Tree fellers directed the tree to fall down in a certain direction to avoid being crushed by the falling timber

Iain Farrell (Flickr)

Health and safety in Tudor England

Matt Pickles

Death is not a laughing matter. But an ongoing study into coroners’ reports into accidental deaths in Tudor England has turned up some deaths which do sound like something out of a slapstick comedy routine.

Professor Steven Gunn of Oxford University's History Faculty and Merton College is leading Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in 16th Century England, a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He estimates that there are 9,000 accidental deaths to investigate in The National Archives in Kew.

Although the project has produced some entertaining stories, which have been well covered in the media and on this blog, it has also provided a valuable insight into the life and working practices of the time, and how these changed over the 16th century. 

The project has found that fatal accidents were more likely to take place during the agricultural peak season, with cart crashes, dangerous harvesting techniques, horse tramplings and windmill manglings all major causes of deaths.

Interestingly, it seems real efforts were made to manage these risks with 'health and safety' procedures. When mowing hay at harvest time, men would minimise the risk of hacking each other with scythes by walking across the field in a staggered diagonal line.

Tree fellers directed the tree to fall down in a certain direction to avoid being crushed by the falling timber.

Handbooks warned about the danger of climbing trees to get rid of crows' nests, because so many people died by falling out of trees to gather fruit and nuts.

'Reading about how people died in Tudor times, you might think that people must have been daft to have died the way they did,' says Professor Gunn. 'Actually people did make an effort to work out the risks and minimise them, but these methods didn’t always work.'

Follow the project and its latest discoveries on the website. Professor Gunn gave a TORCH bite-size talk at the Ashmolean Museum's DEADFriday event last year. A video of the talk.