Cholera is an infectious disease which causes diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, leading to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. The severe dehydration can leave a victim with a blue tinge to their skin. This can quickly kill a sufferer: in some extreme cases, death occurs within hours of the onset of symptoms.
Cholera is caused by a bacterial infection of the small intestine. This bacteria can be spread through poor sanitation. Today, the most common cause of cholera is unclean drinking water and a lack of proper sanitation infrastructure, such as toilets and sewage treatment. In countries that do have such infrastructure in place, cases of cholera are still present, if uncommon. These are usually caused by undercooked seafood which has been exposed to untreated sewage in the sea.
Today, the disease can be treated with large volumes of fluid and antibiotics. Rehydration sachets are also used, as these powder preparations contain compounds to correct the electrolyte imbalance caused by diarrhoea.
Cholera was a common illness in pre-20th century Britain. Large urban centres that developed following the industrial revolution. With large populations and little sanitary infrastructure, cholera quickly spread through contaminated water sources. As a result, cholera outbreaks on various scales were common and recurring.
Leeds suffered two of these large outbreaks.
The first large scale cholera epidemic in Leeds began in 1832 and claimed some 700 lives. This posed a problem for the local burial spaces: the deaths so many and so frequent that graveyards struggled to provide the necessary number of gravediggers and religious ministers. There was also a problem of space: many of the churchyards at the time were nearing capacity. At the time, miasma theory (the theory that disease was caused by breathing in bad smells, known as ‘bad air’) was prevalent. As a result, many people feared that burying cholera victims in crowded churchyards would lead to this ‘bad air’ accumulating and furthering the epidemic, particularly as many churchyards were close to highly populated areas. This was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Leeds General Cemetery company in 1833: local people had been in need of a new burial space for some time, and the cholera epidemic of 1832 had brought attention to this need. The Leeds General Cemetery opened for burials in 1835 to serve this need for a new, cleaner burial ground further away from housing.
The second cholera outbreak began in 1849 and killed 1,642 people in England. It is unknown how many people were affected in Leeds: it can be difficult to ascertain precise numbers due to a lack of records. Further, a death from cholera was not also classified as such due to the variations in time scales and presentation of symptoms. Many people also recovered from cholera itself but died in the following weeks from the lingering effects of dehydration and weakness. Some deaths for the surrounding years that are attributed to ‘diarrhoea’ and ‘bowel complaint[s]’ may have been caused by cholera.
The Leeds General Cemetery burial registers show 49 people whose cause of death was recorded as ‘cholera’ in 1849. The first burial of cholera victim in the Leeds General Cemetery took place on the 22nd of July 1849, and the last burial closely connected to this outbreak took place on the 27th of September 1849. To find out more about people buried in the Leeds General Cemetery who died of cholera, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index.
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.