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Discovering a family tragedy from 1849

Updated on April 23, 2015
Report to the General Board of Health, 1850
Report to the General Board of Health, 1850
Items received from cholera relief fund
Items received from cholera relief fund

Cholera in Barnard Castle

I had long known that my grandfather's grandfather was a tailor in the town of Barnard Castle, in County Durham, which is one of most northerly counties of England. John Welford (the same name as me) had been born there in 1800, and he died there in 1849.

However, I recently discovered, almost by accident, what had caused his death, and the terrible conditions under which he and his family would have lived. Some years ago, Durham County Council sponsored a learning package, designed for local schools, that focused on Barnard Castle, the nearby Bowes Museum, and a particular tragedy that befell the town in 1849. They highlighted one particular family for which they had documentary evidence, and my discovery was that that family was the Welfords, my ancestors.

The tragedy was cholera, unknown in western countries today, but the scourge of industrial Britain in the 19th century, striking without warning in communities where sanitation was poor and people relied on unsafe water supplies.

The image at the top of this page is John Welford's burial certificate, the C on the left-hand side indicating the cause of death as cholera. The disease, a strain of Asiatic cholera, is believed to have reached Britain via the port of Sunderland in 1831, and it spread widely from there in the following years.

The outbreak in the town of Barnard Castle was short-lived but extremely virulent, with 143 deaths recorded between 18th April and 18th October. They were buried in a mass grave in the churchyard.

This cross in the churchyard is a memorial to the cholera victims who were buried in a mass grave
This cross in the churchyard is a memorial to the cholera victims who were buried in a mass grave

Report to the General Board of Health

The following year, a full report on the outbreak was prepared by William Ranger, the health inspector, for the General Board of Health, in which he drew attention to the conditions under which the disease could wreak such devastation in a small, tight-knit community. There is an excerpt from the report reprinted above, just below the burial certificate.

Cholera is a water-borne disease, and it is noticeable that concentrations of cases occur in properties that depend on specific sources of water. For example, in the street named Thorngate there were only two water pumps, which were clearly infected, as there were 154 cases (not all of them fatal) in that street alone.

The report had a lot to say about poor sanitation, as it not only led to sources of water becoming infected, but it made recovery less likely. One part of the report reads:

"With the present defective sewerage it has not been practicable to drain houses and as a consequence cesspools have been adopted, or the refuse is thrown upon the surface of the yard and the streets where it is allowed to remain until carried off by evaporation or until it percolates into the substratum and from thence into the wells."

A local doctor added:

"I consider the rooms ill-ventilated, and in the case of fever I am frequently obliged to break a pane of glass to admit fresh air."

The report contains many examples of overcrowding, including:

"In Old Priory Yard, a cul-de-sac, there are 15 tenements occupied by 64 persons, and in one instance only, there are six persons living and sleeping in a single room. A large cesspool in the centre of this yard is surrounded by houses; the soil [excrement] it was stated has not been removed for years, and there is but one privy to 15 houses."

Many of the old houses are still in existence, although they are not overcrowded in the way they were 160 years ago.

Sole ventilation and light source for a basement dwelling
Sole ventilation and light source for a basement dwelling

The relief fund

Because the epidemic affected so many working people, whose earnings and wages supported large families, many more people would have faced real hardship as a result. A relief fund was therefore set up, and there is evidence that generous contributions were made to it by local landowners and other wealthy people. The surviving accounts show that the Duke of Cleveland and the Bishop of Durham gave generously.

One of the documents above shows that my ancestor's family were beneficiaries of the fund, as on 17th September, two days after John's burial, sheets, blankets and other items were delivered. However, it is also stated that two of the blankets were later returned. Did the relief fund trustees think that they had been too generous, perhaps? Or perhaps they were intended for John's own use, but they arrived too late?

This passageway in Barnard Castle would have been an open sewer in 1849
This passageway in Barnard Castle would have been an open sewer in 1849


The cholera epidemic ended as suddenly as it began, although people at that time were only vaguely aware of how cholera was spread. There is no evidence that any of John Welford's family were also victims, although several of his children, and those of his brothers, died in infancy in later years. Fortunately for me, his son George had a long life and a large family, of whom my father’s father was one.

The report to the General Board of Health contains some hope for the future, not only pointing out the need for better sanitation, but also including the aspirations of the townspeople, who called for better working conditions and public parks and baths. Many of the public open spaces we have in our modern towns and cities were laid out in Victorian times in response to calls such as this, and the sewers beneath our streets were built by far-sighted Victorian engineers.

