Let’s look today at Bills of Mortality, one of the first ways deaths were formally recorded in England.
Bills of Mortality Records
Published by the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks in London, the weekly Bill of Mortality listed deaths on a single sheet of paper. On the front (recto) mortality figures for each of the 130 parishes of London were listed. The reverse (recto) listed the various causes of death.
These weekly mortality statistics were some of the first gathered for public health purposes. Before the nineteenth century, Bills of Mortality were the main source of death statistics. The earliest known bill dates from November 1532. But the records mostly date to a later period, tracking death from the epidemics.
Particularly at the time of The Great Plague of London, Bills of Mortality were vital tools. In 1570, baptisms were added and 1629 the cause of death for individuals was added. They were published through 1836, when civil registration supplanted these records.
Bills of Mortality for Infants and Children
Infant and child mortality rates were numerous, according to historian Lynda Payne at Children and Youth in History. These deaths were listed according to age bracket, rather than disease. “Chrisomes” were infants younger than a month old. “Teeth” were babies not yet through with teething.
The Bills of Mortality are listed by parish and by cause of death. (“Griping in the guts” was one picturesque, if vague, category.) If you know death dates and locations, these locations can lend some important context to your family research.
Bills of Mortality and the Wellcome Library
London’s Wellcome Library, of the world’s great collections for the study of medical history, offers digital records. More than 100,000 high-resolution images are available for download from their archives. This digital collection includes advertisements, paintings by artists both renowned and obscure, and early photographs.
Also included in the Wellcome Library’s digital collections are Bills of Mortality during the Great Plague in London from 1664-1665. Search “bills of mortality” at Wellcome’s Images page.
Other information at the Wellcome Library on mortality statistics for England and Wales is available here. For information on the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks who were the persons who categorized causes of death, visit their site here. Check WorldCat to see if a nearby library has hard copies of bills.
Mortality Records Blog
And finally, if you haven’t had enough mortality today, historian Craig Spence writes a blog exploring violent deaths in the bills of mortality.