Epidemics in the Past: Cholera

Newlyn, like other places in Cornwall suffered during the great cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century; the disease spread quickly because of overcrowding and lack of sanitation. In 1832, the year of a cholera epidemic, the West Briton described Newlyn Town as, ‘A very narrow street between the cottages and the edge of the precipice. Down this precipice the filth from the houses and fish offal flows, but instead of being allowed to flow into the sea, which washes the cliff, it is intercepted in its descent and received into open pits, from which such effluvium arises that it is a matter of surprise how the inhabitants can continue to live in the midst of it.’

That year, William Williams recorded in his diary for August, September and October 1832:
‘Our village of Newlyn was visited with a dreadful distemper called the cholera morbis, which carried off above 100 souls; on Paul Feast Day no less than six were interred.’
This was one third of the 300 cholera deaths recorded for the whole of Cornwall. The Paul Church burial records listed over ninety victims in Newlyn Town and Street-an-Nowan but this excluded people living in Tolcarne, which was part of the Parish of Madron.

According to a report in the 1832 Lancet, the British medical magazine, Henry Penneck, a Penzance doctor, treated many of the cholera victims. His treatments included ‘bleeding from the head, mercurial fumigations and bandaging of the abdomen’. In the same report, Mary Wilkins, the only nurse in Newlyn (whose pay was 3s per week,) was commended as ‘highly deserving of a public re¬ward’. But in 1832, cholera was a completely new disease. Its onset was sudden with muscle cramps, vomiting and intense diarrhoea. The disease was usually fatal and killed the victim by dehydration.

Unfortunately, contemporary doctors like Henry Penneck, knew little about the disease, and none of his remedies cured the cholera. The victims were buried at Paul, at a cemetery known as the cholera field. The overseer of Paul cemetery at that time was Mr Charles Downing, a brewer and spirit merchant. According to Humphrys, ‘many were the barrels of brandy used among the cholera victims, and one story goes, that a person in a deep coma who had already been measured for her coffin, was revived by a brisk rubbing in the spirit’.
At that time, the main route to Paul was through Mousehole, but the citizens of Mousehole, fearing contagion, would not allow the Newlyn people to enter their village. The burial carts had to make their way over Carn Gwavas (which later became known as the coffin route) and along the old churchway. The burials were done at night lit only by candles and pilchard oil lamps.

When the cholera epidemic ended, the Mousehole folk opened their doors as if nothing had happened and expected the Newlyners to reciprocate. Were they surprised ‘when some persons from Mousehole were attacked in the streets of Newlyn and were compelled to fly, in consequence of being assailed by missiles?’

The epidemic had passed by November so that a thanksgiving sermon was preached by the Revd Mr Gurney at Paul Church on November 21, 1832, a sentiment that was repeated the following year in an anniversary sermon by the same curate.