Behind the church building now known as St James in the City on the corner of Upper Parliament Street and St James Place, once stood a building where the Liverpool Cholera Riots of 1832 began.
After a major outbreak in eastern Europe, cholera arrived in England in October 1831 when a ship from the Baltic docked at Sunderland. The disease made its way to Scotland and London, with outbreaks in Dublin and Belfast occurring the following April. With Liverpool growing as a port and many Irish coming over looking for work, it was inevitable that the town would be struck and at the direction of the Liverpool Board of Health preparations were made. Some of the wealthiest people of the town set up hospitals in various locations where free treatment was available for sufferers.
One of those locations was in a large house to the rear of St James Church, where a surgeon and nurse were salaried and other medical men gave their services for free. It was there on the 29th May 1832 that the first case was confirmed after Mrs Clarke attended a local dispensary to seek some medicine for her husband who was a dock labourer. A doctor attended their home in nearby Perry Street and confirmed that he was suffering from the cholera and attended to. Mrs Clarke however was quickly struck down with the disease in its most severe form and it was decided to remove her to the hospital with immediate effect.
As Mrs Clarke was being transported by cart, a mob of women and boys jeered the attendants for the whole of the journey, although no violence was used. By the time her husband was brought there about an hour and a half later a mob of around a thousand people had gathered, consisting ‘principally of women and boys of the lowest order’. In addition to the jeers there were now cries of ‘THERE GO THE MURDERERS’ and ‘BRING OUT THE BURKERS’. This was a reference to notorious Edinburgh villains Burke and Hare, who had been hanged four years previously for stealing bodies to sell to people in the medical profession.
The crowd quickly turned violent, throwing stones and brickbats at the hospital, smashing the window of the room where Mrs Clarke was treated. This led to the surgeon taking flight leaving the poor woman lying on a table and close to death. As other volunteers fled they were chased by some of the mob but thankfully none of them were seriously hurt. The Toxteth Park police were completely ineffective but when assistance was sought from Liverpool, the disorder was quickly quelled. Staff went back into the hospital but it was too late to save Mrs Clarke, who died at around 10pm. The following day she was interred with the hearse and coffin being provided at the expense of the parish.
As preparations were being made for the burial, forty more special constables were sworn in as further trouble was anticipated. Addresses were also prepared by magistrates and churchmen to be distributed amongst the locality so the good work of the hospital could be understood. A reward of £10, more than two months wages, was also on offer to anybody who could turn in any of the rioters. In Gores Advertiser the following day, one of the doctors present had a letter printed in which he said ‘The mob were shouting they were to be cut up, the surgeons were the getters up, there is no such thing as cholera in the town.’
The Liverpool Mercury took a very dim view of the rioters. Under the headline CHOLERA – DISGRACEFUL OUTRAGE on 1st June, it criticised the lack of appreciation shown by many of what it referred to as ‘lower classes’ who lived in ‘confined, miserable and ill ventilated dwellings.’ The hospitals they said were ‘commodious and fitted up with every comfort and convenience and furnished with everything necessary for their condition gratuitously’. The paper reported that it was shocked and surprised at the rioting and that it was something it would have expected more from the serfs of Russia. The paper also claimed that some influential people were falsely spreading rumours to inflame the passions of the rioters, but refused to name who these were.
Riots continued at various locations around the town for almost two weeks, with carts being smashed up and doctors denied access to houses where cholera sufferers were. It was only when Roman Catholic clergymen were invited to the Town Hall following a threatening letter sent to the Mayor signed ‘An Irishman’, which promised to do wicked things to any doctor treating the sick. The churchmen were most respected amongst the large Irish community and when they made their pleas from pulpits around the town the riots came to an end.