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 [accessed 28 August 2019].

‘Faithorne and Newcourt Map (1658)’, British Library Online Gallery, [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 Online [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 [accessed 21 August 2019].

London Hearth Tax: City of London and Middlesex, 1666 (2011), British History Online [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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‘Jane, yt God sent us by Cutler’s maid’: the baptismal register at St Botolph Bishopsgate in the later sixteenth century

The clerk at St Botolph Bishopsgate, a large suburban parish to the north-east of London’s walls, entered the baptism of Bennett, the ‘reput[ed]’ daughter of John Allen, in the parish register in July 1596. Allen had accompanied Sir Francis Drake on an expedition to the ‘Indiains’ and the child was apparently ‘got by a stage player’ during his absence. The detail was recorded alongside the baptismal entry in the register. Thomas Cromwell issued an injunction in 1538 for parishes to record marriages, baptisms and burials, reiterated by Elizabeth I in 1558. Andrew Gordon argued that focus on record keeping offers a ‘window into the mental world’ of the early modern parish. From the mid-1560s, the clerks at Bishopsgate began intermittently recording additional detail alongside the basic baptismal entry of the child’s name, parents and date of baptism. The baptismal register at Bishopsgate hints to emergent social pressures in the face of a growing population.

Bishopsgate’s population sat somewhere around 1,500 or so souls in the early 1560s. This rose to around 2,000 by 1572 and 3,000 by the beginning of the 1580s, the parish population doubling in twenty years. Population growth was accompanied by social stress. Elizabeth – no surname recorded – was born ‘in ye Spittle Churchyard’ in January 1568. Her baptism was entered for 17 January and her burial the same day. Alice Evans was ‘borne in ye streate’ in October 1575 and one Mary was born at ‘ye church benche’ in early March 1586. Edmund Curates was baptised on 29 August 1585 after being ‘taken upon a stall’ in the neighbouring parish of Aldgate. His mother was presumably of Bishopsgate. Whilst suburbanites’ views of parish bounds might be permeable, the opposite was the case for parish officers keen to avoid any charge to the parish. This line was increasingly delineated as populations grew and social problems intensified, particularly after 1600 with the codification of the Poor Laws. Suburban parishes were compelled to begin this process from the middle of the sixteenth century.

On 20 May 1564, Alice Swann was baptised, her place of birth ‘in ye cage’, the parish lockup, recorded. Her mother’s name is not noted. Given the cage was used for more serious offences than those warranting communal humiliation in the parish stocks, her mother might well have been a prostitute or perhaps a vagrant. A boy was born in the cage – ‘no father knowen’ – in mid-February 1577, as was one Bettres in late January 1579. The motivation in noting the place of birth for these particular children was related to the chargeable situation presented to the parish by an illegitimate birth. This is also reflected in the baptisms of illegitimate children born of women at Bethlem, the hospital asylum neighbouring the parish. William – whose father is not recorded – was ‘gotten on Florence Peters in Bedlam’ in April 1579. One Robert was born of a ‘mad woman in Bedlam’ in February 1583. The father is not recorded. The clerk’s intention was administrative rather than influenced by an unusual or interesting birth detail. For example, Elizabeth, ‘a negro’s child, born white, ye mother a negro’, was baptised on 25 September 1586, the girl possibly the result of a relationship between master and servant. In this case, the father is not named. An earlier baptism, that of one Jane, ‘yt God sent us by Cutler’s maid’ in April 1581, possibly captures the father’s identity, a priority for the parish so far as deflecting charge for the child.

