We did a PhD…so what next?

A joint post.

This blog has lain dormant for a while, but it has not been forgotten. For those new to our site, it was initially just a small way of sharing a few bits and pieces of our research while we completed our PhDs, and hopefully will continue to be so. This post is slightly different as it is about where we both are now after completion.

We both finished our PhDs at Birkbeck, University of London in 2021. Both of us had completed previous degrees at Birkbeck (Anna – BA and Aaron – MA), where we connected with the academics who would eventually be our respective PhD supervisors. Anna then went to Cambridge to complete her MPhil and Aaron returned to New Zealand to work in school leadership. But we found our way back to Birkbeck for our PhDs. Neither of us went into it with the illusion that once complete we would easily walk into an academic role. We were warned from the very start that it was dire out there and only likely to get worse. Yet still we carried on. The warnings rang clearly in our ears but nevertheless the lure of our own interests and wish to research was too great, so embark upon a PhD we did.

Through all the ups and downs of the 3 to 4 years of our projects we still loved it. Even at the lowest points; the bone crushing disappointment when something hard worked upon was rejected, the intermittent bouts of impostor syndrome (these never end), and financial difficulties, for both of us it was what we wanted to be doing. Then it ended. After the surrealness of completing a PhD during an ongoing global pandemic (worth a whole other post), the adrenaline of the submission, viva, corrections, and conference of our awards, we found ourselves in that limbo land of dire job opportunities we had been warned about all those years ago before the great PhD adventure.

We were both in the post-PhD slump! There was an old Guardian article we discovered that rather accurately summed up some of the emotional blues we were feeling I’ve just finished my PhD, and now I feel lost without academia

Aaron had to move back to New Zealand where he returned to his pre-PhD role as a senior leader in secondary schools and explored the academic landscape and other professional opportunities open to him there. Anna picked up some freelance history related work while juggling two zero hour contract jobs outside academia. We both managed to keep aspects of the research and related work ticking over by presenting conference and seminar papers, working up book proposals, revising journal articles, and publishing guest blog posts.

This limbo land though is a strange place and one we will possibly inhabit for a while. Some friends and colleagues have been lucky enough to move relatively seamlessly from a PhD to a postdoc or job they want and that is wonderful, the more power to them. But that was not to be the case for either of us. All we can do is keep applying, keep writing, keep presenting, work to survive, and hope! We knew what we were getting ourselves into, but that does not make it any easier. All the warnings were not ignored, we knew the job market was dire, we knew that this limbo land was coming however, we chose to keep going and would not change having done the PhD for anything.

We are both keen to maintain aspects of our research work about the living and the dead of the early modern period, whatever professional sphere we end up in. The lure of our research interests has not diminished, and we want to share the output of our thesis’ and explore new research areas going forward, that much we know.

For those readers who are coming through your own PhD programmes this is not meant to be a disheartening post, no doubt you have heard the warnings many times too, yet you are still pursuing your PhDs and that is wonderful. Your contribution to the fields you are researching, no matter how big or small will be fantastic. Look after each other. For those readers who are in academic roles check in with those who recently completed, they need to be reminded that they are still part of this weird world of academia, even when visiting limbo land.

The ‘so what next’ question is one that now elicits the response, ‘I don’t know’, followed quite often by ‘but I hope to…’.

Aaron Columbus and Anna Cusack

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‘Being all dead of the Plague’. Plague and petitions in Westminster c.1620-1645

Aaron’s contribution to the #MonsterTakeover from a few weeks back. There are many other wonderful PhD and ECR posts to be explored on their site.

the many-headed monster

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Aaron Columbus. Aaron recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London and co-edits the blog We Hang Out a Lot in Cemeteries. Aaron’s thesis is focused on the response to plague and the poor in the suburban parishes of early modern London c. 1600-1650. Find him on Twitter @columbus_aaron .

Around ten o’clock on the evening of 30 May 1626 in Westminster, Thomas Powell, accompanied by a constable and watchman, arrived at the door of John Bonner with the pretext of asking for his landlord. Many ‘injurious wordes’ were made against Bonner and he was assaulted in his lodging. Powell, in a most ‘furious and barbarous manner’, then compelled the constable, watchman and others to take him to the local gatehouse.

Bonner gives his account of the incident in a petition to…

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‘Being a great nuisance to the inhabitants’: Petitions to relocate executions and gibbets in eighteenth-century London

Anna’s contribution to the #MonsterTakeover from a few weeks back. There are many other wonderful PhD and ECR posts to be explored on their site.

the many-headed monster

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Anna Cusack. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-edits the blog We Hang Out a Lot in Cemeteries. Anna works on the marginal dead of early modern London, focusing specifically on suicides, executed criminals, Quakers and Jews. You can find her on Twitter at @AnnaRCusack.

In 1721, Barbara Spencer was burnt for coining. Her execution was moved at the last minute from Smithfield to Tyburn, after a petition from Smithfield’s inhabitants against having women burnt there.[1] Barbara Spencer’s execution was still attended by a vast crowd, and the people of London did not seem too concerned with this form of execution if it was carried out on the margins of everyday life as opposed to in their neighbourhood. As the original petition for Spencer’s case is lost it is only from a…

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Plague and Change and Continuity in the Social Character of Street-level Locations in St Dunstan in the West, c. 1625-1666.

Historians have attempted to elucidate some sense of the spatial tendencies of plague in the suburban parish. Paul Slack revealed the strong influence that the urban environment played in plague mortality in Bristol in the 1640s and identified the narrow alleys and ‘poorest houses’ impacted more severely. He did acknowledge it ‘foolish’ to consider the more substantial citizens unscathed by the plague but concluded it a ‘greater menace’ for the labouring poor in the ‘back streets’.[1] Justin Champion identified a similar pattern in St Dunstan in the West in 1665 and argued that mortality followed social structure, with an imbalance toward ‘smaller and poorer’ dwellings in the ‘labyrinth of spaces behind the main streets.[2] Kira Newman though revealed a surprising number of quarantined houses to be on ‘major streets’ in St Martin in the Fields in 1636. Setting this alongside several quarter sessions cases, Newman suggested that the middling sort bore the financial burden of plague and not the ‘disadvantaged’.[3] 

It is important to push beyond presumptions as to the character of locations based on locational status i.e. that only the very poor lived in courts, yards and alleys. For example, a return for building in defiance of royal proclamation (1638) shows the construction of 27 illegal tenements in Long Acre, one of the main streets in St Martin in the Fields.[4] Tenements tended to be constructed to accommodate the migrant ordinary poor. Moreover, references to the building in main streets might also link to alleys, courts and yards that were in an early stage of development and had not yet gained their own identity. Many suburban parishes contained populations bigger than England’s provincial cities by the 1630s. They were geographically big enough to experience localised outbreaks of plague. It is important to view each suburban parish independently, as the chronology and process of changing demography and the built environment were unique to each. The stage at which a parish was at in its development and the type of building in certain locations is an important consideration when reading the social character and plague incidence.

Some locational detail for the direction of relief was entered by the parish clerk in the western extramural parish of St Dunstan in the West in the epidemic in 1625.[5] The records are biased in that parishes tended to only reflect the chargeable households in their accounts, and rarely systematically. The references are useful when set alongside the clergy survey of rents in 1638 and the return for building in defiance of the royal proclamations mentioned above, from which a sense of the character of spaces can be elucidated. Comparison with the 1666 hearth tax return shows elements of change and continuity in the character and presumed conditions of these spaces, which can be usefully linked to Justin Champion’s work with the parish in the 1665 epidemic. Champion identified Three Leg Alley, Boars Head Alley, Cock and Key Alley and Fetter Lane as four locations hit hard by plague in that epidemic. 

Figure 1.1: Map showing the metropolitan parishes of London, c. 1660. St Dunstan’s is located to the west of the city walls and within the band of extramural parishes.

St Dunstan’s extended across just 14.3 acres and was wholly within the jurisdiction of the City (figure 1.1).[6] The clergy counted 518 houses and 140 tenements in 1638. Roger Finlay calculated 30% of households as ‘substantial’, which he based on rents above £20.[7] The mean number of hearths per dwellings in 1666 was seven, high for a parish beyond or even within the walls. Champion suggested that ‘on the face of it’, St Dunstan’s appeared a ‘thriving and ‘affluent’ parish but was right in highlighting that this did not wholly reflect the crowded and poor ‘labyrinth’ of spaces in behind the main street frontages.[8] Figures 1.2 and 1.3 show the changes to the built environment between the plague epidemic in 1563 and the civil wars, the latter a period in which plague was endemic in London’s suburbs. Figure 1.4 extends that view to the early 1680s.[9] 

Figure 1.1: The environs of St Dunstan in the West, c. 1563. Fleet Street runs from the city through St Bride Fleet Street and St Dunstan’s in the south of the parish and the Barrs/High Holborn to the north. Fetter Lane runs north to south through the centre of the parish. St Bride Fleet Street neighbours St Dunstan’s to the east and St Andrew Holborn to the north.
Figure 1.2: The environs of St Dunstan in the West, c. 1643-47 (when the map was surveyed). The parish churches of St Bride Fleet Street (103), St Andrew Holborn (100) and St Sepulchre Newgate (112), and their environs, are represented and collectively show the scale of building that had occurred in the inner western suburbs by the 1640s.
Figure 1.3: The environs of St Dunstan in the West and the inner western suburbs, c. 1682. St Bride Fleet Street was largely destroyed in the Great Fire but had been rebuilt by this point.

