Regency period outbreaks due to bad water

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rosehips

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I'm currently brainstorming for a Regency period novel. I haven't yet chosen the year, but let's say 1810ish (this can be changed, anywhere from 1800-1820, if that's useful). One character is a wealthy nobleman with several estates that have tenants. He mismanages these estates, leading to poverty and illness among the tenants. My general idea is that in the case of at least one estate, the drainage of water is a factor, and maybe the water itself is polluted in some way (suggestions welcome), leading to an outbreak of cholera. However, I've been trying to find articles that talk about cholera in England in this time period, and everything I find tends to start talking about it in the 1830s. I gather there were large epidemics, the first of which started in 1817, but that one doesn't seem to have gotten as far as England. Maybe cholera isn't the right choice here?

Any advice is welcome. Thank you in advance.
 

stephenf

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I'm no medical expert, but I know Dysentry was a common form of death at the time of your story. Often Fatal, It is related to bad hygiene. It was not something that came in epidemics, it was ever-present.
 
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MaeZe

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Maybe you've seen this article History of Cholera? The dates fit with what you noted.

Essentially it is saying that the disease has been around for thousands of years with recorded descriptions of epidemics in India and maybe Greece. In 1817 a worldwide pandemic spread from India.

In 1854 the famous Broad St epidemic occurred in London. It is a fascinating story. Dr John Snow collected meticulous data demonstrating the initial source was a family that got rid of their sewage in their basement. That leaked into the water supply which was obtained by the local population via the Broad St pump.

Before that time the disease was believed by the other doctors to be from 'miasma' meaning bad air. It made sense to them given how bad the smell was in the area near the river and it was that area the infections were concentrated. This was the beginning of epidemiology and the first time it was recognized that microorganisms were the cause of infections.

The doctors dismissed Snow's findings for another ten years.
When you read how detailed of a case Snow made you have to wonder what was wrong with them. What was wrong is the human tendency to believe what they already know and resist anything that contradicts those beliefs. They were sure miasma was the cause of cholera in London.

Snow was able to convince the city authorities and they removed the handle of the Broad St pump. The epidemic subsided. Thus the Broad St pump handle became famous. I love it.

One point for your story is that the recognition of microorganisms causing infections wasn't known until the 1850s. Your characters might know the water is making people ill but they would have no idea that bacteria was the cause. And it is unlikely they would know much about cholera since as you note, it didn't reach London until the 1830s.

They wouldn't know what was causing people to get ill. They might, however, recognize bad water was a cause of disease. Contaminated water could have simply been the cause of disease with any number of organisms. Diarrhea from contaminated water is still one of the leading causes of childhood deaths in much of the third world. There is no single pathogen causing those deaths.

How does the specific disease fit in the story given no one knew about infectious disease being caused by microorganisms at the time?

If you need an outbreak with an abrupt beginning you don't need to name the pathogen, any number of things could cause an outbreak.
 

MaeZe

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I'm no medical expert, but I know Dysentry was a common form of death at the time of your story. Often Fatal, It is related to bad hygiene. It was not something that came in epidemics, it was ever-present.
Yes. I don't think amoebic dysentery is a good option but bacterial dysentery is.

Lots of good information on it on this site:
Dysentery is defined as diarrhea in which there is blood, pus, and mucous, usually accompanied by abdominal pain. It usually lasts for 3 to 7 days...
Dysentery can have a number of causes. Bacterial infections are by far the most common causes of dysentery. These infections include Shigella, Campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella species of bacteria. The frequency of each pathogen varies considerably in different regions of the world.
And the characters would not know the names of any of those.
 
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waylander

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If his tenants are drawing water from streams or shallow wells and using animal manure on the adjacent fields then faecal contamination of their drinking water is entirely possible.
 
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llyralen

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I’m wondering how it figures in your story since it might change your options.

Do you need a reason to fix the tennants’ houses? a lot of those (yes, depending on who built them) were really smokey and tiny and some people would have lung problems from them. In Middlemarch by George Eliot, when the main character was young she sketched blueprints for new tenant houses for her father to build that would not fil people’s lungs with smoke. But her father didn’t re-build them. I think they were often cold and drafty and leaky. Basically the Lord could leave them in poor repair if he wanted to, so many people’s health were in the Lord’s hands and depended on him being “Nobel” enough to keep them in livable conditions. Sometimes a “change in the Lord” meant things were going to get better or worse. So if your character just inherited the properties and tenants then he could decide to have more compassion than his father and work on the houses. That isn’t as exciting as cholera but it just depends on what the story needs, right?

If it’s enough for kids to be sick, then very often Small Pox or Scarlet Fever or Whooping Cough would sweep through and kill a lot of children at a time in a group. So sad! All the diseases we now get immunizations for used to kill kids en mass, and that was on-going through history until we developed vaccines for all of these.
 
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rosehips

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Thanks, guys.

I'll probably go with dysentry. Looks like they called it "flux" or "bloody flux," though I'll stick to the former as I'm not planning to include a lot of especially unpleasant details. References will be made to the infected people "wasting away" and "burning with fever." Some characters might indicate, by their reactions, that the illness is very bad. "She almost swooned when the apothecary gave his opinion that it was, in fact, the flux."
 
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rosehips

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I’m wondering how it figures in your story since it might change your options depending on if you want adults sick. If it’s enough for kids to be sick, then very often Small Pox or Scarlet Fever or Whooping Cough would sweep through and kill a lot of children at a time in a group. So sad! All the immunizations we get now used to kill kids en mass, and that was on-going through history until we developed vaccines for all of these.

The main thing is that I want the illness to be due to environmental factors that can be fixed. One of the MCs will yearn to go in and reorganize everything (build drainage systems, reorganize the uses of fields, repair wells, etc.) to make the living standards better for the tenants. Part of the HEA is his at last being able to do it.
 
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llyralen

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The main thing is that I want the illness to be due to environmental factors that can be fixed. One of the MCs will yearn to go in and reorganize everything (build drainage systems, reorganize the uses of fields, repair wells, etc.) to make the living standards better for the tenants. Part of the HEA is his at last being able to do it.
Yeah, how bad or good those houses were was at the mercy of the lord (Landlord). And the lord could let them live in horrible conditions or spend his own money to make repairs and updates. A lot depended on him. People did believe that cold and poor conditions with smoke could make you sick. It makes it harder to recover for sure. So the flux and poor conditions could work, I think. Of course now I want to do research to find an incident. Usually in descriptions a lord would be protected from looking bad by the publisher back then. Not always though.
 

frimble3

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If you want to find an incident, I'd start looking at the lords who were famous for living 'in Town' (London) and wasting their money on gambling and excessive spending. This leaves little money to spend on the estate, which, to him, is a cash cow.
Exactly the sort of cad who would let things go to ruin, and leave a mess for his heir to clear up.
 

llyralen

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If you want to find an incident, I'd start looking at the lords who were famous for living 'in Town' (London) and wasting their money on gambling and excessive spending. This leaves little money to spend on the estate, which, to him, is a cash cow.
Exactly the sort of cad who would let things go to ruin, and leave a mess for his heir to clear up.
So true! It really says a lot when authors like Trollope and Hardy describe these young reckless guys spending their lives at their clubs gambling and buying new race horses.

Austen’s women characters show a bit of knowledge/charity for their family’s tenants.

The ideal “nobles oblige” had no real incentive or reinforcement, did it? I can imagine trying to teach my son compassion and responsibility in that situation. Eek! Not impossible but a hard sale. No wonder there were characters in Austen telling their sons they wouldn’t inherit the title if they didn’t marry rich or were too wild.
 
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Al X.

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Of note, the removal and inactivation of Giardia, Cryptosporidium and viruses are what defines current surface water treatment regulations in the US and other countries that have adopted a version of the USEPA SWTR. By conjecture one could assume those were the top three problematic pathogens prior to the widespread implementation of water treatment.
 

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I'm currently brainstorming for a Regency period novel. I haven't yet chosen the year, but let's say 1810ish (this can be changed, anywhere from 1800-1820, if that's useful). One character is a wealthy nobleman with several estates that have tenants. He mismanages these estates, leading to poverty and illness among the tenants. My general idea is that in the case of at least one estate, the drainage of water is a factor, and maybe the water itself is polluted in some way (suggestions welcome), leading to an outbreak of cholera. However, I've been trying to find articles that talk about cholera in England in this time period, and everything I find tends to start talking about it in the 1830s. I gather there were large epidemics, the first of which started in 1817, but that one doesn't seem to have gotten as far as England. Maybe cholera isn't the right choice here?

Any advice is welcome. Thank you in advance.
Cholera should work (with regards to time period, spread by water, due to poor sanitation). I think cholera as an official pandemic didn't hit England till the 1930's, but surely there would have been pockets with outbreaks before that. And I reckon your characters (and their doctors) wouldn't know the names or be able to differentiate between GI disorders. Entire community gets diarrhoea, fever, dehydration, and death.... they'd know it's not smallpox or typhus, as those are accompanied by identifiable rashes, but I doubt they'd know or care what the infectious organism is, or whether it's spread by lice, ticks, or human-poop-contaminated water -- they'd just be desperate for a treatment/cure.

Leave it unspecified. That way you can't be pinged for historical inaccuracy. (All IMO, obv.)
 

waylander

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According to this source from the National Library of Medicine https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11609122/



"Asiatic cholera originated in India and spread to Europe in the early years of the nineteenth-century. In Britain the first cases were diagnosed late in 1831. The epidemic, reached London in February 1832."