Mapping disease: typhoid in 1890s Wellington, New Zealand

From the turn of the 19th century, social cartography was centred on mapping contagious disease – the most urgent problem of rapidly growing cities around the world. The examples which feature in my forthcoming book, Mapping Society range from Yellow Fever in New York, 1798, followed by a large number of maps of cholera, ranging across France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Before the creation of epidemiology as a science in its own right, it was the combined efforts of physicians and medical officers (namely public health officials, many of whom themselves had medical training) that contributed the effort of understanding the spatial distribution of disease.

In the UK, it was John Snow who famously hypothesised in the 1850s that cholera was caused by a germ spread through contaminated water, in contrast with the prevalent miasma theory of contagion through bad air (though evidently there were scientists in Italy and Germany working on isolating the bacterium several years previously). The two theories were debated vigorously, but Snow’s ground-breaking studies of the 1853–5 epidemic resulted in his being considered the father of epidemiology, due not only to his well-reasoned statistics but to his maps, which illustrated to a lay audience the evidence of a cluster of cholera cases amongst people living close to a single water pump on Broad Street and, hence, that contaminated water was the source of the disease.

Nevertheless, both in Europe and much farther afield in New Zealand, the evidence for cholera and typhoid being water-borne continued to be debated, with the Wellington medical officer William Chapple’s mapping the incidence of typhoid across the city, to see if he could find where blocked pipes were causing sewer vapours to back up into houses (see image below[i]).

Typhoid map layout_zoom
Section of map of central Wellington drawn up by the city’s medical officer, William Chapple, to show the location of typhoid between 1890 and 1892. Source: Wellington City Archives. Reference: 00233:34:1892/740 typhoid map

Chapple’s map identifies a cluster of typhoid cases in the Holland Street area of the city, where he had found that the street’s sewer was leaking had contaminated the surrounding soil. Coupled to empirical fieldwork, which found overcrowded housing in the street, the maps were able to highlight (with graphic emphasis of the leaking sewer), the spatial association between housing quality, urban situation and disease.

While the map is quite late for the sequence of disease maps reported in Mapping Society, Ben Schrader has pointed out that the ‘miasma theory’ that disease such as cholera or typhoid were air borne, continued to persist in the country, despite the discovery in 1885 of Salmonella typhi by a US veterinary pathologist Daniel Elmer Salmon[ii] (almost simultaneously with the discovery in 1884 of the cholera bacillus, Vibrio cholerae by the German scientist, Robert Koch.)

Although the fact that the disease was likely to have been the result of contamination of drinking water by leaking cesspits was not yet accepted at this stage, the subsequent construction of municipal water and sewer schemes seems to have had the desired result of a drop in mortality from water-borne diseases in urban New Zealand by the turn of the 20th century.

Typhoid map layout_cropped
Map of central Wellington drawn up by the city’s medical officer, William Chapple, to show the location of typhoid between 1890 and 1892. Source: Wellington City Archives. Reference: 00233:34:1892/740 typhoid map


[i] I am grateful to Matthew Plummer, who brought the map to my attention via Twitter. A downloadable version of the map can be found here:

[ii] Schrader B. (2016) The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books

The featured image is of a butcher’s shop in Wellington, New Zealand, from:

‘Mapping Society’: new book out with UCL Press in September

I’m pleased to announce the forthcoming open access publication in September 2018 of Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography with UCL Press.

The book reflects two decades of enquiry into the spatial nature of society, focusing on the detailed patterning of social phenomena as these are laid out in historical maps. The importance of a spatial analysis of historical data is not to be underestimated. Going beyond placing the data on the map to a deeper analysis of the geographical patterning of the data allows the researcher to pose a variety of questions: regarding the spatial character of the urban setting, regarding whether social data of a single type have spatial characteristics in common, and – in general – to control for spatial effects when analysing social patterns.

For me, the Booth maps have become the quintessential starting point when exploring the relationship between the spatial organisation of cities and how societies take shape over time. I have written about the spatial-temporal evolution of cities in my earlier book, Suburban Urbanities. This current publication effectively goes back to the origins of my research, starting with my most fundamental subject of interest: how the spatial configuration of cities shapes social patterns and, specifically, urban social problems.

Booth and legend
Section of the Charles Booth map of Poverty, 1889 – with legend

This book does so by taking maps of social statistics and developing a close reading of the maps themselves as well as the context within which they were created. A side product of this inquiry has been the discovery of the extent to which social cartography is frequently used not only as a tool for communicating information on patterns of settlement, but also for other purposes: for propaganda, to collate evidence or to support scientific argumentation. The use of social maps as an analytical device is less prevalent and this book will show how a reading of the spatial patterns captured by such maps can reveal some fundamental rules about how cities work according to a specifically spatial logic of society.

From a rare map of yellow fever in eighteenth-century New York, to Charles Booth’s famous maps of poverty in nineteenth-century London, an Italian racial zoning map of early twentieth century Asmara, to a map of wealth disparities in the banlieues of twenty-first-century ParisMapping Society traces the evolution of social cartography over the past two centuries, examining maps of ethnic or religious difference, poverty, and health inequalities, demonstrating how they not only serve as historical records of social enquiry, but also constitute inscriptions of social patterns that have been etched deeply on the surface of cities.

