Between 1832 and 1866, four cholera epidemics – rampaging through the new urban slums – terrified Britain. The unfamiliar disease had horrible symptoms (shrivelled skin turning blue, violent spasms) and was often lethal. Its transmission was not understood until the work of Dr John Snow (1813–1858).
Until then, efforts to fight the spread of cholera were based on ignorance and superstition. In 1832 the Church, backed by parliament and the king, declared a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the disease. This broadside – a cheaply-produced text on a large single sheet of paper – spread the message. It was one of many publications on the topic, which dominated public attention.
Labour organisations satirically responded by declaring a feast day, arguing that the poor had fasted enough already. Some political reformers suggested, mockingly or in seriousness, that the epidemic was divine retribution for lack of progress on voting reform – the other big issue of the day.