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CHOLERA IN DEVON

 

1.The Symptoms:

 

Cholera is caused by a bacterium, vibrio cholerae, and is spread through drinking from contaminated water supplies. This invades the intestine and when a sufficient number have built up, a watery diarrhoea commences, which  leads to loss of fluids and dehydration. 

Unless treated, it can be fatal within a very short time and it is possible, for even a healthy person, to go into shock and die within three hours. Stomach pains and a slightly raised temperature are followed by vomiting and the onset of diarrhoea. Fluid loss can be as high as a litre per hour.

 

2. The Treatment - then and now:

 

In modern times the disease can be halted through re-hydration, orally or by drip. The liquid used must contain salt and sugar to replace lost minerals and the water content must be sterile. In the past, some doctors knew about administering salt and water but others advocated some very scary and usually futile treatments ranging from bleeding to the application of leeches. In Devon, in the past, most poor people had no money to spare for doctors and relied on home remedies and help from neighbours.

 

3. Infecting others:

 

The disease is rarely spread by direct contact with  others. It affects neighbours because they share use the same contaminated water source and that contamination is worsened by inadequate sanitation and the very fact of living in extremely close contact.

 

4. The history of cholera in England:

 

For hundreds of years, cholera was associated with Asian countries but in 1832, the disease reached London and Paris and by 1834 had spread across the Atlantic to Canada and the USA. Another outbreak in 1849 killed over 14,000 people in London alone - twice as many deaths as had occurred in 1832. Between 1853 and 1854, after almost 11,000 deaths in London, a local doctor realised that the infection was coming from a single water pump in Soho. By simply taking away the handle from the pump, Dr. John Snow stopped the outbreak almost overnight. It wasn't the end of the story though, because in 1866 a further major outbreak took place in the East End of London which was directly linked with a contaminated supply from the local water company. The last serious European cholera outbreak took place in Germany in the 1890s.

 

5. The history of cholera in Devon:

 

Devon suffered from proximity to ports such as Plymouth and Bideford - places where sailors came ashore already infected with cholera. The railways too, brought people from badly-infected areas such as London and Liverpool. But the true cause was the primitive level of sanitary arrangements throughout the county. 

 

In 1832, Devon was second only to London in its casualty rate and the Exeter outbreak in that year was well-documented by Thomas Shapter. The port of Dartmouth suffered badly and deaths spread to other places in the South Hams; at the same time, there was a serious outbreak in Plymouth. Another serious outbreak occurred in 1839 but it was the lengthy outbreak between 1849 and 1852 right across the county which killed local people in thousands, not hundreds. 

 

Our parish registers record not only the number of deaths but a variety of details which give us an intimate insight into the concerns of the times - first and foremost, how to manage speedily the burial of so  many people. 

 

Read the detailed observations made by Dr.William Budd of  North Tawton by going to

 

http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/NorthTawton/BuddCholera.html

 

Best of all, read an  historic document - go to COTTAGE SCENES DURING THE CHOLERA by the Rev. W. I. Coppard. This is a diary kept by the Vicar of Plympton St. Mary, detailing his day-to-day experiences as he and the local doctor, almost single-handedly and at great personal risk, coped with a terrible outbreak within the parish - graphic details but he tells it how it was. (Please note - click through the first four pages which are blank.)

 

 
 
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