In 1854 Cholera had broken out in the Dorset parish of Fordington which was part of the Duchy of Cornwall. The Rev. Henry Moule, Vicar of Fordington wrote a series of letters tp H.R.H. Prince Albert, president of the Council of the Duchy. The eight letters were published in 1855. This is the first letter in that series.
FORDINGTON VICARAGE, Sept. 12th, 1854.
MAY IT PLEASE YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS,
God has, in His providence, again visited this unhappy parish with cholera in its most frightful form. And as the parish is one of the estates of the Duchy of Cornwall, and your Royal Highness is the president of the Council of the Duchy, I am constrained, by feelings and convictions which I cannot resist, to bring the case and matters connected with it immediately and fully before your notice. I must write in the few intervals of rest from almost incessant attention to the sick. Of the immediate cause of its introduction amongst us, I have my opinion, and I shall not hesitate to express it; but the main subject on which I venture thus to address your Royal Highness, is that of the circumstances through which this and other epidemics, when once introduced into a portion of this parish, are fostered and aggravated. And my excuse for the liberty I thus take, is the conviction long since felt, but strengthened as during the last twelve days I have passed from house to house of the sick and dying, that while the blame of those circumstances is to be attributed in part to others, no inconsiderable portion of it lies at the door of those who, for the last sixty or seventy years, have managed this estate of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall. For they, when they might have prevented it, allowed such a state of things to grow up. partly it is true, on a piece of freehold land, but that surrounded on all sides by His Royal Highness’s property, and inhabited in part by labourers on his estate; and for the twenty-five years of my incumbency the Council has never stretched forth a hand even to alleviate this state of things. Yet in their power it is, and, as I believe, in their power alone, to apply to it an effectual and permanent remedy.
In treating on such a subject, I trust I shall neither fail to render to your Royal Highness that honour which is due to your exalted station; nor in any way forget the sincere respect I feel for your high character. But in the performance of what I deem an important task, and in the execution of what forces itself on my conscience as a solemn duty, I shall not shrink from writing with the honest freedom of an Englishman, and with the faithfulness of a Christian minister. Moreover, I must take the further liberty of addressing your Royal Highness, in the presence of the English people. I shall publish what I write For the case of the parish of Fordington has long been one of common notoriety, and is now exciting general interest. The finger of scorn and reproach has been held up against it, and against the borough of Dorchester, on its account. It is due, therefore, both to the parish and the borough, that such a statement as that I am about to lay before your Royal Highness, should have full publicity. ‘
For this same reason I shall enter into some detail of facts relating, as I believe, to the introduction of this disease amongst us. And with this my present letter will be chiefly occupied. But first it will be necessary to give a general sketch of the locality and of the population of that portion of the parish to which the disease is at present confined. This indeed is more needful for the public than for your Royal Highness. For I have reason to believe that to yourself, the state of that locality is in a measure known, and has excited your attention and interest.
At the east end of Dorchester, then, and within a space that can scarcely exceed five acres, about 1,100 persons are congregated in a set of dwellings, many of which are of the most wretched description, and utterly destitute of the ordinary conveniences of life. This space consists of two great divisions, Mill-street, on the one side of a mill pond, and Holloway-row, together with Cuckold-row and Standfast, on the other side. — In Mill-street, the floors of the houses lie considerably below the highest elevation of the pond, and some of them even below its bed. The other division consists of two, and in one part of it, of three rows of cottages, rising one above the other, from the bank of the mill pond, on the side of a chalk hill. In Holloway-row, about twenty of the cottages have a small patch of ground, about 18 feet square, and a pathway and lane in front of them. They have also a little space hollowed out of the hill behind them. But, with these exceptions, scarcely a cottage in this division (and the same may be said of many in Mill-street) has a single inch of ground beyond that on which it stands. Their filth is consequently cast either into the open and wretched drain in the street, or into the mill pond. And into this same mill pond, from which, moreover, the people draw most of their water for washing, and sometimes even for culinary purposes, ” the conveniences ” of more than half of these 1,100 people empty themselves together with the filth of the County Gaol, and of some portion of the other three parishes of Dorchester. The population, with few exceptions, consists of mechanics, labourers, and paupers from this and many other parishes. Vice, in its worst forms, abounds amongst them.
