Article dated : Mon, 18th February 2002

Cholera at East Farleigh - 1849

During the middle years of the nineteenth century there were three major cholera epidemics in England and Wales - 1849, 1854 and 1866.

The 1849 epidemic coming as it did while the registration service was still in its infancy, enabled the developing service to begin to compile authenticated health statistics for the whole nation.

Before the introduction of civil registration the main sources of information on deaths were the "Bill of Mortality". These were broadsheets, originating in the sixteenth century, were published irregularly by local insurance companies or friendly societies for a number of cities. They gave out details of the number and causes of deaths occurring in the city in the hope of attracting business. The reliability of the information contained in the "Bills" was often questionable and there was no means of bringing this type of information together to give a national picture.

During the 1849 epidemic the returns from the Registrars and Deaths were used by the General Register Office in London to compile statistics showing how the national spread and effects of the disease could be identified. This work was undertaken at the General Register Office by Dr William Farr, Statistical Superintendent, who saw that it was crucial that accurate mortality statistics were prepared as part of a campaign to stir the authorities into action.

The responsibility for seeing that births and deaths were registered was the Registrar. If he was to do his job properly he would therefore in most cases have to travel on foot or by horseback to individual house where the events occurred. In normal times this must have been an arduous task, but during a cholera epidemic there must have been a strong sense of duty on the part of the Registrar to venture to the scenes of the deaths.

The summer of 1849 saw a widespread outbreak of cholera over the whole Country. By the beginning of September over 5000 deaths were recorded in one week. However, as death registration was still voluntary not all deaths were registered, similarly until 1874 medical practitioners were not required to issue medical certificates detailing the cause of death. Registrars were therefore dependant upon firstly hearing of a death, and secondly upon the informants description of the cause, or nothing at all. It is therefore probable that the actual death rate far exceeded 5000 a week registered.

Cholera is caused by a variety of reasons, bad drains, contaminated drinking water and indescribably bad living conditions among the poor. It was aggravated in 1849 by the unusually hot weather. The majority of the victims were among the poor who existed on very inadequate diets which provided no resistance.

The height of the epidemic in September 1849, unfortunately coincided with the annual migration of the hop-pickers from London to Kent, and this is where the tragedy at East Farleigh was to unfold. It was not certain whether the hop-pickers brought the disease with them from London, but a party of several hundred, men, women and children. came to work at a Farm at East Farleigh. The conditions at the farm were very bad and if the disease did arrive with the hop-pickers it could not have found a better place in which to thrive. If the hop-pickers thought they had escaped the squalor of their London homes for the clean air of the countryside then they were sadly disillusioned.

There was already a scare of the cholera epidemic within the Maidstone area. In fact the "Maidstone and Kentish Journal" printed the following on 18 September 1849:-

CHOLERA - We much regret to learn that our remarks in a leading article last week, on this subject were so misapprehended by some of our country readers, as to induce the belief that the mortality in Maidstone, from cholera, was at the rate of twenty a day. We can scarcely imagine how such a mistake can have occurred, as we merely stated that the mortality in some towns in the north of England was equal to what it would be in Maidstone if there were twenty deaths a day from this cause. So far from there being the least cause for this misapprehension, we have much pleasure in stating that there have been no cases of cholera in Maidstone for the last week or ten days. Two deaths have certainly occurred at the Ophthalmic, and another at the parish hospital,., but the patients in both instances were strangers, in a very destitute condition, brought into the town from the neighbourhood, and who were not placed under medical treatment till their cases were hopeless. Maidstone itself is more than usually healthy"

Maidstone itself may have been "more than usually healthy", but by 18 September (the date of publication) sixteen cholera deaths at East Farleigh had been registered by William Streatfields, the Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Loose District.

By the end of the crisis 43 deaths occurred out of nearly 300 persons who received medical relief.

A cross was erected in the churchyard at East Farleigh to mark the burials. This was replaced in 1984 by a varnished wood replica but still bearing the same inscription :- "In memory of Forty-three Strangers who died of cholera Sepr 1849 RIP"