The horror of the Great Plague of London

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history. This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

Ten weird things about London at the time of the BBC drama series “Taboo”

TabooIf you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

  1. Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!
  2. pillory1
    Always something to see in London!

    See somebody condemned to death: Incredibly, you could pay a shilling to a door-keeper at the Old Bailey and watch a trial for a capital crime. The death penalty wasn’t just for murder. There was a whole range of offences that could lead to the rope. These included counterfeiting money or stealing. And children could still be hanged in public at this time. If a trial was high profile, the doorkeepers would increase the entrance fee to as much as a guinea.

  3. Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”
  4. You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.
  5. Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.
  6. Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.
  7. f79da947962a9096e88f6373d5d25a77--william-hogarth-anatomy
    A dissection before dinner perhaps?

    Watch a medical operation: If your day in London had proved to be rather dull, it could be enlivened by going to watch a medical operation. The operating table at Guy’s Hospital was circled by viewing galleries where students and the curious could breathe their germs down on the poor afflicted patient. Amputations normally resulted in death due to infection but the removal of kidney stones through the urethra (I’m crossing my legs just thinking of it) had an excellent survival rate.

  8. Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.
  9. Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.
  10. Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.

 

 

 

The wife who bought rope for her husband to be hanged

Dick Hughes is mentioned in the Newgate Calendar as a robber who came to London at the start of the eighteenth century to make money the dishonest way. He’d already been arrested and tried in Worcester for theft. On that occasion he’d been whipped at the cart’s tail “crying carrots and turnips” as he was dragged along and beaten.

Hughes fell into bad company the moment he arrived in the capital. After being caught stealing three shillings from a house in Lambeth, he pleaded for mercy at the Kingston-upon-Thames assizes and was not hanged – as could easily have happened. But instead of turning a new leaf, Hughes became ever more audacious. He robbed houses in Tottenham Cross, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Hackney, Hammersmith and a tobacconist in Red Cross Street. His luck run out when Hughes was caught breaking into the house of a certain George Clark in Twickenham. Very soon, he was languishing in Newgate prison.

Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff's rope
Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff’s rope

During a previous short stretch of imprisonment at the Fleet Prison, Hughes had married a very kind-hearted woman. On the 24th June, 1709, she had to watch her husband transported in a cart through the parish of St Giles towards the gallows at Tyburn. As the cart paused, she ran up to Hughes and asked whether she or the sheriff were supposed to buy the rope to hang him!

Her husband, a bit thrown by this question, said it was the sheriff’s business to do that. Rather sheepishly, his wife produced a length of rope:

I wish I had known so much before. it would have saved me twopence for I have been and bought one already.

Sarcastically, Hughes advised her to keep it as it might come in useful for her second husband. And so, aged 30, Hughes dangled at the end of rope provided by the authorities and not his dear lady wife. Afterwards, he was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall and dissected – a common practice for the bodies of poor criminals.

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne. The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.

St Mary-le-Strand - killer church!
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!

Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.

Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.

The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.

Two men executed in south London for being gay – in 1743

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people we see in Iran these days. But this was London – and barely 250 years ago.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place
Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay. Who wouldn’t?

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter.

As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him. Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court. Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now.

Richard Rose – London chef – boiled to death

Never let it be said that the Tudors lacked a sense of humour – especially when it came to one of their favourite pastimes: execution.

Anne Boleyn - paid a cook to poison a bishop?
Anne Boleyn – paid a cook to poison a bishop?

Smithfield, where I worked for a few years in the 1990s, was for centuries a meat market. It was also a place where people were put to death – most famously Braveheart or William Wallace to be more precise. But by the late Middle Ages, most executions had moved on to Tyburn.

However, Smithfield would still play host to the burning of heretics, especially under “Bloody” Queen Mary who sent about 277 people up in smoke for being Protestants. She was an ardent Catholic.

During the reign of Mary’s father, the great religious upheavals of the Reformation got underway. The tide switched between Catholic and Protestant as Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, deposed the Pope’s authority but couldn’t quite decide how far to go down the Protestant path. It was tough reading his majesty’s mind but worse if you deliberately decided to disagree on religious matters.

Bishop John Fisher decided to disagree very publicly about the king usurping the pope’s authority. So it was rather suspicious when Fisher’s cook was revealed as something of a poisoner.  The terrible truth came to light at a dinner thrown by Fisher, who was Bishop of Rochester, at his palace.

His cook, Richard Rose, concocted a pottage that was intended to be Fisher’s last supper. Unfortunately, the bishop didn’t eat the meal but two of his guests wolfed it down and died in agony. As did the grateful poor of Lambeth to whom the bishop handed out his leftovers as a fatal act of charity. Rose was apprehended, dragged to Smithfield and then cooked in front of a baying crowd.

