Cholera Outbreak of 1854

©Compiled by Michael Russell OPC for Fordington January 2009 (Last updated July 2011)

I have already mentioned the devastating effect that the Cholera Outbreaks of 1849 and 1854 had on Fordington in the Biography of the Rev. Henry Moule, and the part he played in helping those affected and his subsequent invention of the dry earth closet. The circumstances surrounding the outbreak of 1854 however were reported in the press and deserve greater coverage. I can do no better than to transcribe the articles that appeared at that time which were duplicated in many papers of the day:-

Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland), Friday, August 25, 1854


The announcement made last week that in consequence of the outbreak of Cholera in the Millbank Prison the Government had decided on fitting up the vacant barracks at Dorchester for the reception of the convicts , as may be imagined, created no little excitement in that borough, and the inhabitants immediately, took the necessary steps to prevent, if possible, the introduction into the town of so large a number of persons from the district where choleraic symptoms were said to be unusually prevalent. As soon as the intelligence reached Dorchester that a number of government artificers had been sent down to prepare the place for the reception of Millbank prisoners, the Mayor (Mr. George ANDREWS) proceeded by express to London, and in an interview with Viscount PALMERSTON at the Home Office, he strongly protested, in the name of the inhabitants against the rash resolve of the Government in imperilling the lives of the residents by bringing a large body of men peculiarly liable to the disease, from the scene of the contagion.

Lord Palmerston

A meeting of the town council was also specially convened, and, after considerable discussion - in the course of which it was stated that when the malady raged in this country in 1849, the Government being asked to grant the use of the barracks (then unoccupied) for the reception of persons from the infected districts, they refused, on the ground that the buildings would not afterwards be fit for occupation by troops. It was resolved to forward a memorial to Lord PALMERSTON, the Home Secretary, praying the Government to reconsider their determination.

The result of these measures was a statement from the Under Secretary of State, to the effect that the subject complained of had already been maturely considered: that strong and pressing necessity existed for the removal of the healthy portion of the convicts, who were entirely free from choleraic symptoms, that, after a full inquiry the barracks outside the town of Dorchester has been deemed the most eligible and that, as every precaution would be taken, no danger whatsoever could be apprehended. a warm altercation ensued on this topic at a hastily summoned meeting of the corporation, when the alarmists were met by several gentlemen, one of whom observed that the convicts must be disposed of somewhere, and that they could not be sent to a more healthy locality; even if the Government should select another spot, there would still be the same aversion to the proposal on the part of the inhabitants of the immediate district. He therefore thought it would be only humane and proper on their part to show a frank and ready acquiescence in the proposition and orders of the Government.

This appeared to be the feeling of the majority of Dorchester, the hostility to the occupation of the barracks by the Millbank convicts being evidently more warmly manifested in the corporate body. after the arrival of the first batch of three hundred prisoners per London and south Western Railway, however several families grew more excited, and at once prepared to leave town; and at another meeting of the municipal authorities it was resolved to memorialise his Royal Highness Prince Albert, who is Lord of the neighbouring Manor of Fordington, to use his influence to prevent the temporary transfer of the Millbank prisoners to Dorchester.

These efforts, however, have been totally unsuccessful. The convicts are now housed in Dorchester cavalry barracks, which they seem to enjoy vastly over their late quarters. The officer in charge of the establishment is Major GROVES, who is assisted by an efficient staff of medical officers and inspectors. As might be expected from the high situation of the buildings, and the rural characteristics of Dorsetshire, the general health of the convicts has improved by the change, whist it is most gratifying to know that as yet nothing whatsoever has occurred calculated to impugn the wisdom of the Government.

[Note:- Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister from 1855 to 1865]

The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Saturday, September 2, 1854; Issue 27361

This dreadful malady has returned to its old resort at the lower end of Dorchester - in a neighbourhood called Fordington - where four deaths have taken place within the last 24 hours being all decided cases of Asiatic cholera. A child named EVANS aged 2 years died yesterday morning; a woman named WEST about 40, died yesterday afternoon; a man named LODER about 50 in the course of last night; and a girl named WHITING aged 18 also expired during the night of this fell disease. There are several other persons in this locality now labouring under the premonitory symptoms , some of whom are in a dangerous state, and are hourly expected to augment the above fatal list. The cholera is observed to take hold of the sufferers with very little warning, and in the above cases diarrhoea was rapidly followed by unmistakable evidence of this terrible affliction. This town has been long since brought under what is called the operation of the Health of Towns Act, but nothing whatsoever has been accomplished towards the mitigation or removal of any of the fearful sanitary evils which abound in this neighbourhood of Fordington in particular. Over crowded dwellings, destitute of the necessary conveniences, narrow filthy and undrained courts, and a poverty stricken and abandoned population are the powerful invitations here held out to the visitation of this scourge. How long the health of the entire town of Dorchester is to be held in such manifest jeopardy by the close proximity of these dangers no man can tell: but that the most fearful consequences may be apprehended if some effectual steps be not taken is only too probably, and must be evident to everyone who chooses to give this serious matter a moments consideration.

