Duffy’s Cut, Snow, US Medicare, Throckrington and The Welfare State

Highlighting the Differences in Public Health provision, the Attitudes to Death and Responsibilities of the State and the Individual to Public Welfare.

The title is the biggest bit – trust me.


This takes us from today’s news from America and the Duffy’s Cut project to a tiny hamlet in Northumberland, England, called Throckrington.

Duffy’s Cut Project – link

Duufy's Cut Mass GraveLast Friday, 20/3/2009, some archaeologists in Pennsylvannia, USA, dug up some bones of Irish labourers whose bodies had been unceremoniously dumped next to the railway line they were digging after they died, probably from cholera.  There were 57 of them.

This is a big thing for Americans! Despite the almost ubiquitous death penalty in that country and the hugely expensive but ineffective health care system (certainly if you’ve no insurance), and despite the twin foundations of that place being built upon the ideas of “the self” and “hand-on-heart god bless America”, this team of people on the Duffy’s Cut Project are spending hundreds of man-hours in a search for truth and to give the almost anonymous people some sort of decent burial, 175 years after the event.

Maybe there’s some sort of change happening after the excesses of the Bush era and the collapse and then public rescue of financial institutions and global businesses?  It’s almost a Welfare State!  Almost socialist!  Maybe they’ll move on to properly interring some of the tens of thousands of Native Americans killed in the various massacres during the colonial push?

Dr John Snow – link, link

Dr JohnSnowHe’s described variously as the ‘father of epidemiology’ and ‘the greatest doctor that ever lived’.  Probably rightly so.

Snow witnessed at first hand the arrival of Cholera into the UK in Sunderland in 1831 and it’s subsequent spread to Newcastle.  While having an annual mortality rate of ~5%, in an epidemic most deaths occur within a week or so, which made it particularly appalling in Newburn near Newcastle and down the Sandhill in Newcastle-on-Tyne itself.

Thousands died within weeks in the crowded streets in an area not much bigger than a football pitch.  Sandhill is just to the west of the famous Tyne Bridge.  It’s a hill up to Dean Street which is actually a culverted stream/sewer.  An original report on the 1832 epidemic is here (pdf file).

Whittle Dene FiltersBroad Street PumpBecause of this and subsequent events (e.g. the Broad Street epidemic now commemorated with a pump memorial) , Snow pushed for clean water for people to drink, actions that could either be provided by enlightened wealthy individuals or by the intervention and provision by the State.  That is, public welfare by the State.

In Newcastle, the first proper water supply came from Whittle Dene, and the (since expanded) ‘Whittle Dene Filters’ can still be seen next to the Military Road.   Since that time, hardly anyone has died from Cholera in Newcastle, a horrible way to go since you literally shit yourself to death.


See more images and a map here

Images © Copyright Phil Thirkell and Richard Young and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Throckrington is a teeny-tiny place set in the ‘Wilds of Wanney’ in Northumberland.  It has a cute little church and a farm that straddles both sides of the little cattle-gridded road.  It’s truly one of the most wildly tranquil and beautiful places on the world.

Yet just to the west of the Church are a few bumps in the sheep-grazed grass.  These are the remnants of the former village that was ravaged by a later Cholera epidemic, in 1847). (This is subsequent to the one witnessed by Snow in Newcastle).  The Cholera was brought by a returning sailor who’d passed through Newcastle.  The village was completely wiped out!

Remarkably, standing in the Churchyard, gazing out across this former village, if you cast your eyes down over the western tombstones in the churchyard, you’ll find one belonging to Lord Beveridge( and his wife), surveying the glorious western vista for eternity.

The Welfare State

William Beveridge as he was, was commisioned by the WW2 wartime UK government to produce a report which became known as ‘The Beveridge Report‘.  This laid the foundations for something that became known in Britain as the Welfare State and the National Heath Service (NHS).  And quoting from Wikipedia:

The Report to the Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services was published in 1942. It proposed that all people of working age should pay a weekly national insurance contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed. Beveridge argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”.

It recommended that the government should find ways of fighting the five ‘Giant Evils’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. This led to the setting up of the modern Welfare State (the culmination of the Fabians’ project) with a National Health Service (NHS):

19.Plan for social security : XI.Medical treatment covering all requirements will be provided for all citizens by a National Health Service organised under the health departments and post-medical rehabilitation treatment will be provided for all persons capable of profiting by it.


It’s a long way coming, but it demonstrates the Buddhist principle of ‘the connectedness of all things’ and also the benefits of working altruistically for the common good, sometimes against huge peer pressure.   This last is part of something called the Noble Eightfold Path by Gautama Buddha, that is;

  • right view,
  • right intention,
  • right speech,
  • right action,
  • right livelihood,
  • right effort,
  • right mindfulness,
  • right concentration. .

Dr Snow had many obstacles to his now accepted theory on disease transmission from his fellow medical professionals.  Beveridge likewise had much opposition, only the arrival of WW2 made it happen.  An earlier Clinton presidency failed at making Welfare reforms.  There are some odious vested interests out there!

Yet despite it’s many curses, failures and problems, the UK still has it’s NHS, welfare provision, and public water supplies.  The population of the country is extremely healthy and despite complaints, are considerably better off than that prior to 1845.

The USA under Obama has plans to considerably reform ‘medicare’ and the costly private healthcare insurance system that leaves vulnerable people worse off and yet costs much more per capita than the UK’s NHS.  Let’s hope they do it right and fix all the other iniquities that have bedevilled that place.

By Strangely

Founding member of the gifted & talented band, "The Crawling Chaos" from the North-East of England.


  1. This was a very good read. A lot of people in the UK complain about what we have, especialy the NHS. I think both the UK and the US can improve on the quality of life they offer their people. The Duffy's Cut project sounds great, very respectful.

Comments are closed.