Archive for the Bills of Mortality Category

Tracking Epidemic Disease in 17th Century London

Posted in Bills of Mortality, Uncategorized with tags on 06/05/2020 by Craig Spence

Two panels from a contemporary broadsheet that shows the role and activities of the Searchers

Two panels from a contemporary broadsheet (1665/6) showing the work of the Searchers who collected the cause of death data for the Bills of Mortality: in the lefthand panel they are present in a house afflicted by plague, while in the righthand panel the women walk the streets of London carrying their ‘wands of office’. [Nine images of the plague in London, 17th century]. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

I’ve so far resisted writing about the Bills of Mortality and plague and Covid-19, I don’t have a great deal of time for historians who jump on bandwagons (especially when they do so outside their specific area of expertise) but I do think to reflect in a thoughtful and measured way in response to contemporary events is an essential historical activity and as the lockdown and isolation drag on, I feel that I may have something to offer. So, I’ll drop a blog post here on just this topic. Read it if you want to but if you feel it’s not yet time for reflection then by all means leave it for later.

Rather than revelling in the massive numbers of plague casualties that the Bills stand witness to, and which are undoubtedly the most over-reproduced images of the weekly Bills across all types of outputs, I want to focus on the efforts that were made to identify and track the earliest occurrences of plague deaths. As we are all aware obtaining a true picture of contagion and associated death rates during an epidemic is far from easy – and it wasn’t easy for seventeenth-century Londoners either. But that is precisely what the Bills of Mortality were for.

The Bills, or at least the organised collection of cause of death information, was established at the end of the sixteenth century by the rulers of the City of London expressly to forewarn of plague. Clearly, my own use of Bills data, to support an understanding of early modern accidents, is tangential to this primary foundational purpose. While it’s possible to have some confidence in the accuracy of the Bills when reporting an accidental death, the veracity of the observations of the Searchers and the reporting by the Parish Clerks become more problematic during times of epidemic. Indeed, many early plague deaths remained unreported as such during the opening months of 1665 as London’s Great Plague became established. Whether this ‘failure’ was the result of corruption amongst Searchers and Clerks, misguided attempts to protect the character of their parishes and neighbourhoods, or simple incompetence/omission in a pressured environment is impossible to tell. Nevertheless, such failures, or the perception of them, came to taint the servants of this system through the eyes of commentators and later historians despite good evidence that outside of times of crisis the system worked well, albeit within the limits of early modern medical diagnostics.

There is some evidence to support the belief that the presence of plague in London was appreciated, at least in governmental circles, earlier than the Bills report the first deaths. During April the Privy Council discussed events in St Giles in the Fields after the first households were shut up and which resulted in neighbours riotously ‘liberating’ the infected inhabitants. And by 12 May the King and his advisors had decided to form a special Committee of the Privy Council ‘to consider of the best means of preventing the spreading of the infection of the plague’. The most senior members of King Charles II’s court/government were to attend and they, in turn, called for expert guidance from leading physicians. Their most immediate instructions were for the obviously infected parish of St Giles in the Fields to enforce household quarantines and to set about building a new/temporary ‘pest house’ to help cope with the expected wave of infections.

Private correspondence from the time also talks of the wider circulation of plague before it became an established feature of the Bills of Mortality. For example, during April and May John Allin, a former vicar of Rye in Sussex who was then resident in Southwark, noted in his correspondence that he ‘heard yesterday there are 2 houses shut up in Drury Lane for the sickness’ – this was on 27 April. In a perceptive comment he noted on 26 May that ‘ye bill mentioned 3 last weeke, and 14 this weeke, but its rather believed to be treble the number’.

Bill of Mortality listing of parish mortality from 2nd May to the 9th 1665

Bill of Mortality for Week Commencing 2 May 1665 – London’s Dreadful Visitation: or, a Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year [London: Printed by E[leanor] Cotes (for the Company of Parish Clerks), 1665]. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0).

