Tuesday 12 January 2016

Trends in Ages at Death in Plympton St. Mary & Plympton St. Maurice Parishes

In a post on 8 December 2015 I set out how the proportions of deaths in various age groups changed between the early 1800s and mid 1900s in Cornwood Parish, Devon.

I indicated then that I would also look at the larger area around the village of Plympton to see what trends there might be there as well. The numbers here combine two Devon parishes, the mainly rural are of Plympton St. Mary and the town of Plympton, which comprises most of the Plympton St. Maurice parish.

As they were with Cornwood, the numbers are only the burials recorded in the Church of England registers. While they do not encompass all denominations there is every expectation that they do represent the population of the region in general. Trends observed in the parish data may thus be extrapolated to the entire population. The data includes all burials from 1811 to 1960 in the two parishes. There are two main cemeteries in which the deceased were buried, both in the town of Plympton, however, there were burials as well in some smaller cemeteries scattered across Plympton St. Mary parish.

Again, similar to what was the case in Cornwood, ages at death were rarely recorded before 1800, other than occasionally or to note that individuals were sons, daughters or wives of the heads of households or in reference to their age as child, or infant. There are insufficient notes to be able to determine the ages of those buried without a detailed analysis of all of the families.

Burials in the area, as shown on Figure 1, grew between 1811 and 1841 and then remained generally constant through the 20th century. The early growth parallels the increase in the general population however the levelling off is probably an indication, as it was in Cornwood, that there was a decline in the importance of the church in the lives of the residents.
Figure 1 – total burials in Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice parishes by decade
The ten and under group (Figure 2) represented a very large proportion of deaths in the early part of the 19th century – over 35% until the 1850s. The number declined significantly into the mid-20th century, ending at under 3% during the 1950s. No doubt this was due to better nutrition, hygiene and protection (vaccines) against disease.
Figure 2 – number of burials of children under the age of 11 years by decade
A combined graph incorporating the burials in each age group is shown on Figure 3. The trends show increasing proportions in the older age groups as time went on meaning that more people were living longer as we moved into the 1900s.The 71 to 80-year old group rose to over 30% of burials by the 1950s.
Figure 3 – burials in all age groups by decade
It appears that if people reached the age of 20 to 30 in the latter half of the 19th century, they were very likely to live much longer lives that they would have in the early 1800s. That is, unless there was a potential for war when men of this age were most likely to be called to action. The burials of people aged 21 to 50 dropped in total proportion over time.

The most significant change is seen in the 71 to 80-year old group which represent only around 14% of burials in 1820 but over 32% by 1960 (Figure 4). There were also many more people who lived into their 80s in the 20th century than previously (Figure 5).
Figure 4 – numbers of burials of people aged 71 to 80 years by decade
Figure 5 – numbers of burials of people aged 81 to 90 years by decade
Not only were people living longer but the population of the regions was also growing substantially from 1800 to 2000. This was particularly noteworthy following WWII when population more than doubled from the pre-war years (Figure 6).
Figure 6 – population of Cornwood, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice parishes, from (data Online Historical Populatin Reports - http://www.histpop.org/ohpr/servlet/ and Office of National Statistics - https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/announcements
As I indicated with the Cornwood summary, analyses like this are worth doing for family historians as they give the researcher a better perspective on the communities in which their ancestors lived. The results here, and probably in other parishes as well, show the risks for children, probably the most vulnerable members of society, in the days before there were improvements in health care and disease prevention.

By breaking down the numbers in more detail, by years for example, one can see other trends or instances when certain events, such as epidemics, may have occurred that caused grief among residents. The same can be said for baptisms and marriages. Rapid changes in the number of entries from year-to-year can be indicators of specific events or conditions. I have mentioned some of these in the past and will deal with others in future posts as well.

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.