Were your ancestors caught up in the first great cholera outbreak to hit Britain in 1832? Search the cases collected by Manchester doctor Henry Gaulter MD, who was trying to find out what was causing the disease that swept through much of the world that year. Gaulter took detailed notes of a representative sample of cases, and through these you could find out when your ancestor contracted the illness, whether they survived and where they lived. Gaulter also noted what lifestyle factors might have made his subjects more susceptible to the disease – giving a fascinating insight into how your ancestors were living.
Each record is a transcript from the original source. The amount of information can vary but you could find out the following about your ancestor:
Year of birth
Patient notes including address, family details, their movements during contagion, lifestyle factors that might have made them more susceptible to the disease, environmental factors that might have caused the disease, related cases.
There had been outbreaks of cholera in India for years but during the 1820s the devastating illness moved through Asia and by 1830, the first cases were reported in Moscow. The following year the epidemic had spread to Warsaw, Berlin and Hamburg before reaching northern England.
The first case was reported in Sunderland in October 1831, when a ship, whose crew had been infected, docked at the port. The ship was allowed to dock because the port authorities did not agree with Government instructions to quarantine any ships arriving from the Balkans. Once cholera arrived in Britain it spread quickly, travelling both north to Scotland and south to London. In total around 55,000 people died in England alone.
Cholera arrived in Manchester on 17 May 1832, a Thursday, when James Palfreyman, a coach painter, complained to his doctor of nausea and stomach cramps. Before long he was showing all the classic cholera symptoms – vomiting, dehydration, his skin had becoming greyish blue. Three days later, Palfreyman was dead. You can find his record on Findmypast.
Manchester doctor Henry Gaulter started tracking the progress of the disease from this first case. At this point it was not known how the virulent disease was spreading. In his notes, Gaulter is testing various theories and ruling out certain possibilities. Gaulter notes that Palfreyman was prone to severe diarrhoea after eating food that was only weakly acidic and that he had suffered from repeated bouts of painter’s colic and was something of a binge drinker although he was otherwise in good health. Palfreyman had been out drinking the night before he fell sick, noted Gaulter, and had had a large meal of lamb’s head, liver, lung and heart.
It was eventually discovered that cholera was carried in dirty water and Gaulter observed with Palfreyman that the area he lived in was overcrowded and filthy and that the coach painter had often complained of the stench coming from the dung heap across the road.
There were a total of 1,325 reported cases of cholera between May 1832 and the end of January the following year. 674 people died. Gaulter’s work, The Origin and Progress of the Malignant Cholera in Manchester, first published in 1833, takes the first 200 cases in detail. It’s not known whether Gaulter, who was a member of the Special Board of Health, kept notes on any of the other cases but he did write about the difficulty of gathering the information. “The poor are habitually inexact; they omit, from stupidity, the most essential point of an inquiry, unless led to it by a direct question; or they answer as they suppose you wish them to answer; or else they wilfully deceive” He wrote that it was usually only possible to get a full account of what had happened by closely examining, not just the patient, but also their relations and neighbours, after the epidemic had passed.
Studies like the one carried out by Henry Gaulter eventually led to an understanding of cholera and improvements in public water and waste management systems. Gaulter’s work was some of the earliest on the subject. Fundamental changes in sewage systems and provision of clean water did not take place for another twenty years or so.