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Cattle Plague or Rinderpest



Whereas the court is informed that the contagious distemper amongst the Horned Cattle has been brought into many parts of the county by Drove Cattle...and that herds of such cattle have been driven in the Night, between the hours of eight in the evening and four in the morning, contrary to Law; which causes a Suspicion that such herds were infected or were so driven without proper certificate...  (Ipswich Journal, 4th Nov 1749; report of General Quarter Sessions.)


The Ipswich Court went on to: forbid the holding of fairs, markets etc. for sale of any “lean1 drove cattle”; ordered beasts to be seized from droves & treated “as the Law directs”, then to be buried 4 feet deep.


Rinderpest, as it is now known, was endemic in Europe.  Its eradication2 in England – beasts in Scotland, Devon & Cornwall and West Wales were largely unaffected – was a triumph for the powers of a strong central government, something many continental states lacked.  It is a highly contagious virus with a 6-9 day incubation period (making it hard to judge whether an animal was fit for market) followed by a high fever; then death for 90% of infected stock within 12 days3.


The methods used to tackle the disease were much the same in the C18 as those applied in the last 20 years to combat BSE and F&M, and almost as much bureaucracy was involved.  It was only when the eye of the authorities was taken off the ball by the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion that the disease took hold.  It has been calculated that half a million beasts were lost between 1745 and 1748.


During the first outbreak (1714-15) Dr thomas Bates, a royal surgeon, recommended the slaughter of all infected animals; the quarantine of all contacts, animal & human; the compensation of farmers of 50% of the value of slaughtered stock4 – but only if they were slaughtered as soon as the symptoms appeared.   In 6 months the disease had been beaten.


(In Middlesex, and perhaps other counties, the JP’s paid butchers to watch farmers’ fields, to count every beast each morning, follow them if sent to market & frustrate the sale by telling would-be buyers that the beasts were suspect.)


In 1745-9 Bates’s regulations were revived with elaborations such as a 5-week quarantine period. Also, JP’s & assizes were given powers to stop fairs, markets & all movements of beasts (see top).


Despite this, there was a rapid spread of the disease, so for 3 months (Dec. 1746 till March ’47) drovers had to carry a certificate stating that the area they had just passed through had not been infected for 6 months...and presumably another certificate from the area they were now in to show to the next area etc.  A nightmare!  All attempts to regulate the cattle trade were bound to be unpopular & extremely hard to enforce, especially when farmers might well a cross county boundary to take beasts from one pasture to another.


At this point (1747-8), Government policy lost credibility, and, rather than shoot their possibly-infected beasts as soon as the infection was discovered, farmers often gambled because they knew they could find an inspector prepared to falsify dates on the certificate.


In March 1748 came desperate measures: each parish was to provide a weekly report on the state of the disease; lists of afflicted places were to be posted at every market & on every highway; a night curfew on cattle was imposed.  As John Broad5 has written, if all that had been put into practice, the major beneficiary would have been the paper industry...


And what of the drovers?  In Dec 1749 the Privy Council6 banned all long-distance movements of cattle, fat or lean, for three months, which caused uproar.  But even when that order was rescinded, the drovers were saddled with seemingly endless certification in whichever county or district they passed through.  It has been calculated that in one year alone 8,000 stranded cattle lay scattered over the South Midlands.  What could drovers do but return home & hope the reason for their losses would be believed – or perhaps vanish into London or the English countryside to find a new way of life?


Welch drovers who brought up great numbers of black cattle to sell at Barnet Fair intend to petition His Majesty and the Council to give them leave to dispose of the said cattle on account of the great expense they had in bringing them up to market...  (Ipswich Journal 7th Sept 1751)


The plague took nine years to defeat, but the defeat was a triumph for Bates’s policies.  When later outbreaks occurred in Hampshire (1769) and Suffolk (1774), the county authorities ordered the slaughter of all stock in the affected parish: diseased animals plus all those herded with them.  And farmers were paid full-value compensation.


This early example of ‘state intervention’ before the age of electronic communications is, to me, remarkable.  And how reassuring to be reminded that bureaucracy is not all bad...


1 Fat cattle could not have made the 200+ mile journey, so drove cattle were easily spotted.

2 Rinderpest  was not eradicated worldwide till 2011.

3 The survival rate was far greater on the continent, where the disease was endemic and cattle had built a resistance.

4 But not exceeding a valuation of £4.  i.e. £2 was the maximum paid per beast.

5 Most of this article is based on one written by John Broad for the Agricultural History Review.  My sincere thanks to him.

6 The regulations were decided by the Privy Council & issued as Orders in Council.  Parliament was consulted at one stage in the main outbreak, but quickly decided to hand back responsibility!

Cattle Plague or Rinderpest image 1
In 18C Holland...
Cattle Plague or Rinderpest image 2 South Africa 1896