Thomas Shapter : The History of the Cholera in Exeter 1832
Introduction and background


Introduction Shapter's Career History of the Cholera
Origins of Cholera Cholera Statistics Extracts from the Book



Dr Thomas Shapter, LL.D., M.D., FRCP (1809-1902) was born in Gibraltar, graduated from Edinburgh University, and arrived in Exeter in the year cholera arrived, 1832. Today, Dr Shapter is best known for the account he wrote of this devastating cholera outbreak . A portrait of Shapter, can be viewed at: Thomas Shapter Portrait

Shapter's Career

Shapter soon developed a medical practice in Exeter and became a member of the governing body of the City, the Chamber, in 1835. As Newton puts it "his early admission into the restricted governing class of a cathedral city is a measure of his personality, as well as of his political and religious orthodoxy". Such ties were further cemented by his marriage in 1840 to the Reverend Samuel Blackhall’s daughter. He was later to become Mayor (twice) and Sherriff of the City.

He was appointed physician in 1847 at the Exeter and Devon Hospital but he also worked for the Magdalen Hospital, The Lying-in-Charity and St Thomas’ Hospital for Lunatics (1845). He led an active public life and when cholera again posed a threat in 1867 he opposed plans to transfer the powers of the Improvement Commissioners to the Board of Health under the 1858 Health Act. He appears to have still believed in the efficacy of the measures and institutions established during the 1830s.

He retired from the staff of the Devon and Exeter Hospital in 1876 and later moved to London. Newton states that his departure from the city was under something of a cloud "His reputation seems to have suffered locally from the injudicious acceptance of a legacy from a mental patient under his care". In old age he went blind and died in 1902 aged 93.

Apart form his famous work on cholera he also published books a number of other books which included. "Leprosy in the Middle Ages" and "Climate of the South of Devon". He was also a collector of art which he used to furnish his home at no. 1 Barnfield Crescent.

Shapter's History of the Cholera

Shapter is now best especially known for his interest in environment and disease through his work "History of the Cholera in Exeter in 1832" which was published in 1849. This account was described in the British Medical Journal of 8th April 1933 as

"one of the best descriptions extant of an historical epidemic"

It is certainly one of the longest and most thorough of the local cholera histories written and interest in it was probably enhanced by the fact that it was published in the middle of a later outbreak of the disease. The compilation of the book was far from easy as the official records had already been lost by the time Shapter began the book in the 1840s and he was dependent upon any other sources he could locate plus the reminiscences of those who lived through the disease or were involved in its treatment or prevention.

Title Page of the original edition

The book describes the arrival of cholera in the city, the reactions of the citizens and authorities to the disease and the efforts of the Board of Health in coping with the outbreak. The book paints a vivid picture of the local conditions which helped to foster the spread of the disease in the city. It clearly describes the problems faced by nineteenth century towns with their inadequate administrative arrangements, organisation and financial resources in trying to cope with the cholera outbreak. One of the fascinating features of the book are the engravings provided for it by the Exeter artist John Gendall. These were added quite late on in the publication process with Shapter commenting that he was pleased to include "these interesting sketches of old parts of Exeter"

(some of the information above is derived from Robert Newton's introduction to the 1971 reprint of Shapter's book, published by SR Publishers, and now sadly out of print)

Origins and Arrival of Cholera

The first Cholera outbreak reached England in the Autumn of 1831 at Sunderland. The feared disease rapidly spread across the country and arrived in Exeter in July 1832.Shapter records how the arrival of cholera was much feared and there was much speculation locally about it. He states that :

"The inhabitants of Exeter were not exempted from this remarkable and very curious state of feeling; as may be learned from the articles published on this subject by the local papers. At one time, the reality of the disease is asserted, and the greatest fears are expressed and apparently entertained; at another its existence is denied and those who venture to assert such a proposition are stigmatised as credulous, if not actuated by sinister motives"

In Chapter XIII of his book the progress of the disease is meticulously detailed. The weather was fine and warm, good breeding conditions for the disease. On 19th July Cholera had arrived, during previous night and morning, one in St Thomas, the other in North Street.

