The People of Gibraltar

1845 - The Loreto Nuns - 9. “Noxious Miasma”

Mother Berchmans Lenigan and Mother Xaveria Fallon
Mother Joseph Anne Hickey - Houston and Gardiner

Gibraltar ( 1860s - Samuel Coleman )

In 1862 Mother Berchmans Lenigan (Mother Xaveria Fallon’s aunt) was appointed Superior in Gibraltar in Mother Joseph Anne Hickey’s place. Mother Berchmans was busy, energetic and adaptable, filling a number of different offices over time. She had been one of those who had nursed Mother Teresa Ball during her last long illness. She had also been Mistress of Schools in Rathfarnham and the children there remembered her saying to them that it “cut her to the heart” when anything went wrong with Loreto. She had a great affection for Mother Teresa Ball, and said that she had no problem being sent to Gibraltar. . . 

The Loreto records state generously, if not accurately, that it was the climate in Gibraltar that did not suit   Mother Berchmans   and   that as a result   she succumbed to an attack of “fever”; the doctors thought she would not recover from it unless she returned to Ireland. The fact is that, as the Chronicle put it:
The sanitary condition of Gibraltar has long been unsatisfactory, and for a number of years the rate of mortality has been gradually increasing, until it has at length attracted the serious consideration of the Government. Few of the inhabitants seem to be aware that, notwithstanding all the advantages of the climate, and the absence of manufactures and trades prejudicial to health, the death rate was considerably higher in Gibraltar than in the great capitals of Europe, or the crowded centres of manufacturing enterprise in the United Kingdom.           
According to an Army Report completed in 1862 there were four main causes for the frequent appearance of cholera and other ‘fevers’ in Gibraltar: shortage of potable water, inadequate housing and the crowded patios in the town, a very poor sewage system, the fact that no-one seemed to be in charge of ensuring that the rules of common sense hygiene were properly observed.  In 1866 the duly appointed ‘Officer of Health to the Sanitary Commissioners’ reported as follows:  
I have this day inspected the Wharf at Waterport, the offices of the Revenue Inspectors, and the rooms in Waterport Casemates, in reference to a Public Nuisance which has been a subject of complaints for some time past. Although it was high tide at the time of my visit, the waters around the Wharf and on each side of Waterport Bridge were in a very foul state, giving out a very sickening stench. I was informed by the Inspectors and by bystanders that at low water the stench was intolerable, to such a degree as to cause nausea and even vomiting. I consider the state of the Wharf and its neighbourhood to be highly dangerous to the Public Health and to Her Majesty’s Troops…

"Inadequate housing" - A typical patio de vecinos in Gibraltar  ( Unknown )

At the time it was not generally understood that many of these ‘fevers’ prevalent in Gibraltar were water– and food-borne diseases and little was known about germs and viruses. Outbreaks of serious diseases in Gibraltar were significant in the following years:
Yellow Fever    1798, 1799, 1800, 1804, 1810, 1813, 1828 
Cholera              1834, 1843, 1854, 1860, 1865, 1885      
In addition there were occasional occurrences and epidemics of other diseases to contend with, notably influenza, bubonic plague and smallpox. 19th Century Gibraltar was not a healthy place. It was thought at the time that the fevers were caused by the inhaling of pestilential ‘miasma’ emanating from decaying rubbish and stagnant water, and that this was exacerbated by the ‘moral habits’ of those contracting these diseases. 

Drunkards, layabouts and the idle were particularly prone to malady. Associating poverty and moral character was a form of denial practised by the better-off; the poor had only themselves to blame for contracting (for instance) cholera. Little wonder then that people were secretive about the causes of death within a family! Perhaps something of the same attitude lingered until fairly recently, when certain diseases were named only in hushed whispers, or by the use of euphemisms. Thus several Governors (Houston, Gardiner) believed that panic and fear predisposed people to contract the disease, as did a tendency to depression and excess of any kind. . . .