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This week in 1684 AND 1685: Plastering, ladders and a terrible coincidence

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality with tags , , , , , on 13/05/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London Bills of Mortality for the week of 13th May 1684:

2 drowned one at St Katherine by the Tower and one at St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey;
1 by a fall from a ladder at St Giles without Cripplegate.

As reported by the London Bills of Mortality for the week of 12th May 1685:

1 drowned at St Katherine by the Tower;
1 killed by a coach at St Martin in the Fields;
1 accidentally killed by the wheel of a crane at St Sepulchre [without Newgate];
1 by a fall from a ladder at St Giles without Cripplegate.

Here we see information on two separate weeks taken from the London Bills of Mortality exactly one year apart. The observant will have already noticed that both weeks have some things in common; drownings at St Katherine by the Tower and deaths caused by falling from ladders. The coincidences have however only just begun. Let’s set aside the drownings, which were so frequent on the Thames that such similarities are often encountered in the Bills, and instead focus on the ladder casualties.

A 17th century ladder in use for fire fighting: Such ladders claimed the lives of 88 Londoners between 1654 and 1735.

What is evident from these reports are that both falls took place in the same parish, St Giles Cripplegate, yet given the size of that suburban parish this is perhaps not so surprising. The real coincidence comes when reference is made to the parish burial register. Here we find that the victim in 1684 was a plasterer named James Fox, the victim in 1685 was a man named John Cooper who we find was – and here’s the real coincidence – also a plasterer. So we have two men in the same occupation both falling to their deaths from ladders, in the same place and exactly one year apart. One suspects that for those who could remember the earlier event the 1685 incident gave them plenty to contemplate!

Between 1654 and 1735 the Bills of Mortality record the deaths of eighty-eight individuals who fell from ladders. This was not however the most significant cause of fatal falls, that was actually the more mundane situation of falling down stairs (which claimed 216 victims). Falling from ladders was however almost certainly related to occupational activities and hence we find bricklayers, carpenters painters and plasters in the accounts of ladder-related accidents. It is also notable that falls in these occupations also peaked during the months of May – the start of the building season – and again in August through to October – as building worked became intensified before winter weather curtailed such activity.

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