Archive for fire

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.

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!

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