The return detailing fines for illegal building in and around 1638 reveals aspects of the type and location of the building within St Dunstan’s (figure 1.4). Seven offenders are identified in the list, which is a small number but is revealing of how a parish that was largely built over by the 1630s was able to accommodate new arrivals.[9] Some individuals were fined for erecting several buildings, particularly tenements. Three fines were for building houses, including Stephen Pilchard for one house and ‘shedds’ in ‘3 Legg Alley Fetterlane’. These ‘dwelling sheds’ tended to be erected in gardens or backyards against larger buildings. William Baer described these structures as ‘sleeping holes’ and sitting at the bottom of the ‘housing hierarchy’.[11] Three Leg Alley ran in between Fetter and Shoe lanes, two main arteries running south to north through St Dunstan’s and neighbouring St Bride Fleet Street. The hearth tax of 1666 lists nine householders at the end of the alley that extended into St Dunstan’s from St Bride’s.  The mean number of hearths per household was three in 1666. The widow Katherine Taylor was marked as ‘poore’ and the widows’ Jane Green and Mary Newtown as parish pensioners. This shows the variation that might exist in these spaces, given that the rest of the alley, listed under the St Bride’s return, presented a mean of 5.9 hearths across the 76 householders.[12] 

Figure 1.5: Examples of fines for building in defiance of royal proclamations in St Dunstan in the West (1638). TNA, Domestic State Papers: Charles I, SP16/408/139, ff.140-145.

The other fines were for the building of tenements and mostly so within the smaller spaces running in and behind the main streets. Baer placed tenements in-between houses and sheds and explained that it was a more general term used for an assortment of multiple dwellings in which the focus was to provide a return for the investor. They were built very cheaply and the ‘minimum necessary’ was provided for the tenants. Baer found 34% of offences in certificates for illegal building between 1635-38 related to their construction.[13] John Gregory was fined for building one tenement in Churchyard Alley ‘fetter lane’, and others for more extensive building:one Musgrave for three tenements on the ‘backside of the Bell’, with[in] Templebar and Ann Austin for five tenements in Newill Alley in Fetter Lane.[14] F

Fetter Lane linked Fleet Street to High Holborn. It is referenced several times in the plague account in 1625. Vanessa Harding described the typical development patterns of alleys and closes in the easterly inner suburban parish of St Botolph Aldgate. This ‘characteristic form of early modern development’ might occur ‘organically’ or be planned. There were three main streets in Aldgate around the middle of the sixteenth century and as the parish grew, alleys and closes were constructed in the ‘long, narrow plots’ that ran off the main streets by either the leaseholder and landholder or on occasion, by the tenants themselves. The result was that alleys and closes were neither private or public space, and although they might be initially identified with the developer, i.e. as someones ‘rents’, that faded as a ‘labyrinth’ of alleys evolved.[15] As commented above with Long Acre in St Martin in the Fields, this might have some bearing on the frequency with which the lane is referenced in the 1625 accounts and the possibility that some references might have related to the linked smaller spaces.

Several references show the permeable boundaries that existed in the densely built and populated border spaces between St Dunstan’s and St Bride Fleet Street. On 23 August 1625, one Potter in Falcon Court was given 5s by the Churchwarden Mr Sparkes and one Grimes was given 3s in Three Leg Alley. Both spaces are listed under St Bride’s in the 1666 hearth tax return. References to Water Lane, located on the southern side of Fleet Street, hint toward the impact of plague beyond the smaller alleys, courts and yards. On 29 August, one Morey and the wives of Brown and Hawkins ‘in Water Lane’ were the recipients of relief.[16] The smaller spaces referenced recurrently within the formal bounds of St Dunstan’s were Rams Alley, Boars Head Alley and Cock and Key Alley. Each of these ran immediately off the southern side of Fleet Street and close to Water Lane. An element of continuity in the social character of these spaces and some ongoing development of the built environment is evident when comparing the tithes return or inhabitants list in 1638 and the 1666 Hearth Tax (Table 1.1).[17] 

Table 1.1: Change and continuity in the street-level social character of St Dunstan in the West, 1638-1666.

Individual rents were not provided for Boars Head Alley in the return in 1638, rather a simple reference is made to the moderated total rent of £50 for ten ‘houses’ against the landlord Richard Tirrell, a member of the parish’s select vestry. Tirrell lived in a house with a moderated rent of £40. The listed rents for Cock and Key Alley show variation, between the £12 and £10 rents of Hugh Mosse and George Metcalfe and other rents ranging from £4-8. This might reflect variation in Boars Head Alley but the clergy decision to not list the rents there separately probably says something about the conditions and inhabitants therein. Similar clumping is evident in St Botolph Aldgate in 1638.[18] This space maintained its poorer social character in the thirty years from the 1638 survey. The alley had developed into a court and extended yard by 1666, indicating a subtle shift in the built environment. The widows Abigail King and Ann Symons were noted as ‘poore’ and four others as pensioners in the hearth tax return for Boars Head Court. Except for John Peters who lived in a dwelling with six hearths and John Carlile three, the dwellings contained just one to two hearths and that of George Morley none.

The minor ongoing development of the built environment and relative continuity in the social character of Cock and Key Alley stands out after 1638. This provides an important link to Justin Champion’s work and the imbalance in plague toward smaller and poorer properties in certain locations in 1665. Ram Alley showed little change between the two benchmark surveys, except for the addition of four dwellings. Ten of the seventeen houses in 1666 contained four or five hearths. This particular space was more homogeneous than other smaller spaces in the parish, an important point when considering presumptions as to the status of alleys, courts and yards. This was a location identified by Champion as one of the harder hit in the 1665 epidemic. The analysis of earlier epidemics shows continuity in the spatial incidence of plague and demonstrates variance in the social character of spaces presumed to be uniformly poor. 

Development was limited on Fetter Lane but this probably reflects the built footprint of the lane having reached capacity by the 1630s. The return for illegal building showed no fines levied in either the southern portion of the lane which sat within St Dunstan’s or the northern tip, which was within St Andrew Holborn. The social character remained socially heterogeneous between the two benchmark surveys. The lane was home to a reasonable number of ordinary poor in 1666, given the proportion of one to two hearth dwellings interspersed along the lane. Fetter Lane shows that not all ‘main streets’ were wholly the preserve of the middling or substantial, and likewise, regarding Ram Alley, not all courts or alleys housed only the poorer sort. We also need to allow for the fact that ‘Fetter Lane’ might be given as a generic area and not just a reference to the street front, as per Harding’s comments toward Aldgate and the development of alleys and closes there. 

The discussion presents several important considerations when reading the location of quarantined houses to judge the socio-economic status of infected households. The main take-away is the urging of caution in assuming the social character of any location in the rapidly changing suburbs of seventeenth-century London. 

By Aaron Columbus

[1] Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 121-124.

[2] Justin Champion,Epidemics and the built environment in 1665’, J. A. I. Champion (ed.), Epidemic Disease in London, (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series, No.1, 1993), 43-49 – online here https://archives.history.ac.uk/cmh/epichamp.html

[3] Kira Newman, ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History, 45:3 (Spring, 2012), 19-21.

[4] The National Archives (hereafter TNA), Domestic State Papers: Charles I, SP16/408/139, ff.140-145.

[5] London Metropolitan Archives P69/DUN2/B/011/MS02968/002, ff.288-296. 

[6] Matthew Davies, Catherine Ferguson, Vanessa Harding, Elizabeth Parkinson and Andrew Wareham (eds.), London and Middlesex Hearth Tax (London: BA & BRS Hearth Tax Series IX, 2014) – thank you to Dr Andrew Wareham at the Centre for Hearth Tax Research (Roehampton University) for permission to use this map.

[7] Roger Finlay, Population and Metropolis: The Demography of London 1580-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 156.

[8] Champion, ‘Epidemics and the built environment’, 43-49.

[9] Agas Map (1561): ‘Plan of London (circa 1560 to 1570)’, in Agas Map of London 1561 ([s.l.], 1633), British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-map-agas/1561/map ; Faithorne and Newcourt map (1658 – surveyed 1643-47): tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/Sp_London1658/0003/scroll ; Morgan’s map (1682): ‘Morgan’s Map of the Whole of London in 1682 ‘, in Morgan’s Map of the Whole of London in 1682 ([s.l.], 1682), British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-map-morgan/1682/map

[10] TNA, Domestic State Papers: Charles I, SP16/408/139, ff.140-145.

