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Cholera (Paperback)

The Victorian Plague

P&S History > British History > Victorian History P&S History > By Century > 19th Century

By Amanda J Thomas
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 248
Illustrations: 16 black and white
ISBN: 9781526781819
Published: 29th May 2020
Last Released: 30th June 2023



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Discover the story of the disease that devastated the Victorian population, and brought about major changes in sanitation. Drawing on the latest scientific research and a wealth of archival material, Amanda Thomas uses first-hand accounts, blending personal stories with an overview of the history of the disease and its devastating after-effects on British society. This fascinating history of a catastrophic disease uncovers forgotten stories from each of the major cholera outbreaks in 1831-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866.

Amanda Thomas reveals that Victorian theories about the disease were often closer to the truth than we might assume, among them the belief that cholera was spread by miasma, or foul air.

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North West Labour History Journal

"This a readable and interesting book which reflects the strength of many Pen and Sword publications. It has a strong academic underpinning but is accessible, well-written, and includes a comprehensive bibliography to encourage further study."

Hexham Local History Society (Hexham Historian) Newsletter - Summer 21

How can a nation fight a deadly pandemic when nobody understands the disease or knows a cure? This is what faced Britain in four major cholera outbreaks in 1832, 1848, 1853 and 1866. They did it by track and trace, pioneered by Dr John Snow, best known for asking the parish authorities to remove the handle from the Broad Street pump (thereby halting the water borne transmission of the disease),

Thomas is anxious to 'demythologise' Snow; the epidemic was already abating when the pump was removed, drinking water was not the only transmission route, he identified the wrong Patient Zero. Maybe, but Dr Snow is still my hero. His system worked and he did not even have a phone, let alone an app.

This is an authoritative account of the origins and spread of the disease and its consequences for public health in England and the world, including a major rebuilding of London's sewage system and a huge improvement in the collection of statistics. At time the medical explanations can be heavy going a layman but Thomas gives us the latest research on this far from extinct disease.

Edward James - Historical Novels Review

An excellent overview of cholera from it's first origins (in written history) to today (before reading this book I didn't know that cholera is still endemic in many parts of the world), while focusing most of its attention on cholera in England during the Victorian times. Accessible, educational and thought-provoking, I highly recommend this book for those interested in the topic.

NetGalley, Rebekka Steg

The analysis of the disease by Amanda Thomas starts from a chapter called "An Ancient Disease" and ends with another chapter "A Modern Disease" creating a complete circle in which it can be said that the disease has been broken down into its medical and social influence on the affected places. The last chapter brings us to the terrible fact that the disease can still exist and can be carried from one country to another if medical checks are not careful and conscientious. As mentioned, if cholera spread due to the increased possibilities of travel and trade of ships in the mid-nineteenth century, today when you can reach every part of the world in a few hours, the danger is even greater. We have an example today with COVID19 and the book makes us understand and empathize with the condition of people in the Victorian Era. Another beautiful book by Amanda J. Thomas which, while dealing with a seemingly distant topic, offers us food for thought that appears absolutely topical to us.

Read the full Italian review here

Omne Ignotum Pro Magnifico

This book is timely, and a rare example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. As a nonfiction junkie, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it's an automatic recommend for me in the future!

NetGalley, Molly Huff

Cholera has long ravaged mankind, and yet we still don’t fully understand it. To begin to do so, though, the author walks us through each outbreak in the U.K. that occurred in the 1800s.

Each chapter focuses on something different, so some are more interesting (and easier to read) than others. For instance, the chapter on John Snow and his contribution to cholera research was quite fascinating.

At the end, the author reveals that we still lose as least 200,000 people per year to this disease. Even worse, one theory states that it will continuously get worst with global warming. There is a vaccine that can help, but your best bet is to keep a clean bathroom environment. Wash your hands, everyone!

NetGalley, April A. Taylor

Cholera was one of the major killers of the Victorian age. When someone became sick, it was very rare that anyone would recover, and the living and sanitary conditions of the time.

