Death sails into Passage East

Introduction

In June of 1832 a ship anchored off Passage East, apparently to await favourable sailing conditions.  However within hours her passengers would be fleeing ashore and the army was called out to exert control.  For the passengers were escaping a deadly sickness that had the country gripped in panic and fear – Cholera.

Cholera 1831-3 outbreak

The Cholera outbreak of 1832 in Ireland was a medical disaster which was compounded by the political and economic situation in the country.  The pandemic had been a long time coming originating in India in 1817 and spreading west, and creating a sense of fear and foreboding as it did so.  The first officially recognised case in Great Britain was in Sunderland in October 1831, and was first reported in the island of Ireland at Belfast on 18th March 1832, arriving in Dublin a week later.[1] 

Thereafter it spread rapidly reaching  Cork by 12 April, Tralee by 28 April, Galway by 12 May, Limerick two days later and Waterford on the 20th May.  By August it was established in Wexford and Derry at opposite ends of the country.[2]  The fact that these are all ports will not be lost on my readers.

Causes of Cholera

The actual cause of Cholera is a bacterium called Vibrio cholera.  When humans ingest cholera bacteria (contaminated water, raw vegetables, shellfish etc), they may not become sick themselves, but they still pass the bacteria in their stool. When human faeces contaminate food and water supplies, both can serve as ideal breeding grounds for the cholera bacteria.  The social, political and economic conditions in Ireland at the time meant that it was a fertile breeding ground for the spread of the sickness.

Passage East during the past week.

Fear spreads countrywide

If you doubt the awareness of the illness amongst the general population or the ability of news to travel in a rural country consider the following:  “The earliest recorded appearance of a popular panic centering on this threatened appearance of cholera came on the night of Saturday 9th June 1832, in the northern part of County Cork….(it) began with the news that the Virgin Mary had appeared on the altar of the chapel at Charleville, and had left there certain ashes which she warned were the only protection against cholera. She ordered that small packages of the ashes should be taken to neighbouring houses, where they should be placed under the rafters. The owner of each house was then to take four parcels of ash out of his chimney and proceed to four other houses that had not already been visited, giving the inhabitants of each the same directions as he had received himself”[4]  Within six days a 19th century version of Chinese whispers had spread almost nationwide with much variation to the original message.  It arrived at 2am on Tuesday 12th June in New Ross  “…carried by ‘enormous bodies of men who came last night from the county of Kilkenny by the bridges of Ross [and] Mountgarret, and the boats along the river which they had in requisition”[5]

The storefront of Howlett & Co of New Ross who had organised the Lord Wellington with thanks to Myles Courtney

A later advert for Howlett & Co in Bassetts commercial directory 1885. Courtesy of Myles Courtney

Passage East situation

Perhaps by now you will have a sense of the dread attached to Cholera.  So when the barque Lord Wellington hove to and dropped anchor off Passage East on Friday 15th June and the cry of Cholera went up there presumably was widespread concern.
The barque under Captain Culleton had departed New Ross for Howlett & Co earlier that week with a disputed number of passengers.[6]  The news was probably brought ashore initially by fishermen or boatmen, or perhaps the international signal, the yellow jack, was raised on the sailing ships mast.  By evening any doubts were cast aside when several passengers came ashore at Passage East weighed down with their belongings and saying they were in fear of their lives and would not re-board.  Many of these set off to return to their homes but some were already ill and slumped to the ground, while another man (John Holahan) succumbed on the road out of the village and was later found lying in a ditch covered in straw.  A local clergyman Rev Paliser was credited with organising the care of the ill and had a temporary fever hospital was set up in the village, Holahan being carried to it from off the roadside.[7]

The Yellow Jack – signalling illness aboard HMS Hazard 1841. Accessed from National Maritime Museum London

Rev JB Palliser had already been proactive however, having written in his position as chairman of a local group proposing the establishment of a local board of health to deal with the impending Cholera pandemic to Sir William Gosset, Under Secretary of State in Ireland at Dublin Castle in May.  The local initiative was not rewarded however.[8]

Dr Gore (a rather unfortunate name for a medic surely) of the Dunmore East dispensary seems to have taken control of the care of the victims housed in the temporary Passage East hospital.  His first patient was described as having been sick when leaving the ship, a 42 year old Wicklow woman, Eliza Murphy, who collapsed after arriving on Passage Quay.  She was not expected to recover (I understand from another newspaper source that she died Monday morning).  The first confirmed death was of John Holahan, the man found earlier in the ditch, who died on Sunday 17th.  A relative of his, Mary Maton, died soon after.[9]

By Sunday an emergency meeting was convened in the village by the Waterford Board of Health.  It issued a warrant for the interment of the deceased, and forbad all unnecessary communication with the temporary hospital.  Alderman Henry Alcock, Mayor of Waterford, and Captain Shapeland Carew Morris ordered a reinforcement of police from nearby Callaghane Bridge, in order to prevent all such communication.  It’s not made clear exactly why…was it fear for the safety of the victims, or fear of contagion?[10]

But what was happening aboard the Lord Wellington?

