Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

Death in the East-End


In the 19-teens, Halliday Sutherland was the Medical Officer at the Marylebone Anti-Tuberculosis Clinic and he reflected on how the poor were exploited, even in death.

From what I saw of the poor in London, it was clear that many of them were exploited, even in death. When Bill Smith was dying of consumption, the insurance agent came to the door, and suggested to Mrs. Smith that it would be a good thing to insure her husband’s life. It was quite simple. All she had to do was to sign a paper stating that Bill Smith was in good health, and pay the weekly premiums. Then Bill Smith died, and I wrote his death certificate. On these certificates there is a space in which the doctor is asked to state the duration of the illness in years, months, or days. It is not obligatory to give this information, and I never gave it. A few days later the insurance agent called on me. “Sorry to trouble you, Doctor. Just a little matter of business. The company would like to know how long Bill Smith has been ill. They will pay you ten-and-six for the information.”

“And they won’t get it from me,” was my answer. “You insured this man’s life without a medical examination. Now you want to repudiate the contract, and stick to the premiums. Even if Mrs Smith did make a false statement, the one that tempts is worse than the one who falls.”

In other cases, when money was due on the death of an insured person, the insurance agent would have a talk with the undertaker, and it was curious how the funeral cost exactly the amount of the insurance money. The most scandalous funerals are to be seen in the East End of London. A house-to-house collection is made, and the whole street tries to give Bill ‘Awkins a better funeral than the Widow Burton got last week two streets away. There is a hearse drawn by four black horses. The black horses are the only indication that the occasion is a funeral, because the hearse resembles a floral car in the Carnival at Nice. Attached to the back of the hearse is the design in flowers of a full-sized arm-chair – the Empty Chair. When watching one of these spectacles I overheard an old gentleman, obviously much impressed, say to a fellow-spectator, a boy of twelve: “Can you tell me who is dead, my boy?”

“Well, if you asks me, I’d say it was the bloke under them flowers.”

Poor Bill ‘Awkins! In life you often were in want of money, and next week your widow will be destitute. For the first time you are driving in state, and to-day you are leading the only procession in which no-one will ever bear us a grudge for having taken the first place.

From The Arches of the Years

2 comments on “Death in the East-End

  1. Neil S
    15 October 2014

    Life Assurance salesmen are here today as they were all those years ago and they’re still pulling fast ones. I remember one salesman who went to see a landlord who owned a block of flats. In order to finance the landlord’s life policy, he recommended that the landlord insure all his tenants individually (without them knowing!).

    How were these tenants to pay the premiums (without them knowing)? Easy, the landlord merely told the tenants that their rents were going up (which surprise surprise was by the exactly the same amount as the premiums). The landlord got his insurance policy paid for by the unknowing tenants; the salesman sold a policy to the landlord plus another 30 policies to the unknowing tenants.

    I asked the salesman how he got all the tenants to sign for their policies. That was the easy bit he said, I just went off to the pub and sat there all afternoon drinking beer; it’s amazing how your signatures change the more you have to drink!

    As HGS says, no medicals were asked for for until quite recently (last twenty years or so) especially for these insurance policies which were there to cover funeral expenses.

  2. Pingback: Consumption Stories III | Halliday Sutherland

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This entry was posted on 15 October 2014 by in London, Tuberculosis.

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