London Life in the XVIIIth Century

By M. Dorothy George | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
LIFE AND DEATH IN LONDON

"Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
Makes human Race a Prey,
It enters by a deadly Draught,
And steals our Life away.

"Beer, happy Produce of our Isle
Can sinewy Strength impart,
And wearied with Fatigue and Toil
Can chear each manly Heart."

Rev. JAMES TOWNLEY ( 1751).

THE key to the social history of London is to be found in its changes in population--its growth, and the ratio between births and deaths. It was a key for which contemporaries were for the most part groping; the controversy as to whether the population of the country--and of London--was increasing or decreasing was not finally settled till the census of 1801, followed by that of 1811. Estimates of growth or decline and of the duration of life were largely based on the London Bills of Mortality--the records of burials and baptisms kept by the Company of Parish Clerks. These were obviously unsatisfactory, as only baptisms and burials in parish churches and burying-grounds were registered, and there were many dissenters in London. Moreover, the Bills (the name was extended to the district covered by the returns) stood for the greater London of the seventeenth century; when the plague disappeared the original motive for comprehensive returns disappeared too. Though they included the parishes of Bethnal Green, Bermondsey and Hackney, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century were still partly rural, they did not cover the extensions of London in the west, notably Marylebone and St. Pancras. From time to time new parishes appeared in the Bills, but these were subdivisions of parishes which had become more thickly populated and did not extend the area covered by the returns.

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