Given the religious ferment of the time, some wagging tongues accused the second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, of having a hand in the poisoned gruel. Had the Protestant queen paid Rose to poison the Catholic bishop? There’s no evidence to support this. And the decision to boil Rose suggests that the king had zero tolerance for low-born types trying to murder his prelates, no matter what their theological views.

POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.

Aristocratic thugs disrupt the funeral of the poet Dryden

John Dryden was one of England’s greatest poets and he lived at 43 Gerrard Street, in the west of London, with his beloved wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. In the year 1700, he passed away.

Something of a relief to him as he had such appalling gout that he was in constant pain and his servants had to carry him round everywhere. Dryden was determined not to have his leg cut off – death would be preferable he said. When a black spot was found on the offending leg, he announced that “mortification had commenced”.

John Dryden
Dryden – with both legs attached but about to have a really bad funeral

On the 1st May, with both legs still attached, Dryden passed away. Eighteen mourning coaches were assembled to take the great man’s carcass to Westminster Abbey.

But as his tearful widow came down with the coffin, she was confronted by a gang of very drunk, aristocratic young men.

They were led by the son of the notorious seventeenth century hanger and flogger – Judge Jeffreys. “The Hanging Judge” had presided over the so-called Bloody Assizes and seemed to take a great deal of pleasure consigning those before his courts to the hangman’s rope. His son seemed to have inherited Dad’s volatile and vicious traits – as poor Lady Howard was about to find out.

Jeffreys junior was leading a gang of what were referred to in the eighteenth century as “mohocks”. These were wild youths with few morals who delighted in sadistic attacks on innocent folk. The very drunk Jeffreys loomed over Lady Elizabeth in her bedroom, where he and his mates had now rushed in, and told the terrified woman that her late husband deserved a better funeral, which he would personally arrange. In fact, he would spend £1,000 (a vast sum) erecting a monument in Westminster Abbey. Despite her protests, Jeffreys rushed into the street and said she’d agreed. He then whisked Dryden’s body off to an undertaker in Cheapside.

Meanwhile in Westminster Abbey, the bishop and others were waiting to perform the poet’s funeral service. They would be waiting for a long time. Because as Jeffreys sobered up, he lost interest in this project and the body was left lying around for about three weeks. When asked what to do with Dryden’s decaying corpse, Jeffreys just denied having anything to do with it.

Eventually, it was popped into the ground. So furious was Dryden’s son Charles that he repeatedly tried to challenge Jeffreys to a duel but the king of the mohocks studiously avoided him for the next three years – until Charles obligingly drowned in the river Thames.

Gerrard Street is now at the centre of London’s Chinatown. But use your eyes – those buildings with neon Chinese restaurant signs are often Georgian. Some of them still have inscriptions giving the date of their construction in the eighteenth century. You have to imagine Lisle Street, Rupert Street and Gerrard Street as well-to-do residential quarters. And see if you can picture in your mind the strange scene that unfolded there in 1700.

Teenage Londoner whose dress caught on fire!

Isabella Courtenay lived in Grosvenor Square. She was “most elegantly accomplished” according to a report in 1783, the year of her untimely death. Just eighteen years old, this privileged young lady had everything to live for.

But in March of that year, she was warming herself before a fireplace when a spark flew from the grate setting her clothes on fire. This was in the days of big dresses, petticoats and suffocating corsets.

The story in a 1783 annual register
The story in a 1783 annual register

Still, you might have reckoned that somebody would be able to put out the flames that were now engulfing her. In the same room were Isabella’s sister, Lady Honywood, and child.

But the latter was unable to offer any assistance, for reasons not specified, while her ladyship fell into a fit. Poor Isabella ran screaming from room to room without meeting anybody who could help.  In no time at all, she was quite the fireball!  As a contemporary chronicle explains:

It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright

The same chronicle then advises that should you, as a lady wearing big dresses, catch fire – then the best thing to do is NOT run about. In fact, you should fall down and roll yourself up in a carpet or bed quilt.

Children brutally punished for stealing

illus-089On the 8th September, 1747, Richard Henson and Edward Wood saw a linen sheet hung out to dry on a washing line in the parish of Hampstead.

In those days, Hampstead was a village a few miles out of London – today it’s been swallowed up into the great urban sprawl of north London. The two thieves took the sheet and went to a pawnbroker. The sheet was still wet and he refused to take it.

So they went on to a baker and got a couple of rolls in exchange for it. They didn’t have long to satisfy their hunger being apprehended and dragged before a judge for sentencing. Sarah Johnson got her sheet back and Henson was sentenced to be whipped.

It’s not certain how old Henson was – but Wood, whose punishment I’ve not been able to find, was ten or eleven years old. Rough justice!