If, however, we take the Bills of Mortality at face value then it is possible to drill down to the level of parish records to identify individual incidents. According to the Bills, the first significant reporting of plague came during the week commencing 2 May 1665. The Bill of Mortality for that week reported one plague death in St Andrew Holborn, three in St Giles in the Fields and 4 in St Clements Danes. These were all external to the boundary of the City of London and appear to have been perceived, at least by London’s elite, as of little consequence. In a similar way, the single plague death reported from the parish of St Mary Woolchurch which lay within the City walls was considered to have represented either an interloper from Westminster or the result of a simple misdiagnosis. The parish burial register provides no further clarification simply naming the plague sufferer as John May, who was buried on the 6 May.

The St Andrew Holborn burial was however more emphatically noted as the parish’s first plague death. On 2 May ‘Rose Farmer, a girl aged about 12 years of age’ who lived in Robin Hood Court off Shoe Lane was laid to rest, her register entry being supplemented with an emphatic marginal note that simply read ‘Plague’.

Extract from the parish burial register for St Andrew Holborn

Burial Register for St Andrew Holborn: LMA P82/AND/A/010/MS06673 [1653-1672]

The first publicly acknowledged cases within the City walls were noted during the first week of June. At this point reported metropolitan plague deaths had reached 112, breaking past the 100 deaths figure that Sir William Petty proposed as the marker of a confirmed plague epidemic.

Bill of Mortality showing parish mortality from the 6th of June to the 13th 1665

Bill of Mortality for Week Commencing 6 June 1665 London’s Dreadful Visitation [1665]. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

Two intra-mural deaths were reported as plague by the Bills, one in St Alban Wood Street the other at St Gabriel Fenchurch Street. The former was not noted as plague in the relevant burial register however there is circumstantial evidence that of the four burials that week the plague victim was probably ‘Mr Tyros Maid’. The unfortunate servant was interred on 10 June, and so would have been reported within the Bill for the week commencing 6 June, but her death had been preceded in that particular household by ‘Mr Tyros Man’ some two weeks earlier. It is therefore entirely possible that he was, in fact, the first resident of the City of London to succumb to plague, being buried on 26 May.

Burial register for St Alban Wood Street from 13th May to 13th June 1665

Burial Register for St Alban Wood Street: LMA P69/ALB/A/001/MS06527 [1662-1786]

Coincidentally, the reported plague victim at St Gabriel Fenchurch Street was also buried on 10 June and was also a servant. William Passon was employed by Dr Alexander Burnett who had the singular distinction of being Samuel Pepys physician. As a result, Pepys noted in his journal ‘In the evening home to supper; and there, to my great trouble, hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City [i.e. in the suburbs]); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr. Burnett, in Fenchurch Street: which in both points troubles me mightily.’ Burnett was praised by his neighbours for shutting up his house voluntarily once plague was diagnosed – he in effect self-isolated. While Burnett did not contract the disease at that point in time, he did succumb to it later in the year. Pepys diary entry for 25 August notes ‘I am told that Dr. Burnett, my physician, is this morning dead of the plague; which is strange, his man dying so long ago, and his house this month open again. Now himself dead. Poor unfortunate man!’

Entry for 10th June 1665 from the burial register of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street

Burial Register of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street: Entry dated 10 June 1665 – LMA P69/GAB/A/001/MS05293 [1571-1709]

Entry from the burial register for the parish of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street for 25th August 1665

Burial Register of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street: Entry dated 25 August 1665 – LMA P69/GAB/A/001/MS05293 [1571-1709]

From this point forward the Bills regularly reported plague deaths reaching a peak in mid-September when a weekly toll of 7,165 plague deaths was reported. Burials of plague victims continued in significant numbers through to the end of the year and in some parishes into early 1666.

