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The Hawick Paper


The invisible ‘Asiatic killer’ of 1832

Monday, August 28th, 2017
The invisible ‘Asiatic killer’ of 1832 (Picture: Glasgow University Library Special Collections)

Hawick has always had an eventful and varied past, and the year 1832 was no different. That year the town heralded the passing of the Reform Act (which added three hundred voters to the local electoral roll) with one of the largest parades ever seen in the Borders; North Bridge was opened to further connect Hawick with neighbouring Wilton; Kirkton-born explorer Andrew Smith led an official mission to Dingane’s Zulu kingdom in Natal; and new housing was opened in Teviot Crescent for skilled, middle-class workers in the nearby mills. Hawick was also visited twice that year by the invisible ‘Asiatic killer’, cholera.

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that can cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting, easily treatable today but sadly still a killer (fifty-five percent of cases in 2015 were caused by a lack of sanitary drinking water). The disease first originated in the Ganges Delta many thousands of years ago, though Europe largely avoided the first Asiatic Cholera pandemic of 1817-1824. By the end of the decade it had spread to Russia, Germany, and Egypt, reaching London in January 1832.

On January 10, 1832, Teri cattle-dealer Henry Haliburton stayed at the New Phoenix Inn, Morpeth, and unwittingly brought home cholera to Hawick. The epidemic went on to claim the lives of thirty-nine Teries. Thanks to a bizarre surviving resource, ‘The Cholera Gazette’, we can piece together a detailed account of the 1832 epidemic and its subsequent effects on the Hawick population. In the publication’s April 7, 1832 edition, a letter is addressed to the Earl of Minto from Walter Wilson (1796-1890), then Secretary of the Hawick Board of Health (which was partly set-up in response to the twin threats of cholera and scarlet fever).

Henry lived at Back Raw (adjacent to Rob Young, blacksmith), in a modest, thatched, pended tenement with low arches, clay floors and poor ventilation. The Raws were each named relative to their position to St. Mary’s Kirk, and were notorious as Hawick’s most densely packed slums. Henry was ‘weel-kent’ in Hawick, having been Cornet in 1807 and initially selected as Rebel Cornet during the disputed Common-Riding of 1809. He turned this role down for personal reasons, but rode to the front of the infamous cavalcade with his whip swinging, clearing an obstruction set-up by the Council’s men!

On one of his regular visits to market at Morpeth, Henry stayed at the New Phoenix Inn on January 10-11, 1832, with his friends Mr Sillicoe and Mr Elliot. During their stay the Inn’s chamber maid and another traveller fell ill, and the latter died just a few days later. After stopping at Otterburn, the men returned to Hawick the following week. On Saturday 14, Henry complained of feeling ill and Dr John Douglas MD was called for. The patient exhibited all the tell-tale signs of cholera, described descriptively by Dr Douglas as “delirium, severe vomiting, purging of whitish fluid, copious perspiration, violent spasms in the limbs and stomach, sunken eyes and withered and cold skin.” In keeping with the medical knowledge of the day, the doctor prescribed a variety of treatments, including an enema of tobacco infusion, a 2½ hour hot-air bath, camphor and opium in pill form, and an anodyne draught that contained a mixture of liquid laudanum, cinnamon water, and sugar syrup! Although Henry responded favourably to opium, he deteriorated and died at 8pm on the January 18, 1832, becoming Hawick’s first victim of what was widely called ‘the invisible Asiatic killer.’

During his decline, Henry was visited by several relatives, including his brother James and nephew Thomas, who both became infected through close contact with the victim. The pair were treated by Dr Douglas with the highly-poisonous mercury chloride, prescribed in bottle form as Calomel. Amazingly, these two men survived! The disease spread however to Henry’s neighbours, Margaret, John, and Mary Murray. Just two days later, John, a casual labourer by trade, became Hawick’s second cholera victim after Dr Douglas issued a dosage of brandy that failed to work its magic! Between February 24 and March 12, a further fourteen Teries were infected.

The rapid spread of the disease was aided not just by the cramped living conditions at Back Raw, but also through the stocking frame workshop at the rear of Henry’s home, where most of the infected worked as stocking-makers and hosiers. Andrew Richardson (cured by mustard powder), James Hamilton (cured by hot dilutant drinks), Robert Lawrie, Thomas Stevenson, Robert Leithhead, and Mrs Crosby (wife of a hosier) all survived. A further 120 yards along the road at West Port, Margaret Stevenson caught the disease but was cured by March 12. Catherine McKenzie, a servant to local publican Mr Newall, was cured by the aid of blood-letting, whilst Jane Mercer, a former servant to the Haliburton family, was visited and cured by Dr Ewart of Edinburgh. Richard McKenzie (hairdresser) and Isabel Leithhead (spinster) also caught the disease from family members, but suffered none of its effects.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the Turnbull sisters, Mary and Agnes. Although they were visited by Dr Graham, Mary died at 9.50am on March 3, and her sister followed at 5pm – the town’s youngest victims at that time. The good doctor John Douglas MD was afflicted himself after visiting many of the patients’ homes, but survived and was instrumental in organising Hawick’s response to the more deadly cholera epidemic seventeen years later.

By the end of 1832 there were 79 cases in total, which cost the lives of 39 residents – a sizeable number of people considering the town’s population was around 5,000 people in 1832. William Wilson was arguably the most prominent local to die from cholera that year. The hosier and wool manufacturer succumbed during a visit to London whilst attending the annual Quakers’ Society meeting with his daughter Katherine. He is buried in Peckham. In a peculiar twist, William Wilson & Sons soon after switched to the manufacture of woollen belts that were said to be a preventative for cholera.

Hawick Town Council’s response was swift and is largely overlooked. They rejected the use of the Town Hall as a makeshift hospital, thereby reducing the risk of infection for many townsfolk. A fund of £10 was also raised by subscription for the ‘prevention and mitigation of the malady.’ Hawick’s four resident medical practitioners were pressed into action (Drs Douglas, Renwick, Graham and Little). Many other relief locations were considered, including Walter Mather’s isolated house at the head of the Little Haugh, Francis Ballantyne’s garden house at Wilton Pathhead, St Mary’s Kirk (this suggestion caused an uproar) and the Old Toll House on the Common Haugh. In the end none of these locations were used and the epidemic soon abated.
Many of the lessons of 1832 were not applied for another three decades. The 1849 epidemic resulted in a larger number of deaths and most of those victims were buried in a mass grave at the newly opened Wellogate Cemetery. Both epidemics did however prompt the building of new, sanitary housing up the Terraces, a town sewage works, the creation of a fresh water supply from the Allan Water, and the demolition of the auld Mid Raw – each of which laid the foundations of modern day Hawick.

Credit: A Hawick Word Book (2016 ed.), Professor Douglas Scott; Glasgow University Library Special Collections.

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