York Civic Trust plaques

Cholera Burial Ground

Memorial to the 185 York victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic

Location of plaque: the cholera burial ground outside the city walls near York railway station

York's Civic Trust plaques don't commemorate only famous men and women: they mark the site of important places and events, too.

Few events in the last couple of hundred years have been more traumatic than the outbreak of cholera - part of a worldwide pandemic known as the 'Pestilence of India' - which hit the city in June 1832.

York's population at the time was fairly small - just over 25,000. But much housing was cramped and unsanitary, streets were narrow, and many had no sewers. Under such conditions, the disease spread rapidly. Between June and October, at least 450 York people became ill:185 of them died.

The cholera made its first appearance in the UK in Sunderland. York had plenty of notice it was coming: the disease arrived in Leeds and Selby first. The city did its best to prepare. York's newly-established Medical Society gave nine lectures on cholera; the York Board of Health was reconvened; open sewers were covered over; and parish officers were instructed to inspect every house in the city to arrange for cleaning, whitewashing and the removal of waste from outdoor privies and urban pigsties.

None of this prevented Thomas Hughes, a hard-nosed waterman, from ferrying a party from Selby across the River Ouse to York Races on May 28. Hughes, who lived in notorious “Hagworm’s nest” off Skeldergate, became the city’s first cholera victim. The “nest” - real name Beedham Court - was a squalid alley of damp and overcrowded dwellings where five families shared a single privy and there was a dunghill at the end of the street. Before he fell ill, Hughes visited the Anchor Inn across the Ouse in Water Lane. The landlord died the next day, as did Hughes’s neighbour, though Hughes seems to have recovered.

As the disease spread, York's overcrowded burial grounds proved unable to cope. The city’s Board of Health considered using the moats beneath the city walls. This proved unpopular, and eventually a patch of corporation land was set aside for burials - the graveyard that can be seen today near the railway station.

Burials themselves caused tensions. Once church - St Michael's in Spurriergate - had to be fumigated after the family of a cholera victim forced their way in with her coffin, insisting the funeral service be read. In another case, a frightened crowd threw a coffin into the river.

But the outbreak prompted acts of kindness, too - such as when the inhabitants of Minster Yard helped their neighbours in squalid, overcrowded Bedern by making sure they had food and decent clothing.

Stephen Lewis

Find out about more York Civic Trust plaques at yorkcivictrust.co.uk