Chalk and an Outbreak of Cholera

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Chalk, Quicklime and Cholera

Chalk and Valleys shape the British landscape and elements such as the White Cliffs of Dover and chalk carvings including the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset are part of our national identity. The history of chalks and valleys shows how we have used natural resources and structures to our advantage, such as the cliffs for defence and chalk for education and communication.

Cerne Abbas Giant

Quicklime and Human Decomposition

Chalk is a source for quicklime by thermal decomposition and deneholes can be seen in England as examples of old chalk pits. Humans have known how to make quicklime and used it for centuries and chemists believe it is one of the oldest chemical reactions known to man. It had many uses including mortar and burial. R. Austin Freeman carried out an experiment into the decomposition of bodies in different materials using pigeons. The pigeons were plucked and put into boxes with loosely fitted covers and filled with various materials. After six months of burial the boxes were examined, and the pigeon buried in quicklime was found in a good condition. It was dry and hard, but the skin was unbroken, and it was naturally shrunken, suggesting the quicklime had preserved the body much better than the other materials. He suggested that people should be buried in quicklime as their bodies would decompose quicker but would also be preserved, almost mummified.

In parliamentary papers from 1842 the uses of quicklime were explored. One section discussed the advantages of using quicklime in coffins. In the past there have been issues with safe burial and the smell decomposition caused. Many thought quicklime could be a solution to the problem and in the right conditions it would prevent the bad smells.

The Cholera Epidemic of the Nineteenth Century

An outbreak of cholera spread quickly across Europe during the 1830s and during 1831 and 1832 at least 32,000 people perished from the disease in Britain. Due to the fatal disease spreading so quickly and taking a person so fast there were many bodies to bury, putting pressure on the already crowded cemeteries.

John Bull defending Britain against the invasion of cholera (Wellcome L0003052)

To combat the issue graves were often dug very deep and the coffins were buried on top of each other. The gas that was omitting from these often spread disease themselves and many believed that throwing in limewater or quicklime would remove the smell and make it safe for the grave diggers to continue digging the new grave. The government were in the process of finding new burial sites and meeting the growing population when the cholera epidemic hit. On the 14th of November 1831 the Central Board of Health was established to deal with the threat of cholera. They stated that ‘those who die of the disease should be buried as soon as possible, wrapped in cotton or linen cloth saturated with pitch or coal tar, and be carried to the grave by the fewest possible number of people.’ The fear of further contagion after death was high and in the early days of the outbreak bodies were buried at a depth of six-feet and covered in a layer of quicklime, this was thought to remove the possibility of further infection spreading. As well as rules on burial, the government put rules in place for removal of filth and cleansing. One way they did this was by limewashing houses as they believed this would keep houses clean and prevent infection.

For more on the history of the chalk, listen to our podcast!

By Elizabeth Motteram

Further Reading:

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