Amanda Thomas did a great job with this book! I loved reading the different accounts, recipes of medicines, and views of the spread of the disease. It was a great look into the cause and effect of the disease, as well as having some of the documentation from the time.

Definitely a must-read for anyone who enjoys reading about plagues! I was not disappointed at all!

NetGalley, Rebecca Hill

A very complete and detailed account that does not exclude anything essential to understand what it was that made this plague so dire and how it affected the Victorian era. Morbid details, scientific analysis and tragic stories in search of a cure. Who said dystopias are just fiction? Fascinating.

NetGalley, Alan D.D.

An absolutely remarkable depiction of a time in history where the world was both very different and very similar to our own reality nowadays. Great insight and educational information on the topic.

NetGalley, Kristina Ilieva

This is a fully researched book that explores and explains the plague that had the Victorian's at deaths door.
Amanda Thomas shows us the mistakes that were made, and the revolutionary changes that comes with wide spreading disease...

This book could not have come at a better time. While the world today is struggling with the Covid Pandemic and the paranoia with misinformation that seeps into our daily lives, maybe the answers for this "plague" can be found in the past...
>From the book: This fascinating history of a catastrophic disease uncovers forgotten stories from each of the major cholera outbreaks in 1831-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866.
Insightful and informative, the Cholera outbreaks have much to teach us.

NetGalley, Jacinda Sullivan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a 2020 update with slight revisions of a 2015 publication. It includes evidence that builds towards the whole and is a combination of modern analysis of the disease itself and transmission and a historical diary of the disease as the main deadly strain travelled to Britain in the early 19th century and became a persistent and serious health issue (with waves of high illness and mortality). This is backed with the response to it – medical research and analysis, linked with the developing public records on people and mortality, the political responses within the various areas and organisations and the introduction of the remedial structural measures that eventually became the norm. To make the scale of complex detail more palatable it is heavily mixed with contemporary newspaper articles from around the country showing the impact of the disease and on the people who were primarily the victims.
Thomas handles this very broad range of interlinked issues with assurance that makes absorption of what she says relatively easier. Disease – even a pandemic – does not operate in isolation with a single issue and this is something she makes clear. She explores the early research into the diseases and how that was impacted by old medical beliefs. Also to the level of credence given to individual theories, when this would often be based the “influence” of the individual researchers and often to whom they were linked. So training and patronage links are part of this discussion. Also included is the (currently topical) issue of whether indicative research undertaken in an early phase of an illness should automatically be discarded – or accepted as a part in a wider and developing dialogue.
The development of detailed public records that allowed analysis of risk and led to new strategies for disease prevention are discussed in some detail, with credit given to the researchers who were at the cutting edge of this. They were critically laying down the foundations of disease recording for management that is still used today.
Death rates too reflect background issues such as previous health, poverty and access to medical resources. The newspaper articles used make this patently clear. Never were “we all in it together”. The disease tended to progress remarkably fast, so treatment methodologies could not always be an issue at the time – but they are nevertheless discussed for the historic period when doctors were trying to urgently bring transmission under control against appalling odds.
Even without readers sitting in the midst of the current Covid pandemic this would be a very interesting read to many. It is so broad in range and issues are presented clearly in a way that can be easily understood. The subtitle “The Victorian Plague” shows how significant an issue the disease was in the 19th century and this is clearly a historical study – but as disease does not go away and social structures change little it also has a total relevance to and message for today.

NetGalley, Hilary White

Rating: 5 out 5 stars

I found this book to be endlessly fascinating. I am so grateful for indoor plumbing and our sewer systems. This book is not written as a dry history book but reads easily. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read this interesting book in exchange for a review.

NetGalley, Barbara Schuur

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is a good quarantine read about previous pandemic diseases and how they start and spread, felt that the author studied and objectively gave a good presentation of cholera, I was delightfully surprised at the detail she put into her book , being a health care professional highly recommend this read.

