Ever wondered what Londoners died of in the year 1791?

One book in my collection of antiquarian guides to London dates from 1791 – and in the appendices details what Londoners in that year died of.  If any of you are medics, I need your help working out what some of these illnesses are.

I’m aware that “lethargy” meant a stroke for example. But what about “rising of the lights” as a cause of death. Sounds very dramatic – if it’s painless, I’d like to go that way please.

So – what did Georgian Londoners die of in 1791?  By far the biggest cause is “Consumption” – which could mean tuberculosis but also other chest related diseases. Not surprising given that TB was incurable.

Also, the air was thick with poisonous fumes from domestic chimneys and factories located right in the heart of the city, giving rise to other pulmonary diseases. “Convulsions” account for 4,485 deaths and various fevers swept away 2,769 Londoners including Malignant Fever, Scarlet Fever, Spotted Fever and “Purples”.

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot - James Gillray cartoon
Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot – James Gillray cartoon

Gout only accounted for 58 people – but it was a very common problem at the time. Large scale port wine drinking didn’t help matters. Gentlemen of distinction could be seen hobbling in agony round the city and would have to prop their legs up on an Ottomon to get the acid flowing out of their feet. Leaving their club or the coffee house, they’d need a sedan chair to take their pained bodies back home.

One of you doctors can describe Headmouldshot, Horseshoehead and Water in the Head that struck 44 individuals. Measles was still a killer – as was flu – but how on earth did eleven people succumb to “Evil”!!?  “Surfeit” I assume means eating way too much and keeling over. And “ague” is malaria in modern parlance – a condition which prevailed with undrained marshes, especially to the east of London and in Essex.

Infant mortality was horrendous in the 18th century.  The biggest number of deaths in 1791 were under two years of age by a big margin – 6,138. The next largest figure is 2,086 between 40 and 50 years of age. Contrary to what you might assume, plenty of people made it into their fifties and sixties and 460 people died that year between 80 and 90 years of age. Seven were a hundred years old while one was reputedly 113 years old.

There were 35 executions in Middlesex and Surrey, which covered much of what is now called London. In 1791, pirates were still being put to death at Wapping. The gallows were deliberately placed at the low-water mark to be viewed by incoming boats. However, the guidebook says the habit of leaving the body to be washed over by three river tides had been discontinued.

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.