Explore the BBC
Radio 4
Radio 4 Tickets
Radio 4 Help

About the BBC

Contact Us


Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

BBC Radio 4 - 92 to 94 FM and 198 Long WaveListen to Digital Radio, Digital TV and OnlineListen on Digital Radio, Digital TV and Online

Go to the Listen Again page
Tuesday, 15/04/2003, 09:00-09:30. Please note there is no repeat.
Jonathan Freedland looks for the past behind the present. Each week, The Long View, recorded on location throughout the British Isles, takes an issue from the current affairs agenda and finds a parallel in our past.
Have you got a good subject for a future programme? Click here to make your suggestion.

A victim of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and image of cholera victim in 19th Century.


1831 - Summer
News reaches Sunderland that a cholera epidemic from India has reached Baltic ports suchs as Danzig and Hamburg and Riga. As these trade with British ports such as Sunderland, cholera is seen as a threat to eastern England, although no-one knows exactly how it spreads. A Board of Health is set up in June and William Reid Clanny, the eminent senior physician of the Sunderland Infirmary, is invited to head the Board's medical department.

Clanny immediately calls a meeting of the town's medical personnel. The other key figure present is James Butler Kell, a humble army doctor stationed in the town who, although of a lower status than his medical colleagues, is the only one with actual experience of the disease, having suppressed an outbreak of cholera in Mauritius by implementing a strict quarantine.

Cholera Spreads to Great Britain in 1830s
One of the first cholera victims in Great Britain. A girl who died of cholera in Sunderland, November 1831.
1831 - Autumn
By September Kell is starting to hear of suspected cases of cholera in Sunderland. He reports these to the Board but has no real evidence and so attracts little attention. The Board do, however, draw up a Code of Sanitation - a measure dismissed as unnecessary meddling by the townfolk. As in most British towns, standards of sanitation in Sunderland are low as there is no regulation of housing, water supply or sewerage.

Clanny realises, with hindsight, that one case he attended, Robert Joyce of Cumberland Street, must have been suffering from the dreaded disease. Diagnosis is made more difficult by confusion over the symptoms of the disease - various typhus-like illnesses had long been described in Britain as 'cholera' and Clanny does not realise that cholera - arriving for the first time in Britain - is a completely different disease. Nor does he realise how the contagion spreads.

Cholera Spreads to Great Britain in 1830s
Fear of spread of the disease - cholera leaves Sunderland by coach and horses.

17th October. The next case is a girl of 12, Isabella Hazard, who lives near the quayside and, having attended church twice on Sunday, suddenly falls ill and dies within 24 hours. ( See reading and illustration ) Still no-one admits the truth.

23rd October. The first official victim is a 60 year old keelman called William Sproat. He lives a 'musket ball's throw from Isabella's house. His wife calls in Kell, who confirms it's cholera and calls in Clanny. They keep him alive for 3 days. His son and granddaughter are also struck down, as is the nurse who handles Sproat's body. Four days later the authorities have still not been officially notified - Kell goes over Clanny's head and does it himself, prompting Clanny to act.

1st November. Clanny calls a meeting of the Board's medical department and the doctors and surgeons finally accept that cholera has struck. Dr Daun, a medical officer from London is sent to initiate a 15 day quarantine enforced by a frigate in the harbour. This is supposed to prevent ships arriving or leaving the harbour. The Privy Council send Lieut Colonel Michael Creagh to see that the quarantine is enforced. The resulting decline in trade causes much resentment among businessmen. An 'anti-cholera party' is formed of local businessmen and leading citizens to discredit the cholera talk. A campaign of bill posting begins. Clanny and Kell put up counter posters.

On Location
Stuart Miller, Jane Ray (the producer), Alick Hale-Monro (studio manager), Dr Vivien Hollyoak, Dr Sally Sheard, Jonathan Freedland and Neil Armstrong.

12th November. Extraordinary meeting of the Board called at the Exchange Buildings. Influenced by the business community, the town's doctors stand and, one by one, 'recant' their former opinion that Indian cholera is loose in the town, such a suggestion they say is a "wicked falsehood". (See reading) Kell and Clanny refuse to attend. The meeting is reported nationally and causes a scandal. Other towns start to boycott Sunderland. Kell responds by putting his own barracks, home of the 82nd regiment and right in the heart of the Cholera district, under strict quarantine and not a single man falls sick.

