The English Disease

Bristol’s most famous 18th century person was Thomas Chatterton, precocious romantic poet whose fame now rests largely on his suicide. Recent research suggests this may have been an overdose, attempting to cure venereal disease, but it was surprisingly common.

When I was scrawling through old Bristol papers I found a surprising number of self murders despite victims being buried at crossroads till the 1830s. Some showed signs of distress beforehand so today would have been diagnosed as mentally ill. Others were surprising like a young couple who held hands and walked into a river. Many were the result of bankruptcy especially following the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. A servant in Bath took his life as he had lost his savings and his master was upset that he failed to seek his help. Some seemed to be in constant pain or taking drugs to blur pain and judgement.

Our modern awareness of the need for nature and exercise was likely a factor as poor country people sought higher wages in the dirty towns and cities. For churchgoers there were communities to provide some help though there was little understanding as to the disease. Rev kilvert described a gardener with depression in another of my blogs.

It was so common that coroners tried to avoid the term suicide or self murder as it denied the victim Resurrection. If a person hanged themselves with a rope lying about his was called lunacy. They had to show intent ie to buy a rope or knife for the terrible deed.

This is relevant to now as many were suffering from anomie, the world was changing too fast for them to cope. It was part of Britain’s agricultural and industrial revolutions, mass movement and urbanisation. The world was changing too fast. Now we are on the downside of those changes. Factories are closing, disease is rife and society struggling.

When I wrote my book on Mr Bridges Microcosm it felt like a record of the upward change. In the midst of Covid, Brexit and climate change it seems we are living through the downside of that. It’s terrifying to see the same problems reappearing. It’s terrifying to be part of this but perhaps by naming it we can begin to deal with it.

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