NetGalley, Mary Gallant

Thomas does a great job walking her readers through the 19th century cholera outbreaks in England. Thomas presents her readers with a well rounded picture of cholera and discusses a variety of topics related to it such as sanitation, work houses, housing, poverty and city planning. By exploring several topics at once Thomas helps keep her readers engaged with the material while not overwhelming them with information.

What I found most interesting about this book were the parallels that could be drawn between 19th century Cholera outbreaks and the current outbreak of COVID-19. We still have a lot to learn about COVID-19 but it was easy to see how the breakthroughs 19th century doctors and scientist made have effected our 21st century response to COVID-19. This is a very timely book and readers will gain a lot of insight into history, and into their contemporary lives.

This book is very well research, approachable and easy to follow and I'd highly recommend this book to history lovers and those interested in disease and pandemics.

NetGalley, Melinda Rukavina

I will start off this review by saying that I really enjoy reading non-fiction books, especially those about medical history. So it’s of no surprise that I enjoyed this book.

It’s extremely well researched, and whilst the wording is quite scientific and complicated in parts, it’s still a really great read if medical history is your thing. It was very informative, and I felt that it was balanced in terms of the different approaches that people took towards cholera outbreaks in the Victorian era. It’s easy to look back at the situation with the knowledge and technology we have now, and scoff at how ill-informed we think they are, but the real take away for me was how hard scientists at the time were working to try and prevent the level of death that they saw.

I can’t not mention how timely this book is with regards to how easily a pandemic can spread, especially when it’s a new strain or virus, and how much panic can arise. With this being an updated edition for 2020, there are comparisons drawn with COVID-19 in the text, which I appreciated – I have been keeping informed of current developments in the news, but having a comparison to a historical pandemic has been good too. Humanity has dealt with pandemics before, and we will deal with them again.

I haven’t read any other books that focus on cholera specifically, but if I do in future, they will certainly have a lot to measure up to in this book.

NetGalley, Raie Fullard

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is impossible in 2020 to read Cholera by Amanda J Thomas and not be tempted to draw comparisons between the cholera epidemics in Britain (1831-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866) and the COVID19 Pandemic which has already infected nearly 3M people around the world. For that reason alone, this is a book worth investing the necessary time and energy it takes to read. There is much to learn about the social, economic, historical and political impacts on and responses to infectious diseases, and the author does a terrific job of making that information available in a form that is clear, engaging and appropriately sourced.

I admit near total ignorance about the ravages of cholera or the social and political landscape of 19th century England, much less the confluence of the two, so much of the information in this book was new to me. It was also fascinating.

The author draws in period accounts from people who lived through the epidemics, modern day scientific understandings, social issues including poverty, worker conditions, child welfare, sanitation, dealing with the dead, record keeping and nutrition. She even brings in Charles Dickens! Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book was the section about Droute's, a horrific social experiment (1848) in relocating poor, inner city kids to the less populated and potentially less susceptible to cholera areas of rural England. Yikes!

It's clear from reading Cholera by Amanda J Thomas that every thread of British life was changed by Cholera and the various responses to it. Many of the changes failed, a few were way off the mark and some made things worse, but some continue to play into what we know about infectious disease outbreaks today, and how we as a people go forward.

This is one of those pure history books that makes people fall in love with history. It isn't boring or academic or overwhelming. It doesn't smell like tweed and tobacco. Instead, it tells a good story that carries the reader to the final page.

If you're an armchair historian, if you're into British history, or just wondering what history has to teach us about highly infectious diseases, Cholera is a fabulous choice. It is rich with detail and personality, while staying true to the truth of history.

