Cholera and clauses that led to action on borough’s sanitation

Bust of George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle, at Morpeth Town Hall.
Bust of George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle, at Morpeth Town Hall.

FOLLOWING a petition from Morpeth under the Public Health Act 1848, a hearing took place in the Town Hall on October 17, 1849. A second hearing followed at Bedlington two days later.

Clause VIII of the Act says that the Board of Health may, after receiving a petition, direct a Presiding Inspector to enquire as to ‘the boundaries which may be most advantageously adopted for the purposes of this Act’.

It was on this basis that the Inspector, Robert Rawlinson Esq. extended the inquiry to cover the entire parliamentary borough, including Bedlingtonshire and several townships around Morpeth.

I suspect that Rawlinson and his superiors knew that this would prove much more arduous than going with Morpeth alone. He probably took William Woodman into his confidence early on.

Bedlington’s sanitary condition was as bad as Morpeth’s and the smaller hamlets and pit villages scarcely better. Woodman’s file at Woodhorn contains little evidence of outright opposition, nor can I find indignation letters in the newspapers.

Clause X, an obscure backwater of the Act, says that ‘except for the purposes of main sewerage, no parts beyond the boundaries of a corporate borough shall be included in any district (that includes) such borough, except upon the petition of a majority of the owners of property and ratepayers.”

So while ten per cent of the ratepayers was normally enough, 50 per cent of ratepayers and landowners would be needed outside Morpeth. But if improving the health of the larger area meant getting hundreds of signatures, William Woodman would do it.

On June 7, 1850, William Longridge wrote that he would willingly sign the petition, provided Bedlington only bore its fair share. A week later, however, William Ord, who owned the Newminster Abbey lands, declined to do so. For various reasons, partly sentiment, partly self-interest, his tenants and local tradesmen would tend to follow his lead.

This was a setback. Woodman contacted his friend Rawlinson, who replied on the 18th: ‘I have directed that the order for Morpeth be delayed as you have requested – I admire your zeal. Do not despair – faith with labor can move mountains – The application of the Act will, in its benefits, outlast the remembrance of any present trouble.’

Lord Carlisle, though no longer a Health Commissioner, still had enormous influence. A draft letter in Woodman’s file sets out all the reasons why the Act should be applied to the entire parliamentary borough. Lord Carlisle replied favourably on July 13, beginning ‘Dear Mr Woodman’, and signing himself, ‘Yours truly, Carlisle’.

Both petitions, one for Bedlingtonshire and one for the Morpeth townships, gave cause for headaches. Certified lists of ratepayers and owners were needed, but the real challenge was getting the signatures.

Robert Dobson, grocer, draper and Assistant Overseer for Bedlington, wrote: ‘Sir, I received yours by this day’s post and will devote Friday to the petition businefs except half an hour or so at the Court getting the jury list pafsed by the Justices. I had WW Burdon Esq. in my shop a few weeks ago he read over the petition but refused to sign it.’

Technically, the issue was one of boundaries. Clause IX says that if, having received a Report, the Board decides upon boundaries different from those of the place inspected, the Inspector has to go back again.

On October 11, Rawlinson wrote: ‘It will give me very great pleasure to visit Morpeth and to have one more pleasant chat, – and, I trust, to complete the inquiry necessary to the application of the Act to the Parliamentary Borough. … In future generations, the name of the present Town Clerk will be remembered with affectionate pride by the inhabitants – I fully appreciate your difficulties but it is our privilege to work and a benevolent object is worthy of much labour … The Petition must be signed by a majority of the owners and ratepayers.’

On December 28, with the petitions from the non-municipal areas almost complete, Woodman wrote urgently, asking how this should be calculated. Was it half of the owners and ratepayers together, or separately? Rawlinson replied promptly. It was together.

Dobson, one of Woodman’s most valuable helpers, returned the Bedlington petition on January 11, 1851: ‘There is 110 more Names in the Rate Book which I have not included in consequence of the Rate being paid by the Colliery Owner George Marshall Esq.’ This presumably saved 55 signatures.

Bedlington, the petition says, ‘is much crowded with Inhabitants, in consequence of the extensive Iron Works and numerous Collieries … in the Autumn of the last year a great number of its Inhabitants were carried off by Asiatic Cholera.’

It is signed by Lord Carlisle; EC Ogle, vicar; Michael Longridge JP; Andrew Robert Fenwick JP, William Longridge (for Bedlington Iron Company); Charles John Longridge (for the owners of Barrington Colliery) and 312 others.

Contrary to what I said last week, Edwin Chadwick was not Secretary to the Board, but a Commissioner. On January 13, Woodman wrote to the great man personally: ‘I have the honor of transmitting to you herewith a petition from the owners and ratepayers of the non-municipal part of the Parliamentary borough of Morpeth, praying that the municipal and non-municipal parts of that borough may be formed into a district for the purposes of the Public Health Act of 1848.’

Rawlinson wrote from the George Hotel, Portsmouth: ‘I must surely beg to congratulate you on the close of your labours in the matter of the extended petition.’

But then, on April 12, a solicitor wrote to Henry Austin Esq, Secretary to the Board, on behalf of Sir Matthew White Ridley and ‘most of the rated Inhabitants in the township of Camboise … containing the grounds upon which it is submitted that the Public Health Act ought not to be applied to the Township’.

Cambois, he said, was sufficiently drained, required no sewers, paid rates to Bedlington, and, being only a small rural hamlet, was not a ‘Town and Populated Place’ under the Act.

Woodman went into action. Dobson and Soulsby would know the real situation.

Mr Soulsby replied on the 29th. Woodman forwarded it to Austin, describing the writer as ‘a shrewd intelligent man’. He was adamant that Cambois needed reform.

When the cholera came to England in 1832, it was the first place in Bedlingtonshire to get it:

‘Hot lime was thrown over the coffins at the interment in Bedlington Church Yard and great alarm was created in consequence of its being the first appearance of Cholera Asiatica in this district. … in 1848, six deaths from Asiatic Cholera took place at North Blyth.’

Dobson said that, apart from those on farms, all the inhabitants of Cambois were fisherman, pilots and sailors: ‘The inhabitants are very poor the most of them receiving parochial relief there (sic) dwellings miserably damp some of the cottages are below the surface even at the front and at the back part level with the eves the tiles literally touching the ground some of them are the very worst and most unhealthy in this parish.’

They carried the day. The Local Board for Morpeth was duly established, and held its first meeting on September 29, 1851.