Standing on a lofty ridge known as Park Hill, the rocket-like shape of Sheffield's Cholera Monument overlooks the city centre. It was erected in 1835 in memory of the 403 citizens who succumbed to that deadly water-born contagion in the summer of 1832. The monument's location was not chosen randomly for it was in the surrounding land known as Clay Wood that the majority of the unfortunate victims were buried.
Back in the eighteen thirties, nobody fully understood where cholera came from. It was even known as Asiatic Cholera and official pronouncements suggested that it was a disease of the lazy and morally corrupt. In Sheffield, that particular idea was challenged when the city's Master Cutler died just before he could complete his honorary year in office.
Cholera swept through many large European cities in the early eighteen thirties causing widescale fatalities wherever it struck. It even reached America.
In 1801, Sheffield's population was just over 30,000. By 1831 it had risen to just under 100,000 - an amazing threefold increase in thirty years. Rural people had gathered their drinking water from the sky, brought it from flowing streams or had drawn it from ancient wells. In developing urban areas with tightly packed housing, old rural water-gathering habits didn't fit. Hence, sanitation problems grew.
One good thing that emerged from the cholera epidemic was the formation of "boards of health" that had the remit to respond to the health needs of the general population. This certainly happened in Sheffield where a leading citizen and moneyed gentleman, James Montgomery, was influential. It was he who laid the cholera monument's foundation stone and oversaw its completion. He wrote poems and hymns about the epidemic, though he was not the only one. A contemporary, Mary Hutton, wrote these lines in her poem "On the Cholera Pestilence":-
How vacant now each sorrowing home
How dark is the distress!
For a darkening cloud of sable gloom
Has veiled our happiness.
Sheffield's Cholera Monument is illuminated at night. It sits high above the railway station and marks a time of fear, death and sorrow. It's as if every major town in Britain between 1831 and 1833 suffered the equivalent of a jumbo jet crash with no survivors. Nowadays, most people looking up to Park Hill would have absolutely no idea why Victorian Sheffielders thought it necessary to construct, at great expense, such an edifice. Nonetheless, I write this in memory of the city's four hundred and three cholera victims.