‘Vertical drinkers’ and the map of pubs in York, 1901

A recent blog post by the Survey of London on Whitechapel’s rich heritage of pubs reminded me of Rowntree’s York enquiry, which I’ve written about for my forthcoming book, Mapping Society.

Rowntree’s enquiry was conducted with a team of assistants during 1899–1900 and then published in 1901 under the title Poverty, a Study of Town Life. His study was inspired by Booth, though it was an intensive study, of a town much smaller than Booth’s London.[i]

Despite the differences in scope, the York study found very similar results to those of Booth: large families crammed into small rooms without sanitation or ventilation, and disease rife in poverty areas. Rowntree’s team found that a quarter of all the children living in York’s slums died before the age of one and that, overall, the poverty rate of the town was at least as bad as that found by Booth in London. Even if a child survived poverty in childhood, they were likely to continue to suffer poverty, whether due to the casualisation of labour, or sickness or injury from work. If one survived working life, it was old age that was likely to return a person to poverty; just as Booth had found, old age was closely correlated with poverty. Unsurprisingly, both Booth and Rowntree became campaigners for pensions.

Rowntree strove to emphasise how precariously the poor sat on a finely balanced point between just getting by and destitution. His compassion shines through his descriptions, for example, of what ‘merely physical efficiency’ constitutes in reality:

‘And let us clearly understand what “merely physical efficiency” means. A family living upon the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save, nor can they join sick club or Trade Union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles, or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco, and must drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or for her children, the character of the family wardrobe as for the family diet being governed by the regulation, “Nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health, and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description.” Should a child fall ill, it must be attended by the parish doctor; should it die, it must be buried by the parish. Finally, the wage-earner must never be absent from his work for a single day.’[iv]

pub map with permission_ZOOM
Detail of Map of York Showing the Position of the Licensed Houses (‘15 Licenced Houses in the outlying parts of the City are not included in this Map’), 1901. Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, 1901. Image of map of York courtesy Chris Mullen

Rowntree showed that poverty distress was caused principally by low wages or irregular work. Nevertheless, his report’s map of licensed houses (which he refers to in the text as the ‘drink map’, see Figure above) emphasised the problematic relationship between drink and poverty, which I write of in my chapter on crime and disorder in Mapping Society, where a lack of sobriety is shown to be associated with crime as well as poverty. Here, the association is more nuanced. While Rowntree was critical about the poorest of the poor wasting their money on drink, he was also aware that consumption of alcohol in York was no greater than elsewhere in the country.

Rowntree’s comments on the drink map are incisive. He notes that the highest concentration of pubs is in the oldest section of the town, within and around the walls. This may, he surmised, be due to the town having served as a coaching centre, but the historical explanation did not solve in his mind the problem of there being an excess of drinking establishments in the poorest area of the centre. In fact, he devotes considerable space to analysis of the number of drinking establishments per population in his ‘public houses’ section of the book’s supplementary chapter. The character of many of the poverty area’s pubs, as being exclusively for drinking, are, he states, one of the causes of the prevalence of ‘vertical drinkers’, who are more likely to be heavy drinkers. The lower density of pubs outside of the centre, he argues, is mostly to do with the reluctance of magistrates to grant licenses to new establishments. Lastly, the change in the practice of organisations such as Trade Unions and Friendly Societies to meet in coffee houses instead of pubs (meaning a reduction in the use of pubs as community meeting places, which was a common feature earlier in the nineteenth century) had led to a narrowing of activities within the public house, although music and games, he reported, remained commonplace.

The spatial distribution of pubs in the poorer, central district is in fact a typical pattern in slum areas of the country at the time.[v] Several factors would have been at play, such as the pub providing warm, dry premises when the home was anything but, and the pub serving as a place for socialising outside of the home. It is evidently not a coincidence that pubs proliferated more on poor streets, while York’s ‘best’ central streets, Monkgate, Clifton and Bootham, had hardly any.


[i] Rowntree B. S. (1901) Poverty: A Study of Town Life. London: Macmillan, p. ix.

[ii] Rowntree, Poverty, p. 112.

[iii] Anne Kershen has pointed out that the earlier investigations by Mayhew into ‘the plight of tailors in London’ had similarly convinced him that, ‘contrary to prevailing mid-Victorian belief, it was poverty which led to drunkenness, not the reverse’. This was because pubs operated as labour exchanges, with men waiting there to be recruited for work. Kershen A. (1995) Uniting the Tailors: Trade Unionism Amongst the Tailors of London and Leeds, 1870-1939. Ilford, Essex: Frank Cass & Co., p. 5.

[iv] Rowntree, Poverty, pp. 129–30.

[v] B. Harrison, ‘Pubs,’ in The Victorian City: Images and Realities (Past and Present & Numbers of People), ed. H.J. Dyos and M. Wolff (London, Henley and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976).