NetGalley, Lori White

First of all, this book has been very well researched and makes for accessible reading whether you know much about the cholera outbreaks or not. I knew quite a lot of the background but the depth provided certainly added to my knowledge and understanding. The book is very well written and although the science sections made sense at the time, I doubt it’ll lodge long in my science averse brain!!! I came to appreciate the spread better from the Bay of Bengal which still remains the origins of cholera and clear links were made to weather conditions which was ultimately to lead to the pandemic. Of particular interest to me in the light of Covid 19 is the failure to quarantine Sunderland as that is where the epidemic of 1832 began in Britain and from then on ‘King Cholera’ reigned for the next 30 years. The cures used were an intriguing snapshot of beliefs at the time which vary greatly from physician to physician. However, they all seemed to place great store in the efficacy of brandy!! If in doubt, prescribe that!!! King Cholera was particularly devastating to the poor although by no means exclusively. The move from country to town following industrialisation led to terrible quality housing where cholera rampaged with devastating consequences. Particularly moving were the chapters on pauper children, in particular the workhouse in Tooting which is just heartbreaking and was the inspiration for Charles Dickens Oliver Twist.

The chapters looking at the ideas on the causes of disease were also very interesting as by this time many believed in the idea of miasma or poisonous air and this belief accelerated the spread. John Snow and Dr William Budd in Bristol herald a new dawn in observational science and the growing belief in causation by an organism and I thought the sections on Snow in particular were especially interesting.

The author makes it clear that the cholera epidemics did lead to change in Britain albeit somewhat reluctantly. It led to the beginnings of investment in public health and engineering works to provide clean water, efficient drainage and so on however poor quality housing wasn’t dealt with until the following century. Because of the new legislation Britain never had another bad outbreak of cholera after 1866 as any outbreak was confined and contained. However, it still devastates regions of the world and I was shocked that it still causes over 200.000 deaths annually.

Overall, a very interesting book full of fascinating detail which shows how epidemics and pandemics can lead to change.

NetGalley, Ceecee Short

I would like to thank Netgalley, Pen & Sword History, and Amanda Thomas for the opportunity to review this book. I found this book to thoroughly researched and easy to understand for at reader. I particularly enjoyed the case histories that Ms. Thomas included and the the discussion of various treatment methods used... I found the history of this Victorian pandemic to be eerily prophetic in regards to today's Covid-19 pandemic. It's a very eye-opening read in that even though medicine is far more advanced than what it was in the 19th century, we still have little control over the outcome. I really did enjoy this title overall. Thanks again!

NetGalley, Laura Riddling

Really enjoyed reading this book. Especially because we are in the middle of a panademic at the moment. It was very interesting and a powerful read. Very well written too.

NetGalley, Lisa Houston

This book read like good nonfiction should. It wasn't bogged down in clutter! There is science here! But, it has stories. Heart!

NetGalley, Lisa Cleveland-Hull

This is brimming with information and details about cholera and I found most of it really interesting. It covers the epidemiology of cholera as well as the various social and geographical reasons behind its spread through history. We delve into subjects including social crowding, sanitation and the migration of workers during the industrial revolution - all contributing factors to the growing prevalence of the disease, as well as looking into the possible solutions.

NetGalley, Sara Garry

A very solid text about cholera during the Victorian era. The book follows the origin and spread of the epidemic, looking very thoroughly at the work of scientists at that time who tried so hard to find out why these epidemics rose and fell. It was interesting to see the work they did to explore how the disease was spread, the insistence of the 'miasma' theories rather than understanding how it was waterborne, and the poor sanitation and housing conditions that exacerbated the spread of the disease.

The author has researched the contemporary scientists and their theories in detail, and gives detailed accounts of issues such as the Tooting workhouse scandal and the eventual improvement of sanitation in London and beyond. Some accounts are shocking and harrowing.

A thoroughly readable and academic book, taking the story right to the present day.

NetGalley, Sue Andrews

A fascinating book about topic many are aware of but know little about. Would make a useful historical research tool for History students and writers.

NetGalley, Lauren McCulloch

A comprehensive and insightful non-fiction on the topic on cholera that struck English three time in the 19th century but not only. Ms Thomas provides a most detailed panorama of social problems that affected the Victorians and what positive outcomes resulted from the cholera, for example, the improvement of the sanitary conditions among the poor, and the awareness regarding the causes of this terrible epidemic.

