Cholera is an illness caused by a germ invading the bowels. The disease is usually spread by contaminated water supplies. The main symptom is watery diarrhoea which leads to fluid depletion and death from dehydration. It has been a killer disease in Asia for over 1,000 years but the first of a series of seven pandemics arrived in Europe in 1817.

In the summer of 1849 over 33,000 people in three months died of cholera in Britain. Around 13,000 of tose who died lived in London. Until the second-half of the 19th century, about 50 per cent of the people who caught cholera died of the disease. The cause of cholera was first identified in 1854. Since improvements have taken place in water supply, the disease has virtually disappeared in Europe.

In the summer of 2000 a team of scientists in the United States led by Claire Fraser deciphered the entire genetic makeup of the cholera microbe. It is hoped that this will enable drugs or vaccines to control the disease in the undeveloped world.

Primary Sources

(1) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

We then journeyed on to London Street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course. In No. 1 of this street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.

As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble.

In this wretched place we were taken to a house where an infant lay dead of the cholera. We asked if they really did drink the water? The answer was, "They were obliged to drink the ditch, without they could beg or thieve a pailful of water." But have you spoken to your landlord about having it laid on for you? "Yes, sir and he says he will do it, and do it, but we know him better than to believe him."