Southwark Deaths

Causes of Death

In transcribing the deaths from the Southwark Quaker records, I was struck by the number of deaths of young children, and by the repetition in the causes. So many children died of "Teeth" that I wanted to find out more about that. I found an article titled "The History of Teething in Infancy" by John Rendle-Short that traced the changes in thinking about teething since the time of Hippocrates.

Dr. Rendle-Short points out that many people thought that teething itself caused children to die, including people in fairly recent times. This quotation is from the 16th century:

About ye seveth moneth, sometime more, sometime lesse, after ye byrth, it is natural for a child to breed teeth, in which time many one is sore vexed with sondry diseases and pains, as swelling of ye gummes and jaws, unquiet crying fevers, cramps, palsies, fluxes, reumes and other infirmities, specially when it is long or ye teeth come forth, for the sooner they appear the better and the more ease it is to the childe.
Thomas Phayre, (1530) The Boke of Children, London.

After reviewing the symptoms described for children who died while teething, Dr. Rendle-Short concludes that teething was probably blamed for deaths that were really caused by diseases, including scurvy, rickets, cholera, and dysentery. He quotes Smollett about the conditions of milk sold in the streets of London in the 1770s to illustrate the sanitary conditions of the time:

But the milk itself should not pass unanalysed -- the produce of faded cabbage-leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails; carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot and tobacco quids from foot passengers; overflowings from mud-carts, spatterings from coach-wheels; dirt from trash chuck into it by roguish boys for the joke's sake; the spewings of infants, who have slobberred in the tin-measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk for the benefit of the next customer; and finally the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this previous mixture under the respectable denomination of milkmaid.
Smollett, T. (1771) The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker.
Cited by Drummond, J. C., and Wilbraham, A. (1939) The Englishman's Food. London: p. 231.

In regard to deaths in general, he quotes John Graunt, a 17th-century statistician, on the procedure used in reporting deaths:

When anyone died, then, either by telling, or ringing a bell, or by bespeaking of a grave of the Sexton, the same is known to the Searchers corresponding with the same Sexton. The Searchers hereupon (who are ancient Matrons, sworn to their office) repair to the place where the dead corps lies, and by view of the same, and by other enquiries, they examine by what disease or casualty the corps died. Hereupon they make their report to the Parish Clerk.
Graunt, John (1662) Natural and Political Observations made upon the Bills of Mortality, London.
(Reprinted by Hull, C. H., ed., 1899, Economic Writings of Sir William Petty. Cambridge: 2, 346, 348.)

Here is the citation to this interesting article by Dr. Rendle-Short:

Rendle-Short, John, "The History of Teething in Infancy,"
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 48 (London 1955), pp. 132-138.

Leading Causes of Death

The following is a list of the top thirty stated causes of death in the records I transcribed:

Cause
Count
Convulsions
116
Fever
81
Consumption
69
Age
39
Teeth
37
Gripes
37
Smallpox
36
Stillborn
23
Dropsy
22
Convulsions and Fits
22
Fits
21
Convulsions in the Bowels
17
Childbirth
10
Apoplexy
7
Physic
6
Measles
6
Drowned
5
Inward Fever
4
Inward Fits
4
Hectic Fever
3
Convulsion Fits
2
Gout in the Stomach
2
Imposthume
2
Surfit
2
Rising of the Lights
2
Rickets
2
Stoppage of the Stomach
2
The Stone
2
Thrush in the Mouth
1
Dropsy and Convulsions
1
Dropsy and Consumption
1

Ages at Death

I was also struck by the long lives some of the people lived. Although the average age at death in this sample was about 21, some lived to a very old age. Here are the twenty oldest in this sample:

Surname Name Age
Haley
James
95
Harris
Elizabeth
93
Gill
Francis
93
Gosnell
Rebecca
90
Moore
Elin
90
West
Mary
90
Hales
Mary
86
Warner
Simeon
85
Hall
Edmond
85
Charter
Robert
85
Grove
Ruth
85
Sterry
Joseph
84
Lurting
Thomas
84
Chalkly
George
84
Alcock
Mamaris
84
Clarck
Barbery
83
Haill
Ann
82
Griffin
Thomas
82
Telner
Jacob
81
Payer
Anday
80

This is a graph of the distribution of ages at death for the people in the sample I transcribed. Note that the infant mortality was very high, while the deaths in the other age ranges were fairly consistent, rising toward the 70-79 range.


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This file was last updated on 7/15/2004.

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