Title Colenso victims of cholera



Cholera was a major problem in Britain from 1831 for at least 50 years. First arriving in Sunderland and London almost simultaneously, it spread rapidly. The entire population was affected in some way. Colenso families were no exception with victims falling foul of the epidemic as far apart as Cornwall, Devon, South Wales and London.

Both national and local government were forced to do something about the public water services and general sanitation levels, but such action did not seem to be so pressing until the second wave took hold in the 1840's. Enquiries, reports and good intentions were also confounded by the number of families migrating to other parts of the country in response to industrial developments.




Cholera is a dreadful epidemic to contend with largely because it is unseen. Carried through water, and aided unwittingly by people, it really has no preference for a victim. In the first wave of outbreaks in Europe death was painful, but relatively swift. However, in the second wave there was an addition of a consecutive fever. This fever caused the deaths of many who were already severely weakened by the initial cholera attack.

I was always under the impression that cholera was a completely localised disease from locally contaminated water. After all, aid workers in refugee camps always cite cholera as one of their main concerns.While in essence this is true, in researching for this page, I have learned that the outbreak of cholera in Britain in the mid 1800's, had in fact started 'life' at the end of the previous century in the very north of India and Bengal. The particular strain that reached Europe and beyond, was located to an outbreak in 1817 in Bengal which had spread to the entire Indian peninsula within 18 months. The map below shows the route it made to and through Europe including the strange relapse for six or so years on the Eastern European Frontier, although continuing to spread through the Chinese and Mongolian Provinces during this time.

So while locally contaminated water is to blame, it is confounded by people who need to travel, and that even in the days of slower modes of transport, it does not alter the fact that this disease can spread world-wide with remarkable swiftness.


Towards the end of October 1831, there were cholera outbreaks in both Sunderland (northeast England) and London.

It was a mere four months before outbreaks were experienced in Edinburgh, (farther north in Scotland), and Swansea (far west in Wales).

The epidemic in each country lasted for two or three years and then left as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Map showing spread of cholera


However, in India it continued to rage for several months each summer, and after a number of years the epidemic made its course westward again with outbreaks in England starting in 1849. Through studies that have been made of the exact course, it has been discovered that certain towns in Europe had outbreaks during the same month in the same streets and houses as the previous outbreaks. Similarly, other places escaped outbreaks altogether but for those years the world over life would have been very difficult for everybody as news would be relayed of outbreaks, and of friends and relatives succumbing to the ravages of the disease.



Swansea had outbreaks of cholera in both 1832 and 1849. The town had increased its numbers by 10,000 in just 40 years as copper and coal mines provided more and more opportunities for work, and people moved to the area from all over the country. It is easy to imagine how quickly the town became overcrowded, dirty, and above all, insanitary. Basic resources and amenities soon became totally inadequate for the demands and needs of the ever-growing population.
As a result of enquiries and questions raised after the 1832 outbreak, it was clear that action would have to be taken (and not just in Swansea). But more and more people arrived to set up home and planning must have been a logistical nightmare. Finally in 1844, with government backing in the form of an Act of Parliament, Commissioners were appointed to

'improve, pave, light, cleanse, provide sewers,
water the roads, and purchase or manufacture gas'.

Not being given any finance for this venture, the Commissioners were given the power to levy an annual paving and lighting rate from all occupiers of no more than 1/-- in the pound. For occupiers who were paying rent of less than £10, the levy was transferred to the owners of the property. Now call me cynical if you must, but very basic housing was built and provided by the mining companies for their workers, who charged them a rent, deducted at source, possibly as a percentage of hours worked and/or quantity of resources mined. Do you think the Company owners were going to pay their workers and pay their paving and lighting levies? I wonder how many rents went over the £10 mark suddenly? The figures for 1848 show that of the £2258 15s 8d levied, only £1633 15s 4d was collected. I suppose the idea was right in theory - but after 3 years the plan was not working as financially well as it ought to have been working. and not forgetting that more people were arriving all the time... and this was the Swansea that greeted them in 1848!

Photograph of engraving Swansea 1848
Hand-coloured wood engraving by Smyth (from a Daguerreotype), in Illustrated London News 19 Aug 1848
photograph of Swansea Town used with the permission of John Ball

To be fair, Swansea was not alone in this. Similar problems were being faced by towns all over the country. So much so that the government was forced to take further action by way of creating the Public Health Act 1848. The Earl of Carlisle is one person who contributed to the substance of the Act by writing to the General Board of Health in October 1848, with the information that

'Sea Port and other Towns in the immediate vicinity of Rivers and Canals,
built on marshy ground, were principally visited by the Cholera,
and it was remarkable that the supply of water at these places
was obtained from ponds or sluggish streams, and of a very impure quality,
whilst those on the adjacent hills or mountainous Country escaped its ravages...

