In my last post on this subject (19 April 2016) I showed in graph form the statistics of baptism, marriages and burials for the parishes of Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice in southwest Devon, England. For the combined plots we noted the general decline in baptisms during the 17th and 18th centuries and rapid increase during the first half of the 19th century.
Figure 4 – annual baptisms, marriages and burials as recorded in the Church of England registers of Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice Parishes – 1603 to 1957
Various sharp spikes in burials can mostly be attributed to epidemics or wars (Figure 4 – from blog post of 19 April 2016). Drops in baptism numbers might be a result of the same events. A major spike in burials occurred around 1644. This was during the time of the English Civil War. Battles raged in various localities of southwest Devon and it appears many of those who died in the conflict were buried in the Plympton area. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution began with William of Orange eventually taking the Crown from King James II. Again Devon was the site of battles resulting in deaths and burials in the area. The Plympton St. Mary burial register does record that soldiers were buried during this time period.
The register does not specifically indicate the causes of death between 1625 and 1627 although there were a large number of children who died. This may represent a period of famine as it extends over several years. It might also represent plague that had broken out in a few spots around southern England at the time. The Cholera epidemic of 1832 is clearly evident.
There is a very prominent spike in marriages on the Plympton St. Maurice graph, between 1653 and 1658. This was, of course, during the Interregnum, after Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government had seized power. I commented on that in a blog post on 14 January 2014. All marriages during this time were to be performed by Justices of the Peace in central market towns one of which was Plympton.
The divergence of the baptism and burial trends beginning around 1802 (baptisms outstripped burials) is surely an indication that better times had come to the area and population was increasing – outside of a few setbacks from time-to-time over the next several decades.
Interestingly the Spanish Flu of 1918 does not seem to have been a factor in this part of Devon as there is no discernible spike in burials. There were, however, many deaths reported during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1934 as well as a significant drop in baptisms. These events fit with criteria for famine as being a major cause of a deterioration of living conditions. Effects of the Second World War are shown in the increase of marriages and burials beginning in 1939 and in baptisms from 1945 onward.
All the significant spikes and troughs are worth investigating to see if there were changes to political or environmental conditions that affected the rapid increases or decreases in populations.
The mid-1600s to the early-1700s period correspond to the height of the “Little Ice Age.” This is a time in Earth’s history when the Northern Hemisphere was significantly cooler that during the Medieval Period or modern day (Figure 6). The Little Ice Age began around 1300 and continued into the 19th Century with its most devastating period in the 17th Century (Figure 6).
Figure 6 – graph depicting winter severity in Europe between 1000 and 1900. Note two cold periods in the 15th and 17th Centuries.
Agricultural productivity would have been adversely impacted during the cold period which would have had the effect of reducing the ability of people to support and feed themselves. Population would likely have declined as well, a direct result of the drop in production of foodstuff and quite possibly the migration of families to other parts of Britain. Many people moved to the large cities or other parts of the World where better living conditions were believed to be possible. Indeed, the 17th Century was a time when global exploration was at a zenith and new British colonies were developed in North America and elsewhere.
Concurrent with the environmental changes, there were new developments in technology and new methods and mechanisms employed in agriculture – part of the early Industrial Revolution. The improvements in farming techniques meant even fewer individuals were required to work farms. Growth of manufacturing and processing industries in many parts of Britain drew thousands of people from rural areas to cities. These developments did not take effect until the late 18th century, so do not explain the drop in numbers during the early part of the 1700s.
Parish registers can provide much more than just names and dates. An analysis of entries over long periods of time can show the influences of many events on the lives of residents, especially those of strife such as war, disease, environmental change and political upheaval that may have caused people distress and resulted in migration.
Most peaks, troughs and trends observed on plots of BMD data are related to specific historical events. A study of those events, form both a local as well as regional viewpoint will be very helpful in unravelling how the lives of individuals were affected, why families flourished or were devastated or what caused people to move.
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.