History of the RSM

Feature of the month - January

Bills of Mortality

The London Bills of Mortality were introduced in the early 16th century, mainly to act as a method of warning about plague epidemics.

Local Parish Clerks collected the information concerning births and deaths in the parish and submitted them for weekly publication.

The clerks’ lack of medical training resulted in many peculiar or vague causes of death being recorded, among them Horsehoehead, Stoppage in the Stomach, Twisting of the Guts, Eaten by Lice, and Rising of the Lights. Other more tersely described causes include Overjoy, Purples, and Teeth.

Each December saw the publication of a single sheet summarising the year’s figures for “Christnings and Burials” and was attractively decorated with a border pattern alternating hour glasses with a skull and crossed bones.

The Royal Society of Medicine Library has complete holdings of the Bills of Mortality for the years 1657 to 1814 bound into 14 volumes.

Bound into the volume covering 1805 to 1807, but otherwise unconnected with the Bills of Mortality, is a collection of Cheap Repository Tracts dating from 1795 to 1798 approximately.

These publications originate with the Evangelical and philanthropic Hannah More (1745 – 1833) who took it upon herself to counter the spread of seditious and un-Godly literature among the masses with a series of tracts priced at one penny and consisting of morally improving ballads and cautionary tales designed to instil in a newly literate working class the values of religious observance, honesty, thrift, hard work, sobriety, deference, and patriotism.

There are salutary lessons for all who trouble to read of “Robert and Richard; or, the ghost of poor Molly, who was drowned in Richard's mill pond”, of “The roguish miller; or, nothing got by cheating”, “The old man, his children, and the bundle of sticks”, “The Plow-Boy’s Dream”, or “The market woman, a true tale; or, honesty is the best policy”, and no better exercise in compassion can be found than in “The sorrows of Yamba; or, the negro woman's lamentation.”

Later tracts in this collection include The Newsman's present to his worthy customers, for the years 1804 and 1807, and The penny, twopenny, and threepenny postmens' present, to their worthy mistresses & masters, for the year 1805.

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