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  • Writer's pictureJerry O'Sullivan

Adult death in industrial Lancashire, c1850-1930 : my family

Not the happiest of subjects perhaps, but at least all one’s ancestors made it to adulthood !

I have long been a family historian, and could bore many a family (or non-family) gathering with tales of the lives of ancient relatives. Seriously though, detailed information on lives such as family historians gather can be of use in wider historical research, particularly local. In 2008 I wrote a brief piece for the Lincolnshire Family History Society comparing the ages at death of my Lincs forbears with those of my Lancs ones. The difference was stark : by and large the (mainly 19th century) Lincs ancestors lived much longer than my Lancs ones. This I suggested might be due to better living and working conditions in rural Lincs than in industrial Lancs. Of course this is just one small sample.

Here I intend to look at all my ancestors (1/2/3 gt grandparents), widening the previous study. I have virtually all the relevant death certificates. There are 8 gt-grandparents, 16 gt-gt, and 32 gt-gt-gt. The age at death is known for all but one. One quarter are from NE Lancs (Burnley/Colne) ; one quarter from Bury ; one quarter from Middleton/Prestwich ; and a quarter from largely rural Lincolnshire. In a few cases moves were made quite some further away, later in life, notably for one mother and daughter to Utah, also one to Rotherham, and one couple to Bollington in Cheshire.


The data : ages at death

NE Lancs 51 52 52 55 59 65 66 68 68 75 76 81 81. Mean 65, median 66 (13 people).

Bury 51 62 63 63 64 68 73 73 75 78 78 79 81 81. Mean 71, median 73 (14 people).

Middleton/P 35 41 48 54 59 63 65 65 70 71 74 74 75 82. Mean 63, median 65 (14 people}.

Lincs 34 52 54 73 77 79 79 79 80 81 84 87 88 95. Mean 74, median 79 (14 people).

[Black humour follows : as a 79 year old myself, I am not sure whether I want to be associated too closely with the Lincs figures !]


Whilst the figures can fruitfully be compared, place to place, it must be remembered that the sample sizes are small, and also that the averages given are in one respect on the high side : all these people attained adulthood, we could not of course see ages at death say under 12, and under 16-18 would be unusual.

It would be possible to engage in formal statistical testing to declare, for example, whether NE Lancs differed ‘significantly’ from Lincs. However I will just let the figures speak for themselves. (I used to teach Statistics : the best test here would be the Mann-Whitney U-test.)

My former finding about the Lincs/Lancs distinction is brought out again, especially if we were to coalesce the three Lancs parts. Within just Lancashire, there is little difference between NE and Middleton/P, except maybe to note two or three particularly early deaths in the latter.

However the comparison between the two close areas of Bury and Middleton/P is interesting : Bury seems to be winning by a fair bit (if still quite a bit behind Lincs). Now it has always been my impression based on family tradition, on my mother’s side, that ‘the Bury lot’ felt that my mother’s mother was marrying beneath herself, that is into ‘the Middleton lot’. It is perhaps the case that the male occupations of the Bury family were to an extent of higher status than those of the Middleton/P family : tradesmen rather than labourers and unskilled workers. Thus there can be a suggestion that the greater longevity for Bury might be due in some measure to rather better living conditions and perhaps nourishment. Of course, again, this is a tiny sample.

Just returning briefly to the NE Lancs family. Some of these people were living in severe poverty in the early 1840s, a most difficult time for handloom weavers. A 3-gt grandmother died in 1846 (age 52), and a 3 gt-grandfather in 1852 (age 51) ; however my 3 gt-grandfather in my male line lived to be 81, marrying three times !

It would be interesting to see similar studies in other families. If you or another family member is an avid family historian, with extensive data as I have, then why not have a go ! Even if the results do not bring out fairly obvious differences, like mine, the exercise still feels worthwhile. And of course you can compare your family with mine.


Rex Watson



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