Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Doctor Shapter Versus the Cholera Epidemic

The Eccentric Exeter theatre company conducted a promenade performance over the weekend, Doctor Shapter Versus the Cholera Epidemic, which I followed on a clear and crisp autumn evening. It traced the spread of the disease throughout the crowded slums of the city’s west quarter in the summer of 1832, the epidemic having been transported to Gateshead and Sunderland from the continent, and from there carried south to Plymouth and thence, despite efforts at quarantining the quay, to Exeter. Our tour of this terrible time started in the courtyard of the City Gate pub before proceeding onto and under the Iron Bridge, built shortly after in 1835 as a part of the post-cholera city improvements, in this case to allow the easy passage of horse drawn carts and carriages into and out of the city. From there we carried on to the cemetery with its sloping paths leading up to the looming stone gateways to the catacombs at the top, their dank, cavernous spaces now a suitably gothic home to a colony of pipistrelle bats. These Victorian corners of the city provided ideal and dramatic theatrical backdrops in the evening gloom, and Eccentric Exeter made imaginative use of them all.

We were guided by a stylishly attired narrator, who made the history present through anecdote and a storyteller’s evocation of time, place and incident. He strode commandingly through the gathered throng in floor length, high-collared coat and top hat. Actors were secreted at tactical sites throughout the route, drawing our attention away from the central narration. At the start, a dark suited gentleman appeared in an upper balcony of the pub yard, voicing official complacency and denial of the first signs of the disease manifesting themselves. This was a divided city, with rich and poor districts kept distinct and separate, with little contact between them. We also encountered staggering local rowdies on the Iron Bridge who voiced similarly dismissive views from the other side of the divide, pushing the good Doctor around and insisting on the efficacy of sweating it out with the aid of a bottle of brandy. We found more scrambling down the slope at the side of the bridge, acting on the hearsay of medical mumbo-jumbo and ‘fumigating’ their baby, a swaddled package which emitted a comically excessive billow of fuggy smoke. In a dead end alleyway behind the old row of Victorian terraces at the side of the graveyard, a mother tried to keep an undertaker from taking her baby for immediate burial, but we were swiftly moved on from the tragic scene with the discrete suggestion that it wasn’t for our eyes. Our urbane host raised his lantern high to lead us through the dark graveyard, taking delight in informing us of the ‘bulging boneyard’s’ (wonderful phrase) overcrowded beds (offering its inhabitants similar cramped conditions to those from which they’d just moved on). St Bartholomew’s, as it was (and is) called, soon became filled to capacity, and further burial grounds had to be found on the outskirts of the city. The appropriately named Bury Meadow was one (the name long predating its new purpose), and our guide very specifically located it beneath the swings in the children’s playground, a ghoulish cryptkeeper’s chuckle implied. In one genuinely startling and uncanny departure from the generally realistic evocation of early Victorian time and place, we looked up from the cemetery slopes to see the horned and jackal-headed visage of the Egyptian god Anubis, illuminated by fires flaming on either side, outlined against the angled stone slabs of the Egyptianate catacombs and their shadowed entryways, modelled on tombs recently uncovered in the Valley of Kings. Anubis was the Egyptian guardian of the underworld, we were told, who weighed the hearts of souls approaching the afterlife, judging them in the balance and determining their fate – paradise or the pit. It was a poetic and haunting tableau of the sort you might have found in a Derek Jarman or Kenneth Anger film, and may well end up invading my dreams.

Fumigating Butcher's Row - from Doctor Shapter's History of the Cholera in Exeter
The spread of cholera in 1832 was swift and terrible, hastened by general ignorance and official complacency, and by the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the west quarter slums. Many people kept livestock in their houses, with pigs and poultry prevalent, and there was no sewage system. Butcher’s Row was named after the butcher’s shops at the top of the hill, from which blood and offal was thrown into the street to run down the central gutter into the rivers and brooks below. The name given to one of the latter, Shitbrook, is self-explanatory. There was a certain grim humour to various of the scenarios we encountered. A female corpse dresser did a vaguely necrophiliac danse macabre with a semi-stripped corpse, washing his torso and limbs, which flopped suggestively over her body, with leers and cackles. She sprinkled him with lime as if giving him a dusting of talcum perfume prior to a night out, finally clothing him in his fresh winding sheet. Our guide gave us a commentary on the proceedings, and on the symptoms of cholera and the prospects for its victims all the while. The performance was rounded off with a needle through the nose, to make sure that the ‘corpse’ was really dead (a resultant ‘ow’ suggested that he wasn’t yet, although the washerwoman seemed unconcerned and continued anyway). With laudanum also popular at the time, the chances of the Poe-like nightmare of live burial were not so remote, with people falling into opiated, deathlike swoons, and the imperative for swift internment great. Quarantines and curfews were imposed, and our guide described the eerie sense of quiet in the deserted city streets. This was broken by the doleful ringing of a bell, which rang out from St Olave’s to mark the death toll, until it too was silenced, its knell deemed too unnerving and dispiriting.

The Iron Bridge
Clever use was made of shadow projection underneath the arches of the Iron Bridge, allowing us to see the ranting head of the Bishop of Exeter spewing forth poisonous invective against the undeserving poor, who after all had brought the disease on themselves through their filthy ways and disgusting habits. The good Bishop Philpotts had swiftly absented himself from the city at the first hint of the epidemic within its gates, and didn’t return until he was assured that it had burnt itself out. With the subsequent building of the catacombs and extension of St Bartholomew’s cemetery, he refused to bless the ‘dissenting’ sectors of the graveyard. As his rant accelerated in pitch and bile, he himself began to cough and splutter, as if he too had been infected by cholera. He wasn’t – the disease was spiritual, located in his soul. His profile was set against the brick screen of the bridge’s underside, slimy with algae, seeping with rainwater run off and glittering with the fungal glow of calcine deposits.

Doctor Shapter - local hero
A more humane and pitifully poignant response came from the minister whom we encountered in the graveyard. His mind had clearly been broken by the death with which he was daily surrounded in his parish (in the end, 440 people from Exeter and St Thomas died). He leapt onto the tabletop surfaces of various tombs, citing fragments from birth, marriage and death rites, asking members of the audience whether they wished to be married, or whether they wanted their invisible child to be baptised. He talked in a vague, distracted and wandering manner, his voice bewildered and confused. Our host looked on with silent pity and compassion. If the Bishop was the villain and the minister the figure of pathos, then Doctor Shapter was presented as the local hero, even though initially mistrusted as an ‘outsider’. He was seen at various junctures and locales striding purposefully along, Gladstone bag grasped firmly in his hand. His mapping of the vectors of the disease through the West Quarter of Exeter helped to pinpoint its causes and to provide the solution to its future curbing – in principle, the reduction of overcrowding, and in practice the covering over of open brooks, the building of adequate sewerage and new markets in which food could be sold, and the widening of roads. Dr Shapter wrote his own History of the Cholera in Exeter in 1832, which was published in 1849, and from which many of the details with which we were regaled were no doubt taken. He lived to a ripe old age, finally passing away in 1902, outliving old Queen Vic herself. In honouring him, the troupe honoured the finest of Victorian values, rational enquiry, social concern and compassion for the plight of one’s fellow man, and a determined pursuit of what one considered one’s moral duty, even in the face of official and popular dismissal and ridicule. Well done, sir, and good show Eccentric Exeter. I look forward to your next excursion through this city’s crowded layers of history.

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