Thursday, 5 September 2013

Hatches, Matches and Despatches

5th September - On this day in 1538, Henry VIII’s Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell mandated the keeping by parish clerks of records of births, deaths and marriages - to which we owe much of what we now know of everyday past life in London.

The Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” for the Plague Year of 1665 are examined at  All Hallows Staining on our Friday morning walk “London Wall”. 

According to these records, 68596  people died of the plague in London in  1665, including 112 in the parish of All Hallows Staining (the church collapsed in 1671, it is said  on account of undermining of its foundations by plague  burials).  A  further 4808 people died of “consumption and tiffick”, which might actually have been the pneumonic strain of the plague.  And 5 died of being “distracted”!

Keeping records of deaths at this time was  in itself a dangerous undertaking.  There is a story in my family that my twelve times great-aunt’s first husband, Robert  Mickell, contracted the plague while going about his business a  part-time? parish clerk,  and died on 17th September, 1665  (he was evidently only too aware of his mortality as he wrote in his will, only weeks earlier, “I Robert Mickell … being well in body … praised bee God for the same but considering the frailty of man’s life and not knowing how soon it may please Almighty God my creator to call me out of this transitory world doe make and ordayne this my last will and testament … ”).  He died as the epidemic reached it’s peak, killing around a thousand people a day.  At this point, probably to conceal the scale of what was unfolding, the  authorities ordered that burials should take place at night, and without the tolling of bells.  And it grew  so deathly quiet that throughout the City the River Thames could be heard flowing under the nineteen arches of Old London Bridge.

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