Cholera and The Deaths of John and Sarah Clarke

Due to the collapse of the banking business co-owed by Clarke, Phillips, Mitchell and Smith John Clarke was forced to sell much of his property, including New Parks estate. The property was occupied by a different John Clarke, his wife Sarah and their large family. After the sale in 1844 the family moved into high-cross street in central Leicester. It is likely that they either owned or had the intention of leasing another estate in the area, but in 1846 the family remained in Leicester and in September John Clarke contracted and died from Cholera, followed by Sarah in the following month.

Although cholera had been prevalent in parts of Asia since 1817, Cholera was a relatively new disease in England – the first case had been reported in 1831. By 1832 the first outbreak hit London and 6,536 died. Cholera was poorly understood at the time. It is now known that the bacteria that causes cholera is spread through drinking water having been infected by raw sewerage, but then it was believed that it was either spread by miasma (smell) or by contagion (contact with infected people).  However it was understood that outbreaks of the disease were connected with poor sanitary condition – open sewers, poor drainage. The appropriate treatment for cholera was also not understood – often patients were deprived of fluids or offered various unproven medications. In fact the danger of the disease is almost entirely due to dehydration due to the large amounts of fluids lost through profuse diarrhoea.

On the very same page as John Clarke’s death notice in the Leicester Chronicle is an article entitled “The Health of the Town” that calls attention to the fact that “fever and cholera are prevalent in Leicester, to an unprecedented extent, at the present time.” It calls for action to be taken to “check the progress of disease” by passing various acts improve sanitary measures. However it wasn’t until after an epidemic in 1849 that a Board of Health was formed and proper drains and sewers were built. It is a sad fact for the Clarke family that they would have undoubtedly been spared from the disease if they had been still living at New Parks where they would have been isolated from the town water supply and poor drainage.

On an odd side-note, CS Clarke describes his parents’ death as due to “English” Cholera. In actual fact there was no such thing – this was a term often given to common non-lethal dysentery usually caused by food poisoning. This reason for this distinctive was probably the association that cholera had with the poor (as it was common in areas of over-crowding).