‘3rd [February 1837] The old Lady is getting much better. I hope she will stand a little longer yet. There is a great deal of illness about now – every day the streets are regularly crowded with funerals and mourning coaches, herses and such like belonging to the dead. The undertakers in London are very particular in haveing all black horses to attend funerals but now there are so many wanted they are glad to get any colour. This day I saw some light bays with a hurse and a set of greys with a mourning coach. All the undertakers are makeing their fortunes; they havent had such a time for many a day.’

From Diary of William Taylor, Footman, 1837, (See blog 25 Jan 2021).

If I thought reading the arch and rather wonderful diary of a London footman would be an exercise in complete escapism from current woes, I was wrong. Last week we followed him, cheerfully, to Hampstead. Today, William is in more thoughtful mood.

Like most people, if I thought of Victorian public health at all, I would think cholera, TB, sewerage etc. I didn’t know that they suffered repeated epidemics of ‘flu. Whether the outbreak of 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession, was an epidemic or not is debated. Contemporary accounts describe it as such, and it looks very like it to an armchair scientist in 2021.

The first cases in England, compared by one commentator to the first drops of a thundershower, appeared in January 1837. It may have been a little earlier in London. By mid-January, it was raging across the country. Mortality records aren’t complete: a new system would start the same year. Whatever the exact figures, the medical writer, George Creighton (1847-1927) puts it ‘in the first rank of severity’. Creighton was an anti-vaxxer so had a proper interest in the figures if a dubious take on their meaning. It wasn’t catching, he thought. There was “no proof of the existence of any contagious principles by which it was propagated from one individual to another.”

He noted that ships’ crews often succumbed at sea or soon after arrival in port. The Thunderer, an 84-gun ship of the line returning from Malta, reported cases on the 3rd January ‘as if she had sailed into an atmosphere of it somewhere near the coast of Brittany.’ By the time The Thunderer reached Plymouth, most of the crew were laid low. The marines changed boats and headed for Woolwich where, by coincidence, a ship not unknown to science – The Beagle – was being refitted for a new voyage to Australia.

If the illness provided an opportunity for a certain type of writer to talk about a great leveller indiscriminately attacking prince and pauper, it seems that, just like today, the effects of the virus were felt more in poorer communities. St Pancras and Somerstown were particularly badly hit. At the end of January, papers were reporting that half the local workforce were sick and many starving as a consequence. London hospitals had cleared wards to deal exclusively with ‘flu patients.

Old St. Pancras Cemetery 4/02/21
Old St. Pancras Cemetery

The Civil Service had virtually shut down across the capital. Eight hundred police were off sick. At Woolwich Barracks fifty men were reporting ill every day. On ‘Black Sunday’ 20th January, there were a thousand burials across London. Old St Pancras cemetery, according to one reporter, ‘looked like a ploughed field’. There were forty or fifty interments between three and four o’clock.

The virus disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. By the weekend of 21st February, there were only twenty burials reported across London. Some newspapers claimed a change in the direction of the wind was the cause of the good news.

By the end of the century, scientists were suggesting that air pollution may have contributed to the high mortality in London at the time. William Taylor doesn’t mention smog by name – the term wasn’t coined until the next century – but there are repeated references to the gloom. On the 1st February, it was ‘so very dark that most people are obliged to burn lights in the middle of the day’. London was importing two million tons of coal a year – mostly for domestic fires.

On 20th June, William Taylor reports the death of the king at two o’clock in the morning. He takes the carriage to Hampstead on an errand and has a pleasant ride. ‘They are just beginning haymakeing’.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.