Fever and Cholera in Belfast

Belfast was repeatedly hit by fever and cholera epidemics in the nineteenth century

On April 7, 1846, 33 year old Margaret Owen from Henry Street was buried in the poor section of the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street. She was one of the first deaths from a new fever epidemic.

Belfast had been hit by a fever epidemic in 1836 and 1837. At that time the fever was accompanied by outbreaks of influenza and erysipelas, a skin disease caused by a bacterial infection.

The fever which struck the town in the 1840s was, in fact, two different fevers, typhus and relapsing, both of which were carried by body lice, fleas and ticks. Both fevers caused pain in the joints and muscles, extreme headache, continuous vomiting, widespread rash, and a slow and painful death for its unfortunate victims.

At the same time as the fever outbreak, Ireland was facing the potato blight, otherwise known as the Great Famine. The famine had a less disastrous effect on the northern counties of Ireland than on other parts of the country, as people were not so dependent on the potato for survival. Oatmeal was a traditional addition to their diet. Nevertheless, many country people left their homes in search of food and work in the towns. The fever epidemic, which followed, was attributed to the introduction of infection into the town by some 10,000 refugees.

Andrew Malcolm, who was a doctor in the General Hospital in Frederick Street at the time of the outbreak, wrote, ‘We will remember the aspect of the hordes of poor who thronged into the town from all parts. Famine depicted in the look, in the hue, in the voice and gait’.

In 1847, the People’s Magazine printed a series of articles written by Dr Malcolm entitled 'Sanitary Inspections of Belfast’. In one of these he presented a map of the New Lodge district, in which back-to-back houses were shown alongside water pumps and open sewers. He also found gross overcrowding, with upwards of five families sometimes living in one terrace.

Other poor areas such as Carrick Hill and the Pound Loney were worse again. Indeed, all the poorer districts of Belfast, with their appalling conditions, proved no hindrance to the spread of this new fever epidemic.

It was not long before large numbers of people began to die. Bodies were found in the streets, and others were left outside graveyards for burial. At the New Burying Ground, sometimes up to four bodies were being found outside on Henry Place daily. On February 27, 1847, the body of an unknown two year old child was found on the doorstep of the graveyard gatehouse. It was the first of many.

By now the number of people dying was rising at an alarming rate, with upwards of 100 people being buried in the New Burying Ground each week. As the fever reached its peak, Belfast was struck by outbreaks of dysentery and smallpox. The first person to die of dysentery and to be buried in the New Burying Ground was 26 year old Alexander McMurry, an inmate of the poorhouse. The next day brought another seven deaths.

The newly established board of health enlarged the Union Infirmary and moved the poorhouse inmates, who were thought to carry the disease, into it. The board also built a large shed in the grounds of the General Hospital. Two unused hospitals, the College Hospital and the Cholera Hospital, were once again opened. Later, tents were erected in the grounds of the workhouse to accommodate 700 convalescent patients.

In the burying grounds of Belfast, burial space was running out, and bodies were arriving faster than the gravediggers could accommodate them. Some coffins contained more than one body and sometimes up to five bodies were placed in one coffin, which were really large boxes. Soon, coffins were not used at all. When the poor ground was full, the cholera ground, which was last used in the 1830s epidemic, was opened once again. In the New Burying Ground, even the gap between the Antrim Road wall and the graveyard wall was used.

By this time, it was realised that to control the epidemic, it was first necessary to control vagrancy, and thus prevent more paupers coming into the town. A meeting was held by the poorhouse committee on July 20, 1847, and it was agreed that all beggars were to be ’placed’ in the House of Correction (the prison).

From August, there was a gradual decline in the fever. By November, the General Hospital ceased to admit any further fever cases, and the following month the Barrack Hospital was closed as the new Workhouse Hospital provided sufficient beds for any remaining cases.

By the end of 1847, Dr Andrew Malcolm was warning people that Asiatic cholera was spreading throughout Europe at an alarming rate. At the same time, the board of health, which had been set up to combat the fever epidemic, was disbanded.

The first case of cholera occurred in the Lunatic Asylum on November 1, 1847, and for upwards of a month was the only case.

In the poorhouse, great care was taken to prevent the entry of infection. No inmate was allowed out and no one was allowed in. Only on Sundays could the inmates leave to attend worship under strict supervision. Consequently, the poorhouse escaped infection.

However, the poor who were dying outside the poorhouse were causing a major problem. The committee in charge of the New Burying Ground decided to reopen the mass cholera grave. However, the cholera outbreak did not last as long as had been predicted and it claimed fewer victims. Soon the scare was over, and the mass grave at the burying ground was filled in for the last time.

© The Glenravel Local History Project