Cholera in Beith 1832-34
This information in this Article was taken from a piece written by George Hewitt M. A. in 1967 for the Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and reproduced in the Largs and North Ayrshire Family History Society Newsletter in Spring 1992.
At the time Beith had a population of 3,500, had several churches, a town hall, a parish school and a weekly market. Streets were gaslit, twisting, rough, dirty and cannot have made an easy ride for the daily coach from Glasgow.
Mr Hewitt writes of the nationwide concern for the spreading cholera epidemic. The disease had gone from India to Moscow in 1830 and by 1831 it had crept westwards towards Hamburg. Three weeks later the first case was reported in England. 59 responsible citizens of Beith met in the Town Hall to form a Board of Health withColonel Thomas Muir of Caldwell, Chairman and James Dobie, Secretary and Treasurer. Leaflets were distributed demanding clean-up of streets, closes and houses, particularly those sheltering more than one family. It was the duty of Constable Davison to ensure the townsfolk did as they were asked. The Parish School was condemned. Special mention was made of the filth in Kirk Street and the Overseer of Roads censured. 30 people were found in need of assistance with blankets clothing etc 'cordial for Jean Mills labouring under diabetes'. People of Gateside 'having potatoes on lime floors under beds were desired to remove them', Vagrants and paupers were not welcome being given money to move on. It must be said that the committees were surprised by the general health of the people in some areas although there were known cases of smallpox, fever and bowel complaints.
By the end of 1832 cholera had claimed 10,000 victims in Scotland. The first case being in Haddington then spreading to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Dalry was ravaged yet Beith remained clear. But still preperations went ahead. No one volunteered premises for a cholera hospital. A soup kitchen was established in Gavin Gison's shop in Main Street, the soup was made by Nellie Sinclair whose wage was 6/- per week. Those who qualified for soup tickets applied and collected them from Smith's Printing office, left-overs being sold to the townspeople.
Approximately seven months after the formation of the Health Board, it dispersed, as Beith was in good health. Their respite was to be short. In 1832 Beith had six cases of cholera, the first victim being Thomas Smith, a weaver and his mother was next. The hunt was on for nurses and a hospital. As there was no help from the local people, a male nurse was called from a cholera hospital in Paisley. Doctor Patrick of Tearne was not in favour of building a hospital but went along with whatever the Board decided. The good doctor felt that the local people would not make use of it as it was much feared then, as were the nurses. A 'stranger woman' Katherine Corbeton her way to Ireland after three years in Edinburgh was retained. After only a week the Board decided there was no longer any need for the two nurses and dispensed with the services of both. The disease seemed to be contained.
During the Beith Fair the stalwart Constable Davison patrolled the town whilst Sgt. Moses Miller and assistants guarded the outskirts in an effort to restrict numbers entering the town.
The worst was to come in 1834,. There was no halting the spread of the disease although 'clothes were burned, bedding fumigated, stairs and closes whitewashed, a nurse who was a veteran of the Dalry outbreak engaged and ban placed on entertainments at funerals, at least until after the interment.' There were 100 cases in September 1834, 205 people were eventually affected with 105 deaths. Some of the people being buried in the Parish Churchyard, others in a field close to what became Speir's School. It should be mentioned here that Robert Speir, the father of the Schools founder was a member of the Health Board.
The 'Cholera Doctor' John Knox Stuart of Glasgow came to Beith. He was a Quack and his mustard and turpentine poultices for the chest, laid on in bed 'being careful to allow no cold air to enter beneath the bedclothes' helped to suffocate quite a few. He had been invited to Beith by the Beith Humane Committee, which was made up of people critical of the Doctors and their treatments.
By December 1834 it was all over. The Board had been supported financially by voluntary contributions. An effort was made to have the Board approved by Whitehall for under the terms of the Privy Council Orders an official assessment could be levied. This was what happened and Constable Davison and the Doctors were paid arrears due to them. When the crisis was over any outstanding monies were distributed among the Doctors who, like Constable Davison, would certainly have earned a Cholera medal had the British Government followed the example of their French counterparts,
Cholera returned to Ayrshire in 1848 and was to remain a problem throughout Britain until the social reforms of the later 19th century, by enforcing sweeping changes in the prevailing sanitary conditions, attacked the disease at source.
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