Read on for 10 everyday hazards faced by Londoners in the 1700s – from disease and cesspits to gin consumption…
Smallpox was one of London’s biggest killers, and even those who were lucky enough to recover were often badly pock-marked, with patches of hair and eyelashes missing. Smallpox could also leave skin thickened, as if by burns.
Yet, domestic servants who had visible smallpox scars were often preferred to those with unmarked skin, as it was proof that they wouldn’t be bringing the disease into their new household!
Early inoculation was introduced from Turkey by smallpox survivor Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in 1720, before Edward Jenner introduced mass vaccination in 1796, using a less dangerous strain of cowpox.
Old London Bridge
Old London Bridge, although picturesque and ancient, was a dangerous place to traverse. Walking across was particularly perilous, as in places the bridge narrowed to little over 14ft, and it was not unusual for pedestrians to get caught by the wheels of a wagon or cart running too close to the wall.
‘Shooting’ under the bridge on the rapids caused by the tidal flow was no less dangerous, and drownings were not uncommon, but London’s watermen were skilled in getting their fares under the bridge in one piece – although many preferred to get out and walk around rather than risk their lives.
Britain has not always enjoyed rabies-free status, and there were several outbreaks in London during the 1750s. Dogs were commonly used to protect property and also for fighting, so snapping, snarling canines were not an unusual sight on London’s streets, but between 1752 and 1759 Londoners were always on the alert for dogs (and people) with running eyes and salivating mouths.
Rabies also affected London’s pigs, many of which were kept in back yards. The law stated that instant destruction of a rabid pig was necessary – a huge blow for a devoted pet owner, or a poor family reliant on a single pig a year.
The Fleet Ditch
The road that now leads down to Blackfriars Bridge on the north side of the River Thames covers what used to be the Fleet Ditch. It was silting up, and Londoners threw so much rubbish into it that it became a plague-breeding sewer, slowly rolling what was described as a “large tribute of dead dogs to Thames”.
The ditch was deemed so dangerous to health that it was totally bricked over in the 1760s. But in the winter of 1763, the ditch claimed its final victim: a drunken barber from Bromley fell in and, before he could clamber out, died frozen upright in the mud.
Just off Borough High Street were the debtors’ prisons of The King’s Bench and the Marshalsea. Before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869, imprisonment for even very small debts was common.
The prisons were thriving enterprises, and life for prisoners was expensive: food, clothing, laundry and even the cells themselves were all charged for. Charles Dickens’ father was sent to the Marshalsea for debt in 1824, and his son went to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory on the Hungerford Stairs. Dickens was lucky, though, as many children entered the prisons with their parents. He recalled this part of his life through Amy ‘Little’ Dorrit [in his serial novel Little Dorrit].
Now that syphilis is easily curable by penicillin, we have lost the fear of it that our Georgian ancestors had. Besides abstinence, sheep-gut condoms were the only form of protection against the disease (and abstinence was more reliable).
However, syphilis, though relatively common, was not the fate of every promiscuous soul. The confusion of syphilis with less serious infections, coupled with the fear of syphilis’ deformities and madness, meant it played a more prominent role in the public imagination than the rate of actual infection perhaps merited.
While press-ganging wasn’t quite the danger many historical novels would have us believe, if you were young, male and unemployed, it was certainly not in your interest to hang around London’s docks. Being ‘pressed’ into service could work out pretty well if you took to life on the waves, but it was a poor start to a naval career.
However, as the poorest Londoners still sold themselves as indentured servants, the view was that press-ganging was a way of neatening up the streets and filling a gap in the labour market, rather than a moral issue of personal liberty.
London’s eight hanging days a year were public holidays. The condemned were driven through the streets from Newgate in a wagon, taking pause for alcoholic refreshment along the way. Many arrived at Tyburn mercifully drunk, but for even the most hardened of criminals the clamour and crush would have been overwhelming.
The hanging was not the final moment in the day’s programme. Bernard Mandeville observed that “the next Entertainment is a scuffle between the surgeons and the mob”. The hangman received the criminal’s clothes as a perk, and the bodies were destined to undergo dissection by surgeons, and sometimes by artists.
By the end of the 1720s, London was experiencing serious social problems because of gin consumption. Many saw the main problem as one of price, for “Gin is sold very cheap, so that People may get muddled with it for three half pence and for three pence made quite Drunk even to Madness”. Soon consumers were pawning even their clothes and furniture for drink.
Artist William Hogarth produced a number of works, including Gin Lane and Beer Street, as well as his Four Stages of Cruelty as a response to the destruction of both the economy and the morals of the poor wrought by gin.
- Read more about the 18th-century craze for gin
Sedan chairs [a chair carried on long poles to move wealthy people around the city] were not only a method of transport, but also a public hazard. Swiss visitor César de Saussure in 1725 recorded being knocked over four times by sedan chairs during his visit to the capital.
Bearers were regularly fined for cursing loudly in the street, and they were notorious fighters and Romeos, probably much in demand for their strength and stamina.
As the city grew, the use of sedan chairs declined. In 1791, Horace Walpole wrote that “the breed of chairs is almost lost, for Hercules and Atlas could not carry anybody from one end of this enormous capital to the other”.
Lucy Inglis’s new fiction novel is City of Halves (Chicken House)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in August 2014