Meanwhile aboard the Lord Wellington one can only suppose that her Master Captain Culleton (elsewhere Culloton) was busy trying to care for his charges with the limited means at his disposal[11].  Dr Long from Arthurstown had been aboard on Friday evening to administer some care to a cabin passenger named George Cook of Carlow.  However when he boarded on Saturday morning with Dr Mackesy of the Waterford Board of Health they found Cook laid out dead on the deck with a steerage passenger named Martin Byrne from Wicklow.  In a follow up report Mackesy provided the following list of the ill:

  • “James Walsh, aged 25 years, a very fine young man, from Clough, in the County Kilkenny, in the last stage of blue spasmodic cholera—dying.—-{since dead.)
  • William Thompson, a negro, cook of the, ship, native the West Indies—extremely ill—not likely to recover; had been unwell twenty hours.
  • Mary Larkin, of the county Carlow, aged six years, has had hooping cough for the last three weeks.—ls dying of spasmodic cholera.—(Since dead.)
  • Margaret Larkin, aged 15 months, has also had hooping cough. Has been ill of cholera twenty-six hours. —Is better, and is likely to recover.
  • John Kennedy, aged twenty years, from Castlecomer —ill seventeen hours—is better, and is likely to recover.”[12]

On Sunday a deputation from the Waterford Board of Health boarded the vessel. The medical group included Dr. Connolly, Dr. Sheehan, Dr. Gore, and Mr. Reynett, of Waterford apothecary.  That same day the Mayor had dispatched Joseph Watson, one of his city constables, to Passage, to urge the departure of the vessel.  Her orders were to report to the quarantine grounds off Milford Haven where she would have to remain until all illness had passed. She sailed later Sunday afternoon. The outgoing pilot reported that two more deaths had occurred while he was on board.[13]

Aftermath at Passage East

Although the departure of the ship must have brought some slight relief cholera didn’t disappear with her departure.  The local papers that week reported that  “A memorial has been forwarded to Government for the formation of a local Board of Health at Passage. The appointment is expected down on Tuesday”[14] It was obviously founded because by September the secretary of the Board of Health for Passage East William N Clarke wrote to Sir William Gosset, [Under Secretary for Ireland], explaining that one of the Board members, John Spencer, had died from cholera and seeking approval for their nomination of John Cavanagh as a replacement.  In a follow up letter dated April of 1833 Clarke again wrote to Gosset, requesting permission to use the balance of the cholera fund to provide distress for the poor now suffering from typhus fever.[15]  On another side note its worth mentioning that as a consequence of the fears of contagion, shellfish was feared and sales of cockles were almost nil. This must have had a knock on effect too on the village for some time.

I could find no mention of the burials, but I’m sure this would have been done locally. To have transported the bodies back to their home places would be too much of a threat to public health. Eventually a quarantine hospital was set up at Passage East, but it would appear that it was some years following the 1832 outbreak. An exact date still escapes me. 

Back on board the Lord Wellington

Once the pilot left the Lord Wellington Captain Culleton had a relatively short trip to Milford Haven[16], one of three “foul bill quarantine stations” designated as anchorages for ships requiring quarantine at this time and where a hospital ship awaited the sick and dying[17].  The procedure was that the ship would fly a yellow jack to signify illness aboard, and anchor away from other ships.  A doctor would assess the situation. The sick were removed, or if everyone aboard was sick they would remain.  Until the medics decided the ship was free to travel, she would remain at anchor.  The Lord Wellington eventually sailed from Milford Haven on the 29th June for Quebec.[18]

A hospital ship at Standgate Creek (Medway). Public domain, accessed from National Maritime Museum London

According to Lloyds registrar the Lord Wellington had been built at Quebec in 1811 and was an average sized ship of the time 271 tons. I can determine nothing further about her passage except to say that 167[19] passengers were disembarked at Quebec on 13th August.  Undoubtedly she had arrived some days previously and had reported to the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station to be checked and passed as fit to proceed into port.  As yet I haven’t discovered how many actually left Milford for the journey across the Atlantic.[20] One newspaper account reported 300 aboard originally and also reported that up to 100 fled the ship while at Passage East.  The numbers were disputed by Howlett & Co in subsequent reports.  But if true, it suggests 200 aboard when leaving the harbour and that 33 deaths had occurred. I’d suspect the figure was higher.

