It’s not often that one sees a sign saying “Cholera Burial Ground” – and not everyone would have the urge to immediately go and see it, but I did, when we were visiting Upton-on-Severn recently. In 1832, Upton suffered an outbreak of cholera which was spreading rapidly across Britain (and internationally, too). As was common at the time, a Board of Health had been set up to attempt to prevent the outbreak or spread of the disease, but understanding of the disease was rudimentary and the Board was unable to enforce its requirements anyway (which included the removal of human waste – fair enough – and, less effectively, the white-washing of homes and discouragement from eating unripe fruit). But in July 1832 a young mother, Jane Allen, died of cholera, and despite the prescription of a gallon of brandy for each patient (!) it spread quickly.
Many people considered at risk were moved away from the town in the belief that the fresh air would make them healthier; the disease was curtailed, because the population were moving away from the river, the source of the disease. By the end of August 1832, the town was declared free of cholera. At least 36 burials are recorded of the cholera victims, though it’s likely there were more. A separate burial ground was considered necessary by the government, for sanitation reasons, but also reduced the distress of the constantly tolling churchyard bell. (Given that cholera is spread by water contaminated with infected faeces, it seems ironic that the burial ground is now neighbouring a sewage works!) The spot chosen seems remote even today, but is in a calm, sunny spot, the burial ground being contained by a low brick wall, and with no markings of graves. It seemed to me (always one to romanticise such things!) that there is a feeling of tranquillity there now, looking at the beautiful view from the spot, which has settled over time to muffle the extraordinarily difficult period it must have presented for the town. This is a very different sort of graveyard from the ones I usually visit, with no church, no elaborate monuments, no indication even of what is there apart from a modern information sign and a simple plaque which read “Cholera Burial Ground, 1832”. But it’s a poignant reminder of the town’s past, and of how far medical advances have brought us when people are no longer wiped out en masse by a preventable disease.
The Times Literary Supplement for October 16 2015 contains a really interesting review of books dealing with what is known as ‘dark tourism’. Visiting ‘forlorn sites’, the review by Christine Toomey argues, is increasingly popular – though often these are sites of disasters within living memory, such as Ground Zero or concentration camps. Quoting Brigitte Sion in her book Death Tourism, Toomey emphasises that: ‘Death tourism stands at the nexus of many disciplines and raises complex questions about ethics, politics, religion, educations and aesthetics.’ This is, of course, as true for older sites such as the cholera burial ground as it is for more recent sites; the distance of time, however, perhaps makes it more of a gently nostalgic or melancholy experience rather than the searing experience that I imagine visiting Belsen, for example, would provide. It’s undoubtedly true that many people are fascinated by visiting the sites of death, destruction and disaster. Is it because we hope to learn great human truths about it? Or because it puts things in context? Or are we simply rather ghoulish?
Much of my information on this comes from an informative leaflet from Upton-on-Severn Tourist Information Centre. For more on the history of cholera outbreaks, see here; and for more on the Upton Cholera Burial Ground, click here,