Archive for drowning

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.

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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.

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.

Death by New River water – should have drunk beer, or maybe he did!

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Inquest with tags on 16/01/2012 by Craig Spence

On 15 January 1661 the Bills of Mortality reported the death of a man drowned at St John Clerkenwell. The parish burial register for that date provides a little more information noting that the man was a stranger and had drowned in the New River, or its reservoir, near to the Waterhouse in Islington (see Hollar’s excellent depiction below). It also notes that Mr Evans,  the Middlesex coroner, called an inquest on the body and then granted a warrant for burial. While drowning was the most frequent form of sudden violent death in early modern London the majority of these deaths took place in the River Thames. London’s lesser watercourses and smaller land-locked bodies of water did however contribute to the general toll; in fact between 1655-1735 at least eighty-three people drowned in the New River. How this particular individual came to be in the water is not known but it seems that the inquest jury decided this was neither a case of murder nor suicide, so perhaps a drunken stumble into the cold clean water of the New River was all that was needed. For more info on the New River Company see  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_River_(England).

 An engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar of the reservoir and Waterhouse of the New River Company in 1665 (just four years after the unknown man was drowned).

This week in 1655

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 07/01/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London weekly Bills of Mortality for the week of 2nd January 1655:

1 Drowned at St Katherine by the Tower;
1 killed by a bull at St Saviours Southwark;
murdered – an infant found in the street at St John the Evangelist;
1 scalded to death in a brewer’s kettle at St Botolph Bishopsgate;
1 slain at St Andrew Holborn.

Clearly the most notable of these fatalities are the persons killed by a bull and scalded in a brewer’s kettle. The bull incident was actually quite a rare occurrence; during the period 1654 to 1735 only twenty-two people were killed by cattle within the area of the Bills. Given that somewhere in the region of 90,000 live cattle passed through the London markets each year during this period the death toll seems relatively light considering the number of workers and passersby who might have been exposed to the animals. Perhaps people were careful to stay out of their way – most of the time? The brewing fatality was however a relatively more common incident, the heady mix of alcohol, boiling liquids and industrial processes actually resulted in the small number of brewery workers being exposed to a higher risk of fatal accident than many other metropolitan occupations.

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