Anyone interested in genealogy has probably come across death certificates and found out what their ancestors died from. But this only shows what one individual died from. What was the general population at whole dying from?
This thinking all started a couple of weeks ago when there was a programme on about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. My family was always led to believe that my Great Grandma died in this flu outbreak in 1918. She didn’t she died of an appendicitis, so why her daughter was told this I don’t know. It got me thinking what were the major causes of our ancestor’s deaths throughout England and Wales (I only use the 2 countries as they were the statistics I found).
Well let’s start in the 20th century. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the most common causes of death in adults over 25 from 1915 to 1945 was infection (such as pneumonia and TB), cancer and heart conditions. All conditions we are unfortunately familiar with today. When the under 25’s are considered it was infections which took most lives, but by 1945 motor vehicles became a factor.
If we look back from 1900 we find our ancestors were dying from different things. It should be noted that the ONS figures don’t give exact illness but rather lumped similar illnesses together.
The first ones on the list from 1900 back until 1851 is smallpox followed by measles and scarlet fever. Some of the other illnesses on the list are things that these days we wouldn’t even think of dying from like diarrhoea, you may wish for it but tablets can stop it thankfully!
Other conditions caused the world around our ancestors to change. For example cholera. It was during the outbreaks of this condition that it was begun to be believed that there was a link between contaminated water and the outbreaks of the disease. This lead to the installation of water pipes going into individual homes with the water coming from reservoirs rather than the rivers which were running with sewage. It seems so obvious to us that if you drink the water full of poop then you will be ill, but it took until the 1850’s for John Snow to find the link in London.
Other surprising conditions which were causing death included whooping cough. I’d had whooping cough and I have to say I quiet enjoyed it at times. I’m not making light of the condition and I can understand how people who were weak and not getting enough food could become exhausted and die. I was 11/12 years old when I had the illness. I didn’t do PE at school for 6 months as I used to start coughing and the teacher would think it was best to sit it out for today, success! I hated PE. It also gave the family a great anecdote. In Derbyshire there is a cycle track called the Tissington Trail which is the path of a disused railway. Me and my family went for a day out and hired bikes. I started coughing so bad I was sick. Now being me I continued to ride my bike and just threw up to the side. I had to come home wrapped in my Mum’s coat as I got it everywhere. Such fun!
There were other causes of death on the list that you might expect such as childbirth, fever and lung disease. All these condition may have been made worse by poor living condition and not enough food, if you’re already week and have a bad child birthing then it becomes more dangerous to both mother and child. For example one of my 3 times great grandfathers ended up in jail (for contempt of court) and he left with TB due to the living conditions which killed him within 9 months of his release. In the case of lung disease the person’s employment could make the condition worse or even cause it. One of my other 3 times great grandfather died from asthma and he was a stone mason.
So we could say that as our living conditions improved we stopped dying of preventable diseases such as TB and cholera and went on to disease we still may have got but we may cause ourselves to be more susceptible to such as cancer and heart disease.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on genealogy and history in general. I hope you find it informative and hopefully funny!