Their Darkest Materials

Dark Times – the epidemic of 1832

Wrapped in a powdery shroud of lime, the streets were ‘disinfected’. How strange that must have been, padding through the white streets at twilight; watchful eyes at windows, fear behind every shutter, every door.

This book is a fascinating and well-researched look into an esoteric and little-studied corner of textile history. I devoured it in two days and then gave it pride of place among my textile history books. If you like textile history, 19th century British history, and/or true crime you should pick up this book ASAP.

~ Erica, review

Image © Hazel P. Mason

Their Darkest Materials’ physical copies are back up for sale after a shop hiatus. I was ill and we didn’t want to put our local Post Office workers, or anyone else, at risk, so we took all the ‘real world’ items down from our shop for a period of weeks. We’re now back in harness, but to minimise risk to others and ourselves, are only doing one mailshot a week so if you buy a copy, bear with us as it will take longer to get to you. Worth the wait, though.

I did wonder how the book might fare – such dark subject material in such dark times. Don’t we all want escapism, right now? In the first days of my illness, all my reading was emotional “comfort food” like “The Wind In The Willows” and “The Hobbit”. I wanted to be anywhere but here. Anywhere but now. And my illness has dragged on for weeks and weeks, as whatever I had turned into bronchitis and then the breathlessness/asthma has meant I had entire weeks when I couldn’t do my customary hour or so’s walk every day. But somewhere along that line, I started to feel differently, returning to my usual kind of reading – still too ill to write or research – and in the few days since the book went back up on sale, I can say that many of you also seem to feel like a little bit of darkness is needed to innoculate against the greater darkness – as the book is selling well, again. I can’t account for it – but I am inordinately grateful for it. Like many small businesses, we fall between the cracks and there is no government scheme to help us out – our income is too low, our business too new. Starting to sell the book again is picking up the reins once more. And that feels great.

During my research, I came across the story of York’s 1832 cholera outbreak. You could watch it unfold almost in real time, reading the contemporary newspapers, as the disease swept through cities, then surrounding villages. You could and I did. Papers published death figures daily – statistics that may have been more accurate than we’re told governments can produce now. Reading that regular few column inches giving statistics, the reader could watch the cholera swamp an area, then slowly retreat from it. There seems to have been little political incentive to massage the mortality figures that each parish posted, daily.

York was a weird place during the height of the epidemic. Cities, towns and villages across the world endured the same. Here, lime was burned in the streets. Bills were posted with health advice from local health committees raised in the weeks before the epidemic struck the city (smoking was recommended!) The book reflects very little of this, because limited space – but I spent a while down the horrible rabbithole of cholera and epidemics as textile workers were often living in places and under conditions, where epidemics hit hard. The book mentions in passing another epidemic that swept through the tenements where textile workers in Barnard Castle lived, also in the nineteenth century. Textile workers were amongst the lowest paid in society and were frequently living in slums and multi-occupancy buildings. In Barnard Castle the carpet weavers, and Paisley in Scotland the highly skilled shawl weavers often lived in multi-occupancy buildings where tens of people might have to share toilets and so, epidemics punctuated their lives. Not mentioned in the book, but one of my own ancestors, Ann Nattriss, left this very village, in the 1860s to start up a cloth warehouse in Huddersfield. Last mention of her I found in the newspapers, she was living in a ramshackle textile mill that doubled as a tenement – she was mentioned as a tenant who was about to be evicted as the building had been condemned. She was not atypical of textile workers and business owners who lived over the shop or shared an overcrowded room with work equipment and stock, working 80 hour weeks on a poor diet. Later in the century, Huddersfield city took steps to demolish some of these unsafe buildings as did city councils across the UK as it was realised improving sanitation was key to saving lives.