[101] William Baer, Housing for the Lesser Sort in Stuart London: Findings from Certificates, and Returns of Divided Houses, The London Journal, 33:1 (2008), 66, 68-69.

[12] Davies et al, London and Middlesex Hearth Tax – the return can be accessed and searched digitally here https://gams.uni-graz.at/context:htx  

[13] Baer, ‘Housing for the Lesser Sort’, 66-67.

[14] TNA SP16/408/139, ff. 141v.

[15] Vanessa Harding, ‘Families and Housing in Seventeenth-Century London’, Parergon, Volume 24, Number 2 (2007), 115-138; 130-131.

[16] LMA P69/DUN2/B/011/MS02968/002, ff.294v, 293v, 295.

[17] T. C. Dale, The Inhabitants of London in 1638 (London: Society of Genealogists, 1931), 230-235; Davies et al, London and Middlesex Hearth Tax, 230-235 – online here http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-inhabitants/1638/pp230-235; Davies et al, London and Middlesex Hearth Tax, 770-797. 

[18] Dale, Inhabitants of London, 210-224 – online here http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-inhabitants/1638/pp210-224 [accessed 21 February 2021].

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Crazy Times: A joint post about 2020 with some advice for new PhDs

It has been a while since we wrote a blog post, the end of January to be exact. A post was partially planned for early March, but we all know what happened then. So here at the start of the academic year of 2020/21 we reflect on the past year and our PhD’s in general.

This post is less about parallels between our work on disease, death, and the dead in the early modern period and the Covid-19 pandemic, and more about our personal experiences while studying these subjects during said global pandemic.

In the build up to lockdown measures being announced on the 23 March, both of us were involved in various projects and activities alongside our PhD research and writing. These included seminar teaching, internships, consultancy work, tutoring, writing papers for conferences, a 0-hour contract casual job, organising the Graduate Research Symposiums at Birkbeck, University of London, and general family life. A full and busy schedule that we are sure is an overly familiar sight to fellow PhD students.

As countries around the world gradually went into lockdown some of the blogs on our site began attracting a lot of attention, especially ‘All such as shall be shutt upp of the sicknes’: the response of St Dunstan in the West to plague in 1665′, and Aaron specifically received comments about parallels between his work on plague and what was happening across the globe.

Aaron was invited to participate in a podcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with his supervisor Professor Vanessa Harding and Professor John Henderson (both Birkbeck). The resultant podcast explored the response to pandemics in history with a specific focus on bubonic plague in Europe from the late fourteenth to late seventeenth centuries –The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from historic plagues – It was certainly not a stretch to draw parallels between the anxiety of governments and concerns with compliance around lockdown regulations. Or, as pubs closed, gigs and other events were cancelled etc. people’s sadness at the removal of opportunities for social interaction and connection.

We waited for what was inevitable, the UK lockdown. When it was announced Anna had to move the seminars she was teaching online, the Graduate Research Symposium was cancelled (later to be resurrected online), jobs were lost, conferences postponed or moved online, libraries and archives closed, and general confusion reigned. Finding a new rhythm was important.

Over the first couple of weeks adjustment was key and to be honest little PhD work was really done. Home schooling, teaching online, getting used to other people working in the same environment as you (some whom have very loud phone conversations and tap very loudly on their keyboard), anxiety attacks for one of us, and issues around replanning and organising a new way to work were all problems that needed to be confronted.

After a couple of weeks of adapting (and as mentioned very little PhD work), a certain rhythm and routine developed. More work was able to be accomplished. Supervisions were picked up again online, plans were put into place for the Graduate Research Symposium to be held online too. Some things did continue as planned. Aaron was involved in said podcast whose subject matter was now more poignant than ever. We both presented papers at online conferences over the summer – Aaron at the Reconsidering Illness conference and Anna at Death and Culture III. We were hugely grateful to the organisers of these events and the semblance of normality being involved in a conference offered. Both of us were lucky enough to have plenty of work we could carry on with at home as large parts of our archival work had already been completed and we were both writing thesis chapters. This is not to say there were no longer struggles. Frustrations were real (one of us almost threw their laptop out the window at one point). We couldn’t just pop to the library to check something, and some days PhD work just didn’t happen at all no matter how hard we tried and even if we spent the day in front of the computer.

Maintaining momentum and enthusiasm was tricky but we were both focused on the lockdown not hindering our schedules for completion. Even so, some days were easier than others. Balancing home schooling with the need to spend focused time writing was an issue for one of us. Finances were certainly a concern, with tutoring jobs lost due to the cancellation of GCSE and A Level exams (Aaron) and the closure of theatres and the loss of a job there (Anna). Whilst we were both able to continue writing it was difficult not having the option of working in archives or certain library spaces we enjoyed and took for granted prior to the lockdown. A big part of doing a PhD on London history in London is spending time in the spaces and places that are located amidst the places and spaces where the people we researched once walked. Although completing a PhD is a reasonably solitary experience, and long hours spent alone in archives and alone writing away are part of the experience, we did miss meeting other Birkbeck PhD students for our monthly pub catch up, and just generally to touch base and encourage each other onwards. Luckily, we were able to organize some zoom quizzes with said other Birkbeck PhDs and some online drink catch ups…although sitting in your living room with a glass of wine/beer/tea/coffee and talking to a computer screen isn’t quite the same. Supervisions are an incredibly stimulating and enjoyable element of the PhD experience. Whilst we were thankful that supervisions could continue online, we both missed meeting with our supervisors in person.

Now we are in another odd position. Lockdown was lifted, we were able to have a catch up with each other in person and catch up with other friends and family. One of us picked up a pub job, purely out of necessity to help with rent, schools went back, and despite the new rules some of our favourite things were available again. With some archives now open (with restrictions and booking systems in place of course), we are looking forward to some time back in them, especially looking forward to visits to the London Metropolitan Archives. We are also looking forward to seeing other Birkbeck PhDs in the not too distant future, but we are also not disillusioned. There is a chance that another lockdown will occur (in fact it is probably a given) and this time hopefully we can find our rhythm and routine far quicker.

We learnt things from the first lockdown that we will use, not just for another lockdown but in general. We learnt that the show must go on. We were and are both lucky to have a safe place to live during this strange time and despite financial issues we are more privileged than many. Despite the lockdown and uncertainty and the fact archives and libraries closed overnight, the work still needed to be done. We both feel that although the going has been tough, we are there or there about where we expected to be at this stage of the PhD…well almost.

To finish off this joint blog post we thought we would write down twelve bits of advice to help those who are about to embark upon their PhD journey in these uncertain times.

1. Be kind to yourself! This is so important; you will hit many bumps in the road as you make your way through your PhD. People around you may not always be kind to you, but you can always be kind to yourself. You are doing a PhD that is truly awesome!

2. Take time to rest! Granted this is a hard one but it is important. Do take time to rest from the hustle bustle of life and its stress. Have a holiday where you do not do any work, lie on the sofa and binge a TV show or have a movie marathon for an entire day, give yourself a weekend off, take short breaks. Also take breaks throughout the day, and sleep. Sleep is so important!

3. Sometimes you fail, it is OK! You may not get the feedback you wished for, you may be rejected for funding, a paper you have poured your heart and soul into may be disregarded for a conference or for publication, you may not be given a position you desperately want. First, you are not alone, all or some of these things happen to everyone, we know because they have happened to both of us. Second, it is alright, honestly, it is not the end and it will pass. Keep going, we promise it will be fine.

4. Surround yourself with good people! A support network, both within and without academia is so important. Do remember the network that lies without academia, it can be refreshing to vent to someone who has no idea about any of this.

5. None of us really know what we are doing! It may not feel like it but most of us are stumbling along. Imposter syndrome is real, we all feel this at times. Figuring it out as you go is part of the PhD. It may feel like other people at the same stage as you have their s**t together, but the reality is they probably feel the same way you do. Imposter syndrome also does not end…

6. Your Supervisor is so important! Find someone who will put up with you and support you. Both of us have been extremely lucky in this regard and have amazing supervisors, but there are some horror stories out there. If it is not working switch supervisors. Here we are not speaking from experience, but it seems that sticking with a supervisor you do not gel with would not be worth doing.

7. Save everything and back it all up! One of us had our computer explode one day, and it was the most terrifying couple of hours. Luckily, everything was backed up.

8. Finances are going to be a pain! If you do need to work during your PhD that is alright, too many people do not acknowledge this. Ignore the snobs and work if you need to. Some of us are first gen, did not get enough funding, or any funding, and at the end of the day we all need to pay rent / have other expenses. It is worth thinking about the finances for the duration of you PhD, plan it out at the start, you will thank your past selves for doing so.

