27 November 2015

The Sead: Life Expectancy in 17th Century London

Funeral Ticket
It’s generally accepted that life expectancy in earlier centuries was lower than today, but what did people actually die of in the 1600’s?

Londoners believed that disease was spread by germs which thrived on dirt, the washing of hands before eating or cleaning the streets unheard of, and malaria came from a poisonous gas called 'miasma' that arose from sewers and cesspits, thus diseases spread quickly.

In the 16th Century, the Merchants of London petitioned Thomas Cromwell to discover what the average age expectancy of a Londoner was, in order to determine whether plague was still a problem and if their prospective customers were on the increase or decrease. Data was collected via birth and death records from parish registers, a haphazard method subject to inaccuracy. 127 years later, a man named John Graunt asked the same question, and decided to compile an estimate of life expectancy in London in the mid 1660’s.

Graunt’s father was a draper from Hampshire who served in various offices in Cornhill ward, became a common councilman, warden of the Drapers' Company and a major in the trained band. His influence allowed him to secure the post of professor of music for his friend William Petty, who worked with him on his ‘Life Table’

He began his analysis in 1592, when Mortality was high; and after some disuse, works was resumed in 1603.His social experiment showed that the city was rapidly outgrowing its medieval infrastructure, noting, “The old Streets are unfit for the present frequency of Coaches.” That overpopulation and squalid conditions accounted for poor health and frequent bouts of plague.

The Bills of Mortality were submitted by 'Searchers'; usually middle aged women who were not medically qualified, but considered to be 'of good moral standing’ given the authority to decide the cause of a death.  Whenever someone died, even if a doctor had been in attendance, a Searcher was summoned to make an examination of the corpse, a system which likely resulted in many suspicious deaths deemed as natural and vice versa. Their findings were sent to the Clerk of Parishes, then printed and distributed to families who paid a small fee for early warnings of plague epidemics.

In January 1662, Graunt published his ‘Observations on the Bills of Mortality’ . His statistics indicated a 50 year old person had the same chance of dying within 12 months as did a 20 year old; thus most Londoners died from non-age related causes – like smallpox or plague related diseases. He informed the Royal Society of London that the answer to Thomas Cromwell’s question was that 'Yes' the plague continued to be a problem in London.

At this time, France began registering births and deaths, which encouraged Charles II to endorse Graunt's membership the newly-established Royal Society. This was not a welcome decision as Graunt was a businessman, not medical or noble and had Catholic leanings. However, King Charles was reputed to have observed, ‘if they found any more such tradesmen, they should be sure to admit them all, without any more ado.’ Samuel Pepys also mentions Graunt several times in his diaries.

Graunt’s Life Table – which he admitted was partly guesswork because the Bills of Mortality did not record age at death, means he estimated the mortality of infants and young children to age 6 based upon references to childhood diseases in the Bills. Similarly, mortality among the elderly was calculated through references to degenerative diseases.

Graunt deduced that the population of London stood at 384,000 people, assuming:
  • Each woman had one child every two years, so 12,000 births implies 24,000 women of childbearing age, with eight members to each family.
  • Using a 1658 map he calculated the number of families in London, both inside and outside the walls was 47,520.
  • The number of deaths in London as a whole was four times the number of deaths within the city walls.
  • A third of children died of infant ailments: thus 64% of children survived to age six.
  • 7% of deaths were among the ‘aged’ thus only 1% of the population would survive to age 76.
  • Men do not die in actual proportion to their age.
  • More boys than girls are born but the mortality rate was greater for males, resulting in the population's being almost evenly divided between males and females.
  • Doctors had twice as many female as male patients, but that males died earlier than females
  • In 1625, a quarter of England's population died, many from the plague.
  • In the 1636 outbreak, plague killed 10,400,
  • Between 1647 and 1657 - Tuberculosis claimed almost 30,000 people when London’s population was an estimated 350,000
  • A malady described as “teeth and worms” killed 14,236 inhabitants over a 20-year period.
  • Between 1647/57, almost 30,000 deaths resulted from consumption. 
    John Graunt
Other purported causes of death were:  “stopping of the stomach.” “lethargy,” “grief” and “lunatick.” A single fatality from “itch” [scabies] took place in 1648, while in 1660 nine people perished after being “frighted.” Between 1629 and 1632, 27 deaths occurred due to “fainting in a bath,” and in 1630, 24 people were “smothered and stifled.” although “excessive drinking” was only recorded as being the cause of just two deaths.

Others fell victim to 'King's Evil' - a swelling of lymph nodes on the neck - thought to be a disease which accompanied the coronation of kings as it could only be cured by the touch of a monarch. Graunt called this theory 'seditious', and it is now accepted this was scrofula, a form of tuberculosis.
Then there were the results of accidents and executions

Some causes of death and their modern equivalents.
  • Consumption: Tuberculosis
  • Falling sickness: Epilepsy
  • French Pox: Syphilis
  • Gout: Inflammation due to build-up of uric acid in tissue
  • Impostume: A cyst or abscess
  • Itch: Scabies
  • Jaw Faln: Lockjaw, known as tetanus
  • King's Evil: Tuberculosis of neck (scrofula)
  • Lethargy: Sleeping sickness (possibly encephalitis)
  • Meagrom: Severe headache
  • Rising of the lights: 'Lights' is another word for lungs
  • Stone: Gall stone
  • Strangury: Urinary disease
  • Surfet: Vomiting from over-eating
  • Tissick: Tuberculosis (also known as consumption)
  • Thrush: White spots/ulcers on tongue, mouth and throat due to parasitic fungus
  • Tympany: Tumours

Around 1655, one of Graunt’s daughter became a nun in a Belgian convent, and Graunt himself converted to Catholicism at a time when many were being prosecuted for recusancy. Gilbert Burnet in his History of his own Time stated how Graunt was thought to be responsible for the Great Fire of London; in that as a manager at the New River Company involved with furnishing London's water supply, he was thought to have been aware the fire was being set and entered the water house in Islington and shut off the supply, thus delaying firefighting efforts.

Mourning Ring
Despite that the fire was not arson, Graunt didn’t have access to the supply until 23 days after the fire. That the flames destroyed Graunt’s own clothing business and drove him into bankruptcy didn’t halt the rumours either.

John Graunt's figures might have been massaged, but he gave us an interesting picture of how precarious life was in 17th Century London.

Sources and Further Reading
John Graunt
Daily Mail Article

Queen House History

John Graunt's List


Mary Preston said...

The figures are staggering. Morbidly fascinating thank you.

Sarah said...

Fascinating, thank you.

I'm a bit puzzled by the accompanying image though. It's plainly of a man in 19th century dress complete with dundrearies, stiff collar and jacket, not of someone who lived in the mid-17th century (1620 - 1674).

Anita Davison said...

Thanks for the comments ladies and apologies Sarah I uploaded the wrong image.

Sarah said...

Ah, that makes more sense, Anita, thanks.

I've been fascinated by the bills of mortality - in the 18th century they were published in the Gentleman's Magazine, and included such causes of death as "planet" and "melancholy". I think planet means stroke.