Today (August 31) in London History – The Blue Death

Epidemiology at its best. Cholera breaks out on August 31st, 1854. Dr John Snow proves it’s water-borne, not miasmic. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It makes me feel like an old timer.

Well, I suppose I am an old timer.

Anyway, in this instance I’m talking about the John Snow Memorial Pump in Broadwick Street. It’s graphic, it’s dramatic, it’s stark, it’s of its time – or so it appears to be – it’s eye-catching. Apart from a hiatus of a few years, it’s been there for 30 years now. But those of us who go back further than that, we can remember what was there before the pump. Guide-wise, it was very satisfying because if you didn’t know exactly where to look and what to look for you weren’t going to see it. It was a kerb stone that was subtly different from its fellows. It was pink granite. The others were the normal grey stuff. 

Great fun to call people’s attention to it – and then tell the story. You just knew they were thinking – and indeed they were going to tell their friends later – “no way we would have seen that had David not pointed it out.”

Anyway, that pink granite kerb stone stood where the infamous water pump stood. And where the unmissable replica Victorian water pump stands today. 

And let’s be a purist about this – the replica is not of course the original, it’s not even for sure a replica of the original. It’s a best guess attempt at what the original probably looked like.

A couple of other orientation points. Well, you need to go to Broadwick Street in Soho. 

But why not bear in mind that back then it was Broad Street. Am I being pedantic? I suppose so. But why not? This is a medical and scientific investigation story. Close, precise, exact, painstaking observation is of the essence.You get to Broadwick Street – the pump’s on Broadwick Street – it’s near the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. There’s a pub there called the John Snow – it’s a pretty good signpost.

Now as usual my bibliomania wants to get up on stage with me. I can’t keep it at bay any longer. So let’s get it out of the way. There have been two really fine books this century on the Broad Street Cholera outbreak. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and a book called The Blue Death. You’ll just have to go by the title – the author’s name has slipped my memory. Blue Death because in the final stages of the disease – when it was about to kill you – you turned blue. They’re both very good reads. Strongly recommended.

Anyway, today’s date. August 31st. The outbreak began on August 31st, 1854 and claimed over 500 lives in ten days.

Talk about the grim reaper sweeping through a tiny neighbourhood. Cholera was knocking on practically every other door.

The victims all lived in Soho, very near that pump. It was their water source. 

Now what keeps being borne in upon me with this podcast project is, again and again, the people who make these London stories so remarkable. I think we can probably use a stronger adjective than “remarkable” – I think we can use the word “amazing.”

So if you’re talking people in this instance – well, the big hitter is of course John Snow. The guy was a society anaesthetist. He was so top drawer that Queen Victoria asked him to administer chloroform for the delivery of her eighth child, Prince Leopold. It was such a success that it was repeated for the delivery of Princess Beatrice three years later. Those were the circles John Snow was moving in. And then at the end of the day he was heading into a down-and-out neighbourhood in Soho, going door to door, and asking the people where they were getting their water from. Basically mapping the thing. Putting black dots on a map where people had died. 

That 1854 outbreak of cholera in Broad Street – if you think of that outbreak as a war, John Snow, a society doctor went immediately to the sharp end – right to the front where the blue corpses were piled high.

He suspected the culprit was contaminated water. Water contaminated with sewage. Please excuse the vulgarity of this next phrase – those people were drinking piss and shit and it was killing them. That’s where the cholera was coming from. Snow was convinced of that. But he was up against a brick wall of orthodoxy. The medical establishment believed the disease was miasmic – believed it was airborne. You get the same thing in the word malaria, incidentally. What’s the word malaria mean? Mal air. Bad air. Mal – same prefix as in the word malignant. And air is – well, air. The medical establishment was certain – beyond a doubt – that the disease was miasmic. Airborne.

Snow had to convince them otherwise. He got a list of deaths from the General Register Office and mapped their location around the locality. Sure enough, the majority of deaths had taken place in the vicinity of the Broad Street Pump. One death that hadn’t taken place in the vicinity of the Broad Street pump was the old lady who died in Hampstead. But she’d gone up to Hampstead for a short stay with a friend. Gone up to Hampstead from the Broad Street neighbourhood, where she lived. And what do you know, she liked the taste of the water from the Broad Street pump, so she’d sent for a couple of jars of the water so she could drink it while she was in Hampstead. And then there was the case of the local brewery. None of the brewery workers caught cholera. Turns out they weren’t drinking water from the pump. Their beverage was the beer they brewed. Well, the statistical evidence was game, set and match. Snow presented it to the local board of guardians. Famously, the handle from the pump was removed and the outbreak was curbed. 

A final, poignant – and telling – biographical detail. John Snow was only 41 at the time but he’d been in poor health for ten years. He wasn’t a well man when he went door to door in Soho, after his day’s work as a society anaesthetist. He has less than four years to live. He dies at his home in Sackville Street in toniest Mayfair. He hadn’t put much aside – less than £1500 – it was as if he knew he wouldn’t need it. He’d put a nail in the coffin of cholera but his personal health had been undermined by two other great Victorian killers. The post-mortem examination showed evidence of old pulmonary tuberculosis and advanced renal disease.

And a Today in London Recommendation. Well, here’s one you almost certainly won’t have heard of but is a near-perfect fit: the Anesthesia Heritage Centre at 21 Portland Place. It’s not far from Broad Street – Broadwick Street as it’s known today. After your visit you could stroll down Regent Street to Soho. Go have a pint at the John Snow pub. Like the brewery workers. And when you come out, get the photo by the pump. Pump some great London history into your Instagram feed. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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