9. Network! Even if you hate it and are extremely awkward at it (like one of us), it is useful. Find the way that works best for you, is it via twitter, at seminars and conferences, emails, or stalking people in libraries and archives (don’t stalk people in libraries and archives), just find which way you are most comfortable with and do it, even if you want the floor to swallow you up most of the time. The cliques within academia can be truly horrible and demoralizing, it is hard to ignore but ignoring it and finding the good people is key.

10. Make sure you have a work life balance! Even if you have to work a job while doing your PhD do not let your life be the job and the PhD, get a hobby (drinking beer can be a hobby), do a dance class, run, ride a bike, and exercise in general, make things, garden, bake, it does not matter what it is just make sure there is more and the life part of the work life balance is not disregarded.

11. It is your PhD! Plan it out, take charge of it, be prepared to revise it (a lot), listen to advice, but it is yours and only you can get it done

12. Enjoy it!

As we near the end of our PhD journeys a lot of this is still relevant advice for the preparation for our vivas and hopeful postdoc journeys…we are not disillusioned we know the industry is in a bit of a state, we just choose to live in hope. We may need to remind ourselves of this list quite frequently.

Good luck to all the new and continuing PhD students. Here’s to a good academic year 2020/21.

Aaron Columbus and Anna Cusack

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‘I say, I am sure that there were no dead Bodies remain’d unburied’ – the burial of plague dead in London’s suburban environs in 1665.

On 22 August 1665, Samuel Pepys stumbled across an open coffin in a close near Greenwich and was shocked ‘the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence’. Burial increasingly presented a logistical and spatial challenge for London’s parishes as the population expanded exponentially from the mid-sixteenth century. Accommodating vast numbers of plague dead in an epidemic year presented the potential for administrative collapse, particularly in the suburban and outer-parishes where mortality was elevated several times above normal levels and might generate thousands of additional burials. In Gods Tokens, of His fearefull Iudgements, Thomas Dekker dramatically referred to ‘many Church-yards (for want of roome)’ compelled to ‘dig Graues like little Cellers, piling vp forty or fifty in a Pit’ during the epidemic of 1625. 

Over a million deaths occurred in London between 1550 and 1666, with between ten and fifteen thousand burials every year. Parishes used fees, careful planning of grave location and knowledge of past interments, bone removal and disturbance and sought additional burial ground to control and conserve space in non-plague years. Plague naturally placed immense and concentrated pressure on burial space. Vanessa Harding revealed parishes approaching this burden pragmatically, following standard methods of conservation and control for as long as possible, society deriving strength from observing what it saw as its ‘own traditions’ in time of crisis. Only when inadequate did vestries resort to common burial, ‘a shocking breech of custom, an offence to dignity’ but accepted by contemporaries as necessary during a plague epidemic. 

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Fig 1. Burial of plague dead in open pits in 1665.

Harding referred to the ‘mythology’ of the plague pit in London, and suggested the overall number may have been limited and confined to the suburbs, the smaller city-centre parishes not needing to implement this ‘desperate expedient’. Parish records give weight to this view, the most common reference to pits located in the records of the suburban parishes. Harding also suggested mass graves may have been used by parishes to save money, certainly plausible for the larger suburban parishes under immense financial pressure but also with better opportunities to acquire new grounds. The stark reality in 1665 was that many suburban parishes were required to find space for several thousand more bodies than a non-plague year. Open pits meant this could be achieved quickly and cheaply. 

The burden of disposing of the dead and available resources were unevenly spread across the city and metropolitan environs. Paul Slack described the burial spaces in many suburban parishes in later epidemics, ‘soon overflowing’ and their officials ‘overwhelmed’, and pondered the ‘psychological and administrative burden’ of having to accommodate so many dead. Slack extended the problems of burial to the intramural parishes, not completely insulated, their graveyards ‘literally piled high with corpses’ in 1665. In her analysis of St Bride Fleet Street’s burial of plague dead through 1665, Harding argued the parish struggling under the pressure of events but was not overwhelmed. The records for other suburban parishes reflect this pressure and tend to support Harding’s argument.

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Fig 2. The four ‘extramural’ or inner suburban parishes used in this study.

Daniel Defoe, in his fictional account of London’s epidemic in 1665, provided a sobering account of the scale of the burial problem in 1665. His protagonist lamented the number of poor ‘carried away in the Dead-Carts’ and ‘thrown into the common Graves of every parish’, normal practice breaking down and parishes forced to adopt common burial. He reported his parish, the easterly inner suburban parish of St Botolph Aldgate, having dug a ‘great Pit in the Church-Yard’, a ‘terrible Pit’. Defoe reports it being about ’40 Foot in Length, and about 15 or 16 Foot broad’, initially to a depth of ‘nine Foot’, and eventually extending to ’20 Foot deep’. Apparently ‘several large Pits’ had been dug before this. The parish accounts show payments for ‘earth for the churchyard’, ‘diggings of pitts in the Contagious Sickne tyme’, and later in the epidemic, ‘more Earth for the churchyard & for labours’. An interesting reference to the purchase of ‘16 yardes of cloth’ possibly relates to a move from coffined to shrouded burial, a money and space-saving expedient.  

Defoe reports the churchwardens at St Botolph Aldgate believing the aforementioned pit, dug on 6 September, ‘would have supply’d a Month or more’. By 20 September, the parish was ‘obliged to fill it up’, due to the 1,114 bodies that had been ‘thrown into it’ over the two weeks. Parishioners displayed their aversion to mass burial when telling the churchwardens they were ‘making Preparations to bury the whole Parish’. Defoe also mentions pits in Finsbury and Cripplegate, ‘lying open then in the Fields’ and not ‘wall’d about’, and others in ‘several Church-yards, or burying Grounds’. The measure was widespread and a common resort for many parishes, ‘if not all the out parishes’. Defoe’s overall perception though is parishes coping, his definition; ‘no dead Bodies remain’d unburied’ and none for ‘want of People to carry them off’, nor ‘Buriers to put them into the Ground’. Although stretched immensely, he argued London was able to accommodate its dead, reports in the aftermath of the epidemic that the ‘Dead lay unburied’, ‘utterly false’. Defoe’s account, lucid and entertaining as it is and based on primary sources and no doubt witness testimony, is fiction. Parish records though, provide an equally sobering picture of the terrible burial burden an efforts to meet the challenge.


Fig 3. A ‘generall Bill’ showing total burials and plague burials for parishes across the wider metropolitan environs of London in 1665. Daniel Defoe suggested the actual number of plague deaths was closer to 100,000.

Of the nearly 3,500 deaths recorded in 1665 in the north-easterly inner suburban parish of St Botolph Bishopsgate, 2500 were attributed to plague. On 8 August, the vestry voted the ‘wast Ground betwixt Mr Valentines’ house and the almshouses be ‘enclosed for a burial place’. Their ground was ‘so full of corps’, that place was ‘now wanting to bury the Dead’. It was at the ‘Churchwardens discretion to do it to the best advantage of the parish’. No burials were recorded between 26 June and 1 January, indicative of the pressure the vestry was under and the pressing need to secure space. On 6 September, the vestry voted the large ‘shed in petiframe’ be ‘pulled downe and the ground to be Digd and brought into the lower church yard’, the churchyard ‘being fild so full with corps that there is noe room left to buryie the dead’. The parish was unsurprisingly struggling to accommodate vastly increased numbers of dead than in a non-plague year. The vestry though, appeared a functioning and effective unit, their decisions responsive to the crisis as it evolved, and seemingly quite proactive. With their space close to full and it only being early August, they sensibly looked to create new burial ground on wasteland. When even this was insufficient, they reworked older space by raising the level of the churchyard to accommodate more burials. Defoe considered this measure common in the out-parishes with the ‘prodigious Numbers of People’ who died ‘in so short a Space of Time’. 

The westerly inner suburban parish of St Bride Fleet Street exhibited a similar control and conserve response to burial in 1665. As early as 16 June, the vestry had ordered burials from St Martins Ludgate be charged double duties, ‘because our ground begin to fill’. On 3 July, the sexton was ‘incouraged to dig the graues deeper’. He was to ‘receive something extraordinary for his pains’. Restriction on church burial followed on 7 July with an order that ‘none whatsoever shalbe buryed in the church’, exceptions made though ‘for such that have office of the Parish by service’, and those that ‘paid 3& a weeke to the poore’. Even these would only be accepted in the ‘upper churchyard & none other’. Normal burial practice, adhered to as long as possible, was replaced with common burial by 26 August, two labourers paid for ‘6 days of work digging a pitt’, and ‘more to 5 labourors for 4 days’. Additional payments were disbursed for ‘digging in ye pitt’ on October 14, and to ‘Edward Reynolds for labours in the backe churchyard’ four days later.  

