Cholera in Sunderland

Sunderland played an important part in the story of public health and civic improvement in 1831 when it was the site of the first outbreak of cholera in the UK.

The disease that we now know as cholera originated in India, probably in the Ganges delta.  The first cholera pandemic began in 1817 when the disease spread by trade routes from India to other countries in Asia, including China and Japan, and to southern Russia.   From Russia it spread through Europe, and in 1827 another pandemic broke out.

The disease was referred to as Cholera Morbus in order to distinguish it from common or English cholera, dysentery and food poisoning that were already common in the UK, particularly during warm weather.  These diseases are now more commonly referred to as gastroenteritis.  In the early years there was considerable confusion between the two diseases.

The slow but steady progress of the disease across mainland Europe was watched with great concern in the UK, and attempts were made to prevent its arrival.  In 1831, the Privy Council put all ships arriving in England from Russia under quarantine.  It also reconstituted the Central Board of Health, initially set up in 1805 due to concern about yellow fever, which met daily from June 1831 to May 1832.  Its powers were limited, and parochial Vestry Committees were those responsible for actually taking measures within their own localities.  They were often ineffective and slow to act.

As the disease spread to Hamburg, the quarantine was extended to all ships arriving from the Baltic ports, but in Sunderland the quarantine failed, and suspected cases of cholera began to be reported from late summer, 1831.  The first confirmed case was that of William Sproat, a keelman who lived near the quayside.  He fell ill on 23 October, and died after three days.  The authorities were not notified until four days later, when James Butler Kell, a local army surgeon who had gained experience of cholera  during an epidemic in Mauritius, went over the head of Dr Clanny, the head of the local Board of Health.  In early November the Board finally admitted that cholera has struck in the town, but when the resulting quarantine on ships from Sunderland severely affected local trade, some of the businessmen of the town formed an ‘anti-cholera’ party.  Under pressure, many of the local doctors retracted their opinion that the victims were suffering from cholera.  This was widely reported nationally, causing a scandal and a boycott of Sunderland. 

The disease ran its course in Sunderland, resulting in 215 reported deaths.  By late December it appeared to have been contained, but the infection had already spread to Gateshead, where it broke out suddenly and violently on 25 December, resulting in 115 cases and 50 deaths by the following day.

Cholera went on to spread throughout the country.  In February 1832, Parliament’s Cholera Morbus Prevention Act became law and allowed some powers to local Boards of Health.  By this time the country was already in the grip of the epidemic however, and it was too late for the Act to have much impact.  In Britain, 32,000 people died of cholera in 1831 and 1832. 

Despite the fear and panic that the disease inspired, once the epidemic ceased, very little was done to prevent its recurrence.  When the next pandemic reached the UK in 1848, the issues that had made the epidemic so deadly had not been addressed: living conditions for the poor were still cramped and unhygienic, sewerage was unsatisfactory in most towns and water supplies were still vulnerable to contamination.  62,000 people died in a two-year outbreak.

Partly as a result of the second outbreak, the Public Health Act of 1848 was passed. Find out more about the Act.