There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is partly because humans have a huge influence on the global climate, but we also have another, more sinister, kind of agency: what actually happens when a building collapses, a hurricane hits, or the rain stops falling, is entirely up to us. To put it bluntly, the privileged tend to get out alive. Disasters confront us with brutal proof of structural inequality; problems that have been steaming under the surface bubble up and become impossible to ignore. In 2005, Rev. Jesse Jackson summed up what Katrina told us about the modern United States in a succinct and simple statement: ‘we have an amazing tolerance for black pain’.
A few hundred years ago in London, an even less natural disaster crystallised social attitudes to a different marginalised group. England in the eighteenth century was a difficult place to be for a single woman. Since patriarchal ideology dictated that women should always be under supervision by fathers or husbands, those who were not were automatically suspicious. A woman alone in the street after dark was usually assumed to be a prostitute. Drunken men would proposition her, or insist she go for a drink with them. If she refused to have sex, they might turn violent or call in a constable to accuse her of picking their pockets. Those same constables and their teams of watchmen systematically stopped and searched lone women, arrested them, and held them overnight to go before a magistrate the following day.
Periodically, orders came from higher up to sweep a neighbourhood in search of ‘disorderly persons’ – poor people, especially women, who were outdoors after dark. In July 1742, magistrates Thomas De Veil and John Bromfield signed a warrant for the arrest of ‘vagabonds, pickpockets, and other dissolute and disorderly persons.’ The constables of three London parishes gathered in St Martin’s in the Fields at the roundhouse, a two-storey building opposite the parish church, and a base for local law enforcement officers which doubled as an overnight prison. The ground floor was a kind of mess room, where the constables sat drinking with those prisoners who could afford to pay for better treatment. A small door led down to the ‘holes’, a pair of holding cells – one for women, one for men – which measured about six-by-six feet.
During the night of 15th July, the constables combed the streets, shops, and even people’s homes looking for the usual suspects and any other ‘suspicious’ characters. Elizabeth Amey, a prostitute known to the authorities, was taken in a cook house. They also picked up Elizabeth Surridge, a washerwoman who had been acquitted from a charge of pickpocketing two years earlier. Ann Norton, who had no previous criminal record, said she was ‘taken out of my Bed from my Husband and carried to the Watchhouse, about one o’Clock in the Morning’. By 4am, thirty-five people were being held in the roundhouse cells: nine men and twenty-six women. The women’s ‘hole’ was ‘very hot, not fit for so many people to be there, and there was the stench of a necessary house. The door was fastened presently after we were put in. Some of us sat in our shifts, one woman sat naked for it was so hot.’ At some point, they started yelling: ‘Fire, Murder, for Christ’s sake let us have water, for the Lord’s sake a little water, for we are stifled with heat.’ One of the women, who later fainted after giving evidence in court, said her handkerchief had been ‘as stiff as buckram with sweat from the heat of the place.’ Several had fits.
At 10am the parish beadle opened the door. ‘The place was very nauseous,’ he said, ‘and the smell so strong that I thought it would have struck me down.’ Four women had died in the night. Another ‘did not know they were dead for I strove to awake them, thinking they were asleep.’ The survivors desperately drank the ‘dirty water’ they were given; some vomited, one took two days to recover enough to speak. Word spread round the parish, and by midnight a crowd was throwing bricks and stones at the roundhouse. The authorities needed a scapegoat, and they found one in William Bird, keeper of the roundhouse, who was tried, portrayed as the sole heartless architect behind the women’s deaths, and sentenced to hang. This was then commuted to fourteen years transportation to the American colonies, but he didn’t survive the crossing to Maryland; on the captain’s orders, he was deprived of food and water, and died of starvation. Thomas De Veil, the man behind the sweeping arrests, continued in his career as one of London’s most active and powerful magistrates.
Jonah Miller is a PhD student in the History department at King’s College London. His research examines topics of violence and masculinity in early modern England.