Cholera had been a problem for many cities around the country in the early 1800s, with a further outbreak starting in 1831. Hopes were raised that York had managed to avoid the effects of the disease, but in June 1832 cholera reached the city, having already reached Hull and Leeds.
It reached York on 3rd June 1832, when the surgeon at York Dispensary visited a Mr Thomas Hughes, a 21 year old waterman, who lived in a dirty yard at Skeldergate. The press report that Hughes was suffering from “severe purging and vomiting and afflicted by violent spasms at the stomach”. The Board of Health were notified immediately and they met on the 4th June, and decided that despite the symptoms they did not believe that the case was one of cholera.
However on 5th June 1832 the Medical Board of York decided that cholera had struck York, although Thomas Hughes had made a recovery. The first death was that of John Graves, a sawyer who lived in the same yard as Thomas Hughes. His body was buried at St. George’s Churchyard.
On the same day, Elizabeth Ward, a 29 year old tramp who lived at a lodging house at one of the Water Lanes, was sent to the cholera ward, where she died. Mr Barrett, who was the landlord of the Anchor public house on Water Lane died, with the Medical Board noting his lifestyle made him pre-disposed to catch the disease. The other deaths that day included Elizabeth Grant, a poor woman who lived on Middle Water Lane, Mr Dobson, who was described as a respectable resident who lived near Skeldergate Postern and Mary Welbank, a poor woman living on Nunnery Lane.
On 6th June the Medical Board decided that they would continue to meet daily at 12 each lunchtime to discuss how they were going to manage the cholera. On the first meeting, they also discussed finding a piece of land where to bury the dead as there had been growing local concern about cholera, and arguments broke out about burying the dead and transporting them in the city, for fear of spreading the disease. In one incident when the bodies of victims who had succumb to cholera were being transported, an argument started and one coffin was knocked off into the street.
The report issued by the Medical Board showed that on the 6th June there were 7 cases, of which three died. On the 7th June, there were 3 new cases and 2 deaths. The Board said that they had discovered an area of land owned by York Corporation which could be used for the cholera burials, some waste land situated near the Dog-Kennel, not far from Thief Lane. There had been little choice but to find such land, as law required that cholera burials were at least one foot below ground level, which wasn’t possible in York’s already full graveyards.
A sign of the growing concern about cholera was discovered on Friday 8th June, when a parish officer announced the death from cholera of Abraham Peck. He had heard this from a servant, and it had turned out to be untrue, but by the time this had been discovered a coffin had been prepared and a grave dug for the body. The Medical Board announced that an enquiry would be held to investigate the matter.
The effects on the city were substantial, in Skeldergate alone there had been 56 ill and 185 deaths. The cholera burial ground can still be seen, situated near the train station.