Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

some places where it was far otherwise. In some of these it remained for a considerable period, and made up in duration what it abated in virulence; but in others it was a rapid and an overwhelming attack, such as recals to memory the appalling scenes of what is still emphatically styled “ the Great Plague.” Among the places thus circumstanced, the town of Bilston, in Staffordshire, stood painfully prominent, and justly excited the intense sympathy and benevolent assistance of the public throughout the kingdom. The incumbent of Bilston, the Rev. W. Leigh, has furnished a most interesting and instructive account of the circumstances, dedicated to “the Royal, Noble, and generous Benefactors who came forward so promptly and so charitably to the relief of the inhabitants of Bilston," and whose welcome donations at that season of peril amounted to upwards of eight thousand pounds. Such a sum, contributed spontaneously, and with but little solicitation, for the relief of a single township, and at a time when the public liberality was likely to be locally needed to an unprecedented extent in every part of the kingdom,

volence. But not merely the magnitude of the sum, but the excellent manner in which it has been appropriated, is well worthy of admiration. At a time when, in spite of experience and common sense, pecuniary liberality is often so mismanaged as to do far more harm than good, the town of Bilston is likely to derive permanent benefit from its temporary calamity, by the judicious use made of the funds raised for its relief. Marseilles had its “ good bishop," and Eyam its good rector, and Bilston appears to have been not less happy in its spiritual pastor. It is due to him, and to the public, whose liberality so bountifully assisted his efforts and those of his fellow-labourers in the Board of Health in his parish, to record his own detail of the chief facts of the case. The narrative will thus be rescued from its present detached shape and limited circulation, and remain on record, as "a story of the Cholera,” in a form easily accessible, and be read perhaps, years hence, with the same curiosity and interest as we now read those stories of the Great Plague to which we have before alluded. We shall feel gratified, also, if our insertion of the narrative gives pleasure to any of the numerous subscribers to the Bilston fund, who might never otherwise have heard of the benefits conferred by their bounty. We have only to add, that, though this particular narrative comes before us in a more detailed form than any similar one that we have met with, and is entitled to a painful pre-eminence from the peculiar violence and destructiveness of the attack in proportion to the population; it is by no means a solitary instance of the exercise of those humane and Christian virtues, on the part of clergymen and others, which were called forth in a most extraordinary and self-denying manner under the pressure of this providential visitation. In many instances within our own knowledge, and doubtless in more beyond it, the benefits conferred upon parishes suffering under the affliction, by the zealous and prudent exertions of pious and indefatigable clergymen, were such as will not soon be forgotten by their flock; and if we wanted a new argument in favour of an Established Church and a resident ministry, we should find it in the immeasurable benefits which, by the blessing of God, resulted from the labours of many beloved and valued pastors on this occasion. We fear specifying the names of any, though several are ready to flow from our pen, lest we should pass by others equally deserving of commemoration. Mr. Leigh's name of necessity appears in the present narrative, and we have much pleasure in recording it as it deserves ; but we doubt not, that, had it pleased God to render similar exertions necessary in every village of the land, he would have endued thousands of his servants with wisdom and strength and Christian sympathy to go through their arduous labours with that affectionate steadiness which is to be derived only, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, from the imitation of Him who has left us an example that we should follow his steps*.

At the period when the Cholera was expected to visit our shores, and after it had commenced its ravages, the most persevering efforts were made in some quarters to turn the matter to a jest, and, in particular, to ridicule the precautions of the Legislature and Government, and of many parishes and individuals, to check its progress. Had the clergyman and leading inhabitants of Bilston been among those who thus despised precaution, the affliction which befel them must have awakened feelings of self-reproach from which they were happily exempted; for as early as March, 1832, about five months before the attack, a public meeting of the inhabitants was held at the school-house, at which it was ascertained that the general health of the township was then good; but the medical gentlemen were requested to give the earliest information, should the Cholera unhappily present itself in the neighbourhood; and Mr. Leigh was authorized to call a public meeting of the inhabitants by handbill, immediately after the receipt of such information. The surveyors of the turnpike-roads and highways, and all other public officers of the township, were earnestly requested to use their utmost endeavours to remove filth, and all other nuisances which might come under their notice.