Manchester Times (Manchester, England), Wednesday, September 13, 1854; Issue 612

The congratulations we offered our readers on this point last week we regret to say are no longer applicable, for cholera has beyond all possibility of doubt broken out in Fordington: and it is little doubted, in consequence of the clothes and bedding of the convicts being taken from the barracks down to East Fordington to be washed. This was effected (the clothes and bedding of upwards of 700 convicts) in two small cottages and the clothes were dried in the streets afterwards. The women had asked whether they could not wash the them at the barracks and were refused, partly on the grounds of the laundry having been turned into a barrack for Pensioner Guards, and partly because women are not to be admitted into the barracks.

last Thursday, this dread disease first made its appearance, and the death of a child, nearly close to where the clothes had been washed , followed. Since then to the present time (Tuesday night), there has been altogether nine deaths, and three or four are now lying in a dangerous state , in this horrible disease. as may be imagined great consternation prevailed, and a meeting was instantly convened at the Town Hall, to take immediate steps to stop the progress of the disease as far as practical-- Sherborne Journal

The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Friday, September 15, 1854; Issue 27372.

The committee have contained their meetings every evening in the past week, and the Vicar of Fordington [Rev. Henry MOULE] and others have been incessantly occupied in the endeavour to alleviate the misery caused by this sad malady; and we are happy to say their efforts, combined with the slight change in the weather, have to some degree been successful, the virulence of the disorder having slightly moderated. There have been altogether 27 deaths and several are now lying very ill, but its ravages have been entirely confined to East Fordington, no case having occurred in any other part of the borough.

Daily News (London, England), Thursday, September 21, 1854; Issue 2602


The following letter has been published in the Dorset

Rev. Henry Moule Fordington Vicarage, September 12th 1854
May it please your Royal Highness,---God, has in his providence, again visited this unhappy parish with cholera in its most frightful form. And as the parish is one of the estates of the Duchy Cornwall, and your Royal Highness is president of the council of the Duchy, I am constrained by feelings and convictions which I cannot resist; to bring the case and the matters connected with it immediately and fully before your notice. I must write in the few intervals of rest from almost incessant attention to the sick. Of the immediate cause of its introduction among us I have my opinion, and I shall not hesitate to express it. But the main subject on which I venture thus to address your Royal Highness is that of the circumstances through which this and other epidemics, when once introduced into a portion of this parish, are fostered and aggregated. And my excuse for this liberty I thus take is conviction long since felt, but strengthened as during the last 12 days I have passed from house to house of the sick and dying, that while the blame of those circumstances is to be attributed in part to others, no inconsiderable portion of it lies at the door of those who for the last sixty or seventy years have managed this estate of his Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall. For they when they might have prevented it, allowed such state of things to grow up, partly it is true on a piece of freehold land, but that surrounded on all sides by his Royal highness’s property, and inhabited in part by labourers on his estate: and for the twenty five years of my incumbency the council has never stretched forth a hand even to alleviate this state of things. Yet in their power it is, and I believe , in their power alone, to apply to it an effectual and permanent remedy.

In treating on this subject I trust I shall neither fail to render to your Royal Highness that honour which is due to your exalted station; nor in any way forget the sincere respect I feel for your high character. But in the performance of what I deem an important task , and in the execution of what forces itself on my conscience as a solemn duty, I shall not shrink from writing with the honest freedom of an Englishman, and with the faithfulness of a Christian minister. Moreover I must take the further liberty of addressing your Royal Highness in the presence of the English people. I shall publish what I write. For the case of the parish of Fordington has long been one of common notoriety and is now exciting general interest. The finger of scorn and reproach has been held up against it, and against the borough of Dorchester, on its account. It is due therefore both to the parish and the borough, that such a statement as that I am about to lay before your Royal Highness should have full publicity.

Picture taken of Prince Albert in 1859

For this same reason I shall enter into some full detail of facts relating, as I believe, to the introduction of this disease amongst us. And it is with my present letter will be chiefly concerned. But first it will be necessary to give a general sketch of the locality and of the population of that portion of the parish to which the disease is at present confined. This is indeed more needful for the public rather then your Royal Highness. For I have reason to believe that to yourself the state of the locality is in a measure well known, and has excited your attention and interest.

At the east end of Dorchester , then, and within a space that can scarcely be exceed five acres, about 1,100 persons are congregated in a set of dwellings, many of which are of the most wretched description, and utterly destitute of the ordinary conveniences of life.

This space consists of two great divisions, Mill street on one side of a Mill Pond, and Holloway Row together with Cuckold Row and Standfast, on the other side.

In Mill street the floors of the houses lie considerably below the highest elevation of the pond, and some of them even below its bed. The other division consists of two, and in one part of it, of three rows of cottages, rising one above the other, from the bank of the Mill Pond, on the side of a chalk hill. In Holloway Row about twenty cottages have a small patch of ground, about 18 feet square, and a pathway and lane in front of them.

