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The Story of the Aberdeen ‘Cholera Riot’

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In 2022, cholera outbreaks in Britain are an issue confined to the history books. Yet in towns and cities across the country during the 19th century, the deadly infection wrought havoc among the population.

Fuelled by poor sanitation, overcrowding and a lack of clean water sources cholera spread like wildfire, causing violent cases of vomiting and diarrhoea and leaving thousands of victims in its wake. An outbreak in 1853 claimed more than 20,000 lives across Britain, with 10,000 alone in London itself.

And this wasn’t restricted to Britain, either. In an era of expanding global trade, cholera made its way around the world with devastating consequences. An outbreak in Russia in 1847 is believed to have killed more than one million people and similar outbreaks across South and East Asia claimed countless more.

These epidemics scarred society and often left the population frustrated and demanding answers – which in several cases led to severe civil unrest and government crackdowns.

Riots against quarantine measures in Russia during the 1840s were met with the typically brutal response one would expect from the Tsarist regime while Britain also saw its share of unrest.

The Aberdeen Cholera Riot

In December 1831, cholera riots erupted in Aberdeen during the Second Cholera Pandemic which spread globally from 1826 to 1837. This strain of the bug was first brought to British shores by merchant sailors docked in Sunderland.

Before long the bug travelled north to the busy north east fishing town and began to spread among the population.

The Aberdeen cholera riot is peculiar in that it appears to have been fuelled by some form of misinformation or pandemic-related hysteria.

After a dog dug up a recently-buried body in the town, some residents suspected foul play on the part of medical professionals, whom they claimed were using the outbreak as an excuse to conduct a covert body-snatching scheme similar to the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh some years before.

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The outbreak escalated during the Christmas period and reached a climax on Boxing Day when thousands of residents are said to have taken to the streets in protest.

Gathering outside an anatomy college, the agitated crowd was whipped up into a frenzy with cries of “burn the house; down with the burking shop!” and the building was set alight.

The crowd was dispersed by the military, but by this point the damage had been done and the building was destroyed.

In this incident, there were no scenes reminiscent of the violent response often witnessed on the continent. However, three men were tried for their part in the Aberdeen cholera riot and sentenced to 12 months in prison.

Rioting spreads

In the following year, the outbreak would spread throughout Britain and unrest continued. In total, more than 70 cholera riots broke out with some of the worst disruption taking place in Liverpool, which saw eight major incidents between May and June of 1832.

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