Childhood Mortality in Nineteenth-Century England

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Childhood Mortality in Nineteenth-Century England

The issue of childhood mortality is written into the works of Gaskell and Dickens with alarming regularity. In Mary Barton, Alice tells Mary and Margaret that before Will was orphaned, his family had buried his six siblings. There is also the death of the Wilson twins, as well as Tom Barton's early death --an event which inspires his father John to fight for labor rights because he's certain his son would have survived if he'd had better food. In Oliver Twist, Dick's early death is typical of workhouse children who never recover from years of chronic malnutrition. And in Dombey and Son, Paul demonstrates that wealth does not guarantee longevity, as we watch him steadily weakened by some mysterious illness. Evidence is everywhere that Gaskell, Dickens, and many of their contemporaries, used fiction to chronicle a sad fact of l9th century life: Many children didn't live to become adults.

At the Newell Historical Burial ground in Attleboro, the stone marking the graves of the Stanley family indicates that three children were either stillborn or died before their first birthdays. If there were any other children who survived childhood, they were probably daughters who were buried in their husbands' family plots.

A typical grave from the mid-19th century is a husband's stone flanked by two or even three wives each but the last having died in her 20s or 30s. Certainly many of these women died in childbirth, because their death dates match the birth dates on the children's stones.

Several children might be named after the father. In one family plot with eight children, three were named John because only the third one survived the first year. ApE time when the death of a toddler was as normal as this practice was quite common in both America and England.

While all of Dombey's money couldn't save his son from dying, little Paul's diet, lifestyle, and medical attention gave him every advantage available. The relationship between poverty and childhood mortality is unmistakable. In Boston's Irish Catholic slums, Lemuel Shattuck found that between 1841 and 1845, 61% of the population died before the age of five. (Woodham-Smith, p. 252) Poor English children didn't fare any particularly in the manufacturing towns of London, Sheffield, Leocester, Manchester, and Liverpool. Statistics from the Sheffield General Infirmary' between 1837 and 1842 reveal that of 11,944 deaths, half were children under age five:

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