Such was Bilston in the month of March 1832; "and, God be praised," says Mr. Leigh, “ it is generally in the same healthy state.” Situated in a part of the country abounding with valuable mines of lime, cual, and ironstone, and in the very centre of them, it is completely enveloped with fire and smoke arising from the numberless coke fires, furnaces, and other erections necessary for carrying on the important and extensive operations connected with them. The population within the distance of five miles cannot be computed at less than 150,000 persons, Bilston itself containing 14,700, nearly all of whom gain their daily bread by their daily labour. Nevertheless, epidemic or malignant diseases seldom make their appearance, and both men and women live to a good old age. There are several circumstances to which this favourable condition of the inhabitants may in some measure be attributed. The town is built upon a rising ground, and, from the water having been drawn off for the purpose of draining the mines, is perfectly dry; the streets for the most part are wide and open; and the houses, even in the courts and back yards, with a few exceptions, not so closely crowded together as might be expected in a manufacturing district. The Birmingham and Staffordshire canal passes through the whole extent of the township, and a narrow brook runs across it. There are other advantages enjoyed by the poor which must not be forgotten. Amidst the frost and snow of winter, they may keep themselves warm at the lowest possible expense; and when the coal and iron trades flourish, those who are disposed to work may have employment, with wages amply sufficient

It might be well if clergymen, or other persons, would draw up a record of any remarkable circumstances in their respective vicinities connected with the visitation. These local narratives would form valuable notices towards a history of this mysterious disease. It would not be uninteresting to compare the memoranda, moral and physical, of an inland manufacturing town like Bilston, suffering under the affliction, with those of a scattered rural district, or a sea-port population such as that of Plymouth, which the disease visited with almost unexampled rigour, calling forth those overwhelming labours of Christian charity in which the name of the Rev. J. Hatcbard stood honourably conspicuous, and which gained him the affectionate thanks and memorials of his grateful parishioners. But it is lamentable to see how soon the human heart, after the most alarming judgments of God, like the wave riven for a moment by the keel, closes, and leaves no trace behind; and such has been the result, in too many places, after the passing away of the terror caused by this alarming pestilence.

to feed them well and make them comfortable, and, if they are sober, prudent, and industrious, to enable them to lay up something against the wants and infirmities of their declining years. This was not the case in March 1832, trade being then in a most depressed state, labour scarce, and wages very low. But even at that time the poor were, beyond all comparison, better off than in the years 1816 and 1817. Of the moral condition of the people, Mr. Leigh says that among the very lowest classes vice and profligacy, immorality and impiety, present themselves in all their dreadful varieties ; but not more so than in the neighbouring towns.

From the 8th of March till the first week in August, the general health of the inhabitants continued good, and it was hoped that the pestilence would not visit the place. On the 29th of July was Bilston Wake. Mr. Leigh thinks, that, although these rural festivals are attended with

many serious evils, they are not unproductive of real good. We confess, that, if matters were always as well managed on these occasions as they appear to be in Bilston, our apprehensions would be much abated. The preparation for them amongst the labouring poor, remarks Mr. Leigh, is conducive to their health and comfort: their dwellings are thoroughly cleansed, and for the most part white-washed; they work hard for several previous weeks, to purchase for themselves new clothes, new furniture, and an additional supply of food, to regale their children, and relatives and friends, who never fail to visit them at this particular time. On the Sunday, sermons, in support of the Sunday Schools belonging to the Established Church, are preached, and collections made to defray the necessary expenses of the current year; in Bilston there is no other fund besides this, although the scholars, boys and girls, exceed six hundred. On this day especially, children are brought to the house of God to be baptized, and received into the membership of Christ's visible church. Throughout the week there are processions of the different Benefit Societies, of which there are many in this district, and they are found very useful. The members are arrayed in their best apparel, and each club is attended by a band of music. After parading the principal streets, they repair (without a single exception, Mr. Leigh believes) to some place of worship. But he laments to add, that these holy services are too frequently followed by scenes of gross iniquity; by profaneness, drunkenness, and licentiousness; and by the brutal and disgraceful practice of bull-baiting, which is the opprobrium of Staffordshire, but is now confined to the very refuse and outcasts of society.