From the late 1580s, the clerk began to specify any baptism where security had been taken to ensure the parish was not liable to support the child. In July 1588, Elizabeth, the daughter of William Murfell, ‘being borne hard by ye preaching place in ye Spittle’ was baptised, and John Reeves and one Mr Fowler, dwelling in St Georges parish in Southwark, gave their ‘words to discharge’ Bishopsgate parish. Five bonds for sureties were recorded in the register through 1589. As pressure began to bite through the second half of the sixteenth century, the clerk at Bishopsgate utilised the register to create a permanent record of baptisms where the parish might find itself chargeable and those the parish had managed to deflect liability for. The noting and nature of the additional details speak to emergent pressures and anxieties in London’s rapidly growing suburban parishes and early moves toward more meticulous record keeping in the face of greater need and imposed responsibility. The baptismal register at Bishopsgate provides an interesting window on this process.

By Aaron Columbus


London Metropolitan Archives, P69/BOT4/A/001/MS04515/001, Composite Register 1558-1628 

See Roger Finlay’s discussion of London’s parish registers – ‘The Accuracy of the London Parish Registers, 1580-1653’, Population Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), pp. 95-112

See Andrew Gordon’s discussion of the development of parish record keeping in early modern London – ‘The Paper Parish: The parish register and the reformation of parish memory in early modern London’ –





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Drowning in the Seventeenth Century Parish Registers of St Giles Cripplegate

The parish of St Giles Cripplegate kept meticulous records of those it interred and was one of the earliest to start recording the known cause of each death in response to an Act passed in 1653. The population of St Giles Cripplegate was around 25-30,000 during the seventeenth century, and they buried an average of over 1,100 bodies per annum.[1]

The run of parish registers for St Giles Cripplegate between 1600 and 1700 is very nearly complete. One register between 1657 and 1662 is missing and a few pages here and there in other registers are damaged and unable to be deciphered. The parish registers do not definitively list the cause of death until October 1653, and the exact location of burials within the parish burial grounds is not noted until October 1663, but they do document unusual and interesting deaths in the earlier entries including deaths by drowning.

The parish registers record a total of 39 individuals as drowned during the seventeenth century. There were 115,218 other deaths recorded. Drownings were therefore only 0.034% of all causes of death. Twenty-four of these were male and fifteen were female. (fig. 1).

Capture 1

Figure 1. Gender of the drownings from the St Giles Cripplegate parish registers 1600-1700


The burial grounds of the parish were laid out as described by William Denton’s Records of St. Giles’ Cripplegate (1883):

There were three burial-grounds in the parish over which the Vestry seems to have exercised considerable control: the churchyard lying round St. Giles’s Church, called the Lower Burial-ground, which was enlarged by the additions in 1662 of a piece of ground south of the church near Crowder’s well, and by another addition in 1667. One in Whitecross Street, known by the name of the Bear and Ragged Staff Burial-ground, also as the Upper churchyard; and one lying adjacent to the Pest House, where the poor of the parish were for the most part buried. [2]

There were at least three more burial sites over which the parish clerk also possessed some authority; Bunhill Fields known as Tindall’s or Tyndale’s established in 1665, the Quaker burial ground adjacent to Bunhill Fields, and the New Churchyard, also referred to as Bedlam or Bethlem, established in 1569. Individuals who died by drowning were spread across different burial grounds as can be seen in figure 2.

Capture 2

Figure 2. Burial locations for the 39 drowned individuals in St Giles Cripplegate.


Four of those who drowned are noted as children, there are a further fourteen whose entry lists them as a son or daughter in the register. Two are noted as spinsters one as a servant and only one was considered a suicide. Their entry from 29 February 1672 reads ‘Thomas Miller Carver Drowned himself’. A couple of drowning entries contain the words ‘Coroners Quest’ and a few explicitly state that the drowning was an accident. The hymn writer Isaac Watts conjectured in the 1720s that almost all drownings were in fact suicides.[3] It is difficult to conclusively include any of the 39 drownings other than the one noted above as a suicide. The locations of the drownings do not shed any further light on this either, (fig. 3).

Capture 3

Figure 3. Locations of the drownings included in the parish register of St Giles Cripplegate.


