There are no names on the cross, no fancy markings and the inscription is barely legible yet this simple headstone marks the mass grave of forty three ‘strangers’ who died from cholera in 1849.
Cholera had been sweeping the British Isles for two years, thriving amongst the squalid conditions of the lower classes and killing up to 2,000 people each week. One of the worst hit sectors were Kent’s hop pickers who lived, if they were lucky, in a twelve foot square hut made from brick or corrugated tin each September. Straw covered the floor and up to ten people squeezed into each hut. Primitive communal washing and cooking facilities were on offer but despite the pickers’ attempts to keep themselves and their huts clean, illness was rife.
Pickers, known as ‘strangers’, came from all over. Many travelled down from the East End but it’s believed the people now buried in East Farleigh’s churchyard were refuges from Ireland who, faced with the potato famine back home, had travelled to Kent in order to find a better life.
Sadly, it was not to be and on September 12 1849 cholera swept through Mr Ellis’ farm at Court Lodge, Barming. The doctor’s medical account is quoted in Bob Ogley’s Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century as follows: ‘The disease arose entirely from causes which are remediable and removable; namely impure air rising from overcrowded and ill-ventilated apartments, impure water derived from wells containing the soakage of cow yards and human filth and impure food sold at cheap rates by unprincipled vendors of putrid fish and adulterated bread.’ Thirty four other workers had died from the same disease on Mr Ellis’ farm some fifteen years beforehand.
In a ceremony performed by Rev. Henry Wilberforce on September 23 1849, the lives of these forty three hop pickers were briefly marked but who they actually were is now a mystery.
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