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London’s Bills of Mortality



In the words of George Bernard Shaw, poet and literary genius, "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." We’d like you to keep that in mind as we delve into a gloomy subject – of death – with just a touch of light-hearted humour!


Perhaps you are shifting with discomfort wondering why have we decided to write on this subject?! Especially in this day and age when modern science, technology, and medicine are triumphant, and we all feel at least a wee bit immortal.


Well, we have our reasons. And believe us when we say these ones are amusing! Of course, we are talking about the "Bills of Mortality" that have been a source of great interest and mirth.


In the 16th and 17th centuries, when London was under the cloud of the deadly bubonic plague that continued to decimate its population with frequent outbreaks and bring everything to a crippling halt, officials began compiling the bills as a means of tallying deaths. Much like footy match fixtures, only less accurate.


Every time a Londoner died, a tolling of bells summoned “the searchers” to their quarters. The matronly women “searchers” were assigned the task of inspecting each corpse and making inquiries regarding the cause of death. Their findings were then published in the "Bills of Mortality" - a rather curious set of documents that were published every week in London, and that included the causes of death along with the number of people who died during that week.


All this may seem very proper and functional on the surface, but wait till you take a look at what’s inside.



Figure 1 - Bill of Mortality, London, 1600's

As you browse through this first bill in figure 1 from the 1600s, there are a number of things that jump out and catch your eye – such as ‘burnt in his bed by a candle at St. Giles Cripplegate’! Two people died of ‘cough’. And one person died of ‘lethargy’. They must have sat down relaxing for a long time, long enough to slip into eternal rest!


One person died of ‘timpany’. We’re imagining under what circumstance would kettle-drumming be fatal?! But since it’s here, there must be at least one.



Figure 2 - Bill of Mortality, London, 1665

This next bill in figure 2 is from 1665. Apart from the usual fatalities – suicides, murders and accidents – there are a few unusual entries here too. For example, death by ‘fright’, ‘stone’ and ‘teeth’? There is one that died ‘suddenly’. And the prize goes to 190 deaths by ‘spotted feaver and purples’ indeed (whatever that may be).




Figure 3 - Bill of Mortality, London, 9 Dec 1665

The 3rd figure has a bill that is rife with more inexplicable demises. Eight people died after being ‘burnt and scalded’. Five were ‘distracted’ when they died… we reckon death ought to be a little distracting. And a prime 2036 died of something and mother’. Oh, mother, what could that ‘something’ be?




Figure 4 - Bill of Mortality, London, 1800s

The final bill in the 4th figure takes the lead in the death race by a mile! One person died from a ‘cramp’. And another was ‘eaten by lice’! Seven people died of ‘evil’ – and what’s more intriguing besides how this evil was even recognised is the belief that a touch of the king of England could cure you!


Here’s the key to the mystery: If you find ‘Rising of the Lights’, ‘Meteorism’ or ‘Flux of Humour’ is a bit confusing, modern-day translations for most of the Bills of Mortality diseases can be found at homeoint.org, courtesy of Sylvain Cazalet.


Humour aside, just a note from our team - Some of us have lived long enough to have experienced the death of a near and dear one. This article does not mean to offend or trivialise your experience. Naturally, when it is that close, death can’t be funny. But imagine genuine, warm, sensitive words that spark a little bit of lauhter and bring a twinkle to the eye. Humour of this kind might help us keep the spirit of our loved ones alive.


As financial advisers, we do our best to make sure you’ll live your golden years to the fullest. We can’t guarantee you won’t be eaten by lice, though.




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