St Giles Cripplegate consistently carried the greatest number of total plague dead in epidemics through the period. The northerly inner suburban parish reported 8,069 burials in 1665, a staggering 4,838 of these attributed to plague. The yearly average between 1657 and 1664 was 1,126, leaving the parish with almost 7,000 more burials to accommodate in 1665, an unfathomable concentration of mortality. Cumulative issues of burial space had emerged at St Giles Cripplegate as early as mid-1664 and reflect the ongoing population growth of the parish through the seventeenth-century. On 4 June, the vestry ‘Agreed, that there shall be no more corpses buried in Whitecross-street churchyard, under the penalty of the payment of three pounds to the Vicar and the rest of the Vestrymen’, until ‘ten years are expired’. With a lack of space apparent in a non-plague year, the likelihood of the parish faring well in 1665 appeared slim indeed. 

Defoe reported the plague thickening across ‘Cripplegate Parish’ through late July of 1665, ‘eight hundred eighty six’ buried in the second week of August alone. The disease began to abate slightly in the parish through the beginning of September as it moved further east and into the City itself. Even so, 456 burials were recorded in the week beginning 12 September, decreasing to 277 in the week beginning 19 September, and 196 for that of 26 September. By late September 1665, the vestry was forced to act. They ordered the churchwardens to ‘forthwith raise the Lower churchyard…two foote higher with earth’, and ‘not any person be allowed to be buried under a pew in the churche, unless the parties concerned doe at their own proper costs and charges lay down the same again’. By the end of September, burial space was exhausted. The accounts show payments to Mr Johnson and Alliston for bringing 1,196 loads of earth into the lower churchyard and labourers paid for ‘spreading it at several times’. 

Although standard burial practice must have long since passed, the parish did accommodate all those who fell of plague, and other causes of death, through 1665. The cumulative impact of the epidemic was felt well into and beyond 1666. On 16 January 1666, the vestry reported the ‘churchyards and burying places are now almost filled with dead corpses’, and ‘that not any more can scarcely be buried’; their remedy, therefore, that ‘we may have more ground’. Members of the vestry were appointed to a committee to ‘treat for the purchase of houses and grounds in Churchyard Alley adjoining the Church’. In October, the churchwardens were asked to report to the next vestry ‘how much ground in the alley by Crowden’s Well’ was out of a lease, and could potentially be added to the lower churchyard. While the new ground was sought, the vestry implemented further restrictions on their space, ordering on 23 January 1667, that ‘no person shall be buried in the Upper Churchyard or burying-place by the Pest House’ for seven years. The Bishop of Rochester, acting under a commission from the Bishop of London, consecrated ground south of the church on 9 October 1667. Spatial pressures persisted. The population displacement caused by the Great Fire likely compounded burial issues for the parish as the parochial population swelled. A vestry order from January 1668 extended the restriction on burial in the upper churchyard and place by the pest house to the ‘Lower or old churchyard’. As late as 1672, the vestry was forced to decree coffined burials ‘shall pay the full dues of burial’, but any choosing to be buried ‘in a sheet only’ would have the fees remitted.

As early as August 1665, Guildhall was concerned with the fullness of ‘sundry’ churchyards, including the common burial ground at the New Churchyard, established in 1569. Sir John Robinson was to ‘treat’ with one Mr. Tindall, the City’s tenant at Finsbury Fields, to allocate a new area for burial. The fullness of both the New Churchyard and that at Bethlehem was also behind the move to look to Bunhill Fields for burial space. The situation only worsened and in October the Court of Aldermen was receiving complaints at the stench from the New Churchyard and ordered that no more bodies were to be interred in pits there. An instruction was issued to lay fresh mould to speed up decomposition and find what space they could for single burials. Later that month, the bricklayer John Tanor was paid for erecting a wall about the ‘new burying place’ in Finsbury Fields. Whilst the City endeavoured to address the lack of space in non-parochial grounds, responsibility for burial was mostly placed at the individual parish level. Parish’s were viewed as the nexus of plague-time activity, and in that light, burial was simply another challenge, alongside those of quarantining infected houses and supporting the poor infected, that suburban and outer parishes were required to meet.

Vanessa Harding emphasised parishes having to define their priorities and ‘adopt strategies to cope’ with growing pressure on their burial space through the seventeenth-century. This was amplified during a plague epidemic. The records of several inner suburban parishes demonstrate the scale of the problem facing parishes in the suburban and outer environs of London but also the pragmatic approach they worked to in meeting the challenge of accommodating plague dead.

By Aaron Columbus



LMA ms.9235/1-2: CA 1547-1691, ff.431-432 / ms.9237: CA 1622-1678, 1665, St Botolph Aldgate Churchwardens’ Accounts.

LMA ms.4526/1: VM 1616-1690, ff.126 – St Botolph Bishopsgate Vestry Minutes.

LMA ms.6552/1: CA 1639-78, 26 August & 14/18 October 1665, St Bride Fleet Street Churchwardens’ Accounts.

LMA Repertories, 109/194.

Printed primary:

Daniel Defoe, Journal of a Plague Year (London: Penguin, 2003), 34, 59, 179, 222.

William Denton, Records of St Giles Cripplegate (London: Bell and Sons, 1883), 127.

Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys (London: Penguin, 2003), 201.

Frank Wilson (ed), Dekkers Plague Pamphlets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 159.


Vanessa Harding, ‘And one more may be laid there’: the Location of Burials in Early Modern London’, London Journal 14, 1989, 112.

Vanessa Harding, The Dead and Living in Paris and London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 272.

Vanessa Harding, ’Burial of the plague dead in early modern London’, J.A.I. Champion (ed.), Epidemic Disease in London (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series, No. 1, 1993), 59.

Paul Slack, ‘Metropolitan government in crisis: the response to plague’, in A.L.Beier and R. Finlay (eds.), The Making of the Metropolis: London 1500-1700, (London : Longman, 1986), 64.


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A brief overview of some of London’s execution sites, c.1600-1800

London’s long history of execution predates the most famous hanging site at Tyburn, but it was this site that during the seventeenth and eighteenth century became synonymous with sentence of death.

The earliest record of an execution at Tyburn dates from 1196 when William Fitz Osbert was executed and hanged in chains next to the Tyburn stream with nine accomplices for leading a revolt of the poor.[1] In 1537 the ringleaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace were executed at Tyburn and by 1571 the infamous Tyburn Tree or Triple Tree was permanently erected at the site (fig. 1).


Figure 1. William Hogarth, The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn etching ©The Trustees of the British Museum

As the famous image by Hogarth of Tyburn on an execution day demonstrates, the Triple Tree consisted of three horizontal wooden beams in the shape of a triangle supported by three perpendicular legs, an arrangement which was occasionally referred to as a ‘three-legged mare’ or a ‘three-legged stool’. This design allowed the executions of multiple felons at any one time. One of the largest mass executions was in June 1649; 24 malefactors were executed together, 23 men and one woman.[2]

Tyburn was not the only execution site within the metropolis. Execution Dock (fig. 2), was used for criminals from the Admiralty Court under an Act passed by Henry VIII.[3] Individuals were hanged at this site for various offences including piracy, mutiny, desertion, treason, and after 1807, slaving. This continued until 1834 when the criminal side of the court ceased as it was moved to the central criminal court. The last executions at Execution Dock were carried out in 1830.

Execution dock

Figure 2. A Pirate hanged at Execution Dock (PAJ0887) ©National Maritime Museum

Smithfield was also used as an execution site, often for the burning of women for high and petty treason. For example Ann Wallen was burnt there in 1616 for murdering her husband, and Isabella Condon who was burnt there in 1779 for coining offences.[4] It was also occasionally used for hangings on temporary gallows erected for the purpose of execution, such as in 1619 when Thomas Horsey was executed there for murder, and in 1761 when John Perrott was executed there for fraudulent bankruptcy (fig.3).[5]

John Perrott BM

Figure 3. Samuel Wale: John Perrott hanged at Smithfield; crowd in foreground with gallows behind, where executioner gestures to crowd while holding victim, who has rope around neck. Pen and grey and brown ink and grey wash (1730-1786) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Charing Cross was also an execution site. Most famously it was used for the executions of the regicides in 1660 and for earlier executions as well. In the eighteenth century it ceased to be used for this purpose. Kennington Common was again a popular execution site and used right across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was also a frequent location for ‘hanging in chains’ as can be seen on the right-hand side of the below image. (fig.4).


Figure 4. Revd Mr Whitfield Preaching on Kennington Common. Satire on the preaching of George Whitefield, the evangelical preacher; Whitefield stands at mid-distance, on top of a hill, appearing as a giant among a sea of heads; carriages at the edge of crowd; in foreground stand two gallows, one empty with two small children sit on top; on ground in foreground stand four figures, one drinking gin and singing “bung yr eye bung yr eye”; a few other figures surrounding. Etching (1739) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tower Hill and the Tower were the site of many executions, often of those from the upper spheres of society for treason, although some soldiers were also executed at the Tower and on Tower Hill, and during the 1780s it was the execution location for those involved in the Gordon Riots.