The depressed state of trade occasioned the wake to be attended by fewer persons than usual; but still great numbers were congregated to. gether. The reflecting part of the community, knowing that the pestilence prevailed in some of the neighbouring parishes, dreaded the consequences, and anxiously awaited the event. On the 4th of August, one of the medical practitioners (Mr. Procter, who afterwards died of the disease) waited upon Mr. Leigh with the melancholy intelligence that it had made its appearance in the parish, in the person of Elizabeth Dawson, a married woman living in Temple Street, aged 35. There was some faint hope, however, that this was not the dreaded disorder : but this hope soon vanished; for within an hour information came of two other victims of the disease ; persons living in close and confined situations, about 200 yards from the brook, and about 400 from each other. The families were very poor, and their dwellings in a filthy state ; but there was no reason to suppose that they were leading a profligate life, or that they had had any

communication with persons from the neighbouring parishes where Cholera prevailed.

The disorder, thus introduced, soon began to spread, and no time was lost in forming a Board of Health, which was confirmed by the Privy Council. Mr. Leigh immediately arranged with Mr. Fletcher, the minister of St. Mary's, to set apart a certain portion of the burial-ground belonging to that chapel for the interment of persons dying by Cholera. The me. lancholy and fearful task of consigning to this spot upwards of 400 bodies was performed by Mr. Fletcher, to whom, and to many of the parishioners, Mr. Leigh pays a warm tribute of gratitude, for their valuable advice and assistance throughout the visitation. The poor inhabitants little knew how many hours were daily spent in devising plans for their benefit, what pains were taken to supply their wants, to avert the pestilence from their dwellings, and, when attacked, to promote their recovery.

On the 7th the Board of Health held its first meeting, which was attended by most of the respectable inhabitants; it having been very prudently stated by Mr. Leigh, that although every thing official must be considered as the act of the members named by his Majesty's Privy Council, vet the advice and assistance of all persons at all times would be thankfully accepted. This had a most beneficial result, causing a numerous attendance daily, and enabling the Board to do much that otherwise must have remained undone.

On the 8th and 9th the pestilence gradually increased, though not to a very alarming extent. On the evening of the 9th the heat from eight o'clock till twelve was most oppressive. On the 10th there was a death in Wynn's Fold, being the first in that part of the town, the disease taking a westerly direction. On this day the death of George Guest, a miner, aged 57, was attended with the following circumstances :-His wife, Margaret, was staying at Birmingham when he was attacked; it was in the night, and his landlady, Elizabeth Share, living at the next door, and hearing the poor man fall out of bed, went to assist him. The next day she was seized, and died on the 12th. Ann Ames, Elizabeth Share's neighbour, went to visit her; on the 15th she was seized, and died on the 18th. Ann Holmes, a neighbour of Ann Ames, went to nurse her; she died on the 26th. Margaret Guest was attacked, but her life was spared.