Horsemarket, Barnard Castle - the street in which John Welford lived
Horsemarket, Barnard Castle - the street in which John Welford lived


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    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 9 years ago from California

      The Indexer

      You have just touched on one of my loves, researching family history. Cholera was so prevalent during that time period. The sanitation terrible, the working and living conditions poor. Quite possibly that may be some of the reasons my ancestors opted to take their chances in the US. The infant death rate was incomprehensible. I can't imagine how mother's of that day must have felt. It is truly satisfying to learn about your roots, isn't it? Great HUB.

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 9 years ago from UK

      Doghouse, Thanks for the comment. The cholera epidemics coincided with the Irish potato famine, and the latter certainly led to many "huddled masses" crossing the Atlantic. I know that some of my family emigrated to New Zealand, but I don't know of any that went to America.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 9 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      It was very interesting to read about the direct connection between the tragic events of your ancestor's time and the improvement projects that followed. Indeed, there was hope for the future in that report.

      Sometimes I am amazed that any of us is here, considering the circumstances our ancestors faced. Personally, I would not be here if my grandparents and their children did not leave Poland when they did in 1930. After WWII was over, there was not one surviving relative of theirs in Poland.

      Thank you for a thought-provoking read.

    • profile image

      Giselle Houston McAndrew 6 years ago

      I read with interest your account of the Cholera out break of 1849. I too have an ancestor, Robert Whitfield who died in Sept, 1849 in Barnard Castle with Cholera, aged 32. He left his wife Mary and his unborn child Elizabeth Ann Whitfield, born 1850 in Barnard Castle.

      I did visit the st. Mary's Chapel as it was then, later a Church, where my direct line E.A, Whitfield was bapisted.

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 6 years ago from UK

      Giselle, Did you notice that Mary Whitfield's name is next in line after John Welford's on the list of relief fund beneficiaries reproduced above?

      I visited Barnard Castle after writing this article, and found a copy of a booklet that gives full details about the cholera epidemic, included a reproduction of the full page of this document. It states against Mary Whitfield, "husband and 2 children dead" and there is also a line for an Eleanor Whitfield and a William Whitfield. All the Whitfileds lived in Bridgegate, but could have been different families.

    • profile image

      Giselle Houston McAndrew 5 years ago

      I did forget all about me posting a comment on this hub and have only just seen your reply. I do have the book you are referring too and yes have noted Mary Whitfield, my gt. grandma x2 and two children's death's, which I have got copies of their baptism. So I do know my Whitfield ancestor family of Robert, gt grandfather x 2 and he and Mary's two children died . Leaving Robert's wife alive and their unborn daur., my gt. grandma Elizabet Ann Whitfield. As for the other Whitfield's, have not as yet, researched them to see if they are connected to me or not.Thanks for your reply,even thought it's taken me 22mths to see it. My Robert was a Weaver by trade, which I know was a big thing in Barnard Castle. Mary moved away when she gave birth to my gt. grandma. Giselle.

    • profile image

      Giselle 5 years ago

      Sorry, meant to ask you how far you have researched into your Barnard family connection's?

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 5 years ago from UK

      Giselle, Thank you for your comment, despite the intervening 22 months! Why not correspond "offline", as it were, which might be easier? My email address is

      As a weaver, your ancestor might well have been a supplier to mine, who was a tailor.

    • profile image

      Giselle 5 years ago

      Thanks I will.Been away so have just logged into your site tonight.

    • profile image

      Giselle 4 years ago

      Hi John,

      So I take it you have received my email I sent to you a while ago?

      I was wondering why I hadn't heard from you after you saying to email you at your home email address six weeks ago.


    • profile image

      Giselle Houston McAndrew 4 years ago

      Hello John,

      I have emailed you a couple of times now. So am wondering if you have received them as yet! I did send the first email and found that I had left the letter "g" out of the address, so ersent it with the correct one but you have not replied. I would give you my address but don't want to put it on this hub.

      Giselle. P.S. I will check back just incase you haven't got my email address yet.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello, we meet again John. I've been to Barnard Castle and the area west to Middleton and High Force (all by way of Arkengarthdale and Bowes, by the A66). It's an old town with a long history and no doubt a chunk of its own misery.

      My great-great Grandad and his son left poverty near Kings Lynn via a Lincolnshire hiring fair to work in East Cleveland's ironstone mines near Guisborough. My great Grandad landed on his feet in marrying a local lass, who'd inherited her Dad's farm near Stokesley at West Rounton. Unfortunately for him he'd developed breathing difficulties working in the bad conditions in the mines and died in a tent in the garden, as he couldn't breathe indoors. They'd had fourteen kids, mostly girls. Two died in infancy, two from scarlet fever.

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