Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 29, 2019
Webpage updated: September 29, 2019




There was a terrible epidemic of cholera at Plymouth in the August of 1849.  It was first discovered on an emigrant ship in the February and spread rapidly through the overcrowded and unsanitary parts of the Three Towns.

The Reverend George R Prynne, then the newly arrived incumbent of Saint Peter's parish, which included nearly all of King Street, wrote some years afterwards: 'For three months we seemed to be living amongst the dying and the dead.  A large wooden hospital for the whole of Plymouth was erected in our parish.  We set up an altar in the largest ward, in order that everything might always be ready for communicating the dying.  As the visitation reached its climax the deaths became very frequent and rapid.  I was walking out one morning about nine o'clock.  I met a woman hurrying along, and in answer to my enquiry she said she was going to fetch the doctor for her husband who had been seized with cholera.  In the evening both she and her husband were in their coffins; the woman had died first!'.

Many of those who could afford to, left the Town.  A notable exception was Mr William Truman Harris, Governor or Master of the Workhouse.   He had an unenviable reputation for cruelty, as is told in the section on the Plymouth Workhouse, but this new situation was to see him become a changed man.  As the head of a hastily constituted Board of Health, he toiled without regard to his own life or health, carrying out work among the dead and dying.  

It is alleged that between July 4th and October 2nd 1849, there were 717 deaths in Plymouth, 717 deaths in Devonport and 155 deaths in East Stonehouse, making a total of 1,589.

"The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal" reported on Thursday August 16th 1849 that in Plymouth between August 8th and August 15th there had been 154 cases of cholera and 172 cases of choleric diarrhoea resulting in 84 deaths.   In the same period there were 125 deaths in Devonport and 18 in East Stonehouse.

There were eight deaths in just one property in Saint Andrew Street, Plymouth, in which bones and filthy rags had been stored.  Another eight people had died in the Workhouse, where either old age or extreme youth, as they described it, the doctors found it difficult to administer medicines.

Although in Devonport it largely affected the poorly drained areas, it took its toll in the better off ones, too.  Mr William Pike, who lived in the spacious Morice Square had got over an attack of cholera only to succumb to congestion of the brain.  Several members of the military stationed in the Town also suffered, including Major Moore, who died after days of passing among his troops in the 82nd Regiment giving encouragement and advice.  At least three men in the 28th Regiment and two in the Royal Artillery also lost their lives due to the cholera.   The Reverend W B Flower, the curate of Stoke Damerel Parish Church, came in for much praise for his work among the sick.

The Devonport Mechanics' Institute was taken over as a hospital at the suggestion of Miss Sellon.  Mr May and Mr Swain, surgeons, were employed to take charge as they had experience in the previous cholera outbreak, for which they received two guineas a day.  Mr J A Coffin, Mr Delarue and Mr Rolestone were appointed junior surgeons whose duty it would be to maintain a day and night presence.   they were to be paid 1 11s 4d a day.

In East Stonehouse a large number of Royal Marines were taken into the Royal Naval Hospital with the disease, where the blame for it was laid at the canteen beer.  It was duly ordered that none but the best beer should in future be available.  The hulk "Belleisle" was to be fitted out as a receiving ship.   One member of the 28th Regiment who was on guard duty outside the Royal Naval Hospital was taken ill and died the following day of malignant cholera.  A temporary hospital was in the process of being erected at Battery Hill but it was to contain only twelve beds.

By October 1849 the cholera epidemic had run its course but it had taken a strain on the financial state of the Plymouth Workhouse, which in the course of twelve months had gone from a 2,000 profit to a 2,000 deficit.  Throughout his life, Mr Harris had always done what he considered to be his duty but the experience of this dreadful disease made him realise that he had a duty to human life, beyond his duty to the payers of the poor rate.  He set about giving Plymouth a workhouse to be proud of.

A number of local people were awarded a Gold Medal, a silver snuff-box and the Freedom of the Borough in recognition of their work during this outbreak.

A number of local people were awarded a Gold Medal, a silver snuff-box and the Freedom of the Borough of Plymouth in recognition of their work during the cholera outbreak of 1849.

George Peter Bellamy MD
James Lee Broadbelt MD
John Budd MD
John Bulter MD
William Patey Baldy
Charles Henry Bamber
Tooker Cooban
William Brooking Dolling
Richard Freeman
Samuel John Fuge
Charles Hingston MD
William Snow Harris
John Richard Hornwood
Primrose Lyon
George Magrath
William Rattenbury
Thomas Richardson
Nathaniel Seccombe
George Shield Stiles
Charles Taylor
Thomas Tripe
William Wyatt
and James Yonge MD

Plymouth had previously had a cholera visitation in 1832, when there 1,805 cases in Plymouth and over 700 deaths (different sources quote 702 and 779); for East Stonehouse, 286 cases and 132 deaths; and for Devonport 408 cases and 197 deaths.