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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Book review: Vital Statistics

Dr William Farr dominated the scene of demographic and medical statistics in the middle of the 19th century. Soon after his death in 1883, at the age of 75, it was decided to republish a selection from his statistical works, which led to the present volume.

From 1839, Farr directed the statistical affairs of the Registrar-General’s office, becoming a world authority on vital statistics and epidemiology. He designed a classification of diseases for tabulating deaths, computed life tables for England and Wales, and postulated mathematical expressions to predict the waning of smallpox epidemics. He was appalled by the insanitary conditions of the cities and used his statistics to demonstrate the extra mortality that resulted. In 1852, he was elected an honorary member of the Institute of Actuaries, which had been founded only four years previously. He was the driving force behind the introduction of Post Office life insurance in 1864, and acted as the scheme’s consulting actuary for some years.

This memorial volume is packed with fascinating material, and much of the detail has acquired added interest with the passage of time.

The first main section deals with Population. In 1871, there were 22.8 million people living in England and Wales, and the mean distance from house to house was 221 yards. The corresponding figures for 1801 were 9.1 million people and 364 yards, so the population had increased since then and become more concentrated. In 1851, only 45% of the children born in Liverpool survived to the age of 20, whereas in Surrey, the corresponding figure was 71%.

An interesting section on marriages starts by tracing the relationship between the number of marriages and national prosperity, concluding: “In fine, the great fluctuations in the marriages of England are the results of peace after war, abundance after dearth, high wages after want of employment, speculation after languid enterprise, confidence after distrust, national triumphs after national disasters.”

The number of marriages varied according to the day of the week, with half the marriages taking place on Sunday and Monday, and only a few on Friday.

A section on births shows that 22% of married women under the age of 55 bore a living child in 1851. A total of 574,000 children were born in wedlock that year, but only 42,000 were registered as born out of wedlock. The annual birth-rate to unmarried women aged 15-55 in the years 1845-57 was 1.6%, varying from 0.8% in London to 2.5% in Norfolk. Farr states: “There can be no doubt generally of the unhappiness of the children born out of wedlock.” Every English marriage in the late 1860s produced an average of about 4.6 births.

The major part of the book deals with Farr’s numerous studies of mortality. In 1870 he wrote: “A sustained [annual” rate of mortality above 17 in 1,000 always implies unfavourable sanitary conditions: the London rate of 24 is moderately good; any rate above 30 implies sanitary conditions highly destructive to human life. When any city experiences a higher rate than the average, it should always be a matter of serious inquiry and concern to the citizens.”

If people were walking in London around 1850 through Newgate, Smithfield Market, Houndsditch and the Tower, through alleys and lanes, “They would pass through streets on which the sun rarely shines, houses saturated with pestilential vapours – and breezes fanning sewers and excremental matter – the most fatal field of fever in the metropolis. They would see disease gleaming in the eyes of children, wasting the bodies of women, prostrating the strength of men.”

Farr studied how mortality varied according to the density of population, producing the following striking table around 1861. See Fig.1.

He said that mortality in towns could be improved by introducing an adequate water supply and better draining and cleansing.

Among other variables he analysed mortality by age and sex. He looked particularly at the high annual death rates of infants under age one in large towns, which in 1870-74 ranged from 14.8% in Portsmouth to 20.2% in Manchester and 23.9% in Liverpool, and studied the reported causes of death. In many towns, illegitimate infants experienced nearly twice the mortality of those who were legitimate.

An interesting table shows the mortality experienced by people of different occupations in 1851, subdivided by 10-year age groups. For example, in the age group 55-64, grocers, farmers and shoemakers experienced relatively low mortality (2.3%, 2.5% and 2.9% respectively), while blacksmiths, innkeepers and butchers were at the other end of the scale (3.7%, 3.9% and 4.1% respectively).

Farr was well aware of limitations in the registered data and he made a number of recommendations for improvements, many of which were implemented in the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1874.

Another section of the book deals with Farr’s production of the English Life Tables Nos. 1, 2 and 3. The last of these was much more extensive than the first two, and had more than 500 pages, many of which contained joint life tables. Farr comments on the history of life tables and points out the errors made by Richard Price in the 18th century when constructing the famous and much-used Northampton Table, though he very fairly states that Price did not have the data for constructing a true Northampton Table.

The final section of the book deals with various subjects, including sickness and health insurance. There is a most interesting table (prepared by a Dr. Mitchell and reviewed by Farr) showing the sickness among labourers employed by the East India Company in London, 1823-34, based on good data. Each labourer put on the sick list received 1s.6d a day and was seen every day by the surgeon to prevent malingering. The average duration of sickness per annum for every man employed, and the average duration of sickness for every man sick, was as outlined in Fig.2.

It is interesting to see that this table continued up to age 81, suggesting continued employment well beyond the age one might have expected in this fairly arduous occupation.

To illustrate the potential for long-term comparisons, this table may be set alongside similar data for London Underground motormen and guards, 1968-70 (derived from Appendix B of Patterns in Sickness Absence, Experience of London Transport Staff over two decades, by J.E. Ager & P.A.B. Raffle, London Transport Executive, 1973) See Fig. 3.

Even though they tended to experience lower sickness than other groups of London Transport staff, the motormen had significantly more days of sickness absence than the East London labourers 140 years earlier, but the average length of each spell of sickness absence was much shorter. This indicates that motormen and guards were much more inclined to take time off for comparatively minor disorders, for which they would not necessarily have to see a doctor. It is interesting to see that the extra number of days attributable to increased age is much the same in both cases – for example, East London labourers aged 51-61 experienced an extra 2.1 days per annum, compared with those 30 years younger, while for motormen and guards aged 50-59 the corresponding figure was 2.4 days. The increase in the average length of spell was also similar – 9.9 days and 9.1 days respectively. Farr points out that some of the sick labourers would have been placed on pension, and the same would have been true of motormen and guards, but probably using different criteria, so the statistics cannot be regarded as a measure of total sickness in either case, but only of sickness absence.

The book illustrates the progress of elementary education by a table showing the proportion of men and women signing the marriage register with their marks instead of a signature. For men this proportion declined steadily from 33% in 1841-45 to 15% in 1876-80, while for women it declined from 49% to 20% over the same period. Another interesting table shows the proportion of women who signed by marks in 1851, subdivided by county – there were great variations, ranging from 23% in London to 67% in South Wales.

In this short review it has not been possible to provide more than a glimpse of the wide range of material in this fascinating book, which I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone who wishes to obtain a long-term perspective on vital statistics or an extra insight into aspects of Victorian social history.


Now obtainable via Amazon UK, printed on demand. (copies of the original volume can be found in the Profession’s library and can be downloaded free of charge from www.archive.org).