Introduction to mortality statistics in England and Wales: 17th-20th century

This guide provides a starting point for finding historical mortality statistics for England and Wales.

A Library catalogue search will provide more sources than are listed in this guide. Key search words are: mortality; statistics; numerical data.

Sources of statistics in the Wellcome Library

National statistics

First major attempt at organised collection on a national basis was the Annual Report of the Registrar General.

19th-20th century

Annual Report of the Registrar General for births, deaths, and marriages in England
Annual summary of births, deaths, and causes of death in England and Wales, and in London and other large towns (compiled from weekly and quarterly returns). A decennial supplement was introduced from the 25th Annual Report and the first supplement is for 1851-60. Statistics cover mortality by age, registration district and cause of death, not always by gender.
Closed stores serials S4652
Full details in catalogue

London statistics
17th century-19th century

Prior to the 19th Century, Bills of Mortality were the main source of mortality statistics, designed to monitor deaths from the plague, they ran from 1660's to 1830's.

London's Dreadful Visitations: or a collection of all the Bills of mortality for this present year: Beginning 27th December 1664 and ending the 19th December the following 1665.
Weekly statistics for the number buried in each parish who died of the plague and those who died of other causes. Disease and casualties per week for all causes by sex and number christened. General Bill for year ending 19th December 1665 containing the number buried and number dying of plague, and by sex. Totals for diseases and casualties for the year.
Closed stores EPB MSL/B/LON
Full details in catalogue

London's Remembrancer or a true accompt of every particular weeks christenings and mortality in the years of pestilence within the cognizance of the bills of mortality being XVIII years taken out of the request of the company of Parish clerks of London etc. together with several observations on the said years, and some of their precedent and subsequent years, 1668-1700
Information taken from the registers kept in the common hall of the Company of Parish clerks. Weekly figures by parish for burial and plague, total number buried by sex and by cause of death.
Closed stores EPB / B 13123/B
Full details in catalogue

A collection of weekly bills of mortality. 19 Dec. 1665-17 Dec. 1700
Made up from two sets, 1665-98 (6 vols.) and 1680-1700 (2 vols.)
Closed stores EPB MSL/B/LON
Full details in catalogue

A general bill of all the christenings and burials… 1758-1799.
Bound with Collection of the yearly bills of mortality from 1657-1758; 1759 -. All mortality bills for this period with a selection of other bills from earlier dates; 1593, number buried and number who died of plague by parish, annual and monthly totals. Christenings and mortality by month and total: 1606-1610, 1625, 1630, 1636, 1637, 1640-1647. General Bill gives cause of death, number who died, number who died of plague, and number christened 1657 - 1799.
Closed stores EPB MSL /COL
Full details in catalogue

Mortality of the Metropolis
by John Marshall,1832.
Burials by county 1801-1820, total burials 1790-1820, total burials by parish 1700-1820, total burials per week 1593-1646, total dying of plague per week 1593-1665. Mortality rate by age in City of London 1728 - 1830, burial rate by parish, 1657-1830, number of deaths and cause 1629-1831.
Closed stores EPB / C 35547/C
Full details in catalogue

Natural and Political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the on the bills of mortality
by Captain John Graunt, London, 1662 and later editions held.
A discursive examination and analysis of the Bills of Mortality with statistical data.
Open shelves EK.41.AA6
Facsimile copy available online in Pioneers of Demography series 

19th-20th century

Weekly returns of births and deaths in London
General Register Office. Weekly reports showing deaths from all causes by age.
Closed stores serials S4662, check catalogue for holdings
Full details in catalogue

Annual Report for the year..../Metropolitan Asylums Board 1887-1922
Statistical Committee reports include notifications of infectious diseases and number of deaths from them.
Annual Reports collections - Closed stores
Full details in catalogue

London local Medical Officer of Health reports, 1855 -1856.

Regional statistics
Early periods

There is no one source for early regional mortality statistics. You should check with general books on mortality statistics and search on geographical locations on the online catalogue.

19th century

The most comprehensive compilation of statistics is provided through the Medical Officer of Health reports.

Internet sources

These sites are for health statistics in general and include references to UK mortality statistics:
Department of Health
Data on indicators of health in the UK.

NHS Information Centre
Public health, population and lifestyle statistics. Includes Health Survey for England.

Office of National Statistics
Mortality rates in England and Wales

Royal College of General Practitioners
Weekly incidence rates for several illnesses from General Practice in England and Wales.

UK Data Archive
Datasets for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Users must register individually to download data.

UK National Statistics
Gateway to UK National Statistics website. Includes data for life expectancy, cause of death and mortality.

World Health Organization
Global disease, health and mortality statistics.

Timeline for mortality statistics

1593: First year any account of Christenings and burials were kept.

1665: Bills of Mortality were introduced to provide statistics on deaths caused by the plague. Data was often derived from parish registers. No allowance was made for non-conformists failing to register most baptisms and burials.