    Back of Holloway Row from Standfast - watercolour by Henry Joseph Moule probably painted in 1880’s to 1890’s

The have also a little space hollowed out of the hill behind them. But with these exceptions scarcely a cottage in this division (and the same may be said of many in Mill street) has a single inch of ground beyond that on which it stands. Their filth is consequently cast either into the open wretched drain in the street or into the Mill Pond. And into the same Mill Pond from which moreover the people draw most of their water for washing, and sometimes for culinary purposes, “the conveniences of more than 1,100 people empty themselves, together with the filth of the county goal, and some portion of the other three parishes of Dorchester. The population with a few exceptions consists of mechanics, labourers and paupers from this and many other parishes, Vice in its worst forms abounds amongst them.

Now your Royal highness will observe that it was into a parish containing within it such a population, and so circumstanced as this, that the Home Secretary saw fit about the 15th of August last to send some 700 convicts from Millbank Penitentiary, in which the cholera was raging. It is true that the situation of the barracks in which they were confined is most healthy, as is a greater portion of this parish town. But besides the population of 700 to 800 in the immediate vicinity of the barrack, in circumstances very similar to those I have attempted to describe, there was this 1,100 persons within three quarters of a mile.

Back of Mill Street Fordington - watercolour by Henry Joseph Moule probably painted in 1880’s to 1890’s

The proximity however in either case would in my opinion have been of comparatively small importance, if all the unnecessary communication between the inmates of the barrack and such a population had been precluded.

By some one of the officials in this transaction the Mayor was cautioned indeed to prevent such communication on the part of the town. But this caution thus given was not observed by those who gave it. For on Thursday August 24th I found that two women residing in Holloway Row had contracted to wash for the convicts; and that the dirty clothes with some articles of bedding for 700 men averaging five articles a man, had just arrived, and were packed into their two cottages. I endeavoured through the Mayor to obtain the removal of these things, expressing my fears of cholera -- but in vain. Now up to this time there was no appearance of the disease. The heath of the parish had been remarkably good, so that in the month of August there had previously been only two deaths out of the whole population of 3,000 souls. But within a few days, a child in a cottage about 60 yards from these two cottages is attacked with cholera, and on the 30th he dies. Since that day twenty-five more have fallen: and four of these cases have been within forty yards of the lower of these two cottages, and in the houses between which the wretched gutter that conveyed all the soap-suds of this washing to the river slowly finds its way. The public has been told that new clothes were given to the convicts on their leaving Millbank. But I find that the bedding and blankets had been used there. Nay, your Royal Highness and the public should know that the body linen of these men had been worn in prison, and that little, if anything more than their woollen clothing appears new.

The inquiry of the person sent down by authority to inspect this locality when the mischief was done, “Was there no other possible means of communicating the disease than washing the clothes?” I replied at the time that doubtless there was, but no other appeared, and this did appear. But I now find that some warders (I know not how many) had been in the midst of the cholera patients at Millbank, and I have found that some of them have frequented the wretched cottages in that block of them in which five deaths have occurred.

Nay, in the very house in which, on Thursday August 31st , the second case occurred, and in which there have been three cases and two deaths, one of these men was drinking and passing a portion of the previous Tuesday night.

For venturing to connect the appearance of the cholera amongst us with the washing of linen, I and others have been charged with confounding coincidences with results. Will it be said of both together? To say the least, they are a very singular and strong coincidences.

But why thus dwell on this matter to your Royal Highness? They who have acted in it, from the Home Secretary to the lowest agent, are not amenable to you. Moreover the evil is in the midst of us, the injury is done. We may regret it but cannot undo it. True, but your Royal Highness and the council over which you preside, are not the mere guardians of the property of your royal son. Surely some of the responsibilities of that property devolve on you. You cannot justly be relieved of them-- your Royal Highness, and I am sure would not wish to be relieved of them. And one of these responsibilities is a care for the welfare of those dwelling on the property, and still more of its labouring suffering poor. On this ground alone -- I should have felt it my duty to acquaint your Royal Highness with the injury which in my opinion the people of this place have suffered. The matter, however, stands connected with their physical and moral condition, and the very discussion of the mode by which this pestilence has been introduced amongst us throws on it a sad but strong light from which I feel persuaded that your Royal Highness’s attention will not easily be withdrawn. But on the subject of that condition I shall, if God permit, speak in a future letter. With the deepest feelings of respect I have the honour to be,

Your Highness’s
Obedient and humble servant
Henry Moule

The following letter was received by the Rev. Henry Moule of Fordington from Prince Albert’s private secretary The Hon. Colonel C.B. Phipps in response to his letter concerning the conditions at Fordington and the Cholera outbreak.

BALMORAL, September 16th, 1854.

SIR, — I have received the commands of His Royal Highness the Prince to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 12th inst., which His Royal Highness has directed to be laid before the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall, at its first meeting, when it will, in common with all other representations made to them, receive the careful attention of the members of that body.

You are probably aware that His Royal Highness has no separate or personal authority in the management of the property of the Duchy of Cornwall.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient humble Servant,

Link to Burial Register of Fordington for 1854

Note:- According to “The Joint Burial Committee report” at least 30 people died in Fordington of the disease in September 1854 alone and this led to the need to extend the burial ground. In 1866 the Duchy of Cornwall gave 2 roods 38 perches of land to the Fordington Burial Board for use as an extension of the churchyard.

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