Memorials to mortality

The coronavirus is just the latest in several pandemics that have struck London over the years. some are forgotten, while others have lasting memorials to their passing and the huge number of their victims.

One of the most dreaded diseases of the 19th century was cholera, thought at the time to spread through the air, the so-called ‘miasma theory’. Using precise mapping Dr. John Snow established that the outbreak was transmitted by contaminated water, by removing the handle of a water pump in what is now Broadwick Street proved is theory.

A replica pump – minus the handle – installed in 1992 by the Royal Society of Chemistry now commemorates his achievement. Nearby is a public house that carries his name.

Not quite a memorial, Vinegar Alley in Walthamstow is so named because locals used vinegar to sanitise the soil after a plague pit was dug here, one of many needed in 1665 outside the City to accommodate the huge number of dead as spaces ran out.

In Trafalgar Square on 17th May 1858 Albert, Prince Consort unveiled a statue of Edward Jenner, the pioneer of the world’s first vaccine. The figure holds a document, presumably relating to Jenner’s theory of vaccinating James Phipps with cowpox in 1796, thus preventing dreaded smallpox. He predicted at the time the worldwide eradication of smallpox, not finally achieved until 1980.

The Albert Memorial depicts Queen Victoria’s husband holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition. Albert died at 42 from typhoid, just three years after unveiling Jenner’s statue, which has since been moved from Trafalgar Square to Kensington Gardens.

On 30th September 1848, 22-year-old John Murphy showed symptoms of cholera, he was the third case identified in what was to become the 1848-49 Asiatic cholera epidemic. He died in Lambeth the next day with Dr John Snow writing: “The people had no water except what they obtained from the Thames with a pail . . . or from streams up which the Thames flows with the tide. It is quite what might be expected from the propagation of cholera through the medium of the Thames water. On the Albert Embankment, there is an unusual memorial to the thousands who died in the Lambeth cholera epidemics.

In Postman’s Park, there is a memorial to Dr Samuel Rabbeth. Thanks to vaccination diphtheria, a highly contagious bacterial infection are almost unheard of nowadays. In 1884 tending four-year-old Leon Rex Jennings who had been admitted to the Royal Free Hospital Dr Rabbeth ignoring his health, contracted the disease, which forms a thick grey membrane in the throat, eventually suffocating the host. A plaque commemorates him sucking on the tracheotomy tube to clear the child’s airway, giving the little boy temporary relief.

William Freer Lucas is also commemorated here. Another doctor who paid for his devotion performing a tracheotomy on another child suffering diphtheria, when the child coughed in his face, he refused to clear the spittal before he had attended to the child.

Pictures: Vinegar Alley and (part of) the church and churchyard of St Mary The Virgin by Mike Quinn (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Memorial to Samuel Rabbeth in Postman’s Park by Marathon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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