The Grave of Andrew Sharp and the Curse of Cattle Plague
In the graveyard at Gedney Hill churchyard is a modest gravestone that due to the ravages of time and growth of moss cannot quite be fully read, but what is visible reads:
“Sacred to the memory of Andrew Sharp a noted cattle doctor who departed this life on 29th December 1832 in the 84th year of his age. He was famous for his ability in having slayed the plague that raged violently among cattle in the locality….”
The “cattle plague” was a significant disease in cattle now identified as rinderpest that had significant plagues across the country and throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is the only animal disease to eventually be eradicated by inoculation in 2011. It is frequently referred to as “cattle plague” or “distemper” in cattle. It was highly virulent and was spread by bodily fluids or secretions from one animal to another including breathe when in close proximity. In Russia it was virtually eradicated by 1908 by a policy of ruthlessly culling whole herds when one infected animal was found – never a popular policy with farmers and herdsmen.
1754 saw “distemper rage through the kingdom for 7 years”[i] and the Fens were hit by this particular outbreak:
“The following extract was copied from the Bible of John Brown of Chatteris, being one of many marginal notes: ‘I, Carter Potto, after the distemper had raged in this kingdom for seven years and upwards, sold hay at ½ d. per pound, which is 4s. 8d. per cwt, and could have sold it for 5s., but that I promised I would not raize it no higher price, but would not sell it to nobody for no horses but cows. This was in the winter of the year of our Lord God 1754. At that time a great many parishes lost 1,000 milch and other cattel – Chatteris, March, Cottenham, Willingham.’”[ii]
The ethics of Carter Potto in treating his fellow fenman fairly in time of difficulty are to be applauded and can still be quietly found in the actions of fen farmers today.
The last serious outbreak of rinderpest in Britain was in the period 1865-66 causing an estimated loss of over 250,000 cattle to the value of several million. April 1869 appeared to show some signs of recovery at the Spalding spring fair:
“Never since the palmy days prior to that pestilential scourge the cattle plague has there been such an extensive show of stock as at our spring fair on Tuesday the 27th of April. Not only was every space in the sheep market occupied, but the streets adjacent thereto had sheep penned therein, extending nearly as far as Bourn road in one direction and on the Crescent road in the opposite direction. Fat sheep sold readily, but stores did not so rapidly exchange hands, though clearance was eventually effected. Mr. James Cook disposed of two pens of prime fat sheep at £5 per head, out of the wool.
Mr. John Crawley and Mr Morley exhibited some very first-class mutton. There was a capital supply of beasts, and although many were exceedingly poor in consequence of the drought of last summer and the scarcity of roots and other keeping during the winter, yet the display of strong beasts in good condition was larger than from the aforesaid causes might reasonably expected. There were several lots of prime fat beef, which were readily bought up by the butchers, and altogether prices ruled very brisk for all kinds of beasts. Mr Isaac Cooke sen. Of Moulton sold two fine bullocks at £40 each; and Mr. Thos. Barwell exhibited and sold a very handsome steer, just under two years old, supposed to weigh over 70 stones.”[iii]
In Britain a form of inoculation was used very early on to treat cattle plague as early as 1754 a technique of early inoculation was used by taking material from the legions of an infected cow and smearing it into the wound of another. Further advances with successful inoculation were made in 1920, but these did carry a slight risk of infection until a highly successful low risk vaccine was developed in 1960 the ultimately resulted in the eradication of the disease in 2011. It is the only animal disease to have been successfully eradicated by a vaccine and stands alongside the smallpox vaccine in humans in sharing this accolade.