Several writers and historians have used the Bills of Mortality to illustrate narrative accounts of the Great Plague and, more recently, to critically analyse the origins, progress and eventual decline of the epidemic. Indeed contemporaries, those who lived through the trauma of 1665, also made good use of the Bills to help them make sense of the extraordinary mortality of that year. Among narrative accounts, two stand out: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (published in 1722) and Walter George Bell’s The Great Plague in London (1924). A more recent and wider-ranging account can be found in The Great Plague (1999) and The Plagues of London (2008) both by Stephen Porter. For a more in-depth and critical discussion, attention should be paid to The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (1990) by Paul Slack and London’s Dreaded Visitation: The Social Geography of the Great Plague of 1665 (1995) by Justin Champion.

The past provides a mirror against which we can consider our own actions and behaviours, from personal, national and international perspectives. The response to plague in the seventeenth century provides a number of surprising parallels to our current pandemic concerns – government emergency committees, self-isolation and quarantining, temporary ‘hospitals’, and the challenge of enumerating deaths and tracking disease spread (there is also a range of blaming behaviours which I haven’t had space to consider here but which in the seventeenth century were as equally flawed as those of the present-day). Nevertheless, such parallels are merely echoes from a different time, at once familiar and yet equally distant. What changes is the way we (or at least most of us) think about the crisis we face and how to cope with it as an immediate medical and social challenge, and the various paths we might follow going forward. History, and historians, can help us review, evaluate and where necessary challenge such responses now and in the future.

“How many people were killed by the Great Fire of London?” Perhaps more than you thought?

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality with tags , , on 01/09/2016 by Craig Spence
While few died in the making of this blank area on the map of London, many more were killed filling it in again.


While few died in the making of this blank area on the map of London, many more were killed filling it in again.

“How many people were killed by the Great Fire of London?” A question often asked and on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire a question which merits an answer. The first thing to make clear is that, despite the terrible devastation caused by the flames of September 1666 which resulted in the loss of more than 13,000 buildings, very few people directly lost their lives in the inferno. The initial response to the Great Fire was not to fight the conflagration but instead pack-up and run-away. Despite the ferocity of the fire it nonetheless moved slowly enough that most Londoners could simply take evasive action; having said that a small number of people did die as a direct result of being caught up in the flames.

Unfortunately one of the few gaps in the publishing run of the weekly Bills of Mortality occurs at the time of the Great Fire. The Hall of the Parish Clerks Company, located in Broad Lane in the riverside parish of St Martin Vintry, was an early victim of the fire. While the clerks were able to remove many of their possessions and papers they did not have time or resources to save their heavy and cumbersome printing press. The press was sacrificed to the advancing flames on the night of Sunday 2 September. As a result there was a four week hiatus in the production of the weekly Bills. When they resumed on 25 September they did so in a limited way only reporting on the sixteen and fourteen parishes of the City Within and Without the Walls that were noted as ‘still standing’. Importantly no attempt was made in the weekly output to provide an aggregated catch-up for the missing four weeks.

So the weekly Bills provide no record of those who may have died as a direct result of the Fire. But it seems the Parish Clerks did keep or gather some sort of tally of mortality for the month of September as the numbers reported as ‘burnt’ in the Annual Bill of Mortality for 1666 exceeds the total derived from the forty-eight weekly Bills that were produced during that year. A comparison of the two figures suggests that no more than seven Londoners died by being burnt by the flames of the Great Fire.

Walter George Bell in his account of the Fire, first published in 1923, estimated no more than six had been burnt. He provided details for four of these victims, drawn from various sources. These included the maid servant of Farriner, the baker, who was left behind in Pudding Lane; an old women who was burnt while sheltering in the shadow of the walls of St Paul’s; Paul Lowell an 80 year old watchmaker who refused to leave his house in Shoe Lane; and an old man who also perished at St Paul’s and whom Samuel Pepys informs us died when he returned to collect a blanket he had left there. In fact at the time there was a general belief that despite the devastation no-one had died in the Fire, a view that was communicated readily as a form of English miracle.

