Myths of Longevity or its Lack

I don’t know how many times I have been told that people in the past had an average life expectancy of 35, so therefore a person was old at 30. Utter nonsense.

Averages are statistics. and a major component of those figures was infant mortality. If this was high, then the average was brought down. That does not mean that people led short lives, it means that few of them had long ones. It means that childhood, in particular, infancy, was full of danger mostly from infection. The upside of this was that if you survived childhood, you had a chance at seeing old bones. You  were tough. Hence the notion that children of a harsh winter were stronger than the rest.

The Bible promised us three score years and ten, and in our modern world, many people attain that, and it is a reasonable expectation that our children will outlive us.  In the past, the world was a far less safe and predictable place.  For those fortunate enough to survive the carnage of childbirth and infancy, some claimed to have passed their century.  There was even a tradesman who claimed to be still working at 110.

Whatever the reasons, good health, the will of God, or just dumb luck, every day was fraught with dangers we can have no inkling of.  Fires burnt, rivers flooded, ships sank, church galleries collapsed, lightning threw people into the air and melted metal.  People died, often slowly and in great pain.  Drunk or sober, town streets were ill lit at night so falling into a cellar or slipping into the river was always a risk.   Bristol had laws against throwing fireworks for the risk of scaring horses.  One man was killed when a boy threw a snowball at his horse which bolted.

Incidents which today seem so trivial, such as a broken leg or appendicitis could kill.  For women, childbirth had horrendous risks, but most men worked in dangerous occupations.  Farmers could be gored by bulls, fall off haystacks, be impaled on sharp implements.  Builders fell down holes, had scaffolding give way, ladders slip and arches collapse.  Sailors in particular seldom saw old bones : fell from heights, were captured on the high seas, or worked and drank themselves into oblivion.  People dropped down dead in the street, or fell asleep in a chair.  They died of lingering or infuriating illnesses.  In harsh weather, people froze by the roadsides, or fell through ice on frozen rivers.

Even in a city as wealthy as Bristol, the poor sometimes wasted away ‘for want of the necessities of life’.  A former succesful northern businessman well known in the city, was found dead in a field in Clifton.   Even preparing for bed was dangerous, as an old man in Broadmead was removing his shirt caught fire and was burnt to death.   Children were sometimes left unattended, and set themselves on fire.  One child died in agony drinking from a boiling tea kettle.

Sometimes it seems the treatment for a problem may have been worse than the illness, as a poor woman run down and badly bruised on Redcliffe St was taken to the Infirmary where her nose was cut off and there were doubts of her survival.  Surgery was without anaesthesia, or clean implements, so patients often died from shock or blood poisoning rather than the injury.

Perhaps most tragic of all were widows and single mothers.  Under what passed for welfare from Elizabethan times, everyone was cared for by their place of settlement, ie where they were born, or apprenticed, or, when a woman married, the place of her husband.  For this reason, widows with young children, especially those pregnant, were hurried back to the responsible parish, and instances of cruelty and even death were reported.

Ignorance and lack of contraception sometimes had devastating effects on young women.  Becoming pregnant, often with no knowledge of what was happening to them, seems to have been all too common, and put the woman at risk of being thrown into the street by family or employers.  Even if she survived this, she would be unlikely to then enter into a decent marriage, the normal means for survival.

So it is sad to account how many young women tried to conceal their childbirth, no easy thing with people living so close together, then various attempts to dispose of the unwanted child, often in a ‘necessary house’ a cess pit, or even pushed through the balustrades of bristol bridge.  If detected, as they often were, they were often charged with wilful murder.  What today is seen as merely carelessness often resulted in death of both mother and child.

7 thoughts on “Myths of Longevity or its Lack

  1. In the Redcliffe district of Bristol, just outside the old city boundary, the infants of the poor were sometimes given ale to drink because the water was so impure – accounting for another reason unfortunates such as these did not make old bones.


    • Everyone drank ale back then – in fact that was how they discovered the links with cholera. In London lots of people were getting sick except the workers at the local brewery who were not drinking from the same contaminated pump. A bit worrying that this happened in Redcliffe tho, as they had the water pipe from Knowle.


      • I thought those cunning city centre (or was it Clifton) dwellers piped the water from Knowle right past Redcliffe?


      • oh dear. how would they get it up the hill? The outlet is on the church wall facing redcliffe hill. the parishiners still walk the route of the pipe every year through victoria park up to knowle.


      • Ah yes! Mistakenly confused that conduit with the one which comes out beneath St John’s on the wall. Silly me!


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