Looking down on the cholera burial ground, 1832

19th century inscription on headstone

The cholera burial ground near the station has already been included on this website. It’s very familiar to York residents, and probably of more interest to visitors.

It was at this time of the year, early July, in 1832, that the cholera outbreak was at its peak. The first week of July saw 128 cases, with 40 deaths.

The following contemporary account gives us a glimpse of one of those graves being filled. It’s from the diary of John Ford, a Quaker schoolmaster, and friend of Silvanus Thompson. The entry is dated 28 June.

Drank tea with Thomas Backhouse at the Friars’ Gardens. We went on the City-wall which overlooks the Cholera Burial Ground. The service was being read over a poor woman who twenty-four hours previously had been alive and well. There was no mourner but the bereaved husband. The numerous recent graves and one more preparing, raised feelings of sympathy with the afflicted, and a sense of awe in observing these outward signs of the Divine chastisements.

The contrast of the scene immediately below me, and that which met the eye in looking beyond it, was very striking. It
was a beautiful evening — the sky as clear — the birds as musical — the slowly-sinking sun as splendid — the river as bright and tranquil “as if earth possessed no tomb” — nothing in the external aspect of nature to remind us of Sin.

If you stand on that same stretch of wall now the most striking thing beyond the wall is the large observation wheel. Within the walls Friars’ Gardens are long gone – under the ‘old’ railway station built a decade or so later, soon to be the new City of York Council HQ.

Many changes then, and not just in the external landscape. Less common now – though not entirely gone – is the belief that outbreaks of contagious illness are connected with ‘Sin’, are God’s punishment. At the start of the outbreak The Gazette reported that a ‘girl of the town’ from Water Lane was among the first victims, and that ‘a woman in Swan Street (in an advanced pregnancy of an illegitimate child) was the next victim.’

This summer is looking rather grim, with constant rain. Water, water everywhere. But nothing like as grim as the summer of 180 years ago. At least we now have clean drinking water on tap, and have understood the importance of keeping it germ-free. As York-born John Snow tried so very hard to demonstrate, in the mid-19th century, fighting against the prevailing beliefs that the disease was caused by ‘bad air’ and Sin.

Sources & links

Memorials – cholera burial ground

The 1832 cholera epidemic in York‘, M C Barnet – full text available as a PDF download, on this link
Memorials of John Ford, ed Silvanus Thompson (1879) – book available in various formats from www.archive.org

In recent years a plaque has been placed on North Street near John Snow’s birthplace. Thanks to the website visitor who alerted me to this. Photo and info – from openplaques.org

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  1. drake Richards

    Indeed John Snow,the father of Epidemiology…didn’t know he was from York

  2. YorkStories

    I don’t think you’re alone in that Drake – I didn’t know either until I did the page on the burial ground.

    In recent years a plaque has been placed near John Snow’s birthplace in North Street – I meant to mention in the text. Have now added the link to the ‘Sources & links’ above.

  3. Is there a second cholera burial site outside Monk Bar? Several gravestones there – or is it an older churchyard from a church now lost?

  4. Elizabeth Hardcastle

    St Maurice’s church was on the corner of Lord Mayor’s Walk and Monkgate and the gravestones were in its churchyard. The church was demolished in the 1960s.

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