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«Death in the suburbs: mortality in London and its hinterland between 1550 and 1700 Gill Newton, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and ...»

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DRAFT paper for European Social Science History conference, Glasgow, April 2012.

Not to be cited without author’s permission (email: ghn22@cam.ac.uk)

Death in the suburbs: mortality in London and its hinterland

between 1550 and 1700

Gill Newton, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social


By 1700 each of London’s suburbs had a population of at least 10,000 inhabitants,

rivalling or exceeding that of the largest English cities and often still contained within a single parish (for example, only Norwich’s 30,000 inhabitants and Bristol’s 21,000 exceeded the 20,000 souls found in the parish of St Botolph Aldgate by 1710). The suburbs were the main focus of growth, where land was more readily available and economic activities less stringently controlled by civic or guild authorities, but the central city area remained vitally important for trade. Despite an extremely hazardous disease environment, the metropolis continued to grow from in-migration. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century both international and English born migrants flocked to London, working in new or expanding manufactures (such as gunmaking, brewing, silk manufacture), supporting the growing population by selling food or services, or working as domestic servants. Others came to market to keep the city supplied with meat, grains, fruit and vegetables, or shipped in fuel and raw materials.

In a city periodically ravaged by plague, and subject to rising levels of infant mortality, many of these incomers and their children did not survive for long. Moving home was a frequent occurrence, and very few adults who did persist for a long time in one area had been born there.

This paper will contrast the mortality of early modern Londoners in the stillurbanising northern suburb of Clerkenwell, the built-up, partly riverside eastern suburb of Aldgate, and a predominantly mercantile sample population from the city centre. Other populations from the still-rural hinterland surrounding the metropolis may also be considered, to investigate the geographical scope of London's effect.

Using church records, we can trace patterns of life and death in each of these areas.

While the wealth and living conditions of inhabitants in the city and suburbs differed markedly, commerce and entertainments brought Londoners together on a daily basis.

In this fluid and ever-changing environment, to what extent was there a convergence in the short-term experience of mortality, both before and after the last plague year of 1665? We will also explore the long-term trends in mortality among infants and children in London.

The extent of the metropolis and its effect on mortality An inescapable difficulty when considering London as a whole is the number and complexity of administrative units comprising the metropolis and the rapid rate of its expansion, both in terms of itsphysical extent and its population. London is, of course, not one city but two: London and Westminster, and it encompasses lands south of the river Thames as well as to the north. The basic administrative unit of early modern England as a whole was the ecclesiastical parish, and London was not one parish but somewhere between one and two hundred parishes, depending on where and when one draws the boundary. These parishes varied hugely in physical size, number of inhabitants, social composition and extent of urban development. For the heart of the city, cutting across parish boundaries, there are also the 25 or 26 DRAFT paper for European Social Science History conference, Glasgow, April 2012.

Not to be cited without author’s permission (email: ghn22@cam.ac.uk) wards of London, ancient administrative units under civic control. Extra-parochial areas exempt from civic and/or the usual ecclesiastical authorities also abound.

This complexity, coupled with the sheer size of individual suburban parishes and the amount of work involved in reconstituting families from tens of thousands of baptisms, burials and marriages means that our analysis is necessarily restricted to a sample of London parishes. Those portions of this paper that deal with infant and child mortality are drawn from family reconstitutions of the large eastern suburb of Aldgate, the large north western suburb of Clerkenwell and five small parishes in the Cheapside area of central, intramural London (see Figure 1). Generally, Southwark and London south of the River Thames are not represented. However, after 1650, Landers’ Quaker family reconstitution provides some comparative data that includes Southwark, since about two-thirds of Quaker-registered vital events came from the Southwark Meeting.1Analysis of annual totals of burials further includes Finlay and Shearer’s counts of events from the small central, intramural parishes of St Mary Somerset, St Michael Cornhill and Allhallows Bread Street, and the large suburban parishes of St Margaret Westminster and St Martin in the Fields, together with the following parishes in the Middlesex hinterland: Stratford Bow, Tottenham, Edmonton, Enfield, South Mimms, Kensington, Harrow, Heston, Isleworth and Twickenham (see Figure 2).2

Figure 1: London sample parishes

John Landers: Death and the metropolis, Cambridge University Press (1993) p. 134 Table 4.1 These parishes are listed in Roger Finlay and Beatrice Shearer: ‘Population growth and suburban expansion’, in A L Beier and Roger Finlay (eds): The making of the metropolis: London 1500-1700, Longman (1986), p. 58-59.

DRAFT paper for European Social Science History conference, Glasgow, April 2012.

Not to be cited without author’s permission (email: ghn22@cam.ac.uk) Figure 2: Sample parishes in Middlesex and London Migration and London’s population growth London’s population growth and urban expansion throughout the early modern period can be dwarfed by the later phenomenal expansion of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Figure 3). However, it is important to remember the exceptional nature of the metropolis in the seventeenth century, especially after 1650 when London continued to grow even as the overall English population stagnated or shrank, and this despite the fact that cities were very unhealthy and hazardous places to live, especially for infants and children. Most of this population growth was a consequence of continuous large-scale migration to the metropolis from elsewhere in England, and those who had newly arrived to London settled predominantly in the suburbs rather than the walled city. Indeed, the city centre stagnated in population terms after 1650, and migration to the suburbs was the driver of population growth.

The suburbs had the advantages of cheaper rents, closer proximity to the rural hinterland, and often partial immunity from taxation and regulation of mercantile activities.

The economic attraction of London, and probably the push of deteriorating living standards in the countryside, propelled the most mobile social groups to the metropolis, young adults in particular, with many women arriving to enter domestic service. The health penalties of living in London were high. Many succumbed to disease before they could marry and bear children, but those than did succeed in starting a family had to watch their children suffer the health penalties of living in DRAFT paper for European Social Science History conference, Glasgow, April 2012.

