Having a job in the 16th century was a dangerous business, with nearly half of accidental deaths happening at work. A new study has documented the various gory ways in which workers met their end whilst driving carts, felling trees or working in mills. It found that even in Tudor England people adopted health and safety measures to make their jobs safer, although they didn’t always work as planned.

As part of a research project funded by the ESRC, University of Oxford historian Professor Steven Gunn has been scouring 16th century coroners' reports and researching accidental deaths in Tudor England. Professor Gunn estimates there are some 9,000 accidental deaths in the 16th century to investigate, all stored in The National Archives in Kew.

His findings give a unique insight into what life was like in the Tudor period including all the strange ways in which people died, for example being mauled to death by bears kept for bloodthirsty bear-baiting; drowning in cesspits; and being shot by stray arrows when practising archery.

The findings also shine a light on the working practices of men, women and children at the time, and how these changed over the century. 

The study found that fatal accidents were much more likely to take place during the agricultural peak season, with cart crashes, dangerous harvesting techniques, horse trampling's and windmill mangling's all major causes.

However, despite the high accident rates workers did adopt health and safety procedures to try to reduce deaths.

For example, when mowing hay at harvest time, men would minimise the risk of hacking each other with their scythes by walking across the field in a staggered diagonal line. This didn’t always go to plan though. 

On 1 July 1559, Richard Goodall had been mowing hay since early morning. Then late in the morning at the end of cutting a swathe, Richard suddenly got in the way of his colleague, who accidentally struck the back of his right leg with his hay scythe. Richard died three hours later.

Many accidents were caused by tree-felling, which was a vital job in Tudor times as wood was an important building material and fuel.

Another health and safety measure was carried out by fellers who tried to manage risk by directing the tree to fall down in a certain direction. Unfortunately though the trees would often catch on other trees and then the workers wouldn’t know what to do. More than one in 10 fatal accidents involved cutting or moving wood.

Falling out of trees when gathering fruit or nuts was also commonplace, and handbooks specifically warning about the danger of climbing trees to get rid of crows' nests were published.

"It might sound like health and safety gone mad, but we found several records of men falling to their deaths doing just this, so perhaps it was necessary," says Professor Gunn, of Merton College.

Women and children were also at risk from dying at work. As well as domestic chores, women also prepared sheep for shearing by washing them in fast-flowing mountain streams, with predictably dire consequences.

A simple task such as fetching water often led to disaster, with drowning in rivers, ponds and wells accounting for one in 10 working deaths. Almost 70 per cent of those who drowned fetching water were women and another 12 per cent were boys aged younger than 13.  

“Various efforts were made by the Tudors to build safer wells with covers over them, kerbs around them and barrels on which to wind the rope with the bucket at the end up and down, but something could go wrong even after these safety measures were put in place,” says Professor Gunn.

One of the most dangerous jobs was driving a cart. Many deaths were caused by losing control of the horse, but many also involved drivers or passengers falling asleep and either losing control or falling off and running themselves over. On 2 August 1557 at Pentlow in Essex, Thomas Olyvere was harvesting his barley in ‘Walnotte Felde’ and loading it onto his cart. He stood on the cart to tie up the load of barley, but the cart turned over and fell on top of him, breaking his neck.

“Carters faced all sorts of trouble,” says Professor Steven Gunn. “Because carts had no brakes, workers were 10 times more likely to have an accident when going downhill than going uphill, but because the two-wheeled carts were so unstable and the roads were so rutted they were even more likely to be injured by the cart overturning.”

To prevent carts from careering down icy hills and hitting people, men would often walk in front of the cart to stop it sliding, but this just led to more people being crushed.

“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.”