Diarrhoea is a condition in which normal bowel function is disrupted and faeces are excreted frequently and in a liquid form. There are a number of different kinds of diarrhoea. Secretory diarrhoea occurs in response to either an increase in the secretion or a disruption of absorption of bowel fluids. Osmotic diarrhoea occurs when a person consumes food and drink that cause excessive water to be drawn into the bowels, such as drinks with a high sugar content. Other types either occur alongside or are caused by physical damage to the bowel structure, such as inflammation. This is called exudative diarrhea.
Diarrhoea can lead to severe dehydration, and it is usually this dehydration that leads to the death of sufferers. It is often a symptom of another fatal disease, such as cholera and dysentery.
There are a huge number of causes of diarrhoea, which may account for its prevalence within the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers. As a cause of death within the registers, diarrhoea mainly affects children under 2 years old, although a number of people over the age of 65 are also listed. It is often spread by drinking water that has been contaminated with sewage.
As diarrhoea could be caused by a lack of access to clean water and other proper sanitation, it was more likely to affect those living in poorer areas. However, as noted by social reformer Edwin Chadwick, poor management of sewage affected the entire city of Leeds, with the ‘stagnant water’ and ‘excrementitious matter’ inescapable. Those living close to the River Aire were subject to regular flooding, and this often meant untreated sewage washed into people’s homes, making it difficult to prevent the spread of diseases, particularly those which caused diarrhoea.
In the city of Leeds in 1890 there were 362 fatalities resulting from diarrhoea and dysentery, 325 of which were in children aged under five. In comparison, in the years 1927 and 1928, diarrhoea killed 79 and 89 respectively. However, in 1929 diarrhoea was the third biggest killer in infants aged under one in Leeds, demonstrating that though improvements had been made, diarrhoea was still a deadly problem for children and infants.
‘Diarrhoea’ is one of the top ten most common causes of death recorded in the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers. To find out more, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the numbers, ages, gender and more of those affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.