Other execution sites include: Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Old Palace Yard, St Paul’s Churchyard, and for Charles I execution, Banqueting House, along with occasional temporary gallows being erected near the site of a crime, often that of murder, throughout the metropolis.

The final execution site that deserves mention is Newgate itself (fig. 5). In December 1783 the main execution site moved from Tyburn to Newgate. This move has been understood as a signifier of modernity. The procession to Tyburn was inconvenient, the behaviour of the crowds along the route was too rowdy and it encouraged escape attempts. Simon Devereaux has convincingly challenged this arguing it was not so much a move towards more modern practices, but rather ‘one of the last stages of substantial innovation in an older system of thinking about capital punishment and its potential effectiveness’.[6] Executions continued at this site until 1868.

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Figure 5. Thomas Rowlandson, An execution outside Newgate Prison Watercolour and ink (c.1805) © Museum of London

It is safe to say that Londoner’s, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, would have been confronted with executions and their sites on a frequent basis, even if they did not seek them out intentionally and the imprint of execution sites on our historical memory of London should always be acknowledged.

Anna Cusack

[1] D. Keene, ‘William fitz Osbert (d. 1196), populist leader’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. September 23, 2004. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-9621. [accessed 5 Oct. 2019].

[2] Anon, A true and perfect relation of the tryall, condemning, and executing of the 24. prisoners, who suffered for severall robberies and burglaries at Tyburn on Fryday last (1649).

[3] An Act for Punishment of Pirates and Robbers of the Sea (28 Hen VIII c 15).

[4] Anon, Anne VVallens Lamentation, / For the Murthering of her husband Iohn Wallen a Turner in Cow-lane neere Smith- / field; done by his owne wife, on satterday the 22 of Iune. 1616. / who was burnt in Smithfield the first of Iuly following. (1616); Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England), October 25, 1779 – October 27, 1779; Issue 3486.

[5] H. Goodcole, Londons cry ascended to God, and entred into the hearts, and eares of men for reuenge of bloodshedders, burglaiers, and vagabounds. (1619), For Perrott see: OBP, OA17611111.

[6] G. T. Smith, ‘Civilised People Don’t Want to See that Kind of Thing: The Decline of Public Physical Punishment in London, 1760-1840’, in C. Strange (ed.), Qualities of Mercy: Justice, Punishment, and Discretion (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996), pp. 21, 29; S. Devereaux, ‘Recasting the Theatre of Execution: The Abolition of the Tyburn Ritual’, Past & Present, No. 202 (February 2009), p. 172.

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Representation and Reality: Promoting the undertaking trade in late eighteenth century Bath

This guest post comes from Dr Dan O’Brien Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath.

Undertakers in at th death.jpg

A man with closed eyes walking into a skeletal death figure, a group of anxious undertakers run after them. Coloured etching by R. Newton, 1794, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection

We begin with an unusual scene.

“A street, which discovers Recluse’s house – undertakers struggling to get at the door – knock and ring repeatedly and pulling one another from the door – One gets half in at the window, he is pulled out again – then at the door”

In the 1784 play Better Late Than Never, the affluent Bath resident Mr Peter Recluse, feigns his death after his scheming heir declares him dead in the local newspaper. This is a not entirely original tactic in eighteenth century theatre, but it does allow the elderly gentleman to combat the plans of the nefarious Mr. Swindal who intends to discredit Mr. Recluse’s son and marry his sister Phoebe, purely for economic gain. This is successful due to the assistant of his butler, Mr Handy. However, his ‘deceased’ state draws an unfortunate but humorous consequence.

At the beginning of the second act, three undertakers arrive at the house to perform Peter Recluse’s funeral. The men named Coffin, Grimly and Finis are introduced amid a furious argument on the doorstep of Recluse’s household, disputing who arrived first at the property and should win first hearing. As the servant, Mr. Handy, questions each undertaker the audience is presented with behaviour, which is far from the sober, solemn reputation of the trade. Coffin is the eventual ‘winner’ although he learns, to his disappointment, that Mr. Recluse is not dead. The candid nature of this conversation is made more humorous by the undertaker’s refusal to accept that Mr Recluse is not actually dead. The undertakers return to the Recluse household in the fourth act where they aggressively attempt to force entry. We began with the set description for this scene, a physical encounter in which their verbal taunts are exchanged for physical aggression. As the undertakers struggle to enter the property the stage directions indicate an ‘out-cry of I’m dead! I’m kill’d’, suggesting the undertakers’ violent intent toward each other in the contest to enter the property.1 There are many amusing and surprising moments in the play, but we will focus on these scenes specifically.

We should not interpret these men as a facsimile of Bath’s undertakers. After all, there are many other depictions, printed, written, and performed, of undertakers who are over-eager to bury the dying, insensitive to the bereaved and predatory in the behaviour towards the living and dead. By mimicking these elements, the play presents the audience with undertakers who would be easy to recognise in their short visits to the stage. The humour of their scenes would require little introduction or explanation, and popular stereotypes could be anticipated by the audience. What distinguishes the undertakers of Better Late Than Never, is the location of the scene, Bath, and the open competition that is depicted between different undertakers, with several characters on stage at the same time, arguing and fighting.

Undertakers were an increasing presence in prosperous, fashionable cities such as Bath. A city with many affluent families and social climbers who were perfectly suited to the aggrandising products of the trade. We can identify sixty-one individuals who used the title of ‘undertaker’ in the three decades of the late eighteenth century, 1770-1800; the period in which Better Late Than Never was published. It is likely that this total is not comprehensive, as these numbers predominantly reflect people who were willing to advertise their services through newspapers. It is important to note that funeral services were provided by some tradespeople who did not adopt the title of ‘undertaker’. It is also significant that in Bath, undertaking was typically a supplementary trade which was performed by artisans and tradespeople in addition to their primary businesses.

We may therefore use these overdrawn and exaggerated gentlemen of Better Late Than Never as a prompt to consider the reality of undertaking in Bath. Specifically, their fight prompts us to consider what actual promotion looked like in Bath.

In late eighteenth century, Bath, there were two forms of promotive behaviour with which undertakers could attempt to bolster and improve their status as professionals. Public claims of experience and qualification are the first example which will be considered, these were often incorporated into advertisements in local newspapers. The relocation and redesign of shops is the second form of competitive behaviour which similarly indicated that an undertaker was successful and well-prepared for the customer’s demands.

In Better Late Than Never, the undertaker Mr. Coffin supports his claims of appropriateness by arguing that he ‘was regularly brought up in the business’. He argues that Finis and Grimly lack experience in the trade and are ‘intruders and bunglers in it.’

As suggested in the play, longevity was presented as an important quality of a ‘good’ undertaking business. This was because it indicated that a business was successful, and its proprietor was adequately skilled. In a period when many new undertakers were establishing themselves, the businesses which had existed for an extended period could boast greater experience. Older businesses could also rely on the returning custom of families who had required funerary products in the past. This could be disrupted when an undertaker died or retired, so it was often necessary for their successor to publish an announcement identifying themselves. This was important because convention dictated that the business would continue in the name of the successor and it was therefore necessary that customers associated the new name with the old business. The language of these advertisements consequently emphasised the continuity between predecessor and successor. Familial ties were stressed by individuals who had inherited the business of a deceased relative, but it is apparent that familial ties were not entirely adequate in all instances, particular those in which women inherited businesses.

In 1793, George Tar advertised his business with a prominently placed reference to his 25 years employment as foreman to the Bath undertaker William Cross.2 Tar appealed to his former master’s customers because Cross had left the undertaking business and no other members of his family intended to continue in the trade. The length of Tar’s service was important because it assured customers that they could expect the same service they had become accustomed to with Cross. Tar’s claims were made in the context of competition with the undertakers, William and John Evill who had been trading for many years in Milsom Street, Bath.3 The Evills courted Cross’ customers with similar claims of a close relationship with the retired undertaker, although this was a collaborative relationship and the Evills had not worked for Cross.4

Longevity of service could also be a beneficial quality if an undertaker’s long service included work in the capital. One such example, William Bartlett of St. James Street, Bath, had worked for the undertaker Francis Deschamps at Rathbone Place in London, during the 1750s.5 It is possible that Bartlett’s decision to diversify his upholstering business was influenced by his experience of the funeral trade in London. Bartlett’s business differed from most Bath undertakers because he chose the dual titles of ‘undertaker’ and ‘coffin maker,’ perhaps reflecting a specialism that he had learned whilst working for Deschamps. Another Bath undertaker, named Treacher, advertised his former duties as a groom of the suite as evidence for his pedigree as an upholder, appraiser, and undertaker (see fig 1).5


Fig. 1. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14 May 1767.