...cholera is not contagious, but that the Atmosphere travels in a poisoned state,
the inhaling of which does not produce the Cholera,
and my impression is that it chemically infects exposed water in a quiescent state,
and the poorer Classes using such water as a beverage
and partaking of it in their food are consequently the greatest sufferers'.

Under this Act an enquiry was set up in 1849 to look at

'sewerage, drainage and supply of water,
and sanitary conditions of the inhabitants of the Town and Borough of Swansea.'.

Didn't we have something like this 5 years ago? (Not forgetting that now the town was in the grip of the second wave of cholera outbreaks!) The increase in population and the inclusion of 'the Borough of Swansea' I suppose meant that a more progressive and long-term plan was being formulated. I wonder what the findings were....... Well, knock me down with a feather!

'The report and recommendations vividly disclosed the intolerable conditions
in which a large number of inhabitants lived, and the utter lack of all essential services,
and the woefully insanitary conditions of the town, and particularly those areas,
streets, courts, in which epidemic and contagious disease had been frequent.'

People were outraged at this report, and a further enquiry (yes another one!) resulted in a shift away from central government with the creation of the Swansea Local Board of Health in 1850.
At last, direct action! In 1851, the Board made arrangements for a brickwork sewer to be built at a cost of £1500. Now if you remember, 3, 4 and 5 years ago money was levied by those Commissioners. and I said that only 1633 15s 4d had been collected in 1848. That was still enough to build a sewer apparently - so why hadn't they?

And still more people arrived ! Just as well the sanitary problems were being addressed because between 1841 and 1900 the population rose from 17,000 to 100,000! But that is the future. For the moment you need to keep a sense of those conditions in your mind, because from the far west of Cornwall., a young man by the name of Richard Colenso, (who also happens to be my ggg Grandfather) along with his wife Martha and young family, join the 10,000 or so Swansea immigrants.


Richard Colenso b1820


Richard Colenso was christened at

Breage Parish Church Cornwall

on 26th December 1820.

Breage Parish Church
Breage Parish Church
Photo used courtesy of Ann Collins with permission

The granite church was completed in 1466 and shortly afterwards, visiting monks painted some of the walls with a series of figures including St Christopher and Christ of the Trades.

Perhaps it was part of an early blessing that all who worship there would travel far or be successful in business, or indeed both.

Click the photograph to find others showing the interior.


John Colenso
1750 - 1798

Catherine Phillips
1748 - 1835

Thomas Allen
c1761 -

Ann Stephens
c1761 -

Richard Colenso
1791 - 1840

Anne Allen
1789 - 1865

Jennifer 1817 - 1868

Richard 1820 -

John 1824 - 1827

Elizabeth 1830 - 1836

Anne 1818 -

Rosina 1822 - 1892

John 1828 - 1868


Richard was the third child for Richard Colenso and Ann (Allen). He followed two daughters Jennifer (sometimes known as Jane), and Anne. Next came Rosina, then John who only lived for 2 years, but soon another boy followed, whom they also called John and last, but not least, a youngest sister Elizabeth albeit for only 6 years.

Father Richard was a miner and it was little surprise that his eldest son followed into the same profession.

Richard married Martha Pascoe 7th October 1838 and from the date of this wedding trying to find this family in official records is a real challenge. They are recorded as Richard Colewna and Martha Pascol in the marriage index..

In 1841 Richard is yet to be found - but is possibly in, or journeying to or from South Wales. Martha Calensa, along with her two eldest children, was staying with her Mother in law Ann Collenso at Godolphin Moor Breage. It is entirely possible that Richard could have been a 'commuter', working in South Wales for days or weeks at a time. There was regular shipping between Cornwall and South Wales, although by all accounts it could be treacherous for a variety of reasons. In any event two more children were born in Cornwall before final arrangements were made for the move to Swansea and the surrounding area.

