Bills of Mortality records are the topic of
Tuesday’s Tip and a new-to-me record group.
Containing the weekly mortality statistics for London, Bills of Mortality were compiled by parish clerks. 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 the period when they were used to track deaths from the epidemics, particularly The Great Plague of London. In 1570, baptisms were added and 1629 the cause of death was added. They were published through 1836, when civil registration supplanted these records.
Infant and child mortality rates were so numerous, according to historian Lynda Payne at Children and Youth in History, that they 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) and do not include names. But if you have death dates and locations that match these records, they can lend some important context to your family research.
London’s Wellcome Library, of the world’s great collections for the study of medical history, just made 100,000 high-resolution images available for download from their archives. The new 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.
And finally, if you haven’t had enough mortality today, historian Craig Spence writes a blog exploring violent deaths in the bills of mortality.