1836: Registration Act created the General Register Office, which was set up in 1837. Indexes of births, deaths and marriages for England and Wales stem from this date. The Act required the GRO to prepare an annual abstract for Parliament. Under the Act the family had to report the death to the local registrar of births, deaths and marriages; it did not require certification by a medical practitioner. Required information regarding the deceased was: date of death, name, age, sex, rank or profession and cause of death.

1839: William Farr devised the first system of disease classification, or nosology. His third revision was adopted by the GRO in 1860.

1840: GRO began to issue weekly reports for London, and in 1842 began to issue quarterly reports for the Nation.

1845: Qualified medical practitioners were issued with tablets of printed forms for certification of cause of death. Any death not registered with this certificate was 'not certified'.

1867: The Metropolitan Asylums Board was founded by the Metropolitan Poor Act, and created the Metropolitan Asylum District covering London. The Board made provision for the sick poor and collected statistics.

1874: Registration Amendment Act. Medical practitioners were now formally required to issue death certificates (printed forms provided by Registrar-General). Failure to deliver a certificate to the registrar incurred a penalty.

1881: William Ogle set up an enquiry system between the GRO and certifying medical practitioners in an attempt to cut down on ambiguously worded death certificates. This led to a general improvement in the quality of statistics.

1896: GRO revised the classification of disease further by adopting the revised nomenclature published by the Royal College of Physicians.

1900: International Classification of Diseases (ICD) was introduced, and has been used for mortality statistics in England and Wales since 1911. Between1901-1910 an unnumbered list of causes was used because the ICD had not been widely adopted.

1959: Office of National Statistics (ONS) introduced computerised record keeping for statistical tabulations of mortality.

1970: GRO became Office of Populations Censuses and Surveys (OPCS).

1996: OPCS became Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Resources for the history and compilation of mortality statistics

General books

Woods, R and N Shelton. An atlas of Victorian mortality, 1997.
A description of the geography of mortality in England and Wales, including infant and childhood mortality, maternal mortality, early adult death, causes of death in old age. Contains nosologies for decennial supplements of Registrar General Report, graphs and maps of geographical variations.
Open shelves Folios EK.41.AA8
Full details in catalogue

Wrigley, EA and RS Schofield. The population history of England 1541 - 1871: a reconstruction, 2 editions.
Includes chapters on mortality levels, crises and fluctuations. Includes some statistical tables.
Open shelves EH.41.AA5-8
Full details in catalogue

Charlton, J andM Murphy. The health of adult Britain, Vol 1 & 2. 1997.
Mortality trends from 1841-1994, including socio-economic factors, disease and accidents. Contains tables and figures of statistical data with discussion and a chronology of major events for this period.
Open shelves EH.41.AA8-9
Full details in catalogue

Tranter, NL. British population in the twentieth century, 1996.
Population growth, migration, mortality and fertility trends. Includes statistical tables.
Open shelves EH.41.AA9
Full details in catalogue

Creighton, C. A History of epidemics in Britain, 1965, first edition 1894.
Includes selective statistics for specific epidemics in the U.K. from ancient times to late 19th Century.
Open shelves ED.41
Full details in catalogue

Background reading

Ayers, GM. England's First State Hospitals 1867 - 1930, 1971.
History of the Metropolitan Asylums Board (MAB), includes some data from MAB and Registrar General Reports.
Open shelves CAF.41.C
Full details in catalogue

Eyler, JM. Victorian Social Medicine: the ideas and methods of William Farr, 1979.
The work of William Farr, the statistical movement, GRO and mortality statistics, the Life Table, and zymotic theory.
Open shelves BZP/Farr
Full details in catalogue

Hardy, A. "Death is the cure of all diseases": Using the General Register Office cause of death statistics for 1837-1920. Social History of Medicine, Vol. 7, 1994, p.472 - 492.
Serials /SOC
Full details in catalogue

online via Oxford Journals
Full details in catalogue

Nissel, M. People Count: a history of the General Register Office, 1987.
Open shelves EH.41 or closed stores Shepherd /NIS
Full details in catalogue

Sheard, S and L Donaldson. The nation's doctor: the role of the Chief Medical Officer 1855-1998, Oxford: Radcliffe, 2005.
Open shelves JOF.41.AA8-9
Full details in catalogue

Vital Statistics : A memorial volume of selections from the reports and writings of William Farr, 1975.
Large section on deaths, discussing all aspects of mortality and death rates.
Open shelves EH.41.AA8
Full details in catalogue

Woods, R. The demography of Victorian England and Wales, 2000.
Demographic change 1837-1914, quality of the registration system, occupational mortality.
Open shelves EH.41.AA8
Full details in catalogue

Journals specialising in articles on demographic trends

Economic History Review
Closed stores serials S7426
Full details in catalogue
Available online to Library users 
Population Studies
Closed stores serials S4970
Full details in catalogue
Available online to Library users 
Population Trends
Closed stores serials S4927
Full details in catalogue
Available online to Library users