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As we know today, cholera is caused by bacteria in contaminated water or food, but nineteenth century Britain were unaware of this and were not aware of the damage cramped living conditions and inadequate sanitation could cause. As we still see in less developed countries. local drinking water can be easily contaminated by human waste. With Bilston's population exceeding the space available, the working class would have been living in overcrowded streets using water that was infected by faecal waste for drinking, cleaning and cooking. With such communities springing up all over the country in the first half of the nineteenth century it was unsurprising that cholera would hit. By July 1832, Tipton was hit by the illness.
As Joseph Price writes, cholera made its appearance "as a thief in the night'' on Friday August 3rd and hit three people "In the most densely populated part of the town". This part of the town laid either side of Bilston Brook and was on low ground.
Bilston Brook Is no longer in existence, but it trawled through the heart of this area coming from the Walsall Canal, and in modern day terms, running past The Black Country Route, through Oxford Street Island and parallel to Brook Street, which adjoins Temple Street. It then carried on into the direction of Dudley Street. The first three people affected were; t 6 year-old Richard Dyke who lived in Old Street, 35 year-old Elizabeth Dawson from Temple Street and two year-old Mary Cleaton from Hall Street.
It soon spread and from the 3rd August to the 18th September whole families were wiped out by the disease. The community of Bilston was shook and it was not just consigned to the lower classes.. Price writes about how the upper classes aimed to leave Bilston to escape, but even some of their number was affected before they had the chance to.
Extraordinary stories of the deceased and the community of Bilston are throughout Price's account, and it is quite harrowing to read that the dead were piling up so quickly that coffins had to be brought in from Birmingham. Someone didn't have the common sense lo cover them up when they arrived and they littered the outside of the undertakers, which must have given the people a sense of dread. By mid-September one in twenty people of Bilston's population had died. Rev. W. Leigh, Vicar of Bilston, wrote in his 'History of the Cholera': 'Manufactories are closed, and business completely at a standstill the hearse carrying the dead to the grave Without intermission. Overall, 742 people died in Bilston. with a total of 3,568 cases experiencing illness out of a population of just 14492 (1831). Four hundred and fifty children, under the age of twelve, were made orphans.
The time was not without its heroic figures. Most prominent was the tireless local Bookseller, John Etheridge. His house, "The Retreat", still stands in Church Street, by St. Leonard's and the Town Hall. He was a constant sick visitor and source of comfort, despite which, he did not contract the disease! A Bilston School was later dedicated to his memory.
On the one year anniversary of the epidemic, the Cholera Orphan School was opened. This honoured those orphans who had survived. For many years after people still did not understand the disease and Joseph Price himself celebrates that after the epidemic, the townspeople turned away from bull-baiting and that the Sabbath was in good attendance. For him the town had been taught a lesson by God.


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