Archive for the Newspapers Category

Encounters with the Dead

Posted in Murder, Newspapers, Uncategorized with tags , , on 30/10/2016 by Craig Spence

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Encounters with the dead were common in pre-modern society. With death rates from disease and illness high most people would come face-to-face with the dead at some time or other. But such events mostly occurred in private or at least domestic settings, environments where the encounter could be managed and socially regulated. In the early modern metropolis however the chance of public viewing of violent or unusual deaths was ever present.

It would seem that Londoners were particularly keen to look into the face of death. They thronged to the fields around Tyburn to witness the last death throes of the condemned, or journeyed to the waterside at Wapping to celebrate the execution of pirates. But London presented other opportunities to connect with the dead. Those recovered from rivers and ponds were often exposed to public view in an attempt to provide an identity. In March 1730 the Daily Courant reported that ‘on Thursday last in the afternoon a man was taken out of the New River Head near Sadler’s Wells, who is supposed to have been murdered and robbed, by his pockets being turned out, and being cut and mangled very much; he was carried to Clerkenwell burying ground, to be seen openly, if that any person should know to whom he belonged.’ That, via word of mouth, crowds would have gathered to view the corpse is not unlikely.

On another occasion when the drowned body of a woman was discovered on the Thames shoreline in 1754 it drew an audience. In particular James Gould a bargeman set aside the possible protestations of his wife and child as he diverted their Sunday walk to get a closer look. As he later recounted at the Old Bailey; ‘Upon Sunday the 18th of November, as I, my wife, and child, were coming from Chiswick to Hammersmith we heard of a drowned woman; I was determined to walk down to see her, and walked as far as the mud would let me go; she lay in the mud and water, but over-hawling her very strictly I lifted up her head’ and by doing so he gazed directly into the face of death. Others waited their turn until several men had recovered the body of Elizabeth Webb and carried it to drier land before taking a closer look. Henry Smith and Robert Boyle helped to ‘threw her upon a piece of board and carry her up to the Black-Lion and laid her there; there were five or six of us carried her up’. Boyle also observed that ‘I believe there were a hundred people on the bank side at that time.’

In what was perhaps an even more macabre engagement with the dead, a house fire in 1687 drew a certain type of audience. A pamphlet published in recognition of the catastrophic event (A True Account of that Dreadful Fire which happened in the House of Mr Samuel Seaton) noted that ‘The bodies … were carried to a neighbour’s house; and there lay as affrightening spectacles to people, who flocked to see them’. One can readily imagine the press of men, women and children at the doors and windows of the house as they jostled to catch a glimpse, or a smell, of the charred corpses of the seven recently deceased inhabitants including Mr Seaton, his wife and their new-born child.

April 1730 and London newspapers report the deaths of firemen, porters and servants killed by collapsing buildings at a ‘great fire’ on Fleet Street

Posted in Newspapers with tags , , , , on 01/04/2016 by Craig Spence

Mr Clinton was a distiller; his shop conveniently located in Fleet Street was to be found close to the corner of Fetter Lane. On the morning of 31 March 1730 he began his day by firing up his still to produce another batch of alcoholic intoxicants. During this process, and for some unexplained reason, the still-head became detached from the apparatus. Hot alcohol spewed across the room and coming into contact with the naked flames below the distilling vat it burst explosively into flame.

The ensuing fire was intense and quickly spread throughout Clinton’s building. Unfortunately for his neighbours within an hour-and-a-half the fire had also spread to theirs. The properties of Mr Kingham (a potter), Mr Allin (a shoemaker) and Mr Sawkins (innholder at the ‘Magpye and Horseshoe’) were all affected.

Firemen of the London insurance offices were quickly on the scene and together with a crowd of porters, servants and passers-by attempted to both fight the fire and remove goods and belongings from the affected and adjacent houses. Well into their task there was a sudden rumbling and without warning two of the houses collapsed.

The London newspapers tell the story of that day, and the following four, in some detail. Reports of the total number of casualties vary but certainly six died and maybe as many as sixteen. Many others were injured and rushed to the London hospitals for treatment.

Among the dead was James Mitchell an insurance company fireman. Mitchell was a resident of Westminster and had begun his working life as a waterman’s apprentice in 1718. Keen to take advantage of the higher status and regular income offered by the role of fireman he had abandoned the waters of the river and turned instead to the fires of the city to provide his ‘trade’. Others who died included a footman and a porter.

On the third day after the fire and collapse the efforts of those toiling to rescue anyone still trapped in the debris were rewarded when a servant maid was pulled alive from the ruins. Incredibly she had survived the fire trapped in the partially fallen vault underneath the ‘Horseshoe alehouse’. She did not survive long however tragically dying within minutes of being freed. It is likely that she was a victim of ‘crush syndrome’, a form of traumatic fatal injury not formally identified until studies of victims of the London Blitz were undertaken some 210 years later.

The London Newspapers made concerted efforts to report this event; the Daily Courant, The Weekly Journal or British Gazette, The Weekly Journal, the Daily Journal and the Daily Post all covered the story. The printer of The Weekly Journal, Mr Read Sen. resident of Whitefriars Street, secured a closer insight into the events than he might have wished. Having taken his own [fire] engine to the scene of the conflagration he was close at hand when the buildings collapsed.  By which means he not only secured a first-hand account of the incident but also a broken leg!

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).

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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