the street was a mob — “a considerable mob” as the Liverpool Chronicle described it in the newspaper two days later. More than a thousand people, consisting mostly of “women and boys of the lowest order” had gathered. The unruly mob gave chase as the palanquin left for the hospital.

At the hospital, Mrs Clarke was placed in a sallow room to be attended to. At this point she was not in a good state. The crowd gathered around the hospital where Mrs Clarke was close to death, throwing stones, rocks and pieces of broken bricks.

Mrs Clarke was close to death, while the windows cracked under the hail of rocks. The doctor attending to her in her final stages was forced to flee and take cover. The mob was in pursuit of the doctor. They harassed and chased out anyone else that got in their way. The doctor was their target — chanting “burker” and “murderer”. For them the good doctor was a charlatan and not to be trusted. A burker referring to the highly publicised selling of bodies for anatomical dissection that occurred in Edinburgh less than four years previously.

The situation grew more intense. It would be many hours before there were enough police at the scene to disperse the mob. By that time, Mrs Clarke had already died. She would be buried in a modest funeral the next day, with only a few mourners in attendance, under a sombre, heavy rain.

This, it seemed, was only the beginning. For the next three consecutive nights similar larger crowds gathered in the vicinity of the cholera hospital and other hospitals around town. These gatherings passed largely without incident or violence. That is, until the night of June 1st when police arrested two women and two men during a riot that delayed the removal of a cholera patient from hospital.

Add to this, incidents the same day involving a woman leaving hospital being chased by a mob. Two other more serious incidents occurred in the following days, with doctors and patients being harassed. The police had to be called in on each and every occasion.

In all, over ten days of violence and civil unrest was witnessed across Liverpool, seemingly as a result of a paranoid public — attacking and breaking palanquins, harassing and stalking the sick and medical professionals.

How did this woman, Mrs Clarke, the wife of a simple dock worker, erupt a series of violent riots across Liverpool? The truth is that the case of Mrs Clarke typifies the paranoia and fear of the time.

These were not the kind of riots that we normally associate with civil disobedience and unrest. This was a new kind of riot, borne out of a different kind of social setting. This was rioting over an infectious disease. Paranoia and fear were the primary instigators. Most of all, fear of cholera. Fear of a new and horrific disease. But more importantly, fear of a disease that the medical profession had no answer for.

We have to remember the epoch. John Snow’s description implicating contaminated water as a source for the disease was more than two decades away. So, at the time, no one knew anything.

Disease and death was on the tips of every one’s tongue. A dramatic disease with rapid death and high mortality. The general populous feared an infection that could spread in all directions. Not discriminating between the rich and the poor, the old or the young, and the weak or the physically fit. With no safe zone, no vaccines, remedies or protection, some called it the act of a vengeful God.

The Great Britain of the eighteen hundreds was one ripe for the spread of infectious diseases. The streets overflowing with sewage and rubbish into rivers and ditches that also served as a source of public drinking water. Liverpool witnessed overcrowding, poverty, and poor sanitation as a result of a city heaving under the heavy burden of industrialization.

These cholera riots about a disease no one knew anything of was related and connected to the wider relationship of doctors and the general public.

A few years earlier two men, William Burke and William Hare, were tried and convicted of murdering several people and selling the bodies on to hospitals for dissection. This was very much in the public consciousness at the time of the cholera epidemic. There was a public perception that cholera victims were being removed from the hospital to be killed by doctors.

The riots in Liverpool, it seemed, broke out on individual occasions across town. They moved from south to north in a haphazard and unorganised fashion. But many failed to attribute proper significance to what had happened. The press, the middle classes, and the doctors all ignored much public concern over the dissection issue, and also underestimated the seriousness of the cholera epidemic.

An epidemic that started the year before in Sunderland, recording the first case of “Asiatic Cholera” — peaked in the summer of 1832 and petered out by the end of the year. Leaving in its wake an estimated 21 882 deaths, public mistrust, fear, paranoia, and the consequence of an unusual social reaction to a disease epidemic.

Image — source.

Burrell, S. (2005). The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic of 1832 and Anatomical Dissection–Medical Mistrust and Civil Unrest Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 60 (4), 478-498 DOI: 10.1093/jhmas/jri061

Gill G, Burrell S, & Brown J (2001). Fear and frustration–the Liverpool cholera riots of 1832. Lancet, 358 (9277), 233-7 PMID: 11476860

Puntis J (2001). 1832 cholera riots. Lancet, 358 (9288) PMID: 11597715



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