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A Court for King Cholera

Leech, John
Wellcome Collection

‘A court for King Cholera’ - Illustration by John Leech. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


By the 1850s, British people understood that urban squalor was to blame for the spread of cholera, although no one had yet specifically identified contaminated drinking supplies. During the nineteenth century, huge numbers of poor people moved to London and other cities to find jobs in factories. Cities did not have enough cheap housing, or sufficient infrastructure (streets, lights, water pumps, outhouses), or any services for them. What stands out to you in this image? What are the different groups of people doing? What is this image’s message about cholera?


This cartoon appeared in Punch, a satirical magazine, in the mid-nineteenth century. The caption, which refers to “King Cholera,” tells us a lot about how cholera was understood in the 1850s. First, it demonstrates cholera’s sheer power: like the King, all bow down (i.e., die) before him; there is no refusing him. The Court is the slum, crowded with working-class residents of the city. Students should associate this image with their learning about the effects of industrialization and urbanization in the first half of the nineteenth century: overcrowding, lack of housing, overwhelmed and inadequate urban infrastructure. Make sure they also understand that this cartoon was a satire produced for middle-class people, many of whom associated poor people with dirt. You may want to have students predict the responses that different groups would have had to these cholera outbreaks. This could be an opportunity for teachers to discuss specific groups of people whose roles and authority changed over time — for example, the increasing authority of medical knowledge in this period and the role of the state in exerting more control over ordinary people’s lives.

A Court for King Cholera
(signs on buildings) Good Beds, logins [lodgings] for travellers