In the summer of 1832 the normality of everyday life was completely changed by the arrival of Asiatic cholera in the area. Most local towns or villages could speak of victims, but none were more badly affected than Bilston, and the eastern edge of our Sedgley parish too, sharing some of the unsanitary conditions of Bilston township. Lower Sedgley in particular, suffered in the wake of the disease as it made its way southwards.
The Reverend William Leigh was the Vicar of Bilston at the time, and it was he who most vividly recorded the circumstances and the effects of this terrible disease. (The Rev. Leigh's book can still be found within local archives). Soon the parish churches had to be closed for worship, there being a concern that the disease would spread more rapidly as the churches were becoming crowded, as more people attempted to worship arising from their fear of the consequences. As another precaution most of the dead were removed from their homes under cover of darkness, when people were indoors, and buried in mass cholera graves.
William Leigh did strongly use the occasion to warn people of their profligate lives, and in particular the high frequency of drunkenness observable in the town.
Sedgley's vicar, Charles Girdlestone, followed a similar approach, up to a point, but to continue his work as pastor he prepared seven sermons for local distribution, and in addition he offered some commendable advice for the boiling of water and the whitewashing of pigsties etc. These were the first signs of advice on personal hygiene that many Sedgley folk would have had. As the pestilence progressed it became obvious that one of the most prominent sources of infection was Bilston Brook. This brook, now culverted, rose on the eastern side of Sedgley Beacon, and the cleansing of limestone would send it first as fresh water. But as it reached more populated areas it became, in turn - washing facilities, drinking water, and sewer!
August 4th saw the first Bilston deaths - all potential users of the brook:
Elizabeth Dawson Age 35 of Temple Street
Mary Ann Cleaton Age 2 of Hall Street
Richard Dyke Age 16 of Bridge Street
Three more deaths occurred on the 5th, two in Gozzard Street and one in Hop Pole Entry off Hall Street. It was the 27th August before it appears to have reached areas like Ettingshall Lane and Shropshire Row (Bradley), having devastated the town.
To highlight its impact on Bilston, there appears to be no date between August 4th and September 15th when there were no deaths recorded, though numbers varied. For example: August 7th had 13, August 12th 32, Aug. 13th had 19, Aug. 21st 39, and 22nd Aug. (the blackest day) 48!
On September 14th there was 1 death, a Sarah Dodd of Ettingshall Lane and September 15th saw the final 3. David Wedge 7 months, Thomas Wooley 6 yrs and Samuel Hill Age 43. These were at The Club buildings in Oxford Street under which the Bilston brook passed.
Male deaths of 352, Female deaths of 340 = 692. When added to 49
persons buried in Coseley and other local graveyards, this made a total
of 741 deaths in the Bilston area, and within our current Circuit! The
burials were generally in St. Mary's Graveyard, Oxford Street, but also
in Wesley Church Yard, at our present Bilston Methodist Church site. (I
have a complete list in my possession. TG) The time was not without its
heroic figures. Most prominent was the tireless local Bookseller, John
Etheridge. His house, "The Retreat", still stands in Church Street, by
St. Leonard's and the Town Hall. He was a constant sick visitor and
source of comfort, despite which, he did not contract the disease! A
Bilston School was later dedicated to his memory.
To lift the gloom! You may recall that Sedgley Old News Number 4 contained a question regarding Sedgley's bell ringers. What was a True peal of "Kent Treble Bob Majors" that was rung for 3hrs and 24 minutes involving 5280 changes? Mr Derek Arnold contacted an expert friend, Squadron Leader Graham Bingham, who suggested it was a very advanced performance using eight bells where the treble bell "dodges" rather than "hunts" "Hunting" appears to be in a sequence while "dodging" is at random. The sequence obviously originated in Kent. You learn something every day! TG