21 May 2010


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.


  1. Just the kind of post I like. Thank you, YP. The Cholera monument was an incident of Sheffield getting things right and giving a worthy recognition of the lives that were lost and buried at Clay Wood and other sites and the figures of Faith, Hope and Charity seem to convey the right impression of regret, but hope for the future. It must have been even more impressive before the very top spike was taken off. x

  2. An interesting post, YP. Kathy is coming over to see us today. I must ask her if she knows about this monument.

  3. In you photo the monument appears to curve. Why is that? Or is it just an optical illusion?

  4. In you photo the monument appears to curve. Why is that? Or is it just an optical illusion?

  5. She knows about it - Kathy, I mean.

  6. Humanity has a ways to go to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean water and sanitation, but it's gratifying that we've come as far as we have. I'm moved that Sheffield has a monument to the victims of cholera, and am glad to know about it.

    I keep meaning to reread the fascinating book about infectious diseases by Jeanette Farrell called Invisible Enemies, followed up by a book about microbes called Invisible Allies.

  7. ELIZABETH Following a lightning strike in 1990, I ma under the impression that the top has been properly restored.
    JENNY Next time you're in Sheffield - if the weather's nice - ask Kathy to take you for a walk round there. I wonder if she has been to the monument herself.
    RHYMES WITH.... I see what you mean. I think it is partly an optical illusion - or my amateurish photography - possibly caused by the fact that the structure is three-sided and not four-sided as one might expect. Were you drunk when posting your comments?
    SAINT FARIDA It's right that you should remind us that cholera hasn't gone from the world but at least we know the enemy now and great strides have been made to suppress this horrible companion.

  8. Elizabeth9:15 pm

    That's good to hear; I shall have to re-visit the restored version. Did I read that some gates had been made telling the story of the cholera victims - or maybe I just dreamt it. x

  9. ELIZABETH Yes. The gates tell the story I think - though I didn't pause for long. There is also a memorial made of cobbles - one for every victim.


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