In the autumn of 1854, 700 people died from cholera within 10 days in the heart of Soho – just one of the devastating outbreaks of the disease that engulfed London in the 19th century. But history was changed when Soho-based doctor John Snow used his ingenuity to trace the outbreak to a single pump on Broad – now Broadwick – Street.
Head into Soho, and on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street, you’ll find the John Snow pub, a London institution named after the doctor who traced the capital’s cholera outbreak and revolutionised the way people analysed public health and disease. While the pub itself is bustling with Londoners enjoying a post-work pint, just outside lies a handle-less pump, whose significance is often overlooked. The replica of the infamous Broad Street pump marks the source of London’s most devastating cholera outbreak.
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The cholera that spread through the streets of Soho in autumn 1854 has been widely attributed to a public water pump on Broad Street and London’s deplorable sewage system. Drainage was poor throughout the city – it wasn’t uncommon to find a cesspit in the basement of many homes – and Londoners sourced their drinking water from the River Thames, into which the city’s sewers disgorged their contents on a daily basis. Londoners were, in essence, drinking their own waste.
Water from the Broad Street pump, despite being sourced from the Thames, was prized for its freshness and taste, with some people travelling daily from as far away as Hampstead to fill their buckets. Locals deemed it higher quality than water from other wells in the area. Local businesses also relied on Broad Street water for countless purposes – from coffee houses to pubs and even confectioners, who sold a drink called ‘sherbet’, which was a combination of effervescent powder and Broad Street water.
Cholera was a known illness at the time – the first reported case in Britain was in Sunderland in October 1831 – but why did the disease spread so rapidly once it reached the capital in 1832? As Steven Johnson explains in his 2006 book The Ghost Map, London’s emergence as one of the first modern cities in the world also made it uniquely exposed to the type of devastation wrought by the disease.
As a modern metropolis, London attracted new residents from near and far, its population expanding faster than its infrastructure could handle. Johnson explains that this resulted in terribly cramped living spaces that were characteristic of Soho at the time. “By 1851, the sub-district of Berwick Street … was the most densely populated of all 135 sub-districts that made up Greater London, with 432 people to the acre,” he writes. “Even with its skyscrapers, Manhattan today only houses around 100 per acre.”
Cities were generally known to be dirty: smoke from cooking fires permeated the air, animal corpses and faeces littered the streets, and human sewage piled up in cellars. Popular opinion held that diseases like cholera were spread through the inhalation of rancid air – the miasma theory. Disease was particularly prevalent among poor urbanites living in slums.
Yet Dr Kristin Hussey, curator at the Royal College of Physicians, explains Soho at the time was far from a slum – it was a bustling creative centre. “Soho wasn’t some Victorian den of crime and disease – it was a fairly middle-class area,” she says. “Diseases like cholera stigmatised the lower classes, but they were far from limited to poorer areas.”
John Snow, a Soho-based doctor and rising star in the field of anesthesiology, turned this theory on its head. Unlike his contemporaries, Snow could not reconcile how the disease affected his patients with the popular theory that it was the result of an airborne contaminant. If it were airborne, he reasoned, why would cholera not affect the lungs?
Snow took to the streets of Soho in late August 1854, interviewing residents and mapping their deaths. Having noted a clustering of cases around the Broad Street well, he pinpointed the pump as the source of the destruction sweeping through Soho and immediately demanded its removal. Local authorities, though sceptical, were desperate enough to try it as an experiment. On 8 September, the Broad Street pump’s handle was removed and cases of cholera immediately dwindled.
Snow’s map also revealed some anomalies. Although the Lion Brewery was a stone’s throw from the Broad Street pump, none of its workers contracted cholera. The workforce could drink all the beer they wanted, and it’s believed the fermentation killed the cholera bacteria.
Hussey concludes Soho’s cholera outbreak was a case of bad luck. “Any number of pumps across the city could have been (and were) sites of infection. Soho has become synonymous with cholera, but outbreaks in Lambeth 10 years earlier were arguably more deadly but have been overlooked. There was no pinpointed place, no iconic object, such as the Broad Street pump, so we forget.”
More than 150 years later, the Broad Street pump – and its lack of handle – remains a symbol of a crucial intervention in public health. Snow’s groundbreaking research changed the way scientists investigated and treated global epidemics. Snow not only stopped the epidemic; he also debunked the miasma theory, making way for its successor, the germ theory, to flourish in medical thought.
A replica pump – initially installed in 1992 farther down the road on the corner of Broadwick Street and Poland Street – has now been re-installed in its proper location. Situated outside the John Snow pub, the Broad Street Pump serves as a reminder of an epidemic that decimated Soho in 1854 but changed the course of medical history. Modern drinkers, however, can sip in peace, knowing the worst their beverage choices could give them is a hangover.
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