Today (July 29) in London History – Bills of Mortality

Something different today. For this Today in London History podcast we go to a London coffee house on July 29, 1728 and look at a couple of nearly 300-year-old newspapers.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s July 29th. And you know what, I’m thinking we should contra-flow this one. July 29th is the opening day of the 1948 London Olympics. Everybody’s going there. And that in itself is reason enough to give it a miss. 

Similarly, July 29th, 1981. Prince Charles marries his “commoner” – Lady Diana Spencer. Everybody’s jumping on that bandwagon. All the more reason for steering clear. How’s that sage old piece of advice go: Always drink upstream from the herd.

So that’s what we’re going to do. Head off the beaten path. Go where the mob doesn’t go. 

Very London Walks that.

So we’re heading back to 1728. We’ve just put in at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane. 

It’ ‘s a good place to hang out in, Old Slaughter’s. You rub elbows with famous people. The American Ben Franklin, for example. Henry Fielding the novelist. Dr Johnson, the great man of letters. Gainsborough and Hogarth the artists. And good things happen there as well as good conversation. Famously, the founding of the RSPCA – the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That’s nearly a century in the future, though. We’re in there today, July 29th, 1728. Just chilling. Sitting quietly in a corner with a pipe and a mug of coffee and a supply of newspapers. That’s what I really like about Old Slaughter’s – it’s got a closetful of newspapers, including lots of back issues. 

I’m looking at the latest issue of the London Journal. Reading about a London woman named Mary Edge. Mary Edge made the papers. Look at this, for heavens sakes. It says she was committed to Newgate for uttering treasonable words against his Majesty King George. Wonder what she said. Wonder who turned her in. Lesson learned though. In London in 1728 you gotta be careful what you say and who you’re saying it to – who might overhear it.

And I have to say, London seems pretty accident-prone in 1728. Lots of serious injuries. A man riding home to Highgate thrown from his horse and breaking his neck. And a boy playing on the rails at the Fleet Ditch, falling in and breaking his thigh. And a man working on the gateway on London Bridge falling off his ladder and breaking his leg. And a scowerers boy on Puddle Dock Hill hanging clothes to dry on poles. The lad fell down into the street and was, according to the newspaper, “miserably shattered and bruised.” Like the others, he’s in hospital. And some serious complaints about “Geneva Houses” near Tower Hill. Yes, Geneva Houses. They’ll be places serving that new craze, gin. They haven’t wasted any time in getting a bad reputation. They’re disorderly. They’re harbouring thieves and street robbers. They’re giving rise to lots of mischief. 

And how about those gentlemen on Thames Street – wonder if they’d just come out of a Geneva House. They met up with a citizen and his wife. The three gentlemen decided they were going to kiss the citizen’s wife. The citizen said “no, you don’t”. One of the gentlemen drew his sword and stabbed the poor man. Six inches deep, just below his breast. The hue and cry went up. The watch and constables got there in no time. The three gentlemen resisted them but were finally seized and sent to the compter. The surgeon looking after the wounded citizen said his wound would be fatal. 

And mad dogs and Londoners go out in the mid-day sun. Some boys were playing with a dog in Sweeten’s Alley. A porter came running down the alley. The dog went for him and, according to the paper, tore his leg in a dreadful manner.

And then there’s the servant to the brickmaker in Kennington. He was found hanging from a tree in South Lambeth. He was bit by a mad dog about a month ago. And now he’s a suicide.  

And that’s just a casual glance at one page. 

Time to order a second coffee and get stuck into the Bills of Mortality. Boy, do they make fascinating reading. Let alone sombre reading. And they really set you thinking. I looked at an issue for earlier in the year. It laid it out, the London Bill of Mortality for the last week in January. First of all, that word, “bill,” is unnerving. It pretty much is saying, “You pay up in deaths, London. And your bill this week is 634 Londoners”. Newly dead Londoners. As for new Londoners – babies – that same week there were 410 of them. We’ll be circling back to that figure.

Anyway, the bills of mortality list the cause of the death. And the ages of the deceased. That week there were nearly 40 different causes of death. The big killer was something called Convulsion. It did for 169 Londoners. Fever claimed another 89 lives. Consumption killed 82. Old age got in on the act – it took off 66 elderly Londoners. Smallpox bagged another 52.  

And then it starts to get seriously weird. This hardly bears thinking about but apparently troubles with their teeth did for 49 Londoners. Dropsie dropped another 22 into the grave. 

Something called Tissick – no, I hadn’t heard of it either – finished off 17 that week. Tissick was something bronchial – asthma, bronchitis, coughing, wheezing, that sort of thing.

And then we come to the malady known as Rising of the Lights. It did for another four Londoners. Yes, well you might rub your ears. Rising of the Lights. That’s what it was called. It was a medical condition characterised by difficulty in breathing. By choking. Those tens of thousands of Covid victims on ventilators – I suppose that was our version of Rising of the Lights.

Then there was Water in the Head. That did for three Londoners that week. Hydrocephalus I think we’d call it. It’s apparently rare today. Obviously it wasn’t all that rare three hundred years ago. And that brings us to Horseshoe-head. How’s that for a descriptor for an ailment. We learn from Chambers Encyclopedia, published in this very year, 1728, that Horseshoehead was “a disease in infants, wherein the sutures of the head are too open, or too great a vacuity is left between them.” 

And there was rickets and pleurisy and jaundice and stoppage in the stomach and worms and mortification (gangrene in other words) and French pox (yes, syphilis) and bloody flux (bloody diarrhoea we’d say today) and something called purple (turns out purple was any dark red or purplish lesion of the skin – brought on by malignant fevers).

Well, all of this is pretty horrifying. And, yes, pretty slapdash. Pathology had a long way to go three hundred years ago.

But as extraordinary as this medical tour’s been – I’ve been holding back on you.

The most horrifying thing of all was the age breakdown of the fatalities. More than a third of them were under two years old. 

Another nine per cent were two to five-year-olds. Little kids – infants – did more dying – a lot more dying – than anybody else in the London of three hundred years ago. If you were a little kid you had about a one in five chance of not making it out of childhood.

And the other thing of course is that ratio of deaths to births: 634 buried, 410 christened. You look at the Bills of Mortality those are the sort of figures you see, week in and week out. What’ d you’d expect from that is that London’s population would be going off a cliff edge, dropping like a stone.

It isn’t. It’s steadily increasing. How do you account for that when a lot more Londoners are dying than are being born? Only one way to account for it: immigration, people coming to London. And now ask the question, who are those people who are flocking to London? How old are they? They’re not old people. They’re not children. Kids – unless they’re Oliver Twist – don’t come to London. And probably not very many of them are people in their 30s and 40s – because by that age people are usually pretty well settled. Who’s that leave? That’s right, that leaves young people. Rising 20-year-olds, young people in their 20s. Nothing sedate or settled or old about London. This was a city that had the edge and energy of youth. A city full of burst and bustle and hustle. A city with a lot of ampage, a lot of charge. A city on the make. 

Ok, I’m down to the dregs of that second cup of coffee. Time to up stakes. Time for us to take our leave of Old Slaughter’s Coffee House and 1728. Yes, time to make a Today in London recommendation. And, yes, you probably guessed: London’s great medical museum, the Wellcome Collection. How could it be otherwise given where we’ve just come from?

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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