The Cholera Epidemic

Jack Temple



         Source Analysis:




Henry Mayhew was a London based lawyer and social researcher who was one of the founders of Punch Magazine in 1841[1]. Mayhew was mostly concerned with the impact of cholera on the working classes, particularly following the outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1849 when he wrote this article[2]. He wrote the article in response to the cholera outbreak in the London district of Bermondsey to inform the literate and educated classes of this plight of disease befalling the slums in Britain and help ensure that outbreak within the slums is investigated properly. The area Bermondsey in which Mayhew was exploring was one of the worst hit in terms of cholera deaths in London, with a total of 161 deaths per 10,000 people in the year of 1849[3]. The cholera epidemic contradicted the notion that London was in fact a centre of pride for many Victorians and in fact pointed out the problems which faced cities as a result of urbanisation and exposing the “evils of modern urban life” which is one of the reasons why Mayhew took a keen interest in it[4].


In Mayhew’s article he makes reference to animals in two sections as follows: “The water is covered with a scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it float large masses of green rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores are heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which tells you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster shells are like pieces of slate from their coating of mud and filth. In some parts the fluid is almost as red as blood from the colouring matter that pours into it from the reeking leather-dressers’ close by” and “At the back of nearly every house that boasts a square foot or two of outlet – and the majority have none at all – are pig-sties. In front waddle ducks, while cocks and hens scratch at the cinderheaps. Indeed the creatures that fatten on offal are the only living things that seem to flourish here”. By looking at this quote it highlights the poor diets of many within the working class communities of Victorian London and how people such as Mayhew see it as a sign of desperation and lack of adequate hygiene and nutrition.


In this article animals are not shown in the cuddly way we often think of cats and dogs living in our more comfortable homes today or indeed the more pampered pets in middle and upper class homes at the time but Mayhew describes animals, both dead and living, as they existed in the slums of Britain in Victorian times. He is referring to rats, mice, pigs and hens with the first two carrying diseases which are transmitted to humans and the latter two a source of food for those living in the slums who were able to ‘scratch around’ for their own food supplies without having to be looked after by their owners. All these animals add to the squalor of the environment – and Mayhew uses graphic terms such as ‘the gases of putrefaction’, ‘phosphoretted smell’ and ‘coating of mud and filth’ to describe the conditions in Bermondsey. An interesting way of looking at this is through how the historian Drew Gray argues how the Victorian middle class “shivered in their comfortable homes and turned their noses lest they become infected” whenever a disease (notably cholera) or horrific crimes were committed in the east end of London[5]. This ultimately gives us a good insight into how particular issues were viewed by those within middle class Victorian England and how they viewed them as a separate entity despite living within the same city.


In these references Mayhew explains the filth and squalor experienced by those living in the working class district of Bermondsey and makes the appropriate connection between these appalling living conditions and the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and typhus which are transmitted by drinking contaminated water or eating food that has been in contact with contaminated water. Pigs live in “pig-sties” but the word is also used to describe very poor and filthy living conditions for people and Mayhew points out that the only creatures which thrive in the slums are ‘creatures that fatten on offal’ and these are not conditions suitable for human beings. Quotes like this can reinforce class divisions with the middle and upper classes seeing slum dwellers as filthy and sub-human but at the same time it can be argued that Mayhew was simply trying to draw sympathy towards the working class who live in these conditions and therefore create a popular movement with powerful support from the governing classes towards improving the lives of those living within the slums of not only London but across Britain. As a result of the cholera epidemic during this period the government promoted a public health bill and gradually the cities’ political leaders such as aldermen Thomas Sidney and Henry Lowman Taylor who were described by the Times newspaper as “Defenders of the Filth”[6]. This measure ultimately changed public opinion about how politicians can influence change in public health relations and sanitary “progress”[7].


Ultimately the source did highlight many factors that contributed to the cholera epidemic such as inadequate hygiene and nutrition and the source was able to expose and influence a middle class audience through painting a picture about how the epidemic was effecting people within slum conditions in London. This also highlighted the need for public health reform and it raised hygiene standards.





  1. Printed books:
  • Gray, Drew D., London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City, (London, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010)
  • Mayhew, John, London Labour and the London Poor, (Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd., 1985).
  • Olsen, Donald J., The Growth of Victorian London, (Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd., 1976)
  • Porter, Roy, London: A Social History, (London, Penguin Books Ltd., 1996)



  1. Periodicals and Journals:





[1] Mayhew, John, London Labour and the London Poor, (Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd., 1985) p.xi

[2] Simkin, John, “John Mayhew”, Spartacus International, available online:


[3] Bingham, P., Verlander, N.Q., Cheal, M.J., “John Snow, William Farr and the 1849 Outbreak of Cholera that affected London: A Reworking of the Data Highlights the Importance of the Water Supply”, Public Health (2004), available online:

[4] Olsen, Donald J., The Growth of Victorian London, (Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd., 1976) p.54

[5] Gray, Drew D., London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City, (London, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) p.60

[6] Porter, Roy, London: A Social History, (London, Penguin Books Ltd., 1996) p.297

[7] Porter, Roy, London: A Social History, p.297


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s