Slips, trips and brawls: London left its mark on 18th-century poor

You’ve broken your nose in a bare-knuckle boxing match – do you go to the hospital and risk missing a day of work, or snap your schnoz back into place and carry on?

It might not be such a common scenario in 2016, but the working poor of 18th-century London, England had to make such decisions all the time.

“The obscure among the obscure,” as they were known, London’s working poor couldn’t afford private doctors. They instead relied on voluntary hospitals for their health care

To better understand what 18th-century health care was like, anthropologist Madeleine Mant studies the skeletal remains of those buried in working-class London cemeteries.

She compared those to the admissions records kept by area hospitals.

She found that most people chose to go to the hospital only for injuries that impacted their ability to walk or work. Fractures to the legs and arms make up the majority of hospital admissions.

When looking at the skeletal remains, however, she found evidence of fractures to ribs, fingers and toes – injuries that were never reported at the hospital.

She also found that male skeletons often had fractures to the nasal and hand bones, which make sense, given the popularity of boxing at the time.

A short video about the work recently earned Mant an honourable mention from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Storytellers contest.