Drownings were a constant feature in the Bills of Mortality however, given the location of the parish of St Giles Cripplegate the statistics for this parish are far lower than those of parishes that bordered the Thames and only one drowning in these records comes from the Thames itself.

Drowning within the environs of seventeenth century London was a frequent occurrence as the Bills and other sources have shown. More comparative work is required, but it appears that the further a parish was from the main waterway of the city the lower statistics are for death by drowning. It would be interesting to explore how far out from the Thames one must go before the statistics drop to the level we see in St Giles Cripplegate.

I may do it at some point…

Anna Cusack

Data taken from the Parish Registers of St Giles Cripplegate: LMA, P69/GIS/A/002/MS06419/001 – P69/GIS/A/002/MS06419/012.

[1] V. Harding, The Dead and the Living in Paris and London, 1500-1670 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 37, 39.

[2] W. Denton, Records of St. Giles’ Cripplegate (1883), pp. 31-32.

[3] I. Watts, A Defence against the Temptation to Self-Murther (1726), pp. iii-iv.

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‘They dying in the heate of the sicknes’: burial of the dead and marginalisation of the living during the 1625 plague epidemic at St Martin in the Fields

On November 30, 1625, the churchwardens of the Westminster parish of St Martin in the Fields paid the carpenter Thomas Potham for his ‘workmanshipp in settinge upp shedds in the Newe Churchyard for the bearers & the search[er]s’. This particular disbursement came towards the tail end of the 1625 plague epidemic, a brutal visitation, mortality elevated 5.2 times above normal levels city-wide. Both bearers and searchers were charged with face to face contact with infected plague corpses, the searchers in confirming the cause of death and the bearers, as their title would suggest, in removing corpses from place of death to place of burial. Their respective plague time roles for the parish provided them with a source of income but was inherently unpleasant, dangerous and resulted in both physical and perceptual isolation from the wider community, as evidenced by this reference.

St Martin’s, alongside London’s wider suburban environs, experienced accelerated population growth through the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Julia Merritt estimates a three-fold increase in the parish population between the plague epidemic of 1603 and that of 1625, rising from around 3,000 to 9,000 souls. The parish faced the challenge of finding space for the burial of 1,470 individuals during the 1625 plague epidemic, 973 of those attributed to the plague.

As mortality rose through July preparations were made to accommodate the expected rise in burials. The scavenger Roger Odell was paid on July 30 for carrying away of ‘ffive Loades of Rubbishe from the Newe Churchyard gate’. By late October the parish’s burial space was under immense pressure. The bearers’ duties were extended to include carting earth to the parish’s new churchyard to ‘eaise the ground there over the graves where the visited p[er]sons were buryed’. They were pressed into service again on November 7 ‘carrying in more freshe earthe’, and again on December 23, in order to raise the ‘grounde there over the graves, where the visited persons were buryed’.

The sheer influx of dead in the ‘heate of the sicknes’ made it difficult for parish officials to gather all due burial fees. The churchwardens complained that many burials were ‘laid into the graves & pitts in the Churchyard in the night time, before the Clarke or Sextons knewe’ and could not take ‘certeyne times of theire burialls’. The parish was not content to let these fees slide. On February 17 of the following year the churchwardens noted ‘charges and expenses’ for ‘goinge aboute one whole day ffor collectinge of monies uppon desperate bills for funeralls w[hi]ch fell in the heate of the Sicknes’.

On December 24 the sheds were finally taken down as the epidemic petered out, and the bearers and searchers were presumably free to return to their non-plague time place of residence. The impact of the preceding month, whereby they were required to live amidst space literally overflowing with plague dead, is difficult to comprehend. These references make stark the reality of accommodating vastly increased numbers of dead in such a narrow space of time, plague epidemics seasonally leaning towards the summer and early autumn months. It also drives home the unpleasant role some members of the community were called on to see through in executing the parish’s plague-time expedients. Their compliance was vital but direct contact with the infected engendered fear, suspicion and spatial marginalisation from the wider community. The timing of their relocation to the churchyard, at the tail end of the epidemic, shows this an extraordinary measure and was perhaps driven by the lobbying of those in the community living nearby the searchers and bearers.