Researching the cholera epidemic of 1832, I started to see this surreal world; streets dusted with lime; pitch torches burning to ‘fumigate’ away the contagion; the whole city shrouded in this eerie, white light and the smell of lime and pitch, little flares of flame everywhere. Carts with pitch tarpaulins going street to street collecting the bodies – no-one wanted to see one of those carts trundle down their street. If a neighbour, it might be you, next. People were openly hostile to the drivers and collectors of bodies. Attacking ambulances is no modern phenomenon.

Cawood church, river Ouse. During the epidemic, funerals had to be conducted outdoors, in the churchyards.

City ordinances decreed funeral services could not be held inside churches but had to be conducted outside at the graveside. Burials had to be “at least” a foot deep (!) as city worthies feared the rotting corpses would create “a miasma” that would rise from the ground and seep into the air, enveloping all in its clammy embrace. Wrapped in a powdery shroud of lime, the streets were ‘disinfected’. How strange that must have been, padding through the white streets at twilight; watchful eyes at windows, fear behind every shutter, every door.

York’s medieval churches were so chockablock with burials that often, recent ones were only inches from the surface. Some of these churches are now demolished, and no trace of their graveyards. They are under the streets and squares of the city centre. You’re walking over them, without realising. The difficulty in achieving a burial at least 12″ deep in the city led to a search for a site to make a burial ground specially for the epidemic’s victims.

And fear ran so deep it became engrained in folk memory. Selby suffered in the same epidemic. 130 years later, my mother would point to the cholera burial ground behind Selby Abbey and say she was told as a child, she had two uncles in there (They’d be great-great uncles, I’d imagine). A local told me that when some pipes or cables were being laid over the site of that cholera burial ground, whilst excavating they realised the bodies weren’t all in the place they thought they were going to be and found them spread out across the site and possibly, they suggested, more than they had expected.

The village where I grew up had used a field a good mile or two right out of the village as the cholera burial ground. It was utterly unmarked. My friend’s dad owned it and grew wheat on it. Only local folklore remembered it was even a burial ground at all. I once asked my friend what happened to the wheat. She told me it was sold to a very well known breakfast cereal company. Knowing it came from the cholera ground – I never ate that particular cereal again! There may only be a few dozen people left now, who even know where that burial ground is. It was once bordered along the roadside by a drystone wall (the farmer demolished it to get his machinery in). As our own orchard and many local gardens and orchards were edged with nineteenth century drystone walls, we never thought it meant anything, as kids, that this particular field had a wall along one side of it and neighbouring ones didn’t. Not a single gravestone or marker, or a plaque attached to the wall, to tell you it was anything other than arable. Not many churchyards have been put under the plough which suggests there was ultimately, something ‘other’ about these cholera burial sites. But for a generation after 1832, grieving families must have visited and laid flowers on their loved ones’ unmarked graves; and the feeling of having to do that, in a godforsaken field a considerable walk out of the village, must have been awful for people whose entire families for many generations, were laid in the beautiful churchyard at some distance. No doubt the ground was consecrated but still…

In 1832, funeral corteges and coffins were stoned as they passed homes, in attempts to divert them away. Locked churches – locked against grieving families hoping to hold their loved ones’ funerals – were broken into, illicit ceremonies held with the result the churches had to then be whitewashed as this too was thought to prevent contagion. It was an atmosphere of fear. A cholera burial ground was ordered to be built (opposite where York train station now stands). The ground was without the city walls and during one of the early funerals (the burial of a pregnant prostitute), children stood on the city walls and stoned the mourners. York hasn’t changed. Several years ago in the middle of winter, with snow uncharacteristically on the ground, we were in a traffic queue behind a hearse. Children started throwing snowballs – at the hearse.

The epidemic was blamed on outsiders – a group of ‘vagrants’ had been brought up the river from Hull and Selby, to attend the races. These outsiders were seen as the harbingers of death. Wherever you’re from, unless it’s ground zero, epidemics are always characterised as being ‘other’ and coming from somewhere ‘foreign’.

