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Department of Geography



Mortality and epidemiological change in Manchester, 1750-1850

Before the late eighteenth century cities acted as demographic sinks, reliant on a constant stream of immigrants from rural areas even to maintain their populations in the face of extremely high urban death rates. The high demographic cost of urban centres limited the potential for urbanization, and presented a fundamental barrier to modern economic growth. However the late eighteenth century witnessed a transformation of the urban epidemiological regime in north-western Europe, and by the mid-nineteenth century even the worst of Britain's cities were capable of natural population growth. The cause of this radical improvement in urban death rates remains one of the outstanding puzzles of historical demography. In Britain this transformation in urban life expectancies coincided with the classic period of the Industrial Revolution and the dramatic restructuring of the urban hierarchy as a consequence of the explosive growth of northern manufacturing and industrial cities. However to date almost all our scant knowledge of urban mortality improvements in this period is confined to London.

Manchester mid-19th century

London was already a mature metropolis of perhaps 675,000 by 1750 with a complex system of parochial and urban institutions. While its population continued to expand rapidly after 1750 this was probably not accompanied by a net rise in population density, and average population density was well below that of Manchester or Liverpool in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover London had long surpassed the theoretical population thresholds at which the major infectious diseases of the period could persist in an endemic state (for example the so-called 'Bartlett threshold' of c.250,000 in the case of measles in twentieth century populations).

By contrast Manchester grew approximately fifteen-fold from less than 20,000 to a third of a million over the century before 1850 and may have crossed various epidemiological thresholds in the process of expansion. Moreover Manchester lacked the typical institutions of long-established towns and was not accorded the political status of an urban borough until 1838. However while it has been argued that the rapid and insufficiently regulated growth of the new northern cities depressed urban and therefore national life expectancies in the period 1820-60, it appears from the very limited data hitherto available that rapid growth before 1820 did not necessarily result in a worsening of survival chances.

Albert Sq Manchester 1912

The malign contribution of northern industrial cities to the stagnation of national life expectancy over the period 1820-1860 forms part of one of the most long-running debates in English economic history, regarding the impact of early industrialisation on living standards. The pessimistic view argues that industrial cities experienced a worsening of mortality especially in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and that this was due to the peculiar conditions of industrialisation, including administrative breakdown and rising social inequalities. An alternative view is that any mortality rise that did occur was largely a function of population density, Irish immigration and exogenous epidemiological change. The declining reliability of Anglican registration of vital events over the period 1750-1837 means that this debate has been conducted with very little data, regarding a period sometimes described with respect to urban areas as a demographic 'dark age'. This study is using a comprehensive survey of extant burial and baptism records and detailed records of burials by age and cause of death together with poor law and other institutional records and contemporary accounts to examine both the dramatic improvements in urban mortality after 1750, and the apparent reversals in the period 1820-1850, in the pre-eminent manufacturing city of the nineteenth century, Manchester.


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