NetGalley, Beata B. Reviewer

I Enjoyed everything about this book there was nothing I didn't like about the book.

NetGalley, Nicole Bannister

Searing, emotional, and informative, Cholera focuses on one of the truly most dangerous plagues from Victorian times to the modern age. Confronting such topics as the the need for sanitary water, racism, and how this disease still affects the third world countries today, this novel is a must read for an understanding of how one of the most dangerous diseases evolved and what the costs were throughout history.

NetGalley, Kinsey Fiene

Of all the epidemic diseases that threatened nineteenth-century Britain, it was cholera with its rapid and violent assault on the body that was the most feared. The period saw four major epidemics: 1831-32, 1848-49, 1853-54, with the last in London’s East End in 1866. Rather than isolated events they were part of global pandemic outbreaks. Although not her first popular history of cholera, the need to understand how the disease spread to Britain, and how endemic cholera became epidemic, informs Thomas’s hypothesis in this book: that the arrival and spread of cholera was facilitated by boats, ships and barges transporting people and goods along waterways. She combines this proposition with a clear statement of the importance of integrating environmental factors in understanding cholera epidemics.

Read the full review here.


Any historian of the nineteenth century will be able to refer to many outbreaks of Cholera, not out in the colonies, but here in Britain, and more importantly amongst the poor in the slums. There is not just one singular example, but many, whether in London, Manchester or Edinburgh, there are many reports and sadly deaths from Cholera.

Historian Amanda Thomas, who has written previously about Cholera in Lambeth London, as well as other books has written an interesting and passionate book about Cholera. This is an excellent reader for the general reader of history and an excellent introduction for those students of history who wish to go deeper in to the subject.

Amanda Thomas in the first chapter of the book gives a brief synopsis of the history and the epidemics that it has caused. Cholera was feared especially in the nineteenth century and even caused unrest in 1820, but as an ancient disease it has always had the ability to cause fear as its reputation as a killer.

Thomas deals with the state of the poor and the terrible sanitary conditions that the poor lived in within the slums. How with the density and poor housing, along with the poor sanitation, the overcrowding, the influx of migrants along with the carbon and chemical emissions from both home and factories, all added to the shortening of lives. By doing this, she is setting the scene in which cholera could flourish especially during the Industrial Revolution.

This is an interesting book for all those who are interested in the lives of the poor in the nineteenth century and how disease affected them and took many lives early. As Thomas states in her conclusion ‘Cholera was the plague of the Victorian era…’ but given the right circumstances could return. This is an engrossing read, thought provoking and challenging and a bright light on somethings the elites would have rather forgotten.

Paul Diggett, freelance reviewer

A fascinating take on a well-worn era.

The Times Higher Education 6/10/16

The Victorian era is most remembered as the period when the British Empire expanded rapidly, national wealth increased, and innovation was order of the day. There was another dark side to the era and the author has made a very capable job of addressing the Victorian Plague and the efforts to contain and eliminate it. The subject may not be the most attractive but this book presents the situation in a very readable form, with good bibliography and photo-plate section. Recommended.

Read the full review here!


This finely written and presented book tells the story of cholera, the disease that scourged the people of Victorian times. Yet this pestilence had a positive side as it led to major changes in sanitation.

Amanda Thomas is a skilled and likeable writer. She draws on first-hand accounts, the most up-to-date scientific research, and archival material to draw together an informative and very readable narrative.

Amanda’s research and writing is first class and this book would make a great subject for a documentary, no higher compliment can I pay it.

Destructive Music - Steve Earles

'This fascinating book will appeal to both general and social history enthusiasts, taking a new, accessible approach to a topic previously covered predominately by academic researchers.'

Harpenden Now

Discover the story of the disease that devastated the Victorian population, and brought about major changes in sanitation. Drawing on the latest scientific research and a wealth of archival material, Amanda Thomas uses first-hand accounts, blending personal stories with an overview of the history of the disease and its devastating after-effects on British society.

This fascinating history of a catastrophic disease uncovers forgotten stories from each of the major cholera outbreaks in 1831-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866.