Plague epidemics were intense and paralysing events and the communal fabric was pushed to breaking point. Those coming into direct contact with plague were a tangible manifestation of the disease. A vestry minute entry for 1624 shows segregation from the community at play in non-epidemic years, ‘two women searchers’ ordered to be remooved’, and ‘inhabite together hereafter in the lower room out of w[hi]ch the widow Merrick was buried’. What stands out in 1625 is their banishment to a space reserved for the plague dead. This hints at the marginalisation and loss of agency experienced by those members of the parochial community charged with working for the community through an epidemic event.

Aaron Columbus


Westminster Archives Centre, manuscript F3, St Martin in the Fields Churchwardens’ Accounts 1624-47, p.17 – all references are from this manuscript unless other stated.

Cummins, Neil and Kelly, Morgan and Ó Gráda, Cormac, ’Living standards and plague in London, 1560–1665’, Economic History Review, 69 (1) 2016, pp.3-34. p.16 – for relative magnitude of plagues in early modern London

Julia Merritt, The social world of early modern Westminster, Manchester University Press (2005), p.261 – for population growth in early modern Westminster

Thomas Birch, A Collection of the Yearly Bills of Mortality, from 1658-1758…(published 1759) – copy held at Guildhall Library, London

Westminster Archives Centre, manuscript F2002, St Martin in the Fields, Vestry Minutes 1624-52

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Gender in Early Modern Anatomical Images

In 1719, the cousins of the Italian-trained wax modeller Guillaume Desnoües brought some of his anatomical waxworks to London. These were shown with the claim that they could be seen ‘without exciting the feeling of horror men usually have on seeing corpses’.[1] By 1733 a London surgeon was reported as displaying an Anatomical Venus in Covent Garden. This wax model was of a woman who was ‘suppos’d’ opened alive and it showed the circulation of the blood in pregnancy.[2] Anatomical wax figures were incredibly popular in Europe especially in Italy, but London would have to wait until the nineteenth century for their popularity to spread to the metropolis. That is not to say they were not in existence, imported from Italy and other countries and treasured like rare gems. The most popular figures were models of beautiful women invariably reclined in ‘passive yet sexually inviting poses’, the male wax models contrasted this by being portrayed as upright men (fig. 1, 2).[3] These three-dimensional depictions of the female body have been linked to depictions in erotic books from the same period as they ‘employ similar gendered codes of movement’.[4]


Fig. 1, Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, probably made by the workshops of Clemente Susini. Florence, Italy, 1771-1800. Source No: A627043 © Science Museum


Fig. 2, Wax male anatomical figure, probably made by the workshops of Clemente Susini. Florence, Italy, 1776-1780. Source No. A608367 © Science Museum.

Wax modellers may have taken their anatomical knowledge from the corpses of criminals, but if so, the finished product was far removed from what would have been witnessed on the dissection table. Anatomical manuals did not really differ in this regard. Anatomical illustrations in books and pamphlets were shown exclusively in terms of their generative function. Muscles, the skeleton, and nervous systems, were almost exclusively depicted on the male body along with all the organs common to both males and females. The male form was predominantly shown écorché, flayed to varying degrees, this was also apparent in male wax anatomical models. The female body was never shown without some drapery of skin. Illustrations of the female body emphasised gender and sexual availability. These female figures were shown as smooth-skinned and attractive, often with long hair and posed in an alluring way.

