"With public executions and public exhibitions of heads and quarters as well as bodies hung in irons, it is clear that the eighteenth century confronted its mortality in a way that is both intense and direct."
- Richard B. Schwartz, Daily Life in Johnson's London (6)
With its overpopulation, bad sanitation, and out-of-control housing, London was a breeding ground for bacteria and disease, and death was common. Epidemics, infections and occasional food shortages led to an extraordinarily high mortality rate. Medicine was still quite primitive. In fact, in 1775, more than 800 deaths recorded in the Bills of Mortality were attributed simply to "Teeth." Lice and dirt were everywhere. Soot and grime covered overcrowded tenements. In these circumstances, unbridled disease ran rampant, and even the smallest wound could lead to death by infection.
The connection between personal hygiene and good health was not fully understood. Francis Place wrote that in the 1780s well-off women "wore petticoats of comblet, lined with dyed linen, stuffed with wool and horsehair and quilted...day by day till they were rotten."(7) Baths were extremely rare - in fact, many people considered them harmful. In all six editions of Sir John Flyer's Inquiry into the Right Use of Hot, Cold, and Temperate Baths in England, he never once mentions bathing simply for the sake of cleanliness.
There was also a grave fear of fresh air, in part because of airborne diseases like "consumption," so windows were kept tightly shut. And because entire buildings were taxed according to the number of windows they contained, many landlords sealed them off, with disastrous results for their tenants.
There was a seasonal pattern of death. In winter months, when thick, heavy, encrusted clothes were worn day and night, respiratory tuberculosis, influenza and typhus raged. Dysentery and diarrhea came around in the summer, when flies transmitted bacteria from filth to food and water was at its most foul.
Of every 1,000 children born in early 18th-century London, almost half died before the age of 2. Malnutrition, maternal ignorance, bad water, dirty food, poor hygiene and overcrowding all contributed to this extremely high mortality rate. And if an infant did survive, it then faced the perils of childhood - namely malnourishment and ongoing abuse. Many poor children were dispatched to crowded, backbreaking "workhouses" or were apprenticed to tradesmen who used them as unpaid laborers. A Parliamentary committee reported in 1767 that only seven in 100 workhouse infants survived for three years. Stephen Inwood notes in his book The History of London that "workhouse 'apprentices' swept London's chimneys, hawked milk and fruit round its streets, and labored unpaid in the worst branches of tailoring, shoemaking, stocking making, baking, river work and domestic service. Later in the century industrialization offered new outlets and London pauper children were packed off to work in the cotton-spinning mills of Lancashire and Cheshire." (8)