map of South Wales and the South West of England


Richard Colenso
1820 -

Martha Pascoe
1819 - 1899

Elizabeth 1839 -

Rosina 1846 - 1849

John 1850 -

Mary Jane 1853 - 1853

Richard 1840 - 1927

Martha 1842 - 1887

Mary Ann 1847 -

Joseph 1852 - 1917

Sarah 1854 - 1857

Ann 1848 - 1881

John 1853 - 1855

John 1856- 1858

Rosina 1844 - 1845


I am not sure that the youngest daughter Rosina travelled well as she died shortly after in Llansamlet in 1845. Their next daughter, also Rosina, did not fare much better being born in Morriston 1846 and dying in 1849 Swansea - possibly a victim of the cholera outbreak. Certainly the number of different recorded places of births and deaths indicate a continual moving around.


map of South Wales

Rosina dies Llansamlet 1845
Rosina 1846 and Mary Ann 1847 born Morriston
Ann born Llangyfelach 1848
Rosina dies Swansea 1849
John Born Neath 1850

and then the family appear in the 1851 Census as Clenza at Murton on the Gower, but Mary Ann, born 1847, and John born 1850 are not recorded with them. It is thought that my GG Grandfather Joseph was born about this time.


Then the family moved to Llanwrst in North Wales where John and Mary Jane Colenza were born in 1853 (Mary Jane died just 2 months old). Sarah Colenza was born there towards the end of 1854.

At this point a significant family event occurs. Eldest daughter Elizabeth marries John Jory 15 December 1856 in Helston, back in Cornwall. She was a little over 17. Had the the whole family returned to Cornwall anyway? Or did they just return for the wedding?

Further investigations show that a John Colenzo dies in the Union Workhouse Breage 8 May 1855 . He was 1 year 10 months old. The only match, is with John born in Llanwrst. The mystery is why the poor mite was in the workhouse, and that none of his family registered his death.

bridge at llanwrst

A John Colenzo was born at the end of 1856 in Helston who I now believe is a son of Richard and Martha Colenso.
The family were not in Cornwall for long as a relocation to Abergavenny Monmouthshire is revealed through the death of Sarah Colenza in mid 1857, followed by her brother John at the beginning of 1858. The death index cites John's age as 4, which is why it was assumed that he was the son born in Llanwrst. The copy of the death certificate clearly indicates the age as 1. The certificate also shows that Richard Colenza was present at the death of his son John in 1858 - but his own death record has yet to be found.

In 1861 census, Joseph Collins age 10 is son in law of William Williams and wife Martha at Weir Street Gelligaer. It appears that William Williams and Martha Pascoe married in 1859 Abergavenny. Of the other children, Richard is unlocated, Martha C Sensor is a lodger in Gelligaer and Ann Clenya is a House Servant in Bedwellty.

Colenso families in Cornwall were also being affected by this dreadful disease.




John Colenso 1808 - 1873

John Colenso was the 5th of eight surviving children of William Colenso (Inn Keeper and Gardner) and Mary Tonkin. He was baptised 24 January 1808 in Penzance. John Colenso married his wife Margaret Hocking 26th February 1831 Ludgvan, and had already started their family before the first wave of cholera hit Sunderland/London as their first son John was born in 1831. By the autumn of 1832 cholera had a hold in Cornwall too. Is this why they did not have another child until 1834? Did they wait until the worst was over? They were to suffer the sad loss of two of their children William age 7 and Oscar as a baby before the second cholera outbreak hit Cornwall. This time the first known case was in Edinburgh. They must have been terrified as word reached the south of the impending horror, particularly for those who had witnessed the effects the first time round.


William Colenso
1769 - 1858

Mary Tonkin
1774 - 1836



John Colenso
1808 - 1873

Margaret Hocking
1807 - 1888

John 1831 -

Francis 1838 - 1849

William John 1843 -

Edwin 1850 - 1881

Grace 1834 -

Amanda 1840 -

Edwin 1846 - 1849

William 1835 - 1842

Oscar 1841 - 1841

Elizabeth Jane

1848 - 1849


For John and Margaret losing one, if not three children to the epidemic, must have been traumatic to say the least, and must have had a huge impact on their four other surviving children. Remember it was not only those who died who caught the disease. On the contrary, there is every chance that all those in the household would have been affected by drinking the same water. They will have experienced each other's pain, suffering and helplessness, other than trying to make each as comfortable as possible. As a cabinet maker, I suspect that John would have made the coffins for his children, as well as many others for his friends and neighbours at that time. It is with a mixture of some surprise then, as well as some understanding, that their youngest son Edwin was born so soon after.

