2017 Advent Calendar / Advent calendar

Door 4 – Cholera for Christmas


1866 Map Showing the distribution of Cholera in London and its Environs

This year I’m bringing you some less conventional treasures from the Map Room here in Burlington House.  Like all libraries, we have a remit for collections.  The Map collection, since the 1930s, has been tasked solely with gathering geological mapping.  At that point in time we disposed of our collections of topographic mapping and admiralty charts.  We do still have a couple of general atlases and a road atlas in the library, however the Map Room itself is 100% geologically themed maps.

However, like all libraries, some things make it through the cracks and into the collection without us quite knowing how they got there.  Maybe they were forgotten or perhaps hoarded by previous librarians.  Instead of consigning them to a cupboard I’m airing a few of the more interesting ones this Christmas.  Should you wish to own a print of any of these renegades, you’ll find them in our Picture Library.

Cholera was a constant threat through the 19th century.  Famously John Snow traced the source of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Soho to the Broad Street pump.   That together with such other malefactions as The Great Stink of 1858, resulted in the commissioning and construction of one the great engineering projects of the 19th Century: the London Sewerage System.  Between 1859 and 1865, under the supervision of Joseph Bazalgette, the Metropolitan Board of Works had excavated six great main sewers to drain London’s noxious effluvia straight back out into the Thames well outside the City at Beckton.


Unfortunately for some this was too late.  In June 1866, before it had been connected to these mains, there was another cholera outbreak in the East End of London that was ultimately responsible for more than 5000 deaths.   This time the previous work of John Snow resulted in a prompt undertaking of researches to discover the cause of the outbreak.  William Farr used Snow’s methods to demonstrate that the source of the cholera was the Old Ford Reservoir controlled by the East London Water Company.  A report was commissioned and written by J.R. Radcliffe, the Medical Officer of the Privy Council.


Detail from the Cholera Map

To demonstrate the findings, a map was included as part of that report and that map would incorporate the geology of the East as part of the information to be presented.  At that time, the best geological map of London available was that of Mylne and so that was used.  This is the resulting map showing the water supply and drainage from the affected area as well as the locations of deaths from cholera in the East End in June and July 1866.


William Whitaker 1836-1925

In this case it’s clear why this map found its way to the Map Room.  The geological base map would have been of interest to the Fellows.  This copy of the map was acquired as a gift from William Whitaker, who as ‘The Father of English Hydrogeology’ would have been involved in the creation of the map.

If you’d like to buy a print of this map, you can.  Prints are available in various sizes from our Picture Library

Geoadvent challenge update

Well done everyone who guessed yesterday’s plate tectonic stories site – the window represented a limestone stack in Pen-y-Ghent, in the Yorkshire Dales. 

To join in with the great geoadvent challenge, leave a comment below identifying which plate tectonic stories site today’s window represents!

3 thoughts on “Door 4 – Cholera for Christmas

  1. Pingback: Door 24 – Quiz answers, challenge winners and a very merry Christmas! | Geological Society of London blog

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