Now your Royal Highness will observe that it was into a parish containing within it such a population, and so circumstanced as this, that the Home Secretary saw fit, about the 15th of August last, to send some 700 convicts from the Millbank Penitentiary, in which the Cholera was then raging. It is true that the situation of the barrack in which they are confined is most healthy, as is that of the greater portion of this parish and town. But besides a population of 700 or 800 in the immediate vicinity of the barrack, in circumstances very similar to those I have attempted to describe, there was this of 1,100 persons within three quarters of a mile. The proximity, however, in either case would in my opinion have been of comparatively small importance, if all unnecessary communication between the inmates of the barrack and such a population had been precluded. By some one of the officials in this transaction the Mayor was cautioned indeed to prevent such communication on the part of the town. But this caution thus given was not observed by those who gave it. For, on Thursday, August 24th, I found that two women residing in Holloway-row had contracted to wash for the convicts; and that the dirty clothes, with some articles of bedding, of 700 men, averaging five articles a man, had just arrived, and were packed into their two cottages. I endeavoured through the Mayor to obtain the removal of these things, expressing my fears of Cholera— but in vain. Now, up to this time there was no appearance of this disease. The health of the parish had been remarkably good, so that in the month of August there had previously been only two deaths out of the whole population of 3000 souls. But within a few days, a child in a cottage about 60 yards from these two cottages is attacked with Cholera, and on the 30th he dies. Since that day twenty-five more have fallen; and four of these cases have been within forty yards of the lower of the two cottages, and in houses between which the wretched gutter that conveyed all the soapsuds of this washing to the river slowly finds its way. The public has been told that new clothes were given to the convicts on their leaving Millbank. But I find that the bedding and blankets had been used there. Nay, your Royal Highness and the public should know that the body-linen of these men had been worn in the prison, and that little, if anything, more than their woollen clothing appears to have been new.
To the enquiry of the person sent down by authority to inspect this locality when the mischief was done, “Was there no other possible means of communicating the disease than this washing of the clothes ” I replied at the time, that doubtless there was, but no other appeared, and this did appear. But I now find that some of the warders (I know not how many) had been in the midst of the cholera patients in Millbank, and I have found that some of them have frequented the wretched cottages in that block of them in which five deaths have occurred. Nay, in the very house, in which on Thursday, August 31st, the second case occurred, and in which there have been three cases and two deaths, one of these men was drinking and passing a portion of the previous Tuesday night.
For venturing to connect the appearance of the Cholera amongst us with the washing of the linen, I and others have been charged with confounding coincidences with results. Will the same be said of this apparent connection also, Will it be said of both together ? To say the least, they are very singular and strong coincidences.
But why thus dwell on this matter to your Royal Highness ? They who have acted in it, from the Home Secretary down to the lowest agent, are not amenable to you. Moreover, the evil is in the midst of us, the injury is done. We may regret it, we cannot undo it. True, but your Royal Highness and the Council over which you preside are not the mere guardians of the property of your Royal Son. Surely some of the responsibilities of that property devolve on you. You cannot justly be relieved from them — your Royal Highness I am sure would not wish to be relieved from them. And one of these responsibilities is a care for the welfare of those dwelling on the property, and still more of its labouring, suffering poor. On this ground alone I should have felt it my duty to acquaint your Royal Highness with the injury, which, in my opinion, the people of this place have suffered. The matter, however, stands connected with their physical and moral condition, and the very discussion of the mode by which the pestilence has been introduced amongst us, throws on it a sad but strong light, from which I feel persuaded that your Royal Highness’s attention will not easily be withdrawn. But, on the subject of that condition, I shall, if God permit, speak in a future letter. With the deepest feelings of ‘respect, I have the honour to be,
Your Royal Highness’s
Obedient and humble Servant,