Kent Family History Society Journal

This book is an engaging and robust study of cholera epidemics. It provides a clear, comprehensive illuminating understanding of the disease from a historical, geographic, demographic and climatic perspective, not forgetting the lack of sanitation prevailing at the time. The functioning of the organism at cellular and genetic level is also revealed, with prospective studies proceeding apace.

Eileen Ward (retired G.P.) MB BCH DCH DRCOG MRCGP

The book is a fresh approach to the history of Victorian Britain and the consequences of cholera for nineteenth century society. Amanda explains the story of the disease that devastated the Victorian population from the 1830s to the 1860s and brought about major changes in sanitation. Drawing on the latest scientific research and a wealth of archival material, the book includes first-hand accounts and blends personal, forgotten stories with an overview of the history of cholera and its devastating after effects on British society.

Amanda also reveals that Victorian theories about the disease may be closer to the truth than we might assume and that contaminated drinking water and human transmission may not be the whole story. The book acts as a complete overview of cholera in Victorian Britain, taking a new, accessible approach to a topic previously covered predominately by academic researchers. It has received outstanding reviews from historians such as Nick Barratt and Lee Jackson and is well worth the cover price of £19.99.

Harpenden History

As featured in the Herts Advertiser thrilling, powerful and extraordinary account of the deadly strain of Cholera which spread through Britain in the mid-1800's, which has received rave reviews from a number of historians and experts, including Dr Nick Barratt.

Herts Advertiser

As a local and family historian I found this book to be a fascinating insight into a disease often overlooked in today’s history books. One of my own ancestors died in the epidemic which broke out in Sheffield in 1831 and any search of the parish registers for the period 1831-33, (and the three further outbreaks in the mid 1800’s), reveal not just a high infant mortality rate but that of the population as a whole.

Cholera has been around for far longer than just the Victorian period but after such epidemics as the Black Death and later plagues it is to the author’s credit that she has seen fit to include the disease as a plague in its own right. Perhaps a hundred years from now a yet to be born writer may well do the same with today’s modern day equivalent plague of cancer?

The book covers the history of cholera in 16 pages and then focuses on the outbreak of 1831/2 when, initially, brandy was touted as a potential cure! The living standards and hygiene of the times and workhouse conditions are related in the following chapters as we learn about the devastating effects of the disease. We then move on to Dr John Snow who discovered that cholera was a waterborne disease through his research into the Broad Street Water pump in Westminster. This is followed by an examination of the improvements made to sewerage disposal in London and finally a look at the continued outbreaks of cholera around the world.

It is to be hoped that the author’s ominous last paragraph does not become reality:

Given the right circumstances, cholera could make an unwelcome return in the twenty-first century.

This book is an excellent insight into an often neglected subject, meticulously researched, well written and highly readable and includes an exhaustive sections of notes enabling those who wish to delve much deeper into the subject.

Chris Heath - Author

A well-researched history of the impact of cholera on British society.

Your Family Tree
 Amanda J Thomas

About Amanda J Thomas

Amanda Thomas is an author, historian and linguist with a particular interest in social and medical history. To date her books include Cholera - The Victorian Plague (Pen & Sword, 2015) and The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849: The Setting, Causes, Course and Aftermath of an Epidemic in London (McFarland, 2009). Broadcast work comprises London 2000 Years Revealed (Channel 5, 2019), Who Do You Think You Are? (Wall to Wall Media/BBC1, 2016-17 and 2012-13), and The Flying Archaeologist (BBC4, 2012).
Amanda has previously worked in journalism, and public relations for television companies including The Walt Disney Company and Television New Zealand.
Born in Chatham, Kent, Amanda is passionate about supporting the heritage of the Medway Towns, and also that of Hertfordshire, where she now lives. She edits the historical journal. 
Amanda’s interest in Nonconformism stems from the discovery that her ancestor, Simon Osmotherly was a Roundhead during the English Civil War and one of the founders of Quakerism in the North West of England.

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