A lengthy career suggested that an undertaker had the necessary skills to perform a funeral, but it was also important to assure customers that the business was currently successful and dependable for the ever-increasing range of funerary items. After all, nobody would want their funeral to be overseen by an undertaker who had a lengthy career as an undertaker’s man but only a small, fragile business that depended on the work of many other partners.

In Better Late Than Never the success of the undertakers’ businesses is testified by their accounts of lavish lifestyles and statused company. The undertakers’ descriptions prompt the servant, Mr. Handy to remark that ‘I fancy the business of an undertaker must be very profitable,’ Mr. Finis is related to members of the City corporation and possesses the right of free entry to the theatre (which he attempts to use as a bribe). Grimly describes a life of fine dining and good wine, stating that ‘there is a not a man at Bath can produce such a sample.’ The social achievements of the real undertakers of Bath were not discussed in their advertising, but their premises feature heavily, as evidence for their own prosperity.

The design and appearance of undertakers’ premises was frequently mentioned in advertisements and indicates that their owners were both successful and aware of fashion. The focus on interior aesthetics was evident in the description of G. Strawbridge’s ‘commodious premises’ which offered him greater space for his goods than his original shop.6 There are several reasons why these qualities would be desirable for an undertaker, even if a visit to the shop was not entirely necessary for the organisation of a funeral. The quality of the building demonstrated that the tradesman was successful because large premises and new stock required capital. Furthermore, the size of the shop was implied that the undertaker had a comparatively large range of goods. Demonstrating this, P. Grigg announced his ‘more commodious shop’ in an advertisement that outlined a new stock of goods that he was selling. Grigg had moved to 19 Stall Street, a shop which already had an association with the undertaking trade through a Mr. John Bakers.

fig2 (1)

Fig. 2. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 27 November 1788.

Warehouses were a stronger indicator that a tradesman had a large and comprehensive stock of items, a detail which was an attractive quality for a specialist retailer who claimed to be able to serve all aspects of their trade. In the Bath undertaking trade, several undertakers operated or opened ‘warehouses’ which accumulated their funerary goods with items from their other additional trades. The operation of warehouses was dominated by undertakers who worked in the textile trades, such as drapery, haberdashery, or silk mercery. Lawton & Marsh declared their partnership as undertakers after opening a warehouse alongside Lawton’s woollen drapery shop in the Abbey Churchyard in 1788 (see fig 2). The warehouse performed a significant role in their new business by enabling them to merge the stocks of their silk mercery and woollen drapery businesses which included items that were useful in the funeral trade (gloves, scarves, hatbands). As a consequence, they promised to serve funerals as cheap as in London because the warehouse possessed a ‘great stock of SILKS and SATTINS for funerals.’7 As demonstrated by Lawton & Marsh, the warehouse reduced an undertaker’s dependency on other tradesmen for the supply of funerary goods. The ability to stock an extensive range of items was positive for the consumer because it enabled an undertaker in Bath to compete with both the prices and the range of goods available in the capital. William and John Evill hosted their business in a ‘Sheffield, Birmingham and London warehouse’ a title which drew emphasis to the scope of their stock. The Evill’s business was distinguished by its retail of items from ‘northern manufactories’ and ‘London tradesmen.’8

The reality of self-promotion in eighteenth century Bath was less dramatic than in theatre. Undertakers made their appeals to customers through an established press that allowed them to present their changing businesses as appropriate, even essential, for a respectable funeral. Coffin, Finis and Grimly’s competition reflects the wider truth of a trade in which an increasing number of practitioners was leading to competition, innovation, and failure. Through the evidence used we can see that Bath’s undertakers did not fight with their fists but engaged in a campaign to preserve their businesses through the printed word.

Dr Dan O’Brien
Visiting Research Fellow
Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath



  1. Davies, W., ‘Better Late Than Never’, in Plays Written for a Private Theatre. By William Davies (London: 1786), pp. 261-364.
  2. Bath Chronicle, 18 December 1793.
  3. William Evill and John were undertakers at 18 Milsom Street, they had advertised as early as 1778: Bath Chronicle, 11 June 1778.
  4. Bath Chronicle, 26 December 1793.
  5. Bath Chronicle, 27 October 1768.
  6. Bath Chronicle, 14 May 1767.
  7. Bath Chronicle, 16 March 1769.
  8. Bath Chronicle, 11 June 1778.
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‘All such as shall be shutt upp of the sicknes’: the response of St Dunstan in the West to plague in 1665

The records of the westerly suburban parish of St Dunstan in the West are detailed and broadly illustrative of the response of suburban parishes to the 1665 plague epidemic. Although not one of London’s suburban giants, St Dunstan reflects the shifting topography of plague from the centre to the suburbs through the period. In 1593, the parish reported 585 burials, 363 of plague and 860, 363 of plague in 1625. The scale of mortality in 1665 was little different to that of 1625 with a total of 958 burials reported, 665 of plague. Mortality was elevated around four times above normal levels in 1665 and accommodation required for some seven hundred additional burials. This falls short of the elevations that most suburban parishes experienced during that particular epidemic but even so, the parish was under immense pressure and given it was not overwhelmed and the parish records maintained, provides a fascinating view of the experience and chronology of plague beyond the walls.

The parish population grew from some 1,000 souls in 1548 to 2,500 by the beginning of the Restoration period, although most of that growth was essentially achieved by the early seventeenth century. The Agas Map (1562) shows the parish’s location on Fleet Street, ribbon development along Fetter Lane and relative open space in the northern area of the parish. Although the parish population had not increased to the extent of other suburban parishes, the Faithorne map (1658) reflects the density of the built environment by the middle of the seventeenth century.

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In his excellent study of epidemics and the built environment, Justin Champion referred to the outward projection of a ‘thriving, successful’ and ‘affluent’ parish at St Dunstan, one of London’s wealthiest, where the occupational structure was dominated by the victualling trade. A mean number of seven hearths per dwelling was returned in the 1666 Hearth Tax. Champion placed the parish in the context of the ‘classic social topography’ of early modern urban centres, whereby behind the prosperous locations of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane a ‘labyrinth’ of ‘congested’ courts, alleys and yards emerged and it was here that he argued that mortality followed ‘social structure’, with an imbalance toward ‘smaller and poorer’ dwellings, at St Dunstan in the West in 1665. The vestry minutes and churchwardens’ accounts can be used to tease out the chronology and spatial incidence of plague at St Dunstan in 1665.

The first reference to plague in the churchwardens’ accounts in 1665 is on 27 June with money distributed to the ‘poore and visited’. Two days later the vestry elected to ‘shutt upp’ the ‘howse’ of the parish ‘Graue maker’ William Penny who was visited by the sicknes’. Penny had possession of the ‘parish Gallery in the church’ and the vestry ordered that he ‘bee forthwith discharged from both said places’ and that ‘Abraham Pate shall bee keeper of the said Gallery and Joseph Penny his sonn Graue maker’. Money was disbursed to the pesthouse for the ‘maintenance of such poore people as shall (being visited with the sicknes) be sent hither’. It was reiterated that as ‘afore for all such as shall be shutt upp of the sicknes in the parish, which and as often as occasion shall require’. Finally, watchmen there appointed to wait upon ‘all such howses that shal be visited within the Parish’ and provision was made for ‘such an allowance for their pains as shall be thought fitt’.

On 30 June the churchwardens distributed ‘more to the poore & visited’, and ‘Laid out for a bedstead for the two watchmen’ attending ‘two visited howses in Cock and Key alley’. The records give a sense of the vestry taking charge and implementing orders with confidence and anticipation of the pressures to come. In the face of rising mortality they found time to discuss ordinary business, a payment to Mr Bates the ‘Carpinter’, and action an inventory, including one of the wardens being asked to bring in the church plate. By 3 July though all vestry business related to plague. Problems were dealt with as they arose and within the confines of plague directives. Widow Briggs, ‘one of the searchers’ of the parish’, was ordered to ‘cohabit and dwell with widow Mason the other searcher in churchyard alley’, the vestry keen to isolate those in contact with plague dead and infected houses. The women were to be paid ‘two shillings a peece weekely’.

The role of charity in supplementing parish relief is apparent with a ‘guift of Sr John Cole to the poore visited people of this Parish’. Mr Dorsett, the senior Churchwarden, was to see the money ‘disbursed accordingly’. Cole may well have fled, as many of status and means did, but charity was often ensured in their absence. The careful monitoring and expected stress on finances is evident in the order that a ‘Record bee kept by the churchwardens’ of ‘money as is or shouldbe laid out and disbursed’ for the ‘infected poore of this parish’. Moreover, the external view of the parish as an administrative unit is illustrated by a vestry order on 7 July, whereby a note was to be read in ‘church on the next lords day’ announcing a mayoral order restricting ‘All publique assemblyes’ at burials, especially in ‘those parishes that are infected with the sicknes’. This initiative was resented and opposed by Londoners who sought comfort in tradition and continuity, particularly attuned to any denigration of burial custom.