The first outbreak was recorded on 19th July. Shapter quotes a letter from a Doctor Kingdon who attended the first case in the City:

"I was first sent for yesterday morning a little before six o’clock, to see a poor woman named Ruse and her two children, living in North Street. I found them labouring under Cholera in the worst state, and notwithstanding every means that I could (in conjunction with Dr Miller) devise, the mother expired this morning at four o’clock. It appears she had, with her child, returned from Plymouth the previous evening"

Shapter reports a case in the St Thomas area (which was then actually outside of the city jurisdiction) which Shapter and Dr Woodman attended :

 "The person alluded to was a stranger who had arrived from London" 

Shapter describes in vivid and rather horrific detail the nature of the disease and it’s effects on the body.

Cholera Statistics

Shapter also provides quite detailed statistical returns about cholera, particularly comparing the figures to those of other deaths.  Between 19th July and 14th October, the date of the last recorded cholera death, 402 inhabitants had died of the disease. His figures suggest approximately a one in three chance of dying of the disease once it had been contracted

1. Summary of Cases in Exeter and St Thomas Parish


Population 1831



Cases % of population

Deaths % to cases

Deaths % to population








St Thomas








2. Cholera and Other Deaths in Exeter July to August 1832

Date Cholera Deaths Other Deaths Date Cholera Deaths Other Deaths
19th July 0 2 12th August 19 5
20th July 1 2 13th August 24 2
22nd July 0 3 14th August 14 4
23rd July 3 0 15th August 17 0
25th July 2 0 16th August 16 1
26th July 3 1 17th August 13 3
29th July 2 3 18th August 10 3
30th July 4 1 19th August 16 6
31st July 4 0 20th August 14 0
1st August 5 3 21st August 10 3
2nd August 4 3 22nd August 7 2
3rd August 11 0 23rd August 12 2
4th August 8 0 24th August 11 1
5th August 4 1 25th August 4 1
6th August 3 1 26th August 10 2
7th August 11 1 27th August 5 3
8th August 30 2 28th August 3 2
9th August 14 4 29th August 4 0
10th August 17 0 30th August 0 3
11th August 13 0 31st August 6 1


3. Cholera and Other Deaths in Exeter September to October 1832

Date Cholera Deaths Other Deaths Date Cholera Deaths Other Deaths
1st Sept. 4 1 25th Sept. 0 5
2nd Sept. 4 1 26th Sept. 0 2
3rd Sept. 1 0 27th Sept. 0 3
4th Sept. 7 3 28th Sept. 1 1
5th Sept. 1 2 29th Sept. 1 5
6th Sept. 4 1 1st October 1 0
7th Sept. 1 2 2nd October 0 2
8th Sept. 1 0 3rd October 0 1
9th Sept. 1 6 4th October 1 0
10th Sept. 4 2 6th October 0 2
11th Sept.  1 0 7th October 0 6
12th Sept. 3 2 8th October 0 1
14th Sept. 1 3 9th October 1 2
15h Sept. 1 0 10th October 1 1
16th Sept. 0 5 11th October 1 1
17th Sept. 0 2 12th October 0 1
20th Sept. 1 0 13th October 1 1
22nd Sept. 1 0 14th October 1 1
23rd Sept. 0 3 15th October 0 1
24th Sept. 2 1 16th October 0 1
      19th October 0 1


4. Summary of Deaths July to October 1832

Cholera Deaths 402 Other Deaths 142


5. Graphical Representation of Cholera and other deaths, July to October, 1832, Exeter



Extracts and illustrations from Shapter's Book

Click on the links below to read extracts from Shapter's book:

Chapter II : The Physical Condition of Exeter

Chapter IX : Fumigations, destruction of clothing etc.

Chapter XIV ; Various incidents, rioting, abuse of medical men, day of humiliation etc.

Cholera Map of Exeter, 1832

Further illustrations

Click here to go to the next page: Chapter II

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