The cholera epidemic now proceeds rapidly, Clanny continues his poster campaign, financing it from his own pocket.

16th November. The Bishop of Durham calls for a day of fasting and prayer. Other doctors start to recant their recantation as the death toll mounts. Fear of post mortems and body snatching mean that the sick are refusing to go to the cholera hospital but Clanny and Kell orchestrate a great clean up campaign, providing free quicklime and men to sweep the streets twice a day. Blankets are handed out to the poor. Medics from all over the world arrive as 'cholera tourists' to marvel at the clean up and gawp at the sick.

On Location
Dr Sally Sheard, Dr Vivien Hollyoak, Stuart Miller, Jonathan Freedland, Neil Armstrong and Nicky Barranger(co-producer).

Contemporary Theories for Causes.
While some blame cholera on miasma - a harmful atmosphere created, perhaps, by climactic conditions and resulting in a bad air which infects the lungs - other doctors and surgeons, including Kell, blame cholera on contagion caused by dirty and overcrowded living conditions. No-one yet makes the link with water and microbes have not yet been discovered. Some doctors later experiment with saline solution to re-hydrate patients, which is exactly the right thing to do, but no one realises that this is more effective than dosing with brandy, tobacco enemas, bleeding or other treatments.

By late December the disease appears to have been contained … but in fact the infection has already reached Gateshead, where it suddenly and dramatically breaks out at Chistmas time - there are many fatal cases. From Gateshead, cholera reaches Newcastle and then further along the coast and inland.

9th January 1832. The Board of Health declare that Sunderland is free of cholera. There have been 215 reported deaths. Unknown to the board a young doctor called John Snow is, by now battling single handed with the epidemic in a Tyneside coal mining village. It leads him to make an important discovery…

Summer 1832. The Anatomy Act. A new law is passed that says bodies unclaimed at hospitals or workhouses may be used for anatomical dissection. By now cholera has reached Liverpool and fears grow that the sick will be whisked off by the 'burkers' (named after Burke and Hare), which leads to a succession of 'Cholera Riots' in the town (See last reading)

Cholera spreads across the country and 32,000 die in Britain, the result of a global pandemic which kills millions. Although cholera fatalities never approach the levels of TB or dysentery, the disease is particularly terrifying to the British because of its novelty, rapid onset and gruesome symptoms The disease returns three times - in the pandemics of the late 1840s, mid 50s and mid 60s - but never again reaches epidemic proportions in Britain.

1848. The Public Health Act is introduced. For the first time rate payers' money can be used to clean up pestilential middens. This act is superseded by the 1875 Public Health Act that forces the new Local Authorities to provide adequate drainage, sewage and water.

1854. John Snow proves his theory that Cholera is link to a contaminated water supply, in this case a single water pump in Soho, London.

1864 Louis Pasteur discovers that specific diseases are caused by specific microbes.

1883. A German doctor, Robert Koch isolates the cholera bacillus.

1914 Vaccination becomes generally available

Neil Armstrong - actor
Stuart Miller - visiting lecturer at the University of Sunderland and author of Cholera in Sunderland
Dr Sally Sheard - University of Liverpool Department of Public Health and School of History
Dr Vivien Hollyoak - Health Protection Agency
Professor Sir Liam Donaldson - Chief Medical Officer

Listen Live
Audio Help
Back to the Long View Homepage
In Our Time
Thursday 9.00-9.45am, rpt 9.30-10.00pm. Melvyn Bragg explores the history of ideas. Listen again online or download the latest programme as an mp3 file.
Go to This Sceptred Isle website
Have you got a good subject for a future programme? Click hereto make your suggestion.
Jonathan Freedland
Jonathan Freedland is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. A twice-weekly columnist on the Guardian, he also presents BBC 4's The Talk Show on Monday nights at 8.30pm. He is author of the book Bring Home the Revolution, an acclaimed analysis of modern America.
Read a full profile of Jonathan Freedland on BBC 4 ..>>

News & Current Affairs | Arts & Drama | Comedy & Quizzes | Science | Religion & Ethics | History | Factual

Back to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy