Life in the suburbs: health, domesticity and status in early modern London

Life in the Suburbs image

This project investigates the character and development of London’s eastern suburb by examining the life of the inhabitants of the extra-mural parishes of St Botolph Aldgate and Holy Trinity Minories from c.1550-c.1700. Covering just under 80 acres running south from the parish of St Botolph Bishopsgate to the Thames, this area experienced a population explosion during the early modern period, from c.3,500 inhabitants in 1540, over 11,000 by 1650, to nearly 20,000 by 1700. The area offers a population with a unique range of social and economic experiences which allow the greatest possible scope for studying suburban living in early modern London. Moreover, it also offers an unprecedented array of sources, including parish registers, records of poor relief, numerous taxation and household listings, and the observations of the parish clerks of St Botolph.

Project aims

The project has three main aims. The first involves a full family reconstitution and demographic analysis of the area’s parish registers - the largest reconstitution yet attempted from English registers. Relevant issues here are seasonality of mortality across the period, and the impact of maternal feeding practices. The second area of research involves study of the status, wealth and arrangement of the domestic units within the two parishes. Major themes here concern the levels of poverty and overseas immigration, the impact of London’s growth on existing social structures and whether communities of wealth congregated in different areas of the suburb. Finally, the third project strand concerns the topographical development of the area, specifically the expansion of its housing stock. Subjects of interest here include the residence patterns and spatial characteristics of the population, variables such as housing quality and amenity, and rental values. It is also one of the express purposes of the project to integrate what are often seen as distinct methodologies and to fully utilise recent developments in historical mapping techniques. By so-doing, these analyses will inform and underpin large-scale explanations of the development of the early modern metropolis and its role in the ‘modernisation’ of English society. 

Project sources

The study area offers an unprecedented array of sources. Property-holding material collected by the earlier Social and Economic Study of Medieval London project, has been supplemented with deeds, leases, plans, maps and rentals for the period up to the early eighteenth century. The voluminous parish registers, which begin in 1558 and have been entered in their entirety to 1710 – approximately 170,000 separate entries – are for durations of this period rich in information about familial relationships, occupations and residence. Rather uniquely, St Botolph’s also has a run of parish clerk’s memoranda books, covering much of the period between 1583 and 1625, which provide something approaching a day book of parish life, recording in extraordinary detail the comings and goings of the resident population. The nine volumes of this source consist of approximately 1.4 million words. In addition to this, there are vestry minutes and churchwardens’ accounts, and a separate volume of churchwardens’ poor accounts, which contains some 6000 relief payments made during a fifty year period in the seventeenth century. Information has also been collected from the wills of four hundred of the area’s inhabitants. Finally, the project has made full use of national taxation records covering the period, including subsidies, tithe and hearth tax returns, and particular use has been made of the inhabitants-type listings of the late seventeenth century, the poll tax, the four shillings in the pound aid and the marriage duty assessment.


The project is the third phase of a collaboration with Birkbeck, University of London, and the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (University of Cambridge) and builds upon the work of previous projects: 'People in Place: families, households and housing in early modern London' (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), which examined family and household structure in five central London parishes in Cheapside, an eastern suburban precinct of St Botolph Aldgate and Clerkenwell in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and 'Housing Environments and Health in Early Modern London 1550-1750' (funded by the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine), which investigated the relationship between environment and health in these areas. See also Cambridge Group pages.


Much of the data created by the project is now available from the UK Data Archive: Study No 7244: Life in the Suburbs: Health, Domesticity and Status in Early Modern London, 1523-1720; St Botolph Aldgate Parish Clerks' Memoranda Books, 1583-84, 1586-1600, 1616-1625 (please contact the CMH)


Matthew Davies, ‘City and Suburbs: London 1400-1700’, in Evolução da Paisagem Urbana: Cidade e Periferia, ed. M. Do Carmo Ribiero and A. Sousa Melo (Braga, 2014), pp. 205-28Philip Baker and Mark Merry, '"The poore lost a good Frend and the parish a good Neighbour": the lives of the poor and their supporters in London's eastern suburb, c.1583-c.1679, in M. Davies and J.A. Galloway (eds), London and Beyond: Essays in Honour of Derek Keene (London, 2012), 155-180; Mark Merry and Philip Baker, '"For the house her self and one servant": family and household in late seventeenth-century London', The London Journal, 34:3 (November 2009), 205-232; Gill Newton, 'Infant mortality variations, feeding practices and social status in London between 1550 and 1750', Social History of Medicine, 24:2 (2011), 244-259 (doi: 10.1093/shm/hkq042); Gill Newton, 'Recent developments in making family reconstitutions', Local Population Studies, 87 (2011), 84-89; Gill Newton, 'Family reconstitution in an urban context: some observations and methods', Cambridge Working Papers in Economic and Social History, No. 12 (2013); Gill Newton and Richard Smith: 'Convergence or divergence? Mortality in London, its suburbs and its hinterland between 1550 and 1700, Annales de demographie historique, 2 (2013), 17-49; Gill Newton, 'Clandestine marriage in early modern London: when, where and why?', Continuity and Change, 29:2 (2014, forthcoming).

Project details

Directors: Professor Matthew Davies, M.A., D.Phil., Professor Vanessa Harding, M.A., Ph.D., Professor Richard Smith, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., FBA
Researchers (CMH): Philip Baker, B.A., M.A.;  Mark Latham, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.;   Mark Merry, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. ;  (Cambridge): Gill Newton, B.A., M.A.

Funded by: The Economic and Social Research Council (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260) (1 June 2008-31 May 2011)
Amount Awarded: £733,779.61