But is it fair to say that the Great Fire of London killed very few people? Yes if we are talking of the four days of the Fire itself, but certainly not if the human cost of those forced into homelessness or those placed in hazard by the Great Rebuilding is considered. While it is difficult to estimate how many of the City’s ‘refugees’ died through cold, hunger or disease in the immediate aftermath it is possible to enumerate deaths associated with the reconstruction activities.

The Weekly Bills of Mortality supply evidence for numerous construction-related deaths within the devastated area over the following decade or so. During that period at least 75 building workers died as they fell from walls, ladders and scaffolds, were struck by stones, timber and bricks, or were crushed by falling earth and debris, across a range of City construction sites. Elements of the death toll can still be linked to the Fire through to the end of the century if the slower process of rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral and a number of the City churches is considered. At St Paul’s in particular workers were crushed by falling masonry or fell from the great heights of the walls, towers, pinnacles and dome.

So we, 350 years later, have a broad consensus that only a handful of Londoners died during the four days of the Great Fire in September 1666; but in April 1704 poor Widow Mullins might not have agreed with such an estimation as she accepted from the Commissioners for the Rebuilding of St Paul’s the sum of ‘£5 for her present subsistence’ following the death of her husband, a labourer lately killed on the cathedral works.

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.

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.

This week in 1728: Falling out of windows and into gin!

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality with tags , , , on 05/03/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the LondonBills of Mortality for the week of 5th March 1728:

1 bruised by a fall from a window at St Katherine Coleman;
1 found dead at St George the Martyr [Southwark];
1 found in the River of Thames, a boy unknown, buried at St Olave Southwark;
1 scalded in a distillers copper, a young man, at St James Clerkenwell.

A small but interesting group of fatalities from this first week of March in 1728. Falls from buildings, and especially windows, tended to occur disproportionately often during this first quarter of the year throughout the later 17th and early 18th centuries. Perhaps the first glimpses of warmer weather enticed people to open windows previously kept firmly shut against the colder weather, or maybe it just represents the recommencement of construction activity after the winter ‘break’.

Although adults were often found washed up on the shores of the Thames it was rarer to encounter the body of a child. Whether such fatalities were suicides, accident or murder victims was hard to tell, in this case however the first category might be fairly safely omitted. Finally the young man scalded to death was most likely a distiller’s (or brewer’s) servant or possibly apprentice. Just goes to show that it wasn’t only the consumers of gin who suffered early deaths but, as on this occasion, it could also be the manufacturers.

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Alley’ engraving of 1751 depicts the detrimental affects of gin but in this case on the consumers not the producers. We will return to this, and other of Hogarth’s works, in future posts as they often feature aspects of violent death in the metropolis.

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).

Boys will be boys as they venture onto thin ice

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Newspapers with tags , , on 29/01/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London Bills of Mortality for the week of 31st January 1721:

1 found dead at St Margaret Westminster
1 hanged himself being distracted at St Andrew Holborn
2 drowned in a pond by the breaking of the ice at St Leonard Shoreditch
1 killed with a sword at St Brides Fleet Street and buried at St Anne Blackfriars

The Bills report the deaths of two drowned in a pond in the semi-rural parish of St Leonard Shoreditch, clearly the weather was wintery as the two in question died after the ice they were on broke plunging them into the freezing water. The register of St Stephen Coleman Street records one of these deaths when it noted the burial on 6 February 1721 of ‘Aron Peter drowned in a pond of water by the sudden breaking of the ice where on he was sliding.’

Contemporary newspapers, such as  Applebee’s Original Weekly Journal and the Weekly Journal or Saturday’s Post, support the Bills of Mortality by making it clear that Aron did not die alone. The newspapers report ‘two boys, whose parents lives in Swan Alley, Coleman Street’ … ‘were drowned in the pond behind the Haberdashers Alms-House, the ice breaking under them as they were sliding on it’. With only one burial noted in the parish register of St Stephen Coleman Street it suggests that these boys were more likely friends and neighbours rather than brothers.

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