Early anatomy manuals drew on the Italian style of images, specifically the Vesalian illustrations which were made available to the English through the work of Thomas Geminus during the sixteenth century. Only a limited number of people would have had access to such manuals, namely the members of the Barber-Surgeons Company, the members of the Royal College of Physicians and rich collectors from the upper spheres of society. Anatomy manuals were used as teaching aids and collectors’ items due to the expense in their production and use of Latin within the texts. By the seventeenth century, Helkiah Crooke employed the style of Geminus alongside that of other artists in his own anatomical text Microcosmographia, first published in 1615.[5] The image on the title page shows the difference in mentalities directed towards the male and female corpse. It depicts a completely écorché male figure but the female figure is covering her sex and only her stomach is opened to the viewer so they can witness her reproductive function (fig.3). The female is posed in a classical style, almost modestly. The left hand is raised over the left breast but resting upon the right one. The straightening of the female’s fingers in the hand upon the right breast leads to the conclusion that she is presenting her breast to the viewers, who would have almost certainly been male.[6]  This pose holds a similarity to images of the Madonna offering her breast to the infant Christ.[7]  One other association that the female figure alludes to is the images of Venus, both the statue of Venus de’ Medici and Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus. Whether interpreted as the Madonna, Venus or as a seductress, the one association that is not made between this image and female archetypes is an association with the female criminal.


Fig 3. Etching on the title page of Mikrokosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man. 1615. © The British Library.

Crooke’s book was highly controversial, not least because it was published in English and not Latin, but also due to the iconographic depictions, including the cover image. In 1614, the College of Physicians debated the question of vernacular publication: Several thought that a few subjects and more indecent illustrations should be removed, and other points ought also to be corrected, while many considered that book four, with the pictures of the generative organs should be destroyed and that he [Crooke] should be enjoined to confess that it was a translation, that is of many subjects from Laurentius…and of…Bauhin.[8] Crooke did eventually bow to some of the pressure and the second edition only depicted a flayed male figure in the process of dissecting himself on the front page. Depictions of male figures actually performing the art of dissections upon their own persons are of interest. There are no similar images of female figures in these poses and these types of images are clearly displaying the living figure and not the corpse. Likewise, Alexander Read’s Somatographia anthropine, or a Description of the Body of Man originally published in 1616 was very similar in its iconographical depictions, again following the style set out by Andreas Vesalius in the late sixteenth century.[9] Even by 1681 when John Browne published Myographia nova, or, A graphical description of all the muscles in humane body, as they arise in dissection, the depictions were all male, and again the image of figures dissecting themselves were in use (fig 4). Anatomists were not interested in the female muscular set it seems, and Browne, even as a surgeon who had performed many dissections, does not deem them relevant for inclusion in his study. These self-dissecting iconographic images are reminiscent of the story of Apollo and Marsyas as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Renaissance ideas of a Classical story were familiar enough to provide some sort of dialogue which is why this particular style persisted for as long as it did.


Fig. 4, John Brown, copperplate engraving showing muscles of the back and shoulder. © Wellcome Images.

Kate Cregan argues that a reason for staying in the Vesalian style, and in fact still using and re-engraving Vesalian woodcuts into the seventeenth century, was that it ‘described the sorts of eroticised overlay which those engravings drew with them in the depiction of the female body’. These images were impressed on the minds of observers and the public who witnessed anatomy demonstrations. Their use propagated the idea that ‘the gendered, cultural, gestural and aesthetic codes that are present in these representations of the body are in fact essential’.[10]

Eighteen years after Browne’s work, anatomical illustrations changed. William Cowper’s 1698, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies with Figures Drawn After the Life by Some of the Best Masters in Europe depicts the female figure in a way never seen in England before. The first two images of female bodies are still similar in style to earlier manuals (fig 5 and 6), but this soon changed.

Anatomy of humane bodies

Fig. 5 and 6, etchings from pages 36 and 39 of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies 1698

The other five images of the female body within the manual could be criminal cadavers, although these first two clearly are not. If Cowper’s claim that the images were drawn from life is indeed true it is highly probable that the following images were taken from criminal corpses. This may not be apparent when looking at the female depictions but is hinted at when viewing the male cadavers (fig. 7, 8).


