The Lamb Collection - Cholera in the 19th century. Click here to return to the Lamb Collection Main Page

The following images are examples of documents relating to cholera outbreaks in 19th Century Dundee, Scotland.

Cholera was one of many contagious dieases which killed people in the 19th century, and in Dundee, when a number of Cholera epidemics swept through the town during the 1800s. Cholera bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) is transmitted by water or food which has been contaminated with the faeces of people who have the disease. Symptoms include severe diarrhoea and dehydration, which can lead to shock and death if left untreated.

Fish Street - Drawing by C. S. Lawson (Lamb Collection No. B16)

So why did Cholera spread so rapidly in the towns and cities of the 19th Century?

Dundee in the 19th century would have been smelly and crowded, with noisy markets and narrow cobbled streets traversed by horses and carts and littered with deposits of horse dung. Street-side butchers and fish vendors like those found at Butchers Row and Fish Street would often toss innards and unwanted flesh into street gutters, and householders threw refuse from tenement windows into the streets below. In the early 1800s, toilets were outdoors and shared by many families living in the same tenement block, and few public washing facilities were available for bathing. Dung heaps were often situated too close to public wells and triggered complaints from citizens about their drinking water being contaminated with faeces.

Many families were poor and children were known to rummage for 'rags and bone' in people's 'dung heaps' (places where bodily wastes were collected) under their houses 1 . Disease was rife. Many people believed that bad odours carried disease into their houses and their bodies, and complaints to the authorities were made about the sewer smells infiltrating homes.The poor disposal of all waste matter, inadequate sewerage and drainage facilities, and poor water supplies were all contributing to the escalating unsanitary conditions in a town with a growing jute industry and a rapidly growing population.

Although Police Commissioners were appointed in 1824 (with responsibility for lighting, paving and cleansing the town), it wasn't until the latter half of the 19th century that sanitary improvements began to be made. Medical Officers of Health and Sanitary Inpectors were first appointed in the 1850s and 1860s, and with the introduction of the Dundee Police and Improvement Bill 2 in 1871, major improvements to drainage works, streets, houses and health were made. Places like Butchers Row and Fish Street were demolished and the town wells were closed down in 1874 after piping was laid from the Lintrathen Resovoir to the town of Dundee.

This information can be found in original documents contained in the Lamb Collection and the Dundee City Archives. A large portion of the material has been digitised and is available for online viewing at

Butcher Row - Drawing by C. S. Lawson (Lamb Collection No. B16)
Fish Street & Butcher Row - Drawings by C. S. Lawson (Lamb Collection No. B16)

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HOWFF Burial Ground - Register of Burials
September 1829 - May 1835

These pages of the HOWFF Burial Register detail burials in October 1832, the majority of causes of death being marked as 'Cholera'. Many of the deceased have no listed 'Designation' other than 'from Hospital'. Many of the victims were buried in a special area of ground reserved for cholera victims.

The HOWFF was ground gifted to Dundee in 1564 by Mary Queen of Scots for use as a burial ground. Registers of burials only exist from 1772, and the ground was closed in 1857. At first, very little information about the deceased was noted down, but from the 1820s onward, the entries become very detailed, including the street in which each person died, so indicating the extent of the epidemic's course through the town.





Sewer Gas Poisioning

'Mrs. Owler was becoming darker and darker in complexion, through inhaling daily the pestiferous atmosphere...' In this broadsheet, the plight of an Englishwoman whose home was infiltrated by sewer gases is reported, including letters written about the incident and statements to court judges from George Owler, the woman's husband. There is also a map of the property, off Carmichael St. and its proximity to the main sewer drain.

'Horrible! Horrible! Horrible!' is the title of this article, the purpose of which is to publicise the wrong-doings of the Sanitary Inspector who is claimed to have slowly and vindictively poisoned the woman by connecting a trap from her bedroom to the main sewer. Cholera was a major killer during this period, and many people were justifiably scared of the unhealthy living conditions, and demanded reform.



Report of the Board of Health, Cholera
2nd February 1832

This report issued by the Council after a General Meeting held at the Steeple Church, aimed to warn the public about the dangers of infectious diseases and the prevention of them. The Report was produced after consultation with the Board's counterparts in Edinburgh.

The Board recommends that people of all ranks go out as little as possible at night, and to clothe themselves more warmly. During the prevalence of an epidemic, all assemblages of large bodies of the working classes, unless at church, should be avoided.



Dundee Board of Health and Cholera

This assessment is for the expenses incurred by the Dundee Board of Health in the Prevention and Cure of Cholera, and includes receipts, expenditure, bills of mortality and Conspectus of Cholera. Provost William Lindsay is Chairman.

It states in the report that the epidemic prevailed in Dundee for a period of thirty weeks, during which time it attacked over eight hundred people, although it is also probable that many cases were not reported. The total number of deaths is reported at five hundred and twelve.



Asiatic Cholera

This pamphlet was published by order of the Police Commissioners of Dundee, in respect of the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act, and was issued by Henry Austin, Secretary of the General Board of Health.

The report states that attacks of Cholera are uniformly found to be most frequent and virulent in low-lying districts, on the banks of rivers, and where there are large collections of refuse, particularly amidst human dwellings.




Dundee Town Clerk's Letter Book
Petition to Dundee Magistrates and Town Council
March 1825 - March 1826

Signed by 12 proprietors and occupiers of properties at the foot of the Hilltown, this petition to the Dundee Magistrates and Town Council complains about a property at the foot of the Hilltown being used as a slaughterhouse and dung stance.

The petitioners complain that they are subjected to a 'nuisance almost intolerable arising from the smell and vermin which collect about the slaughterhouse and dung stance'. The Council ordered the occupier of the ground to be removed and instructed that care should be taken when letting it in future - to make sure it was never again used for those purposes.




Medical Report on the Practice in the Royal Infirmary of Dundee
15th June 1836

This medical report was written by Dr.James Arrott, Physician to the Infirmary and includes a table of medical and surgical cases, including a table showing fever statistics. An Epidemic of cholera commenced in Dundee in April 1832, when a total of 512 people died.

John Crichton was surgeon at the Infirmary and presents a report on surgical cases. He was born in Dundee in 1772 and pursued his medical education in Edinburgh. He qualified as a surgeon in 1790, and designed his own type of instruments before returning to Dundee as one of the original visiting staff.


Lamb Collection

  The following documents are contained in the Lamb Collection:
1. Children Hunter - L308(18)
Dundee Police and Improvement Bill (Minutes of Evidence) - L467(29)

© 2003 Local Studies Department, Central Library, Dundee