Families of Cholera


Over the course of the 19th century, cholera struck down millions of people across virtually every part of the planet.

Before the real cause was accepted as a bacterium, and decades after that fact was known by scientists, authorities around the world were only too keen to blame the victims themselves, or factors beyond municipal control. They cited  loose sexual morals, the demon drink, changes in the earth’s magnetism or, a great catch-all phrase, the miasma, or local mist. 

The cholera outbreak of 1849 left Alnwick devastated at the loss of 136 citizens. More died than at the recent Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower national tragedies, and in a small town.

Because the Alnwick authorities were overwhelmed by so many deaths in a very few weeks, the majority of victimes were buried in mass graves in St Michael's churchyard. In a very few instances, the relatives of the dead were sufficiently wealthy to be able to arrange a separate grave.

An independent inquiry into the tragedy in Alnwick, led by Robert Rawlinson a sanitary engineer, was the first such proper investigation in the UK, and possibly the world. Rawlinson came down on a view that unclean water supplies, overcrowding and terrible sanitation lay at the heart of the problem. His map showing the concentration of deaths in the poorest part of Alnwick preceded the similar map of the Broad St area of London drawn up by Dr John Snow by four years.Most important of all, the Rawlinson report led to Alnwick gaining a new, clean water supply and in time proper sanitation, a move mirrored in other parts of the country.

Although there have been numerous later studies of what happened in our town's worst weeks, Alnwick Branch of the Northumberland & Durham Family History Society has focussed more than any investigation before the on victims and the families who lost loved ones. What are the stories of those left behind? In some cases those left with no father or mother, or parents without their children. Some family histories have been unearthed in quite significant detail, in other cases the trail has gone cold over the course of more than 150 years.


If you believe your family lost someone, or you would like to give us any more information, we would love to hear from you. Just email  familyhistory@bailiffgatemuseum.co.uk.