Account expenditure from mid-July shows the range of plague spending. One Mr Drinkwater was paid ‘for Phisick given to poore persons shutt upp of the sicknes’ on 17 July and sums were  ‘Laid out about the sending of Goodman Short to the Pesthouse’ on 19 July. The quarantined were the greatest expense for the parish.  Widow Aldworth, ‘she being visited with the sicknes’ ‘and William Penny’s family ‘being visited with the sicknes’ were given financial relief, whilst sums were also paid ‘to a nurse to looke to Penny and his family’. The expense of watchers and nurses for the visited increased through July as plague spread through the alleys and courts. For example, money was distributed on 22 July to Copper and Dudley, ‘the watchman being sicke’ and ‘widow Aldworth being visited with the sicknes’. Payment was disbursed to the constable Thomas Langrish ‘for a moneths pay to the watchmen’ and the ‘visited howses’ and the ‘Bearers of St Brydes P[ar]ish for laying out of Goodman Shorte’, 26 and 27 July respectively. William Penny was also paid for ‘making three graues’, apparently surviving the shutting up of his house in June. Payments were made to ‘Cooper the watchman’ in Crowne Court’ for ‘7 days watching’ and to ‘two nurses in Crown Court’.

The movement and spread of plague through the parish can be discerned, although it should be noted that the accounts focused on houses actively supported by the parish and will be biased toward the poorer quarters. Quarantined houses were supported in Cock and Key and Rams Alleys from late June, two locations referenced in the accounts throughout the visitation. Isolated houses in Crown Court were receiving parish relief by the end of July, and Fetter Lane, with ‘sixe howses’ watched, by mid to late August, as too were several houses in Chancery Lane at the beginning of September where the Painter family were given parish funds. Support was directed to widow Hollythorne in Pinkes Alley on 9 September, Mr Sherrow in Hollythorne Court on the 14th, Mrs Symonds in Boreshead Alley on the 22nd, and widow Legatt in Jerusalem Court on the 26th. Justin Champion concluded that the ‘standard of environmental living’, as reflected in the ‘physical space inhabited, determined the type of mortality experienced’. Kira Newman pushed back on this to a degree in her nuanced study of quarantine at St Martin in the Fields in 1636, where she found the greater share of shut up houses to be located on the major thoroughfares of the parish.

Accommodating plague dead was one of the biggest challenges faced by parishes. Ordinary burial practice was adhered to as long as possible, and only when inadequate, would the more extreme measure of common burial be initiated. St Dunstan was coping well enough through the earlier stages of the epidemic, but by mid-August, the vestry was forced to revise burial policy. On 16 August labourers were paid ‘for 4 days and a halfe for digging of 3 Pitts for buryall of the deceased visited people’, and ‘more to 4 labourers for twoe dayes digging of a pitt’. Vanessa Harding posited the digging of pits was a practical measure to accommodate vastly raised numbers of dead but was also likely aimed at saving money. The majority of families could not pay for burial, whilst the parish was carrying the financial burden of the epidemic. The first pits appear to have been inadequate, as on 1 September two men were paid for ‘helping to dig 2 pits’. Increasing mortality is evident in the purchase of planks to ‘cover the pitts’ on 4 September, indicative of the need to keep the ground open. More was paid to ‘men for helping to make pitts’ on 18 September, the bearers bringing in 14 corpses alone the following day. On 2 October, ‘twoe labourers’ were paid for ‘carrying away of eight loades of rubbish out of the church yarde next the church’, and on 2 November a final pitt was dug. As the epidemic subsided, a ‘carter & sixe labourers’ were paid for ‘bringing in and carrying out of eleven loades of earth and rubbish at the churchyard’.

The records of St Dunstan in the West provide an interesting window on the plethora of challenges suburban parishes faced in 1665, the framework of response implemented and the pragmatic manner in which they set about their responsibilities.

By Aaron Columbus


‘Plan of London (circa 1560 to 1570)’, in Agas Map of London 1561 ([s.l.], 1633), British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-map-agas/1561/map [accessed 28 August 2019].

‘Faithorne and Newcourt Map (1658)’, British Library Online Gallery, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/a/007000000000001u00035000.html [accessed 28 August].

‘Chantry Certificate, 1548: City of London’, in London and Middlesex Chantry Certificate,1548, ed. C J Kitching (London, 1980), pp. 1-60. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-record-soc/vol16/pp1-60 [accessed 21 August 2019].

T C Dale, ‘Inhabitants of London in 1638: St. Dunstan in the West’, in The Inhabitants of London in 1638 (London, 1931), pp. 230-235. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-inhabitants/1638/pp230-235 [accessed 21 August 2019].

London Hearth Tax: City of London and Middlesex, 1666 (2011), British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-hearth-tax/london-mddx/1666 [accessed 21 August 2019].

J.Champion, ’Epidemics and the built environment in 1665’, J.A.I. Champion (ed.), Epidemic Disease in London, (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series, No.1, 1993), 43-49.

K.Newman, ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History 45:3 (2012), 809-834.

V.Harding, ‘Burial of the plague dead in early modern London’, J.A.I. Champion (ed.), Epidemic Disease in London (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series, No. 1, 1993), 53-64.

LMA P69/DUN2/B/001/MS03016/002, Vestry minute book 1663/4-1701, f.24-28.

LMA P69/DUN2/B/011/MS02968/004, Churchwardens’ account book 1645-1666, f.438-445.


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The longevity of Mary Aubry who was executed by burning in 1689

Sometimes during my research, which currently involves collecting and collating information about the treatment of a corpse after death, I come across the story of an individual who has sparked something within the minds of his or her contemporaries and indeed modern scholars. Mary Aubry is one such individual and a brief overview of her death is laid out as follows.

On Friday, 2 March 1689, Mary Aubry, a French midwife, stood in Leicester Fields awaiting her execution by burning. Aubry was charged with and convicted of the murder of her husband Dennis Aubry who she had strangled. She confessed to the crime, was convicted, and was sentenced to be burnt. In an anonymous account of her behaviour and execution we learn that Aubry had dismembered her husband; the ‘body was found in Parkers-Lane, his Arms, Legs, &c. in the Savoy House of Office, and his Head in another, near Exeter Exchange’.[1] This story is confirmed by the record of her trial at the Old Bailey. The sentence against Aubry was, ‘That she should be carried from thence to the Place from whence she came, and thence be drawn to the Place of Execution, and there be burnt with Fire till she is dead’.[2] At about ten o clock in the morning Aubry was collected from Newgate by the Sheriff’s Officers, placed into a sledge and drawn to Leicester Fields where a stake had been erected on the north side of the square. She arrived at half past ten and was reported as ‘appearing very Penitent, often lifting up her Hands and Eyes to heaven, seeming to express much sorrow for the Crime that had been the occasion of this her shameful End’. Half an hour after her arrival, Aubry was set upon a small stool and had a rope fastened through a hole in the stake and around her neck. The stool was taken away and she hanged, slowly strangling to death for a quarter of an hour as wood was piled about her. Eventually the pile of wood was lit and burnt for at least half an hour, until nothing remained of Aubry but ashes.

Execution by fire had been the punishment for women accused of high and petty treason since the end of the thirteenth century. Petty treason extended to wives slaying husbands as Aubry’s case shows, and to the murder of masters by servants. Mary Aubry, like many of her fellow criminals who were executed during the seventeenth century, did however, live on. Her story was retold in various forms including in iconographic depictions, in ballads, and even on playing cards (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Playing card depicting an etching of Mary Aubry’s execution, 1689. © Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.

Even in 1813 Mary Aubry’s story was still being sold and she pops up on the radar of any historian who touches upon executions by burning.[3] Hence despite her short life her story remains. Now it would be possible to argue that all women executed by burning received the same post-mortem longevity, but this is not true. Judith Bomsellers executed by burning in July 1697 for coining (high treason), has nothing but the Ordinary’s Account to remember her by.[4] Therefore, it must be a combination of factors that have led to some criminals’ longevity while others and their stories are lost. These are currently being examined through my research and at some point I will share my conclusion but for now, the story of Mary Aubry’s crime and execution will have to suffice for this blog piece.

Anna Cusack

[1] Anon. An account of the manner, behaviour and execution of Mary Aubry, (1688), p. 1.

[2] OBP, t16880222-24 and s16880222-1.

[3] J. Caulfield, Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Persons from the Reign of Edward the Third to the Revolution (1813). For more on Mary Aubry (sometimes spelt Aubrey, Awbry or Horbry) see F. E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550 – 1700 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 34-38; D. J. Cox, Crime in England 1688-1815 (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 13-16.

[4] OBP, OA16970716.

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