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Cholera! – Being West Kilbride


It was the day before Christmas Eve in 1831 when Cholera first hit Scotland. Known as the pestilence (or the “pest”, which my grandmother used to call me), it spread quickly throughout the west of Scotland – the area worst affected by far. In Glasgow, over 3,000 souls would lose their life, Paisley 450, and many, many more in the towns and villages that fed into these growing industrial areas.

I have written in an earlier post about the huge slum area based around what we now know as the Kings Arms car park in West Kilbride. Here, many hundreds lived in close, squalid, cramped conditions in abject poverty and poor sanitation. They would be poorly clothed, freezing, starving and have no medical facilities. In this picture I have shown the end of the Kings Arms upon which you can still see the outline of the three storey building which adjoined it in the early 19th Century (see also the photo at the bottom of this article).  Yet this was only seven generations ago.

The appalling cramped housing was owned by the King family and rented out to poor families who did everything they could to keep life going forward. The average tenancy in the 1841 census was 8.9 people per room.

Next door was the church school and the town midden where all the human waste was thrown. Behind the school sat the graveyard. There was no public water supply. Conditions were perfect for the spread of any pestilence, including Cholera.

In this map from the mid century I have indicated the Kirk burial ground behind the old Barony (knocked down in the 1870’s) circled in red. The town midden is circled in blue, and the cholera pits (see below) circled in yellow).

Cholera Map

That particular pestilence, Cholera, arrived in West Kilbride in early 1832 – probably transported down from Paisley when the factories would come to pick up the textile output of the hand looms. Although we don’t yet have exact statistics, it would probably be responsible for the death of as many as 100 local people.

This was the first time Cholera had broken out in Scotland and as it ravaged the west, the authorities were bemused as to the cause and how to stop it. It was clear that it transmitted most quickly amongst the poor, and from person to person. Some immediate arrangements would be put in place. These arrangements were common across most towns and villages and although I know of no written records for our village, we can say with reasonable certainty that the following would probably be true for West Kilbride.

The town council would have been given powers to do everything possible to slow the spread of the disease. In some cases visitors to villages were stoned by locals until they went away.

In the second really big outbreak of 1848 it was customary to establish a quarantine or emergency hospital at a reasonable distance from the village usually on a moor. This was because burning heather was believed to have disinfecting qualities. The town Baillie would decide who was infected and order their detention. People taken to the quarantine would be stripped of all clothing, made to wash, and then “disinfected” by the smoke of heather. At the quarantine, each day the dead bodies would be taken away for burial – sometimes if a person looked like they were almost about to die, they would also be pronounced dead in order to slow the spread of the disease – resulting in the inevitable burial alive at times. Most quarantines had an executioner appointed for cases where people tried to escape – the penalty was a traditional Scottish execution by strangulation.

Back at Kings Close, the bedding, mattress and any other clothing owned by the afflicted would be burned in the morning. Their rooms were “singit and fyrit wi hather” (disinfected with burning heather). The lot of a poor person was already bad, but if they were to survive Cholera it would be remarkably worse.

cholera area 1832
The Church and the infected area

In normal times the local Church would rent out a “mortcloth” for burials – or allow a common one to be used free for the parish poor. Originally these cloths were used to cover a body when the dead could not afford a coffin. Gradually “common coffins” were purchased by churches for hire out and could be used several times a day. The advent of the pestilence increased dramatically the number of perished that would use a common coffin as it enclosed the afflicted and was encouraged by the church authorities. The strict Presbyterian church did not allow decorated coffins so the mortcloth was used to lie over the coffin to pay the dead some form of respect. However, in times of Cholera the mortcloth was stopped from being used due to the potential spread of disease.

People would normally be encouraged to attend funerals by the church bell being run in the village (from whence we get the area called Bellard meaning “Bell-ward”) . In times of Cholera this practice was also stopped to a degree. The Baillie would decide if a person had died of the pest and if so, the bell would not ring, to discourage people from attending a funeral and thus potentially spreading the disease.

When people did die, they were hurriedly buried. People were extremely scared. Poor people had so very little to look forward to and it was a comfort of sorts that in normal times their friends and neighbours might see they get a decent burial and remember them fondly after they passed. During times of pestilence no such niceties were observed. Then in 1832 there was also the conspiracy theory that perhaps the medical men had concocted this disease to obtain bodies for dissection – see my earlier post – Burking and the Paisley Cholera Riots.

In 1832 the burial ground was the piece of land upon which the Barony Hall now sits. We can be fairly sure that Cholera victims were not buried there, as the graves would not have been endangered by the builders in the early 1870’s – the Victorians believed that the pest could be released again from an open grave. This was even more likely the case when there were further outbreaks in 1848 and 1852. In the 1970’s and 1980’s when plans were being discussed to widen the road at the Barony, people were still very concerned to open or move any grave that had contained a pestilence victim – plans were scrapped even though there are no such victims there.

It is my (limited) understanding that local people were hurriedly buried in “cholera pits” where the BMX bike track was built at the start of the Glen (shown in photos). cholera pitsBodies were bundled into the pits and covered with quick lime to dissolve the bodies and thereby prevent infection spreading. When the pits were closed, a further layer of quick lime would be spread across the top. The common coffin would be used without a mortcloth – possibly several times a day. No bel would ring and no bystanders would be there to see you buried – except officials of the church and town perhaps. There were certainly no Lykewakes or Kistings (celebrations of a persons life involving food and much drink).

So dying of the pest was potentially a shameful thing and people naturally wanted to conceal their symptoms in order to get a decent burial if they should die. Once the conditions were known for the outbreak, whole communities were shamed by the conditions they allowed their poor to live in. This is why we have no memorials to this day as to the dreadful outbreaks of 1832, 1848 and 1852 – even though so many of our local citizens died.

Over the course of the next generation many changes were to take place. The first public water supply was installed across from the Tavern in about 1876. The Church was knocked down and rebuilt in the 1870’s with a cleaner more accommodating facility including new school buildings. The graveyard was built upon and the new public cemetery at the end of Avondale Road was built in the 1850’s. The slums were gradually upgraded by the King family, but even they died out in the late 19th Century. The buildings on the Kings Arms car park were finally knocked down in the early 20th Century.

Slowly but surely the pestilence was driven from our village, hopefully never to return!

Shown to the left is the only photo I have ever seen of the buildings on the Kings Arms car park. Although the sign says Kings Arms Garage, this building is not the Kings Arms but the one that was knocked down to the left of the pub.


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