1 Oct 1849 Upper Rose Row Redruth
Elizabeth Colenso 1 year
daughter of John Colenso cabinetmaker
malignant cholera 28 hours
(daughter of John Colenso & Margaret Hocking)

Redruth was also affected by the outbreak in 1853 but some immunity may have carried over from the previous outbreak, along with some precautionary measures taken as a result of published material about the disease. Certainly there were no further fatalities in this family.

Unlike Swansea, it appears that Redruth had to wait until the 1880's before sewers were built and a clean water supply created.


And across the border into Devon


19th August 1849 3 Ventry Street Plymouth
Mary Colenso aged 73
widow of Richard Colenso mariner
Cholera 18 hours
X of Elizabeth Weeks present at the death
of 2 Moon Street Plymouth

Mary Colenso nee Parrow was the second wife of Richard Colenso (1769 - 1830).
With his first wife Hannah Finnemore, they were the parents of the Richard Colenso who moved to Ramsgate in Kent.
A little more about this family can be found here

Mystery 1



London Wardour Street

The third cholera outbreak started in Newcastle with people arriving on ships from the Baltic. This time though, half the deaths that occurred in Britain were in London alone! As in the second wave the districts affected were mostly south of the Thames. However, 1854 was recognised for the outbreak in the square mile around Soho. It became the focus for a study by a London anaesthetist, Dr John Snow. From the study he discovered the connection between the disease and infected water sources, when he established that the source of infection came from contaminated water in a water pump in Broad Street.

John Snow started by plotting the number and location of people who had died in London's cholera epidemic in 1849 on a map. It was immediately apparent that the deaths were concentrated around Broad Street in Soho, becoming progressively fewer in streets that were further away. From this information he realised that the cholera victims in question must have all drunk water from the Broad Street public pump. This deduction also gave credence to the idea that cholera is a water-borne disease.

Click this link where there is a small piece about John Snow and his findings. There is also a map - click to enlarge and top-just-left-of-middle vertically is Wardour Street.

John and Eliza Colenso were living in this very area with their young family in Wardour Street, when in 1854 there was a cholera outbreak once more. Only Henry and Sarah survived. and subsequently were raised separately by relatives.

In the fourth wave of 1865/6 most of the deaths in London were in the East End and in areas that had yet to be protected by the new London main drainage system.


John Colenso 1823 - 1854

John Colenso was the eldest son of John and Sally/Sarah Carlyon. He was born 27 December 1823 and baptised 20 December 1829 Helston. In 1841 he was staying with an Uncle William Chirgwin in Paul but by 1851 was settled in London as a Shoemaker with wife Eliza Williams. It appears that they had moved to London to open a shoe shop, (possibly on Oxford Street) while living on Wardour Street with their three young children. Their business was doing well too. Who could imagine that in another three years all but two members of this family would be dead? It would have been no comfort to either Henry or Sarah to know that after all their own sufferings, their parents' and brothers' deaths were contributory to much needed sanitation reforms across Britain.


John Colenso
1798 - 1874

Sally/Sarah Carlyon
- 1831

William Williams
1784 -



John Colenso
1824 - 1854

Eliza Williams
1826 - 1854

John 1848 - 1854

Henry 1851 - 1928

Stephen 1854 - 1854

Stephen 1849 - 1853

Sarah 1852 - 1934

Henry just knew his world had been turned upside down and that he was living hundreds of miles away from his home in Meneage Street Helston with his maternal grandparent William Williams and that his sister Sarah was quite close by staying with their Uncle Stephen Colenso in Church Street.

Henry became a tin miner, then a coal miner, settling in Burnley with wife Elizabeth Jane Goldsworthy Dower while Sarah devoted herself to a life in service working in London, Bournemouth Hampshire and Lullington Somerset.

More about Henry and family.


In Bristol, the authorities set up drinking-water taps around the city.

This one is on the corner of Midland Road and Old Market and may have been frequented by some Colenso ancestors.

photograph drinking-water tap corner Midland Road and Old Market

The obituary for
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
appeared in The Times on
November 7 1893.
He died from the effects of cholera - drinking water in a restaurant that had not been boiled

So lessons learned in Swansea 45 years earlier were still lacking in other parts of the world.

 free web hit counterWebstats4U - Free web site statistics Personal homepage website counter


Colenso Index button America index buttonCanada index buttonAustralia index buttonNew Zealand index buttonAfrica index buttonBritain Index button