Isolation Island – Flatholm #underthemask

Cholera – the scourge of Victorian Britain

One of the blights of Victorian times was a rapacious killer, that had arrived in the UK from Asia. It took out many thousands. It was a condition that particularly affected poorer communities and those who arrived from overseas – Sound familiar?      

The disease affected the poor, in cramped conditions

The Cholera epidemic, was one of the defining moments of the 1800s, triggering local authority reform and the harnessing of the finest minds in engineering to create civic sanitation at a scale that had not been seen before.

A significant response in South Wales was the creation of a cholera community and hospital – off the coast of Cardiff.

Overlooking the Severn Estuary – the Victorians saw the Island as a valuable defence against invasion

The tiny Island of Flatholm, four miles from the mainland had had history long before cholera. It had hosted the Celtic saints, the Vikings settled here and moved on when the water and the food ran out. And the Victorian engineers had seen it as a valuable defensive weapon against the threat from Napoleonic France.

Ironically, by the time the hospital was built the epidemic was more or less over. Yet the remains still serve as a reminder.

The plan then was to isolate the sick. For the last two months we have been isolating the well.

The remains of the Cholera Hospital on Flatholm

This has meant that the island, which has been fighting its corner as a attraction for visitors and nature lovers, is in Covid-19  lock-down, with all but two locked-out.

Jen Breen and her partner Matt are working as wardens on the Island: “We were asked if we wanted to stay or go,” she said, “ we decided to stay, just the two of us.”

Cardiff Habour Authority rules stipulate that one person cannot be on the Island alone, so the couple are staying together, in glorious isolation.

“We’re just keeping things ticking over,” says Jen, “making sure that everything is kept neat and tidy to be prepared for some visitors hopefully!”

The Island has been a sanctuary since the time of the Celtic Saints

It was anticipated to be a busy year this year, with a visitor boat carrying up to 30 being re-commissioned and the harbour authority applying for lottery funding to repair some of the remaining buildings and develop the Island’s significance in the narrative of Cardiff Bay and the Severn Estuary.

“We had quite a lot of events scheduled as well,” said Jen.

Securing the cholera hospital remains is part of a lottery application

“There was some yoga stuff and some bushcraft camping, there were scouts visiting and some ex-military guys who were going to come and do some workshops.

“The calendar was quite full, but now it will have to wait until next year or see what we can fit in with the good weather.”

Jen and Matt have been spending their time tending to routine maintenance. Now they are planning to count the seagulls!

That may seem like a function of the very bored but actually its very important part of life on Flatholm.

The island is renowned for its population of lesser black-backed gulls. The survey is generally carried out by a large team – this year it will be done by just two.


HG 11/5/20


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *