In 1849 a deadly outbreak of cholera hit Merthyr Tydfil resulting in hundreds of deaths.
The summer of 1849 was a long, hot one, in which drought conditions prevailed. This caused many normal supplies of fresh water to dry up, and forced people to use much less safe sources of water. In cities and towns this often meant using water from sources which were seriously contaminated, like rivers and canals. Conditions were therefore just right for the serious spread of cholera. The 1849 outbreak began in Edinburgh in October of 1848, having arrived there from a German port. This outbreak would cause over 53,000 deaths in England and Wales. It reached Wales in May of 1849, the first outbreak occurring in Cardiff.
Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary on 31 May: ‘There is great alarm at Cardiff about the cholera, which has broken out there with great violence.’
Meanwhile, The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian began reporting the outbreak shortly after this, and gave advice to the people of the district how to deal with the outbreak:
‘THE STRICTEST CLEANLINESS SHOULD BE MAINTAINED – in person and in habitation – and having done all that can be done to effect this object two should calmly proceed with our usual occupations, placing firm reliance in the merciful providence of an All-wise deity. The circumstances in which we are placed should induce caution, but not nervous agitation or faithless misgivings. In the year 1832, when the cholera committed sad havoc in Swansea, a little boy told his mother that he had discovered an effectual remedy for the complaint in the 91st Psalm – a portion of scripture which we commend to the perusal of our readers.’
In late May, cholera appeared in Merthyr. A four year old child caught the disease, and by the end of the month, six people had died. On 7 June, 22 deaths were reported in Merthyr and the same number two days later. In the following month, 349 deaths were reported.
On 31 July, Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary: ‘I am sorry to say the accounts of the cholera at Dowlais are fearfully bad. They are beyond anything I could have imagined, sometimes upward of twenty people dying in one day, and eight men constantly employed in making coffins …one of our Infant School Mistresses is dead. One of the medical assistants sent down from London is dying, and the whole place seems in a most lamentable state.’
In July, 539 people died in Merthyr, and in August, the death toll reached an average of 36 a day. The infection continued to rage in the town until November when the winter rains helped to dispel the conditions in which the cholera thrived. At the end of the epidemic, Merthyr had experienced the second highest death toll in England and Wales (second only to Hull), with 1,682 having succumbed to the disease.
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