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Longevity and child mortality in Buxton
by Geoff Lowe, 2001

I have for a long time been interested in the village of Buxton, situated on the edge of the Broads in Norfolk. My family lived there and nearby for a period of 3-400 years; and for quite a while now I have been studying the parish registers and other source documents.

What follows is an analysis of the burial records to try and show the general life expectancy and extent of child mortality from 1600-1872; and also to draw comparison with the birth rate in the village. In a couple of cases I have not reached a conclusion, but left questions to which I have no definite answer..

Early parish records have not always survived well, and Buxton is no exception to this. The registers now only begin in 1665; the earlier entries being lost or destroyed. I have filled in as many missing years as possible by referring to the Archdeacon's and Bishop's Transcripts (annually made copies of the register).

Age must be inferred from the available information. The registers nearly always note where a wife or widow has died; and frequently when a man was a widower at time of burial.

Many entries refer to an infant being buried and can often be linked to a record of baptism, to give a fairly exact age at death. Others follow the format, "John son of John Smith was buried" and present a few more problems. Such entries sometimes refer to the deaths of children; and also to teenagers and young adults. However, in all cases, the person would seem to be single and dependent on his or her parents. Once again, comparison with baptismal records can often confirm the age at death.

Finally some entries simply read 'John Smith was buried'. Where possible, I have linked these to a baptism or marriage; and so calculate an approximate age.

Because of the inexact nature of the register entries, I decided to place burials into one of three groups:
  1. Infant Any child under 3 years at death
  2. Young A child, or young person, aged between 3 and about 18
  3. Adult Any person older than about 18
Using these groups, I then created the table below, to show changing mortality patterns and eventually arrive at a reasonable estimate of adult life expectancy. Simple numbers of burials do not necessarily show a pattern. So percentages of each age group is added underneath.

There are very few surviving records for the years 1600-1669. I have therefore treated this period as one single block. But for the years that follow, I broke the figures down into decades in order to try and show any pattern in changes of age group mortality.

Years Total burials burials analyzed
in this sample
Infant Young Adult
   1600-1669    54 33 4 (12%) 9 (27%)  20 (60%) 
1670-1679 51 43 4 (9%) 15 (35%) 24 (56%)
1680-1689 90 60   20 (33%)     15 (25%)     25 (41%)  
1690-1699 42 38 17 (45%) 12 (34%) 9 (24%)
1700-1709 86 74 25 (34%) 13 (18%) 36 (49%)
1710-1719 61 52 14 (27%) 9 (17%) 29 (62%)
1720-1729 91 77 19 (25%) 20 (26%) 38 (57%)
1730-1739 56 39 6 (15%) 5 (12%) 28 (80%)
1740-1749 48 30 8 (27%) 3 (10%) 19 (75%)
1750-1759 59 39 11 (28%) 5 (13%) 23 (73%)
1760-1769 127 91 37 (41%) 13 (14%) 41 (45%)
1770-1779 91 63 19 (30%) 9 (14%) 35 (56%)
1780-1789 96 78 29 (37%) 10 (13%) 39 (50%)
1790-1799 106 104 29 (28%) 12 (11%) 63 (61%)
1800-1809 91 91 21 (23%) 14 (15%) 56 (62%)
1810-1819 73 73 10 (14%) 12 (16%) 51 (70%)
1820-1829 101 101 29 (28%) 8 (8%) 64 (64%)
1830-1839 115 115 41 (36%) 22 (19%) 52 (45%)
1840-1849 198 198 66 (33%) 51 (26%) 81 (41%)
1850-1859 152 152 30 (20%) 32 (21%) 90 (59%)
1860-1869 119 119 25 (21%) 17 (14%) 77 (65%)
1870-1872 29 29 7 (24%) 3 (10%) 19 (66%)
Totals 1936 1699 471 309 919
overall percentages 1600-1872 = 27.7% 18.2% 54.1%


The figures given for the period 1600-1699 are most likely to be inaccurate, purely because of the large gaps in the records. Even here the percentage of adult burials is not too dissimilar from those for the 18th century. This perhaps indicates that an error might only have occurred in assessing whether a burial relates to an infant, or young person.

The percentages of burial in each age group can then be expressed in a graph, to show visually when adult burials dropped, and infant or juvenile burials increased. The different coloured lines represent, Blue, adult - Red, young - Green, infant.

As can be seen there are several occasions when infant or juvenile burials increase substantially; presumably the young were more susceptible to illness? These are at the end of the 17th century, the mid 18th century and 1830-1850. According to "The Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence" (pub. Wordsworth Reference) by George C Kohn, the first period coincides with outbreaks of plague, smallpox and typhus; the second with Influenza and Typhus; and the third with outbreaks of Smallpox and Cholera. These last epidemics being noted as cause of death in several local parish registers.

Interpreting the average numbers of baptisms and burials is confused by the existence of a workhouse at Buxton, which caused an influx of people from other villages. I have worked through each entry in the parish register and attempted to remove those who were not from Buxton to give a more accurate picture of average baptisms and burials.



Years 1700-29 1730-59 1760-89 1790-1819 1820-49 1850-72
Mean baptism
blue line
11.2 11.2 15.6 12.7 15.9 19.3
Mean burial
red line
8.2 6.4 9.9 9.4 14.5 12.5

It can be seen that the general trend in baptism and burial is upward over the period 1700-1872. This is to be expected with the general increase in population. The gap between baptism and burial is narrow at two points on the graph; about 1700 and for the period from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to about 1850. These again match up with the periods of illness and epidemic; and in the 19th century, economic depression following war.

Conclusions:

I prefer not to provide an average life expectancy calculated from all burials. Such estimates may be inaccurate because of the very general information recorded in earlier registers.

Instead, I think it better to say that infants - those aged 2 years and under - accounted for and one death in every four (25%). There was then a one in six chance of dying between the ages of 3 and about 18 (17%); and therefore an only slightly better than even chance of reaching adulthood.

Of those who reached adulthood, I have been able to make a fairly accurate estimate of age at death for many of the burials. This last table shows the average life expectancy of those who survived to adulthood, broken down into periods of thirty years.

Period Number of adults in
sample whose age at
death can be estimated
Average age at
burial amongst adults
1600-1699 35 35.2
1700-1729 64 44.2
1730-1759 44 42.0
1760-1789 91 45.6
1790-1819 163 60
1820-1849 197 55.7
1850-1872 186 56.6

(Using the apparently more accurate data recorded from 1790 onwards, the average life expectancy, calculated from all burials was 41.2 years for 1790-1819; 29.3 years for 1820-1849; and 36.7 years from 1850-1872).

The average age at burial for adults from 1790 may be affected by the existence of a Workhouse at Buxton. Despite their reputation that has come down to us of being fairly horrific places; could the fact there was at least a regular though plain diet, at least have extended the life expectancy among the poor?

Geoff Lowe