Accidents and Violent Death in Early Modern London, 1650-1750 
by Craig Spence.
Boydell, 273 pp., £65, November 2016, 978 1 78327 135 1
Show More
Show More

On 15 August​ 1737 Samuel Wood was working in a windmill on the Isle of Dogs, when a rope tied around his wrist became caught in the gear wheels. The gigantic brake-wheel pulled him into the mechanism, tearing off his right arm. Wood staggered a short distance before collapsing. Bystanders staunched the wound with sugar, which was known to have antiseptic and healing properties, while they waited for help to arrive. A surgeon patched Wood up, and sent him to St Thomas’s Hospital where to everyone’s surprise he made a full recovery within two months. This minor miracle – doctors were baffled by the lack of arterial bleeding – was celebrated in an engraving in which a lank-haired, classically draped Wood stares pensively at us over his scarred shoulder. A vignette of the accident occupies one corner of the composition, and in the foreground is the severed arm.

This sort of mishap would become more common during the Industrial Revolution, with its mechanical looms and steam hammers – Dickens campaigned in the 1850s for legislation to make the fencing-off of factory machines compulsory. But working life was dangerous before industrialisation: sawyers slipped, boatmen toppled, brewers succumbed to mash-fumes, miners were buried alive. Carts crashed, bridges collapsed and tightly clustered villages were consumed by fire. The perils were greatest in England’s towns and cities, and London, by 1700 the most populous city in Europe, topped the league. The terrifying moment was latent in the most mundane routine. How dull life must have been at Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane before things became horribly interesting on the night of 2 September 1666.

Samuel Wood’s story isn’t typical of those told by Craig Spence. His book concentrates on fatal accidents, on the sudden violent deaths visited on the unwary and the unlucky in an age of accelerating change. Spence’s sources include the parish registers in which churchwardens recorded births, marriages and deaths, and the so-called ‘bills of mortality’, tables compiled and printed sporadically during the 1590s and regularly from 1603 until the 1850s. At first used only to measure waves of bubonic plague in the capital, in time the bill of mortality became a more general audit. It’s a statistical record which also reveals something of the life of the city. Take 1665, when the metropolis contained around 400,000 people, a quarter of whom died in that one year. As we might expect, 70 per cent of deaths were from plague; the rest were attributed to smallpox, ague, gout, palsy, leprosy, shingles and a scatter of arcane maladies such as ‘rising of the lights’, ‘griping in the guts’ and ‘teeth and worms’. There are also entries for ‘burnt and scalded’ (eight victims), ‘drowned’ (fifty), and ‘kild by severall accidents’ (46). Another 46 people died of grief and 23 from shock.

Death was understood as part of a providential scheme. Fatal accidents weren’t random. Murder victims – in London in 1665, there were just nine of them – may not have deserved to die, but their deaths weren’t seen as contrary to divine will. Discerning patterns in chaos is a human characteristic in any age: if these interpretations fit our needs they help us accept our fate. Accidents, according to Spence, are ‘communally constructed events contingent upon the social structures and cultural configurations within which they take place’. They change as we do.

Providentialism aside, fatal accidents were less mysterious than deadly diseases. Most deaths in 17th and 18th-century England were mysterious because the maladies that caused them, however confidently diagnosed, were mysterious. Explanations linked to angels and planets, demons and fairies seemed plausible enough and could not be disproved. Accidents, on the other hand, left little to the medical or religious imagination: they had an observable cause and effect, even if they resulted from cosmic intent. Since this intent was unknowable, it was easier to blame something or someone closer at hand. Dams burst because parishes neglected them; buildings came crashing down because joiners cut corners; barns burned because someone left smouldering tobacco in the hay. And so the practice of wondering about causes turned into the more serious business of determining responsibility. Accidents in every age make implicit ideals of conduct explicit as criticism of others for not meeting them; however unintentional, if accidents are avoidable they incur censure.

The stories Spence has found in the archives seem to come from a Hogarth crowd scene. In his lifetime, migrants poured into London. Families were packed into shoddy, subdivided dwellings. Blocked chimneys ignited or filled rooms with carbon monoxide. Food was adulterated, water polluted and infections spread with lethal speed. Thefts and robberies were common in the unlit, winding streets, where temptation abounded – alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Bills of mortality recorded more than two thousand suicides between 1654 and 1735, each with its own now lost tale of disappointment and despair. We’ll never know why Edee Fanner, a soldier’s wife of St Giles Cripplegate, hanged herself in 1688. She was buried at a crossroads – a custom thought to restrain the suicide’s restless soul – and forgotten. Many bodies dragged from the river must have been suicides, though not all were recorded as such, partly to spare the deceased the ignominy of the crime of ‘self-murder’. The city raised hopes and dashed them. In 1731, Charles Cooper, son of a Southwark cheesemonger, ‘not having his task ready, left his satchel and books at a shop, [and] flung himself into the Thames’.