Like us seeing news from Wuhan back in December and January, York had known the epidemic was coming for some months and ahead of it, had formed committees to safeguard public health. (It’s probably not arguable that 1832, politicians were far more prepared than we have seen our’s almost two hundred years later – another example of history informing us about our own world as well as the lost one).

“Ethel”, Reuben Chappell. Typical (freight) river vessel. Courtesy Goole Museum. Racegoers entering York on a boat brought the epidemic to the city. Most vessels would be around this size or smaller. A crowded boat with a cargo of racegoing, revelling, asymptomatic/unsymptomatic spreaders. The press claimed some were “vagrants”. Contagion-by-outsider seems to be a theme, then as now.

When the epidemic came, it blew in like wind on the sails of a vessel from Hull via Selby. And it was first found at the Bedern, (Then called by some “Hagworm’s Nest”), in the heart of the city, brought by waterman Thomas Hughes, who had brought the boat from Hull into one of the Quays. Whilst asymptomatic, Hughes visited a pub in another part of the city centre and so the cholera was quickly seeded across the city, having a very short incubation period.

Researching the book, I looked in detail at a woman involved in an 1841 murder case, Mary Carbutt. She lived at Garden Place, in Hungate, York and worked as a prostitute – and my researches uncovered the fact that these houses were often little more than tiny, one room cottages, backing onto the River Foss which was essentially, an open sewer; and rather incredibly, I uncovered the fact that some of the city’s most appalling slums were owned by charities including charity schools who gave poor children needlework, knitting and spinning skills. Rents extracted from society’s poorest members supported its other poorest members. Whilst some newspapers raised concerns about slum conditions and even pointed out the hypocrisy of churches or chapels owning them, most turned a blind eye and let the landlords continue exploiting tenants. Lives there were short and brutal. The Hagworm’s Nest was an equally unsalubrious place – almost within sight of York Minster, yet a world away from its manicured lawns. Then, as now, epidemics hit society’s poorest disproportionately. Then as now, they left devastation in their wake.

To wrap this up, I don’t know if I can be cogent, here. Let me try, gentle Reader.

When I was a child, I loved my rural West Riding (as it was then) home with a passion. This time of year, I loved above all…. the celandines in the fields; the trees in leaf, birds singing, my mother’s hundreds of roses in bud. Our white limestone dry-walls, the beautiful red and bright yellow pan-tile rooves of the old hayloft that was our coalhouse, the old pig-sty that was my den; the tumbledown 18th and 19thc farm buildings (our house had once been a farmhouse) and the tiny gate that led down to the orchard and trees, with its peeling blue paint. The swing on the apple tree my dad made me with some rope and an old bit of wood. The stunning Norman church almost opposite my house, the large, beautiful churchyard where my grandparents were buried under a yew we could see from our front doorstep. I was outside all day; climbing trees, running through fields, building dams in streams, playing in abandoned farmhouses and I loved my small world with a passion and something about that love, for nature, for the ramshackle past, and later for the lost world – all that made me want to be a writer, to somehw record it, to somehow keep it forever.

In my tenth year, some pretty catastrophic things happened. As for the place I loved, it’s all long gone and is under new houses. Everything passes away. No clue, in those times, that these times would come like a shadow and engulf us one day. The orchard where I played – some of those trees might have been a hundred years old. Planted by hands that survived the 1832 epidemic. Seeds of hope for the future. Beauty and the good things in life, and hope; we should hold on to. And we will return to. To truly appreciate all those disparate but positive things that make us – we have to know their flipside; life’s darkest materials.


2 replies on “Dark Times – the epidemic of 1832”

I am sorry you’ve been ill, and glad you are on the mend again. It is strange “out there” at the moment but as you say, it could be and has been worse…take care, endure, and thank you for shining a light into the dark places.


So glad to hear that you are regaining your strength and passion for your research. I have followed you work for a while now and learned so much, both textile and genealogical. From one of your many silent admirers- thank you! What you do is both important and inspiring


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