School of History, Classics and Archaeology


Mortality and Epidemiological Change in Manchester, 1750-1850

A picture of a burial within the world's first 'industrial city', Manchester.

This new Leverhulme-funded project provided initial estimates of mortality levels and trends in the world’s first ‘industrial city’, Manchester, during the classic Industrial Revolution era, 1750-1850.

This period coincided with a transformation of epidemiological regimes in north-western Europe and a precipitous decline in urban mortality, that was essential to the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation that ensued.

The project addressed two major lacunae in our understanding of population change in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.

These are the causes of the striking improvements in urban life expectancies after 1750 and the impact of industrialisation on health and mortality in the first century of industrial growth.

Rapid growth

In 1750, Manchester was a town of less than 20,000 people. By 1850 it had grown to become Britain’s third largest city, with a population of c. 250,000. Its growth was predicated on its role as the centre of the British cotton industry [6].

Engels documented the living conditions of the poor in Manchester in the 1840s with devastating effect, and 19th century Manchester came to epitomise some of the worst excesses of industrialisation for the urban poor [7].

Yet infant mortality (a widely used indicator of living standards) in early Victorian Manchester was significantly lower than levels prevailing in even very small urban settlements of a few thousand people a century earlier.

Therefore it is probable that Manchester enjoyed an absolute decline in infant mortality even as its population grew by an order of magnitude after 1750, and as population densities rose.

The project

This project provided a first overview of mortality in Manchester during its rise to manufacturing pre-eminence, using the exceptionally rich records that survive for the collegiate (parish) church. The collegiate church sextons’ books recorded age, cause of death and burial fee from 1753 to 1848 (with some gaps).

Used with caution, trends in the age distributions of causes yielded insights into changing levels of exposure and immunity in the case of immunising infectious diseases, and high frequency time series and spectral analyses were used to model changes in epidemic frequency and disease transmission.

The rich detail of the burial evidence allowed close analysis of changes in patterns of mortality by season, age and cause within the first year of life, and was used to test the impact of factors such as breastfeeding patterns and smallpox inoculation and vaccination on infant mortality rates.

In addition we created counts of all extant burial, baptism and marriage records for the parish of Manchester and the township of Salford. This allowed us to:

for the calculation of demographic rates.

Comparison with London

Key to the study was a sustained comparison between Manchester and London, using the evidence for London already generated by the ‘Paupers’ Lives’ Project.

Comparisons of trends in the distributions of burials by age and cause in each city enabled us to identify the common factors that underlay the apparently ubiquitous decline of urban mortality between 1750 and 1820.

In addition, the apparent divergence of mortality trends in the two cities after 1820 provided an opportunity to test competing hypotheses regarding the impacts of urban institutions and industrial growth on life expectancy and living standards across the classic period of the Industrial Revolution.

The project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and started on 1st January 2013. Involved were Dr Romola Davenport (Director) and Dr John Black (Research Associate), University of Cambridge, and Newcastle University Prof. Jeremy Boulton (Co-Director).