Fig. 7 and 8, Etchings from pages 123 and 114 of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies. 1698. Note the noose around the necks and the bound hands.

In all five images of female cadavers within this manual they are still depicted with some drapery of skin and the viewers focus is drawn to the stomach and reproductive system. (fig 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).

Anatomy of humane bodies 2.PNG

Fig. 9, 10, 11, 12, Etchings on pages, 126,174,195,197 of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies 1698.


Fig 13. Etchings on page 201 of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies 1698, showing the development of the foetus.

All five drawings show the females breasts and four of them expose her genitals. In all the images, the idea of her sexual nature intrudes, especially fig 12. From her half-hidden face but slightly parted inviting mouth, to the rounded breasts and eroticised pose.[11]

Surgeons and Physicians would have rarely dissected a cadaver that was pregnant, but it is possible they performed autopsies on women who had died in childbirth and thus gained insight into this aspect of anatomy. In the late eighteenth century when William Hunter wrote The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus he was accused of murdering pregnant women to perform dissections upon them.[12] Although both the Hunter brothers were involved in grave robbing, murder itself seems unlikely.[13] The images in Cowper’s manual were drawn by Gerard de Lairesse and had been used in another, slightly earlier, Dutch work. Cowper unmistakably plagiarised that earlier work, but the images resonated with the English just as much as the Dutch and for the first time we see a move away from the Vesalian illustrations. Until the end of the seventeenth century the images in anatomy manuals were clearly portrayed as those of living figures not images of a dead cadaver.

When Matthew Baillie published his anatomy manual in 1799 the anatomical illustrations had greatly changed.[14] They no longer depicted a living person as a corpse and instead portrayed dismembered body parts of clearly deceased individuals (fig. 14). Here gender is no longer at the forefront of interpretations of the human body, as it had clearly been beforehand.


Fig. 26, Mr Clift’s Original Drawings for Dr Baillie’s Work on Morbid Anatomy 1799. Drawing: 103/25 © Royal College of Physicians


[1] T. Schnalke, Diseases in Wax: The History of the Medical Moulage trans. K. Spatschek, (Chicago: Quintessence Publishing Company, 1995), p. 29; M. Von Düring, G. Didi-Huberman, and M. Poggesi, Encyclopaedia Anatomica: Museo La Specola, Florence (Cologne: Taschen, 2004), pp. 10-12, 20-25.

[2] E. Hurren, Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England  (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 142, also see, Anon, A catalogue and particular description of the human anatomy in wax-work, and several other preparations; to be seen at the Royal Exchange (1736).

[3] L. Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 44-45.

[4] K. Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and gender in English Erotic Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 190.

[5] H. Crooke, Mikrokosmographia. A description of the body of man: Together with the controversies thereto belonging (1631).

[6] K .Cregan, The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Early-Modern London (Belgium: Brepols, 2009), p. 88.

[7] C. Walker-Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), also discussed in Cregan, The Theatre of the Body, p. 88.

[8] G. Keynes, The Life of William Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 73, discussed in J Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 225.

[9] A. Read, Somatographia anthropine, or a Description of the Body of Man (1616)

[10] K. Cregan, ‘Teaching the Anatomical Body in Seventeenth-Century London’, Medicine Studies, Vol. 2 (2010), p. 30.

[11] Cregan, The Theatre of the Body, pp. 244-245.

[12] D. Shelton, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, (January 29, 2010), pp. 1-5.

[13] For arguments regarding this see, A. Roberts, T. Baskett, A. Calder, and S. Arulkumaran, ‘William Smellie and William Hunter: two great obstetricians and anatomists’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, (April 30, 2010), pp. 1-2.

[14] RCP MS-BAILM/103/1-27, Mr. Clift’s original drawings for Dr. Baillie’s work on morbid anatomy; M. Baillie, A Series of Engravings accompanied with explanations which are intended to illustrate the morbid anatomy of some of the most important parts of the human body (1799).

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