On the 11th died Jane Thornton, the wife of William Thornton, a furnaceman. The case of this unhappy family is most affecting. On the 9th the father and mother and six children were all well. On the 11th the mother died; on the 12th, the father ; on the 13th, a son named John, aged 11 years; on the 16th, a daughter named Ann, aged 6 years; on the 20th, a daughter named Mary Ann, aged 4 years. Another daughter, Susannah, aged 17 years, was attacked and taken to the Cholera hospital, where, after remaining ten days, she recovered. Two others—Eliza, aged 8 years; and an infant, Selina, three weeks old-escaped. Eliza found a place of refuge in the house of Joseph Wilcox, a labourer, where she still remains : he was a neighbour, but no relation whatever to the family, and had children of his own; the kindness, therefore, of this poor man to a helpless orphan merits a higher meed than the passing record here given of it. The preservation of the infant is still more interesting. A young woman, by name Sarah Cherrington, the wife of a labouring man, came to Mr. Leigh to tell her wretched tale. An infant was at her breast, for whom she wanted assistance. She had lost her own infant in her confinement, and had adopted Jane Thornton's. I heard,” said she, “ that Jane Thornton had left a baby only three weeks old ;-it was brought to my bed, and I have nursed it ever since as my own.” I could not help exclaiming, says Mr. Leigh, “ God does indeed temper the wind to the shorn lamb!” “I looked,” he adds, “ at the friends around me; the tears of sympathy rolling down their cheeks shewed what were their feelings at that moment. The poor but noble-hearted woman, and the little innocent hanging at her bosom, seemed the only persons unconscious of what was passing." Sarah Cherrington was not a relative, and had a family of her own.-Various other noble acts of benevolence are recorded at this season of alarm, when it might have been feared that terror and self-love would have tended to harden the heart. For instance :-On the 12th Mary Corbett died, aged 47 ; on the 13th, her son Kenias died, aged 6 ; and on the 17th her husband, John Corbett, a labourer, aged 42. By this visitation four orphans were left entirely destitute-namely, Leah, aged 12; Caroline, 8; William, 3; and Jemima, six months. The first three were wandering about the street in search of a place of refuge from the pestilence and from famine, when God, in his great mercy, put it into the hearts of several humane persons to give them shelter. They were all neighbours, but, except one of them, in no way related to the deceased, and in such circumstances of life as to require their utmost exertions and industry to support their respective families. " It is delightful,” says their pastor, " to lay before the public these undeniable proofs of kindly feeling and disinterested benevolence amongst the poor, in this rude, and as it is sometimes called uncivilized, district. They are examples worthy of imitation by the most enlightened, and are, I am happy to add, of frequent occurrence amongst us. This will scarcely be credited by thos wb have merely seen the swarthy faces and uncouth dresses of these honest people in travelling across the country; but I, who have been in daily and constant intercourse with them for the last twenty years, am sensible of the fact, and, knowing how much of my comfort and happiness I owe to their civi. lity and kindness, am glad of an opportunity to acknowledge it."

The deaths now began rapidly to increase. The weather was sultry; and it was noticed on the 16th, that no swallows were to be seen, which Mr. Leigh thinks may be accounted for by the singular fact that there were no flies. They returned simultaneously, he says, when the extreme violence of the disease had subsided. Similar observations are stated to have been made elsewhere ; but we should much doubt whether there is evidence sufficient to trace the alleged phenomenon to the Cholera. Persons are very apt, under peculiar circumstances, to notice, and record as memorable, what otherwise would have escaped their observation. Mr. Leigh is, however, well justified, as a philosophical historian, in narrating whatever may have occurred as remarkable during the visitation of this incomprehensible distemper; as by a large induction of facts, those which are really of importance in connection with the malady will be ultimately ascertained.

On the 17th there was a very melancholy visitation in the family of a poor man named Phillips, a blacksmith. He, his wife, a son, and a daughter, attended the funeral of another son, named Walter, seven years of age. On the 20th, the mother perished, aged 48; on the 21st, the father, aged 55 ; and on the 24th, John, the son, aged 19, A destitute orphan, Elizabeth, aged 16, is left behind. On this day the pestilence commenced dreadful havock in a row of five houses called Sparrow's Works. It first attacked a blacksmith named John Clarke, aged 51 ; William Clarke, his son, aged 29; John Dunn, aged 26 : they all lived in the same house, and died the same day. In another of the houses there were also three deaths, and in each of the others one. The respective families were in comfortable circumstances, but there were three tubs close to the houses at the time, filled with hog-wash, and very offensive, and a branch of the canal runs near them. On the 18th, the report at the Board of Health was most alarming: coffins could not be made fast enough for the dead ; one of the medical practitioners had been attacked ; and the rest were sinking with fatigue from their professional exertions. In this distressing condition Mr. Leigh was requested to go instantly to Birmingham, to endeavour to get a supply of coffins,

« VorigeDoorgaan »