Pandemics and major public health emergencies are very rare events in modern Scotland but they were once far more common, particularly in eras preceding modern housing and sanitation.
Archivist Bruno Longmore looks at what a letter he found in our archives in the 2000s tells us about a deadly cholera outbreak in Paisley in the 1830s, and how this shocking event had violent and long-lasting effects on the town and on the country more widely…
Occasionally, a historical document sheds new perspectives not just on particular events, but on modern situations. This was the case with an 1832 letter (ref: GRO1/691).
The letter was written by Alexander Todd of Paisley to his brother Mathew Todd in Kilmarnock on 24 April 1832. The letter records the devastating impact of a major outbreak of cholera in the town. The shock of the outbreak and the impact it had on the population has resonance with us today.
Emotions expressed chime with our concerns as Alexander vividly described the fear and panic elicited by the outbreak, stating that the cholera is “within a very few doors of us” and that seven people in his street had died already – three of them on the same stair head.
He also described mass burials in the town Moss and an ensuing riot caused by suspicions that doctors were removing corpses from the burial ground. Three coffins were found empty when a mob dug them up to check, and the rioters caused damage to the doctors’ premises and the local hospital.
Hard on the heels of the execution of the notorious body-snatcher William Burke, of Burke & Hare infamy, in January 1829, the theft of bodies from graveyards would have been a matter of great public concern, which coupled with a rising death toll from a cholera epidemic, clearly resulted in severe public disorder in Paisley.
Further records about the riot on 26 March 1832 can be found in the criminal trial papers of the High Court of Justiciary, heard at Glasgow on 5 May 1832 (ref. JC26/1832/188). These papers confirm that seven men were indicted for mobbing, rioting and assault.
Of those tried, all were found guilty and sentenced to between 3 and 6 months imprisonment with hard labour. The trial papers provide details of where the rioters went and what they did, recording that they assaulted several people including a policeman, and that they stole and eventually destroyed the hospital hearse.
Some of the declarants claimed that they “smoked a pipe” and chatted with the hospital officials in the middle of the riot, while another mentions going into the hospital and helping staff to pick broken glass off a dying man’s bed.
The cholera outbreak of 1831 and 1832 was part of a wider European pandemic. It was particularly severe in the industrialised towns and cities of the West of Scotland and it affected Paisley in particular, where around 450 people died.
The outbreak was made worse by a lack of proper urban planning, no clean water supply and serious overcrowding in poorly-constructed housing. A reply to Alexander Todd’s letter from his nephew alludes to this when he reports that a female relative was injured when the house she was working in fell on top of her!
An unusual aspect of the letter is that it was written over 20 years before the department of the Registrar General for Scotland was established in 1855. It is therefore one of their earliest administrative records, but how it arrived there is something of a mystery. It is supposed that it came to the office shortly after the introduction of civil registration, perhaps transferred by a local registrar.
This major pandemic helped usher in a series of planning and health reforms, which in the longer term witnessed improvements in public health, utilities and sanitation, though it was not until the late 1840s and 1850s that a link was finally established between contaminated water and cholera. Before then, established opinion was that it was caused by ‘miasma’ – foul air.
A definite impetus for improved sanitation and other public health measures was the establishment of the office of the Registrar General, when statutory registration of cause of death information provided firm evidence of the numbers of deaths due to disease in the major towns and cities.
Ironically, in the same year as the Paisley riots, Parliament introduced a new Anatomy Bill, which became law on 19 July 1832. The Act provided that anyone intending to practise anatomy must first obtain a licence from the Home Secretary. As licensed teachers, they accepted responsibility for the proper treatment of all bodies dissected in the building for which their licence was granted.
Regulating these licensed teachers, and receiving constant reports from them, were four inspectors of anatomy for England, Scotland, Ireland and London, who reported to the Home Secretary. They knew the whereabouts of every body being dissected. The principle provision of the act stipulated that a person having lawful possession of a body may permit it to undergo anatomical examination provided no relative objected.
Had this act been in force earlier, it may well have helped to prevent the 1832 riots in Paisley, though it would have done nothing to prevent the cholera outbreak.
Head of Archive Depositor Liaison
National Records of Scotland
You can find out how people coped with another public health emergency – an outbreak of plague in Leith in 1645 in this earlier post by archivist Alison Rosie.
Find out more about the records held by National Records of Scotland at the NRS website.