Not to be cited without author’s permission (email: ghn22@cam.ac.uk) densely populated, unsanitary conditions: an ideal environment for pathogens. The London Bills of Mortality attest to the lack of natural increase in London, for annual totals of burials consistently outstripped those of baptisms. Replenishment of population after the deaths of thousands of inhabitants occasioned by regular outbreaks of epidemic disease was very swift. The annual baptisms total generally recovered to pre-epidemic levels within 2 or 3 years of the outbreak, and scrutiny of the baptisms registers for central city parishes reveals that after the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed much of the city within the walls, reoccupation took place at a similar rate.

Figure 3 (a) (b) Sources: Figures for 1500 to 1700 from Keene, D, 'Growth, Modernisation and Control: The Transformation of London’s Landscape, c.1500–c.1760' in Clark, P and Gillespie, R, eds: Two Capitals: London and Dublin 1500-1840, Oxford University Press, 2001, p7-8. 1801 to 2001 figures taken from the Census abstracts for those years.

International migration had been an important factor in encouraging prior growth in sixteenth century London, when highly skilled Huguenots and other religious or political refugees from continental Europe settled particularly in the suburbs and other areas of the metropolis outside the reach of guild controls. In the 1550s the proportion of aliens resident in London was perhaps as high as 1 in 8 persons, but it had fallen to 1 in 20 by the close of the sixteenth century.3 Nonetheless, the economic stimulus of the skills and trades these international migrants brought with them was still strongly felt. In the eastern suburb of Aldgate, for example, gun making, beer brewing and luxury cloth production had been introduced by alien craftsmen. Silk thread twisting and weaving in particular were still rising in importance in the first half of the sixteenth century. A silk thread mill was built in the early 1600s, and between the 1590s and the 1640s, the number of baptisms in the parish registers of St Botolph Aldgate where the father was a weaver grew from 68 to 368 (there is little occupational information recorded post-1640). Of course, rapid population growth meant that annual totals of baptisms had risen considerably by the later date, but in relative terms the proportion of adult males who were weavers had still more than doubled, increasing from 4% to 9% of baptisms where the father is ascribed an occupation (which in these decades applies to 87% and 94% of all baptisms respectively).

Lien Bich Luu: Immigrants and the Industries of London 1500-1700, Ashgate 2005, p. 92 DRAFT paper for European Social Science History conference, Glasgow, April 2012.

Not to be cited without author’s permission (email: ghn22@cam.ac.uk) Economic and social characteristics of the sample parishes This section primarily concerns the characteristics of those parishes for which family reconstitutions have been constructed and which have been used for the analysis of infant and child mortality. That is, the eastern suburb of Aldgate, the north western suburb of Clerkenwell, and the five Cheapside sample parishes from the centre of the walled city. Other London and Middlesex parishes form part of research in progress on short-term mortality variations throughout England, and their characteristics have not been explored in as much detail.

St Botolph Aldgate was a poor parish, especially in the back allies off the main thoroughfare of the Minories, and in the East Smithfield liberty furthest from the city wall and leading down to the Thames. By 1600 the parish was already almost fully urbanised, with some open space remaining at Brewhouse Fields in the East Smithfield liberty. In the first half of the sixteenth century parish officials were conscious of declining fortunes. Churchwardens lamented the removal of wealthy inhabitants and the small contributions to the poor rate that were all its inhabitants could muster. Poor law accounts referred to in the Vestry Minutes confirm that the parish was a net receiver of the poor rate throughout the seventeenth century. Broadly speaking, the economic activity of Aldgate inhabitants at this time was a mosaic of mostly small-scale manufacture, construction work and food retail, with a number of sailors in the East Smithfield portion of the parish abutting the River Thames. Unlike the wealthy central city parishes of Cheapside, there were few domestic servants, but several innholders and their employees catered to those sojourning in London, having arrived along the broad sweep of Whitechapel Road that led from Stepney and the county of Essex further east. Merchant tailors and brewhouse owners led the administrative affairs of the parish, but they were not a large group within the overall population. The wealthy drapers, factors and mercers that dominated the Cheapside parishes were almost entirely absent. In 1638 only 1% of Aldgate households were paying £20 per annum or more in rent and could be classed as substantial, whereas nearly half (46%) of households in the largest Cheapside parish of St Mary le Bow were in this category, and other Cheapside parishes had even higher proportions of wealthy households.4 Not all central city parishes were as wealthy as Cheapside. In our riverside sample parish of St Mary Somerset, only 8% of households were substantial.

In the northern suburb of Clerkenwell, less evidence on the status and wealth of inhabitants survives, especially for the first half of the seventeenth century. In the 1690s, household rents were lower than the median for London as a whole, but higher than those of Aldgate.5 The urban part of the parish comprised two main thoroughfares, converging on Smithfield cattle market, Turnmill Street and St John’s Street, and the V-shape of land between them. The allies and courts off Turnmill Street had very cheap rents, being in close proximity to slaughterhouses and the insalubrious Fleet River, which meandered sluggishly along the western boundary and appears to have been used as an open sewer. St John’s Street was more prosperous, Percentages taken from Roger Finlay: Population and Metropolis: The Demography of London 1580Cambridge University Press (1981) p. 168-171 (Table A3.1). The proportions rated at £20 or more in other Cheapside sample parishes are as follows: Allhallows Honey Lane 56%, St Pancras Soper Lane 56%, St Mary Colechurch 44% and St Martin Ironmonger Lane 37% Craig Spence: London in the 1690s: a social atlas, Centre for Metropolitan History (2000), p.108 DRAFT paper for European Social Science History conference, Glasgow, April 2012.

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