Thomas Shapter: The History of the Cholera in Exeter 1832

Selected Extracts from Chapter IX (pp.177-180)

 Fumigations, destruction of clothing & c.

With the view of preventing the spread of the disease, various means had been suggested by the Orders in Council, such as fumigations, the use of chloride of lime, whitewashing, general cleansing, the destruction of the clothes of those who had died &c, and many of which were very fully adopted. In compliance with the Order of the 13th of December, 1931, (p.27) the bodies of those who died of Cholera were, on its first occurrence, directed to be enveloped in cotton or linen, saturated with pitch, or coal-tar. This proved, however, so serious an annoyance to the other inmates of the house, especially to those who might be then ill, that it was immediately abandoned.

Fumigation of different kinds were freely used, and by a resolution of the 3rd of August, the Corporation of the Poor recommended to the Mayor, and the Board of Health, "the lighting of fires with tar, and tar barrels broken into pieces, in the most confined parts of the City, in order to purify the air during the present diseased state of the City". On the first commencement of the disease, the burning of a tar barrel was not unusually to be met with. Vinegar was also burnt. Chloride of lime was very freely resorted to, at times inconveniently, if not injudiciously, so. Some idea of the extent to which this material was used, may be appreciated from the fact, that in one day, (3 Aug.,), the Corporation of the Poor stated "they had distributed it to 800 persons, and that they have a large quantity ready for delivery at their station-house, while nearly 8 cwt was distributed by the Board of Health, besides that which was procured and consumed by private individuals, and which, as its use was universal, must have been a very large amount.

Smythen Street Exeter

Fumigating Smythen Street (or the Butcher-Row),  Exeter with tar barrels (p.178, Shapter)

The whole air was in fact poisoned with the injudicious use of what were considered to be disinfectants, and it was not an uncommon complaint, that the smell of all these things was worse than the Cholera smell itself. The contractor for the coffins and general undertaker, told me he had been submitted to so great an extent to these various odours, as to be more nauseated by them than by the disgusting smells experienced in the usual prosecution of his duties. At the burial of the last body in the Bartholomew-yard, the officiating clergyman, on its completion, desired him to hold out his hand for a something which would prevent contagion; seeing a small bottle, he thought to have received some brandy, or other spirit, but was sickened by a highly flavoured scent being given to him.

The scattering of lime about the streets was also fully adopted and heaps of it were deposited here and there, in order to facilitate its use; some of the back streets were literally white with it. General cleansing and whitewashing was also assiduously pursued, and a supply of lime for this purpose was kept ready for any persons who might apply for it. The mode in which this process was carried out, Health, by one of the Medical Officers. "These two cases were extreme cases of Cholera and by all means not only all the clothes and bedding belonging to them ought to be burned, but also their two may be learned from the following directions communicated in a letter to the Chairman of the Board of beds. The rooms and stairs should be sprinkled with the chloride of lime, and afterwards the rooms washed secondly, in order to be perfectly purified".

The destroying and purifying the clothes of those who had died of Cholera, was sought to be carefully carried out. The men specially employed for this purpose, were designated "Inspectors", and in the prosecution of their duties were occasionally submitted to much abuse. This appeared at times due to the irritation accompanying the first ingress of the disease, at others to misapprehension with regard to a compensation being allowed for the clothes destroyed. On many occasions, something like a disturbance occurred, and on one, a determination on the part of the people to prevent the inspectors following out their purpose was evinced. In order to counteract these various sources of misapprehension and difficulty, the following hand-bill was issued.


Board of Health, Exeter

21st August, 1832.

Several cases of contagion, attended with fatal consequences, having been occasioned in this City, by the neglect of destroying, or immediately purifying, the clothes and bedding of persons dying of the Cholera : - The Board of Health do hereby require all persons to assist the officers, appointed by them, in immediately purifying or destroying all the clothes and bedding of persons dying of the said disease, pursuant to the Order in Council : - And the said Board do also give notice, that the value of the articles so destroyed, will be paid by the said Board, upon proper application being made for that purpose.


Henry Blackall, Deputy Chairman.

Subsequently to the appearance of this notice, the removal of the clothes, though often evaded, was to a certain extent complied with, but frequently demurrings and threatening dissatisfaction accompanied the unwilling submission.

The mode in which the clothes, &c., were destroyed was, during the first fortnight or so, by burning, afterwards by burying them in pits with quick lime. On receiving proper directions, the inspectors resorted to the houses indicated to them, and examined, condemned, valued, and removed, such of the clothes as they thought should be destroyed. For the latter purpose a hand-cart, covered over with canvas, in order not to alarm passers-by, was chiefly used; but at the lower part of the town, and contiguous to the river, a boat, purchased specifically for this object, was also employed. The goods at first destroyed consisted of bedsteads, bedding, and wearing apparel.

Bridge Street Exeter Shilhay Exeter
Bridge Street and Old St Edmund's Church : Removal by hand-cart of clothing & bedding from the houses of cholera victims (p.181, Shapter) Shilhay and the Quay : The burning of clothing of cholera victims (former drying racks from the woolen trade can be seen in the background, p. 183, Shapter)

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Information from: Shapter T (1849). The history of cholera in Exeter in 1832. The book was most recently reprinted in 1971 by SR Publishers of Wakefield, but is now out of print.
This information was originally compiled for a History of Medicine course at the former St Loye's School of Health Studies and is now provided here for general information and use.

The information was compiled by : Graeme Barber

Page updated 18th May 2004

tl 08 Jun 2005