Deaths from cholera in London, UK, were recorded weekly from 1824 to 1901. Three features of the time series stand out: (i) cholera deaths were strongly seasonal, with peak mortality almost always in the summer, (ii) the only non-summer outbreaks occurred in the spring of 1832, the autumn of 1848 and the winter of 1853, and (iii) extraordinarily severe summer outbreaks occurred in 1832, 1849, 1854 and 1866 (the four ‘great’ cholera years). The non-summer outbreaks of 1832, 1848 and 1853 appear to have been herald waves of newly invading cholera strains. In addition, a simple mathematical model confirms that a non-summer introduction of a new cholera strain can result in an initial herald wave, followed by a severe outbreak the following summer. Through the analysis of the genomes of nineteenth-century specimens, it may be possible to identify the strains that caused these herald waves and the well-known cholera epidemics that followed.