Archive for the Suicide Category

The day a pint of beer saved a life in January 1730

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Newspapers, Suicide with tags , , , on 05/01/2014 by Craig Spence

Bad winter weather with bitter cold and thick fogs spread across London during January 1730. As a result there were several sudden deaths and accidental injuries. The Bill of Mortality for the week commencing 6 January shows only two sudden deaths: a child ‘found dead’ in the church yard of St Mary Magdalen in Bermondsey and another person reported as ‘murdered in the goal’ at St George Southwark. This last death was that of a newborn infant deliberately drowned by Sarah Townshend, the mother, who was at the time a felon ‘committed to the New Gaol’.

The following week’s Bill has a greater and more varied number of casualties. Published for the week commencing the 13 January the Bill reports six deaths:

1 killed accidentally by a fall at St Dunstan in the West;
2 drowned: one at St Mary Lambeth; one at St Martin in the Fields;
2 found dead: one, a girl, in the churchyard of Christchurch Spitalfields; one, a male infant, at St George in the East [Wapping];
1 hanged herself being lunatic at St James Westminster.

But of course there were also those who evaded death yet still received injury at this difficult time of year. The Daily Courant newspaper took great delight in reporting on Thursday 8 January 1730 that:

The same evening [Tuesday 6th], during the time of the prodigious fogs, a man mistaking his way, fell into the fleet ditch, by which accident he beat out one of his eyes, and was very much bruised.

Another man fell into the Common-shore [sewer] in King Street, Westminster; and a great many more accidents happened on the like occasion, both in the streets of London and Westminster; as also on the River Thames.

Perhaps the most interesting story of that edition is the one that refers to beer. While the labourer concerned received no injury it is his particularly close encounter with death, and escape, that made the event so newsworthy to the metropolitan readership:

The same day, a house pretty much out of repair in Bedfordbury fell down; a bricklayer’s labourer who was employed to pull off the pantyling to lighten it, had got off about 200 [tiles], and was gone to get himself a pint of beer being cold, when it fell down without doing any further damage.

Buried alive in London’s filth

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Newspapers, Suicide with tags on 05/02/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London Bills of Mortality for the week of 2nd February 1731:

1 cut his own throat being a lunatick at St Giles without Cripplegate;
3 found dead - 2 in the street at St Peter Cornhill and 1 at St George in the East;
A man killed by a large quantity of earth at St Giles without Cripplegate.

‘Two men digging under a laystall at Mountmill near Islington, a great quantity of earth fell upon them, whereby one was killed the other much hurt.’ The Gentleman’s Magazine, 5 February 1731.

London’s waste swept from streets and gutter, or extracted from cesspits, was collected and disposed of during the 17th and 18th centuries by being dumped at a number of sites on the outskirts of the built-up area of the city. Over the years such dumps, or laystalls, often became significant local landmarks forming mounds or mounts several tens of feet high (see the section of Rocque’s 1747 map shown below which indicates at least four of Islington’s laystalls; one of which may have been known as the ‘Mountmill’).

The material that made its way onto these laystalls was frequently scavenged by the poor for objects or materials that could be re-used, sold on or simply burnt as fuel. It would seem that on this occasion, as on several others, the unfortunate diggers undermined the inherently unstable mound and were buried alive in its filth and waste.

Section of Rocque’s map of 1747 showing the laystall mounds in the vicinity of the Islington Roads to the north ofLondon(the lower mound in the centre is possibly the ‘Mountmill’ in question as a road of that name is just to the south of this area).

For a modern take on this type of event see this blog entry on rubbish tip landslides, (see post of 22 June 2008).

Welcome to the Bills of Mortality …

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Suicide on 19/12/2011 by Craig Spence

We are all interested in sudden violent death … whether we like to admit it or not. The daily news is full of it in every form; print, broadcast or internet. The hard truth is we want to know about human disaster and tragedy if only to reaffirm our own humanity. It is in some ways reassuring to note that  it has been so from the very beginnings of printed news media – during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Alongside the diplomatic and commercial information the early news-sheets recounted murders, executions and accidents (usually fatal) on a regular basis. One of the earliest (if not the earliest) printed serial publication to make use of such material was the London weekly Bills of Mortality; although not exactly a newspaper in the traditional sense it was certainly purchased, shared and read as if it were.

The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths.   It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis.

My research has focused on the content of the weekly Bills from 1654 to 1735 (the period of their greatest accuracy); as a result I have collated information for 868 murders, 2,267 suicides and an astounding 12,394 accidental violent deaths. I hope over the coming weeks and months to take a closer look at some of these events – in the main the accidents and disasters. While I also aim, at various times, to consider wider aspects of early modern sudden violent death, risk, blame and response etc I intend to keep the pace going by taking an ‘on this day’ approach. Although I hope to post regularly please don’t expect me to post daily – weekly is much more likely!

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