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‘If any one is seized with sickness, slight vomiting, and purging, a burning heat at the stomach, with cramp in various parts of the body, and a feeling of cold all over, it probably is the Cholera’. So ran the comforting warning on a poster circulated in Oxford in the early summer of 1832. Cholera was rife all over the country and the first of three epidemics in Oxford was about to begin. It lasted from 24th June to 28th November 1832 and further epidemics followed in 1849 and 1854. Cholera cases were never treated in the Radcliffe Infirmary (although the hospital provided drugs at cost price), but details of the 1832 epidemic have survived in a volume in the hospital’s archives. This contains posters and leaflets from Oxford, London and Edinburgh and correspondence of the Oxford Board of Health, and it bears all the hallmarks of the Rev Vaughan Thomas, chairman of the Board and later preserver of the Warneford archives, in whose hands the administration of the epidemic was placed.

Public notice from Cholera epidemic 1832

The leaflets and posters make fascinating reading; they chronicle the authorities’ attempts to make the public aware of the causes of cholera and the ways in which to prevent it. The insanitary conditions which prevailed in many areas, with open drains and dirt, were recognized as the principal cause. A leaflet was addressed on 4 July ‘To the Dwellers in narrow Courts and Alleys, and all other confined situations’ by ‘A Well-wisher to the Poor Man’s Health’. It urged people to ‘lose no time in turning to your account the gratuitous distribution of Lime which is now going on. White-wash your Houses. Put an end to foul smells. Throw Lime or Lime-water into or upon the matters that produce them; and as we may expect close and sultry weather, make every thing sweet and cleanly, and without loss of time.’ Chloride of Lime was recommended as a disinfectant and a quantity was purchased from R.T. Jones, a druggist in the High Street, and distributed to the various parish authorities in the City.

A temporary hospital was built at Pepper Hill and Bartlemas at Cowley became a house of recovery. Originally a leper hospital, Bartlemas was later an almshouse to which the mediaeval fellows of its owner, Oriel College, were accustomed to retreat in times of plague, so the new use was appropriate. A House of Observation was established in St. Aldates, to which those in danger were encouraged to go whilst their houses were fumigated. A notice of 2 August bade them ‘Look to Godfrey’s Row – look to Bull Street – and learn from their afflictions a lesson profitable to yourselves. Like you, they tarried too long in the midst of disease, and, sooner than quit their habitations, many sickened and died. But some there were who sought safety for themselves and families by removal. The Board of Health opened the doors of their House in St. Aldate’s to receive them; and .. all did well, and have since expressed their thankfulness’.

The epidemic provided an opportunity to press home the temperance message and the public were warned to ‘Beware of Drunkenness – nothing is so likely to bring on Disease.’ The authorities were particularly concerned about the dangers at St Giles’ Fair and on 1 September a notice was issued of ‘Caution and Remonstrance To all Drunkards and Revellers, and to the thoughtless and imprudent of both Sexes’. It warned against ‘long sittings, dancings, revellings, surfeitings.[and].mixed, crowded Companies in Booths and Showrooms’. The final caution is that many ‘who have raised the cup in merriment to their lips, have in agony lamented their excesses and at their deaths have left a last legacy of warning to the Drunkard’.

In the end there were 184 cases in Oxford, with a mortality rate of 52%. The forms of prayer ordered by the King in 1831 ‘to be used in Churches and Chapels during the Continuance of Danger from the Pestilence now spreading over a great Part of Europe’ were followed in 1832 by forms to be used in ‘all Places now free, or as they shall hereafter become free, from the grievous Disease’. One imagines that the survivors joined in with enthusiasm.

Last updated: 28 August, 2018