Today (February 17) in London History – the Blue Death

Several contemporary accounts of cholera taking hold in London in mid-February 1832 – that’s the stuff of this Today in London History podcast.



It was sometimes called the Blue Death.

It can kill you in a matter of hours. And it’s a horrible way to go.

Why blue death? 

Because your skin turns blue.

That happens because of dehydration. Excessive dehydration.

An average adult has about 42 litres of water located throughout his or her body. Hours of non-stop diarrhoea can cause a person to lose a lot of body fluids very fast – about 20 litres of water. When that happens the eyes sink, the skin starts to lose some of its elasticity, the teeth protrude. The face begins to resemble that of a corpse. When the body reaches a point of extreme dehydration, it enters into a state of respiratory failure. At which point the skin takes on a blue tinge. Death follows very quickly.

What causes it? We know very well what causes it. They didn’t know in 1832, the year cholera first came to London. In these few days – mid-February.

It’s chilling to read contemporary newspapers. The Blue Death had taken hold up north – Sunderland, Gateshead, Newcastle. From the beginning of the year every day in the London press there’s a story headlined Cholera Morbus. Those stories report the number of cases up north. And they chart the progress of the disease. You can see it making its way down here. Its progress is steady. And it’s inexorable. 

So what caused it? At the time they believed it was miasmic. Air-borne. Similarly, they believed that malaria was airborne. Mal-aria. The word means “bad air.” It wasn’t of course. It was waterborne. And it would take decades before Dr John Snow would figure it out. In Soho. Figure it out by asking affected people where they were getting their drinking water from. One contaminated well. None of the workers at a brewery in that neighbourhood caught cholera. They were drinking the beer their brewery produced. Famous Dr Snow went along to the public pump and ripped the handle out so people couldn’t get water out of that well. The pub there on the corner is called the Dr John Snow pub. And if you look very closely at the kerbstones outside it you’ll see there’s one stone that’s a different colour from the others. It’s pink granite. That stone marks the exact spot where the pump stood. But that’s a later chapter in the story.

Let’s back up. What causes the diarrhoea. Cholera is a bacterial infection of the intestine. The culprit, a bacterium called Vibrio Cholera, is toxigenic. It’s found in brackish waters and in contaminated water in food. All you have to do to contract it

is consume a tiny bit of food and/or water that harbours Vibrio Cholera. Or has been contaminated with the faeces of an infected person.

Other means of transmission include eating raw seafood or shellfish. 

It reached London early in 1832.

As the world knows, the world has been beset by a pandemic for the last two years. The concentration of the Covid virus is what poses the greatest risk. That’s why crowded enclosed areas with poor air circulation are much more hazardous than outside, in the fresh air. Which in turn is why we’ve all – or most of us – been masked when we’re in enclosed, public places for getting on for two years now. 

Let’s jump from the concentration of the covid virus to the concentration of Vibrio Cholera and its ability to go viral. Here’s the takeaway statistic: one person infected with cholera can shed into the environment a one-million fold increase in Vibrio Cholerae numbers through a single episode of diarrhoea. 

Think about that when you bear in mind where cholera first opened up shop in London. Yes, you’ve divined it. Extremely poor, extremely crowded, extremely unhygienic neighbourhoods. It’s not surprising that in no time at all over 6,000 Londoners were dead. 

That was the first visitation. The one whose anniversary we’re marking with this podcast. There’d be three more over the succeeding three and a half decades. In 1837, 1848, and 1866. 

And it’s still very much with us. It kills several million people a year.

But let’s end with a couple of contemporary accounts.

Warning: they make harrowing reading.

That was the first of four visitations.

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