Life expectancy in the 17th century

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There is a widespread belief that average life expectancy during the middle part of the 17th century was around the 40 year mark: some people claim 42, others 38 years. Wrigley and Schofield (1981) opt for the latter in The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction, and their opinion is shared by enough others to suggest that the figure is true. Unfortunately this is very often taken to mean that everybody died around their 38th birthday and this is completely wrong.


CALCULATING LIFE EXPECTANCY

The error is caused by a lack of understanding of the way that average life expectancy is calculated. In broad terms, researchers record the age at death of a statistically representative sample. They add all the ages together and divide the result by the number of people in the group. In the case of the mid-17th century this provides the magic figure of 38.

What is often missed out, however, is the crucially important fact that this was life expectancy at birth.

But even without that phrase, this does not mean that it was rare to find anybody aged 39 or more. The fact that 38 is the average means that some people died younger and some at an older age.

SURVIVING CHILDHOOD

There were many risks in childhood, enough to ensure that a significant proportion of people never survived to become adults in the 17th century. There are studies that show that around 13 per cent of children in the second half of the 17th century died before their first birthday. In fact, these studies show that out of every 100 live births, on average, two babies would die within 24 hours of birth, three would die within the first week, four within the first month and 4 within the first year.

Life was not much more promising for older children. The Norfleet family history shows that two members of the family based in Kent in the late 17th century were particularly unfortunate. John and Katherine Norfleet of Faversham had seven children, all of whom died prior to reaching the age of eleven years. Furthermore, Thomas and Elizabeth Norfleet of Faversham had eight children, of whom all but one child (Ann), died before reaching seven years of age

The reasons for these deaths were varied: clearly disease was a major factor with a variety of ailments which are survivable today carrying off some of the children. It seems likely that diarrhoea would have been responsible for many deaths. In addition there were many diseases that are either preventable or easily treatable today including scarlet fever, smallpox, whooping cough, flu and, of course, the plague. Beyond the illnesses, children of the time faced a huge range of hazards. Ralph Houlbrooke (1988) quotes from William Coe's diaries in English Family Life 1576 - 1716. Between January 1693 and the end of 1713, Coe recorded the fact that two of his 8 children came close to being choked by pins in their food, two more were bitten by a dog on separate occasions, while the others suffered by having a cap set on fire by a candle, falling into a creek, falling off a horse, being struck in the eye with an oak rail, having boiling fat spilled on his frock (sic), being accidentally stabbed with an awl, managing to hang himself (not fatally) by the neck from a hall window, falling into scalding water, having his cheek pierced by a cow's horn, having his thumb broken by a horse, being thrown from an open coach and narrowly missing death in an overturned wagon.

This catalogue of misfortunes which would seem extraordinary today appears to have been perfectly normal in the 17th century and, added to the perils of illness, explains why so many children failed to reach adulthood.

Paul S. Seaver reports that the parish clerk of St. Leonard’s Eastcheap in London recorded the age at death of 171 out of 190 individuals buried in the period 1602 to 1611. He wrote: ‘...Of those whose age at death is known, 20 percent died under the age of one, 42 percent by age 10, and almost two-thirds (64 percent) before reaching their majority (age 21). Only 8 percent lived past the age of 50, and a mere 3 percent past 60...' (Seaver, 1985). Seaver does not include this figure but it appears, therefore, that 25 percent died between the ages of 21 and 50. It follows that, of those who made it to age 21, 8 percent would make it to age 60.

OLD AGE

Perhaps one of the most useful sources on this subject is Gregory King's survey of the population of Lichfield City. D. V. Glass referred to this work by including King's data in a table that formed part of a paper reproduced in the Eugenics Review in 1946. In the 17th century King counted the population of Lichfield in five-year age bands. His calculations show that there were 2,861 people living in Lichfield in 1695 and, of those, 37% were less than 14 years old while 59% were aged between 15 and 64 years. No less than 111 people or 4% of the population were aged more than 65 years and more than 20% lived beyond the average life expectancy at birth.

VARIATIONS BETWEEN NEIGHBOURHOODS

Roger Finlay (2009) in Population and Metropolis: the Demography of London, 1580-1650 claims that life was particularly perilous in some parts of London where residents suffered from crowded living conditions and poor sanitation. As a result they were more likely to catch diseases and, once they had caught them, were more likely to pass them on to their neighbours. But even there, he found variations. He writes "Expectation of life at birth varied greatly from the wealthy to poorer parishes of London. St Peter Cornhill, 1580-1650 had an expectation of life of 34-6 years. Comparatively, the poor parish of St. Mary Somerset, 1606-1653, had a life expectancy at birth of only 21 years."

All of these factors affect the average life expectancy figures. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these figures do not mean that it was unusual to find somebody aged 60 in 1645.

It was just that the odds were stacked against them living to be adults.

REFERENCES

Finlay, Roger (2009) Population and Metropolis: the Demography of London, 1580-1650 Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Glass, D. V.(1946) Gregory King and the Population of England and Wales at the end of the Seventeenth Century, The Eugenics Review Vol. XXXVII No. 4

Houlbrooke, Ralph (ed) (1988) English Family Life 1576 - 1716 New York, Basil Blackwell Inc.

Seaver, Paul S. (1985) Wallington’s World: a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London London, Methuen

Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield R. S. (1981) The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction Cambridge, Cambridge University Press