Grosse Isle had been set up by an act dated February 25th 1832 as a direct response to the threat posed to lower Canada by Asiatic cholera.  Thirty miles below Quebec it was considered far enough away from the town to protect it, but close enough to be provisioned.  On this tiny island a number of wooden cabins were built with beds as an isolation hospital where the sick were monitored and disease such as cholera contained.  Ships could not proceed until they had been passed fit.  In 1832 alone 51,700 emigrants arrived at Quebec, and any sickness had to be contained on the island.  Tents were erected to cope with the numbers and the death toll was high.  Of course as bad as 1832 was, it was not until the wave of the Irish famine broke across it in 1847 that the real horror would unfold.[21]  But that is another story entirely.[22]

Grosse Isle in the 19th C accessed from
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/qc/grosseile/decouvrir-discover/natcul1/b

The impact of Cholera in Ireland

The Cholera had a deep and profound effect on the locality and it was 1833 before the pandemic had finally cleared the country.  I put together the following cases and deaths based on the Cholera Board Observations (Chief secretary’s office, official papers, 1832)

County                              cases                     deaths

Kilkenny                           550                         363

Wexford                           862                         373

Waterford                        879                         482        

However the statistics are subject to debate.  For example “…the 1841 census recorded that 46,175 died from cholera in the period 1832-4. The manuscript returns show that for the year 1832 the number of cases was 51,153 of whom 18,955 died…The difficulty in getting an overall picture arises from the omissions rather than any false returns. Many rural areas, which were affected by the disease, had no boards of health and so made no returns… Some who fled from the cholera infested towns must also have died unrecorded. The reported 46,175 cholera deaths is, if anything, a conservative estimate.”[23]

Myles Courtney of Visit New Ross informed me this week that 11 people were buried in St Marys Cemetry in the town.  For the effects on the county of Waterford and Dungarvan in particular see Patrick C Powers A History of Waterford City & County.

Concluding remarks

The cruel irony of this story is that it is still playing out today.  Cholera is rife in war torn Yemen at present. And migrants fleeing similar scenarios as faced the 19th Century Irish, risk everything to try cross the Mediterranean or the Mexican border in the hope of escaping the grueling poverty, hunger and oppression they experience in their home places.  I’m not so sure that this months blog is heritage as much as it is a perspective on one of the burning issues of our time.  And who’s to say that it won’t get worse.  If you thought it appropriate to criticise or condemn modern migration it might be worth remembering our own, and particularly the conditions that drove them to flee.


I’m indebted to Myles Courtney at Visit New Ross, Brian Cleare, and Kieran Cronin Centre for Newfoundland & Labrador Studies at WIT for assistance with this article

For more on the emigration story visit the Dunbrody Famine Ship experience in New Ross, Co Wexford

Sources drawn on are either hyperlinked in the piece or from:

The ‘Blessed Turf’: Cholera and Popular Panic in Ireland, June 1832.  S. J. Connolly. Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 23, No. 91 (May, 1983), pp. 214-232.  Cambridge University Press

[Fever and Public Health in Pre-Famine Ireland.  Timothy P. O’Neill.  The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 103 (1973), pp. 1-34.  Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Grosse Isle Quarantine Station.  JD Page.  Canadian Public Health Journal. Vol 22, No 9.  September 1931 pp454-458.  Canadian Public Health Association.

Power.P.C. History of Waterford City & County. 1990. Mercier Press. Cork

Waterford Chronical 7th July 1832. 

Ballyshannon Herald – Friday 29 June 1832

Waterford Mail – Wednesday 20 June 1832

Lloyds List.  3 July 1832

For a fascinating and detailed account of famine era migration and the conditions at Gross Isle see Jim Rees book Surplus People, From Wicklow to Canada.  2014.  Collins Press, Cork

For an insight into the living conditions for the city’s poor, which was a breeding ground for the disease, see Niall Byrne, The Waterford leper hospital of St Stephen & Waterford Co and City infirmary. . 2011. Linden publishing. Dublin. Pp27-28 in particular

Join me at Cheekpoint over Aug 24th&25th to celebrate National Heritage Week

7 Replies to “Death sails into Passage East”

    1. I suppose something like a antibiotic resistant superbug would cause the same panic here today Kev, or rather one that was communicable in the public sphere… Guess it’s already an issue in hospitals

      1. I had a 3 week stay in an English hospital in 2006, gangreneous appendicitis — it was at the time of the mrsa and c.diff scares.
        I had to go back a month later and then remedial work in 2008.
        I was scared to go back because of the fear of catching those and any other diseases through no fault of my own.

  1. As usual The R. Blog entertains and informs, a lovely piece of research. History of the area that I knew nothing about. Thanks Andrew.

  2. My grandfather sailed to Canada in 1890 on the s.s. Sardinian from Liverpool. Before the ship departed, the passengers all ‘marched past a doctor’ on the deck. Sailing up the St. Lawrence river at the end of their voyage, they were hailed by a cannon shot, a tender came out from the shore, and they all ‘made another march in front of 3 doctors’

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