Cowkeepers essays:   The 1714 distemper outbreak

Some of the newspaper and journal articles I found during my research are a bit too long or wordy to include in the main body of my essay. So I have made them into separate drill-down pages, and introduced some punctuation in my transcript so you don't get too breathless. Any comments are in [blue italics]. Please click any of the links on the left to get back to the essay.

This transcript, taken from minutes of Treasury Papers, Volume 5 edited by Joseph Redington, 1883, is on British History Online. It summarises the actions and consequences during an outbreak of distemper amongst London's dairy cows in 1714, the number of cows affected and the compensation paid. There was a later outbreak in 1745.

"4 Nov 1714 Justices of ye Peace & Mr Borret about the infected cattell. Justices of peace and Mr Borret concerning infected cows are called in. They will rep[re]sent matters in writing on Satterda morn., but in the meantime they say there were kild & buryed so many cows before the 16th of Octobr. as makes ye whole charge to amount to about £1,600, of wch about £800 is paid already. That this method of killing & burying deep in ye ground had so good an effect, that they buryed but about 30 in ten days time. Then they were directed to make trial of medicines wch did no good, and ye distemper increased to abt 250 cows a week dead, from the 16 of Octobr. Yesterda they began to kill & bury againe & by Satterda they think will be a demand of about £1,700 more. And they say that unless they could give the owners assurance of ye 40sh per head, they will not be induced to bring their cattle to be kild and buryd, and they believe no other method will prevent the spreading of the infection.”

"6 November They (the justices) report [to the Treasury] that the new distemper affects the entrails and is very malignant and infectious, but for a particular account of the nature of the distemper they refer to a report of Mr Bates, a surgeon employed by the Government. They cannot certainly determine the cause of the distemper, although it does not seem to have proceeded from unwholesome food or want of water, but chiefly from the extraordinary drought of the previous summer and winter, whereby the grass failing of its usual moisture, the cows wanted those natural purgations in the spring, which in other years they always had, and which seem to be necessary to their health; and by means of this uncommon drought, it may have happened that more than an usual quantity of unwholesome vapour was engendered in the earth, and was locked up therein, till loosened and put in motion by the late rains, when they were sucked in by the cows with their food and breath. No medicine hitherto used (“tho' all sorts and of all operations have been tried”) has been effectual. To prevent the spread of the infection they bought and burnt the sick cows whilst they had orders so to do.


"Received many complaints where the cowkeepers buried their own cows as all have done for a fortnight past; particularly that several of them have dug them up again for their hides, that others are buried so shallow that their limbs appear above ground and occasion a stench.

"Up to the 16th of Oct. have killed and burnt 715 cows, the charge of which is £1,612. 15s. 1d., at an average of 45s. per cow. They have also received accounts of about 500 cows more buried by the owners between 16 and 30 October, and from that time to the present, 121 cows and some few calves have been buried with lime according to the last orders. There are 70 cows sick and not yet buried. The whole cost, thus far, amounts to about £3,300.

"The distemper has spread by their being interfered with in their destroying and burning from day to day, as the cows fall sick. Recommend that method to be pursued. The distemper has already spread into all the parishes on the north side of London, from Poplar to St James's and St Margaret's, Westminster. Altho' this method has not put an entire stop to the disease, yet it tends to preserve the health of the people, by destroying those cows which, with their milk, would have been sold and eaten by the poor people, as all were, before this method was taken. Fear this will be continued unless the Government interpose, as there are no laws to hinder it. To prevent fraud, they examine on oath and keep a check upon all the cowkeepers about Islington and others, as to the number of sound and sick cows that they have. Minuted:—“6 Nov. 1714. My Lords exhort the Justices to continue their diligence.”

"19 November From 16 Oct. to 13 Nov. 1,217 cows have been killed and buried with lime, at a cost of £2,607, and from Saturday to Wednesday last about 260 cows more; whereby it appears that the distemper has considerably increased, although it is confined within three miles of London. It chiefly rages about Poplar and Marybone, having abated at Islington, where there remain 550 cows alive and well, after the loss of 667 since the beginning of September. However the distemper began, it owes its increase chiefly to infection. Enclose the instructions that they have issued to their agents. Apprehend that Smithfield Market is, or probably will be, infected, and have waited on the Lord Mayor and Aldermen to recommend that the scavengers shall carry away the dirt and filth of the city markets, and shall have the slaughter-houses, stalls, and rails well cleaned and washed with limewash, and provide against sick cattle being brought to the city markets.

"30 November They (the justices) represent that from the 13th to the 20th inst. 430 cows were killed and buried, whereof 115 belong to Benjamin Coker, and 93 to John Scott, both of Stepney, and neighbours. So great a loss in so short a time has not hitherto happened to any other cowkeepers. They (the justices) impute it to the unusual closeness of these particular cowhouses, whereby the wind and fresh air being kept out, and the breath of the infected cattle confined within, the infection became stronger and more powerful than it could have been in a more open place. This appears still more probable, in regard that whilst they kept their cows in the fields, before they put them in the cowhouses, their loss was but proportionable to that of their neighbours.

"Their (the justices') charges had all been settled to the 16th of Oct. and from the 16th of October to the 20th of November 1,647 cows and 57 calves have been killed and buried; the whole charge of which is £3,433 13s. 6d. Have also taken an account of 320 cows killed and buried from the 20th to the 27th inst. at 3s. a head, amounting to £688.

"7 December From 27 Nov. to the 4th inst. 312 cows and about 30 calves have been killed and buried, whereof 140 cows died in Stepney and thereabouts, and 100 at Westminster and Marybone; the expense will be about £688.

"7 December The Justices of Middx. called in. Represent a state of their proceedings in the affaire relating to the destroying the distemperd cowes. Lord H. acquaints them that it has been laid before the King in Councill, and it being found to be a charge too great for the Civil list to bear, it is orderd that his Maty [Majesty] be at no farther charge therein. Lord asks them what time will be necessary to give notice hereof. They say by to-morrow incl. Upon which my Lords desire that the Order of Councill may allow the payment of 40s per cow to continue to ye 8th instant incl. And my Lords desire they will give notice to the owners, and cause an exact accot to be kept of all the cowes they lose by the distemper after that day.

"14 December From the 4th to the 7th 177 cows and 27 calves have been killed and buried. The whole expense from the beginning amounts to £6,774 1s. 1d. They have adjusted the demands of all the cowkeepers who claim allowance, except Christopher Capper of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, whose case they refer to their Lordships. They summoned all the cowkeepers on the previous Saturday and cautioned and advised them as to the future."

Copyright © Marion Hearfield 2009