Archive for burnt

Encounters with the Dead

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

dancedead

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.

“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.

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!

This week in 1672

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality with tags , , , on 22/01/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London Bills of Mortality for the week of 23rd January 1672:

2 killed; one at St Martinin the Fields, one at St Margaret Westminster;
1 by excessive drinking at St Olave Southwark;
1 broken leg;
A women burnt being drunk in St Paul Shadwell;
1 by a fall from a scaffold in St Giles without Cripplegate;
1 burnt at St Paul Covent Garden.

This account of sudden death from London’s teeming streets in 1672 is actually fairly typical. The use of the term ‘killed’ within the Bills of Mortality is not particularly helpful in describing the actual cause of death but a wider reading of the records suggest the use of this phrase was most often associated with those accidentally killed during casual violence; in other words various forms of manslaughter.

As for the role of alcohol as an agent of death the specific noting of those who died by ‘excessive drinking’ clearly had moralising overtones. Noting the drunken state of the woman who (in all probability) fell into the fire in the riverside parish of Shadwell perhaps represents a more direct attempt to evoke a salutary lesson while warning of the evils of drink.

 

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