Drowning was by far the most common type of accidental death – 5260 of the 12,394 incidents recorded in bills of mortality between 1654 and 1735, followed by falling (1469) – reflecting the importance of river transportation and construction in London’s working life. Objects dropped and thrown did their fair share of damage: everything from candlesticks and stoneware jugs to bricks and hammers, bales of cloth and wine-casks. Some deaths were bizarre. The smoker who tripped and fell so that her ‘tobacco pipe struck accidentally into her brain’. The diner who choked on a French bean. The man mauled by a tiger. The fatal burns suffered by spectators in 1716 when the ceremonial recasting of captured French cannon went catastrophically wrong (the sand moulds were damp, as a Swiss metalworker had warned). Such accidents were rare, but public interest, fed by cheap printed pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers, was inversely proportional to their incidence. A boy who shinned up a lamppost to gawp at a woman in the pillory – as depicted in Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress – fell onto spiked railings. Half a dozen scrofula sufferers were crushed while queuing for tickets to receive the curative royal touch.

Sudden death also involved the state: officials raised the alarm, organised investigations, paid the expenses of coroners’ juries and so on. The early modern state was an atomised structure, made up of parishes and unpaid offices. There were ten thousand parishes in England, and more than a hundred in London alone. Amateur magistrates, constables, beadles and watchmen policed London’s parishes and wards, and non-invasive post-mortems were performed by ‘searchers’, mostly women, who also examined accused witches, rape victims, unmarried mothers and female felons pleading pregnancy. Office-holders’ decisions were guided by popular morality. If searchers decided a death wasn’t suspicious, no further action would be taken. As Spence puts it, they ‘translated the moment of the accident from an experienced event to a constructed reality’: they made the truth. Since the cost of inquiring into sudden deaths was a burden on the parishes where they occurred, sometimes corpses were surreptitiously moved.

Demographic growth meant that the traditional reliance on what the historian Keith Wrightson has called ‘the politics of the parish’ could not be sustained. Burgeoning cities like London, with their fluid populations and endemic instability, did not naturally foster the relationships necessary for community self-policing and a discretionary interpretation of law. Interventionist regulations issued by urban corporations dated back to the Middle Ages: bans on thatched roofs and subletting, orders to restrain livestock and clear dunghills, enforced rules about plague and dearth, or the administration of poor relief. Yet by 1750 it was clear that metropolitan life needed to be contained and managed within a more rigid frame – a sensibility that would lead inter alia to Victorian civic improvements in lighting, water supply and sewerage, and a raft of public health statutes.

We now have many more rules to obey – health and safety guidelines, building regulations, duties of care for employers and public servants – and we also have insurance, the rise of which in the period Spence discusses, as Keith Thomas once playfully suggested, mirrors the downward trend in the number of witch trials. Anxiety of a certain kind had been neutralised, or at least displaced. Last year I examined some curious tear-shaped burn marks in the attic space of the Queen’s House in the Tower of London. It’s likely these were servants’ quarters, and the marks on the roof timbers apotropaic charms against fire. We no longer magically inoculate buildings, not because we’re less superstitious, but because electric lighting, fire exits, extinguishers, the Fire Service, fire-retardant furnishings, clothes and building materials, as well as insurance policies, have come together to make us feel safer. Spence would see this as ‘a mental shift towards a faith in technological or fiscal solutions to the threat of misfortune rather than superstitious or religious interpretations constructed in its wake’. By using charms, early modern Londoners were attempting to control their capricious environment rather than surrender to it. And the Queen’s House did survive the Great Fire of 1666, though we can’t tell whether the burn-charms were applied before or after the conflagration.

Spence argues convincingly that sudden violent death was transformed by reportage, and not just through distortions of the facts of individual cases. He makes a more general claim, that ‘contemporaries assimilated knowledge of such incidents into their individual and communal thoughts, conversations and imaginings.’ Through printed accounts and conversations informed by print, accidents became ‘shared narrative events’, and part of the metropolitan landscape.

Samuel Wood’s survival of what should have been a fatal injury became a matter for earnest contemplation, even a cause célèbre. It inspired a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions and several dramatic newspaper reports, as well as the expensively produced engraving, which may have been intended as a teaching aid at St Thomas’s but soon became a desirable souvenir. Three months after Wood lost his arm, he was presented to the Royal Society as the living embodiment of ‘the most surprising accident that ever happened’. He also made a celebrity appearance at the Royal Exchange. On both occasions, collections made among those present netted a tidy sum. Wood had cheated death, and it was through such thrilling victories over lethal adversity, whether achieved by skill or by luck, that confidence in human abilities advanced.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 39 No. 19 · 5 October 2017

Malcolm Gaskill’s tales of early modern accidents brought to mind parallels with traffic accidents in London today (LRB, 7 September). Now, as then, the word ‘accident’ is a social construct. The police no longer use the word, preferring ‘collision’ to avoid implying that nobody was at fault. Frequently, somebody is. The media further depersonalise blame by reporting ‘woman killed in accident with car’, without mention of a driver. In time, once cars are automated, that will become apt.

As with the rare deaths in early modern times, public interest is inversely proportional to the frequency of these collisions. In the last eight years across England and Wales, 24 pedestrians have died following a collision with a cyclist, compared to 1,925 in collisions with motor vehicles.

Tom Chance
London SE19

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences