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Burking and the Paisley Cholera Riots – Being West Kilbride

Burking and the Paisley Cholera Riots

We looked at the crowded, unhealthy living conditions of the poor in West Kilbride during the 1820’s – here.

In 1826 the Liverpool Mercury reported the curious case of 33 dead bodies that had been found covered in salt and ready for shipment to a surgeon in Edinburgh. The bodies had been removed from graves whilst still fresh. Poor people everywhere were horrified – one of the very few things people felt they could rely on in life was that their neighbours would ensure they got a decent funeral.

William Burke
William Burke

Then in 1828, Burke and Hare were caught in Edinburgh and quickly tried for murdering 16 people in cold blood and selling the bodies to a local surgeon. They had received the fantastic sum of around £7 for each body which is equivalent to about £520 today. The pair could have escaped justice had Hare not given evidence against Burke and received a pardon for his trouble – thereafter the practice of murdering for the purposes of selling a dead body was known by the public as “Burking”.

William Hare
William Hare

Hare was held in prison for his own protection for a while, before being quietly moved to Dumfries. The public heard of his removal and were waiting when he arrived, pelting him and the police with stones. Once again he was held in prison until he could be safely moved on.

Burke was executed in December 1832 and his body was taken by the surgeons for dissection. The authorities thought that by a swift trial and execution they might allay public fears. They made a huge spectacle of the execution and the subsequent dissection – the surgeon even wrote a note in the blood taken from Burke’s skull. To this day, Burke’s skeleton remains on display.

Frighteningly, very shortly thereafter in 1829, a London gang known as the “London Burkers” were captured and executed. The Police opened up their gang den for examination by the public at a massive entrance fee of 5 shillings each.

The London Burkers
The London Burkers

For that sum, the public were allowed to take away souvenirs, until there was nothing left. Of course these were not the poor, but the middle classes who could afford such “luxuries”, whilst the angst of the poor continued to rise. Most were gravely suspicious that doctors and surgeons were killing off people deliberately for money. The incredibly high death rate amongst the poor – especially when aided by medical men – seemed to lend itself to this.

Several other grisly Burking discoveries continued to be found throughout the country. A Liverpool surgeon was caught with 5 dead bodies in his home and a Glasgow surgeon was caught trying to sell the head of a 4 year old boy.

But then, even worse, in late 1831 Cholera broke out in Britain having arrived on ships from China. The disease arrived here in Scotland in 1832. Cholera was most prevalent amongst the poorer classes who lived in these awful cramped, unsanitary conditions. A person could literally die within three hours of the symptoms first appearing. The authorities were utterly bemused as the cause and treatment of the disease in 1832. The death rate was extremely high – perhaps as many as 50% of sufferers went on to die. Tens of thousands died throughout Britain of Cholera. But many survived. The medical, council or police authorities were often very quick to remove people presenting the symptoms, sometimes resulting in people actually being buried alive.

The biggest accusation from the public was that the authorities were using the disease as an excuse for Burking. The first Cholera Riot broke out in May 1832 in Liverpool when a crowd followed a sick couple to hospital, not believing them to be very sick at all. Gradually the crowd swelled to over 1,000 people and the mood darkened until stones and bricks were thrown at hospital workers.

The disease had now reached the port of Glasgow and spread mainly throughout the west coast. Approximately 3,000 died in Glasgow, 450 in Paisley and many more in all the supplier villages to the textiles industry such as West Kilbride. The authorities started removing people quickly to stop the spread of infection, but the mood of the public once again darkened when suspicion spread that bodies were being removed for dissection. In late 1832 the public arose in both Glasgow and Paisley – the military being called to quell the riots in Paisley.

News of the riots would have spread very quickly to West Kilbride, and there must have been a great deal of civil unrest. 1832 was only the first outbreak of Cholera, but it prepared the public and the authorities in a small way to deal with subsequent epidemics. Ultimately it would result in West Kilbride being cleaned up – a new public cemetery in the 1850’s, a public water supply in the 1870’s and beginning to tear down the slums from the 1880’s.

In my next piece I will explore how the authorities tried to deal with the outbreak of Cholera in the west coast of Scotland. Sometimes almost comical if it wasn’t so sad.

For more information:

The Scotsman Article



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