In 1892 a cholera epidemic ravaged Europe. Hamburg hospitals were in a frightful condition - unknown patients were brought in to die, their deaths went unrecorded and hundreds of bodies awaited burial. Medical assistance was inadequate and couldn't cope with the alarming increase of cases. Hospitals were horribly overcrowded and in insanitary conditions. There was no room to attended to patients properly, their fouled clothes could not be removed and bedding was filthy and insufficient. Corpses lay side by side with the living. Schools were converted into hospitals and railway traffic was discontinued. On an immigrant ship to New York 20 cholera deaths occurred. It was feared cholera may have spread to London.
"Will it visit Paeroa?" asked the Ohinemuri Gazette. Sanitation in Paeroa was suspect. "We are at the bottom of a gully . . . we have no water supply, our wells are perilously near, in some cases, to our cesspits and our river is rapidly becoming a sewer. God forbid the advent of such a frightful plague as is now visiting probably as small villages in Europe. But if such were to come our blood would be upon our own heads."
Paeroa was safe for now, but did Thames get a visit? In March 1892 Harold Egbert Gribble, the only son of the town's Pollen Street Stationer, William Gribble, died at the age of 2 years 11 months. The child had been taken very ill in the night. Dr Payne was called and said he found the little boy suffering from English cholera. Everything possible was done, but Harold died the next morning. The death notice inserted by his parents called him "Jesus' little lamb."
At the time residents were subjected to regular newspaper advertisements for a cure in the form of Chamberlain's Colic, Cholera and Diarrhoea Remedy which promised speedy relief and life saving properties using fictitious names and made up claims.
"My little boy, when two years of age, was taken very ill with bloody flux," wrote Mrs Lina S Hinton of Grahamsville, Marion County, Florida. The remedy "saved his life" and "I am sorry everyone in the world does not know how good it is, as I do." Another claimed since 1878 there had been nine epidemics of dysentery in the country which Chamberlain's Remedy was used with perfect success. "Dysentery, when epidemic, is almost as severe and dangerous as Asiatic cholera." The most skilled physicians failed to check its ravages but this remedy professed to cure the most malignant cases.
But a dose of Chamberlain's was not much use to Samuel Gordon in November 1897. Samuel was the head plate layer on the Thames - Paeroa railway line. He lived with his wife and five children in Rye Lane, Paeroa. The healthy 42 year old had done a good day's work on the line and came home as usual in the afternoon. About 8pm he took ill and had deteriorated so much by four in the morning that Dr Buckby had to be sent for. When Dr Buckby arrived he found Samuel too far gone but did all in his power to save him. The well-known and greatly respected Samuel died that afternoon. The cause of death was said by Dr Buckby to be cholera caused by drinking swamp water.
Seven days later a young Paeroa man named Townsend was "attacked with English Cholera" after drinking bad water. He was in a precarious position and attended by Dr Buckby. "This is the second case of cholera within a week," reported the Bay Of Plenty Times. Townsend appears to have survived.
Two months later, in January 1898, the Thames Star reflected on the district's brush with the dreaded plague. In an editorial headed 'A stitch in time' it mused on the two extremes of the summer and winter seasons which "always bring in their train the ailments and disease peculiar to an abnormally high or low temperature . . . in the cold and wet people in this colony are subject to attacks of violent cold which can develop into life threatening diseases which sometimes baffle the skills of the physicians . . . In February, March and April cases of typhoid fever are more common than at any other time of the year." Eating fruit in various stages of ripeness during summer was to blame for diseases of the stomach such as diarrhoea and cholera, the Star suggested. "The heat of the weather induces thirst . . . and frequent application is made to the water bottle. . . the milk we drink is also a source of great danger when it is yielded by cows which have to sometimes drink impure and stagnant water, which has been exposed to the blazing rays of the sun for many weeks." Garbage in culverts festering in the sun, accumulated filth in backyards left by careless or thoughtless residents and insufficient cleansing of water closets were all blamed. "It has also come to our knowledge that certain persons are in the habit of allowing their receptacles for night soil to discharge themselves into the larger creeks to the annoyance and danger of other residents. If our readers would guard against an outbreak at the Thames they will do well to observe more scrupulous cleanliness and exercise greater caution in their dietary and sanitary habits."
There appear to be no more outbreaks of cholera locally if indeed that's what it was. In the mid 1800s a former Auckland coroner was quoted as saying "I never saw a case of cholera in Auckland. People here do not understand what cholera is. If they saw it once they would never forget it." A doctor commenting on the hit and miss nature of diagnosis and treatment said "we could not make up our minds how it was to be cured. People seemed to recover from sheer strength of constitution. We tried every kind of treatment."
The fear of cholera was palpable as world headlines throughout the decades show -
1892 - Outbreak of cholera - Progress of the cholera - 2500 deaths from cholera - The onward march of cholera - Cholera raging
The cholera scourge - 1893
Death from cholera - 1896
Cholera spreading -1900
Precautions against cholera - 1912
Serious outbreak of cholera - 1918
The claims of quack cures continued until government regulations were put in place to stop them. But until then advertisements such as this gave false hope and the 'cures' were next to worthless.
'English Cholera' was so named to distinguish it from the deadly Asian chorea It was a catch-all term for the attacks of sickness and diarrhea usually caused by bad food that struck people down in this era.
Source Papers Past, 'The Inheritors Powder', Sandra Hempel.
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2015