The book I’ve chosen to write about this week is titled “SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793”, and is located with the parish registers in the Heritage Research Area. It is a facsimile copy of the original register. The original register (Ref: EP 41/2/1/2/5) is held in our stores; however, due to its condition, it cannot be served. Contained within this register is an insight into Birmingham life in the 18th century. This register is special because, uniquely, the cause of death is recorded. This addition allows researchers an insight into the difficulties of 18th century life for the people of Birmingham.
Parishes would record information on burials in various ways. By the 1780s, however, there was an attempt to try and make recording more standardised with the production of the ‘Proposed Form of Register for Burials’ which was printed in the year 1781.
The format is a proposed one which seems to have been one of many trial formats. Despite this standardisation attempt, it seems that other parishes in Birmingham did not use this new system during this period, for instance St. Mary’s, Whittall Street. SS Peter and Paul began using the proposed format by about 1784, as seen in the registers.
The proposed format recorded date of burial, name of the deceased, names of parents, age of deceased, supposed cause of death and where buried. This burial register covers the first three years of the 1790s and during that time 550 burials took place within the parish of SS Peter and Paul. Of those 550, 329 were children, equating to 59 – 60% of the register. Of these 329 children (aged between 1 day and 17 years), 49% (163) were under the age of 12 months.
We can clearly see that the infant mortality rate was extremely high during this period, which must have had a significant effect on families. The causes of death for children ranged from measles to Chincough (whooping cough), and from small pox to consumption. Probably the most unusual cause of death among this group is that of ‘teeth’ or ‘cutting teeth’; it seems unusual to us in the modern world as one would never think of teeth being a cause of death. However it seems that during the 18th century, ‘teeth’ was used as a term for ailments that were seemingly unknown, and which came at a time when new teeth were growing, but also could have been related to the processes by which pain was relieved. It should be noted all 10 entries of ‘teeth’ as cause of death are children between the ages of 7 and 18 months.
There are other types of entry which invite more questions than answers. For example, an entry dated 15th June 1790 for a Mary Bishop.
Her parents’ names are not entered and her cause of death is recorded as ‘Evil’. When I saw this my first thought was why evil? What had she done? I did some further research and discovered information on a disease called Scrofula, a type of tuberculosis affecting the glands. Scrofula was known as the King’s Evil and it was given this name because people believed it could be cured by the King’s touch. A case could be made for Mary Bishop having had Scrofula, and the death was simply recorded as Evil.
Another interesting case is that of Jacob, son of John and Mary Field who died at the age of 5 years and 3 months and was buried on January 4th 1791. His cause of death reads ‘Burned’.
This is curious. What happened to him? How was he burned? Was there a fire? Was it an accident? Given that no other family members were interred around the same time, does it suggest that there wasn’t a fire or that the rest of his family managed to survive.
There are many others I could mention, for instance on 19 July 1791, Samuel Jones was ‘Killed at Doctor Priestly’s’, aged 24 years old!
It is possible that this gentleman was a victim of the Priestley Riots which took place in Birmingham between the 14th and 17th July 1791. The riots, it seems began as a protest to a dinner that was taking place at the Royal Hotel, to celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. Prominent dissenters, (protestants who did not conform to the Church of England) were targeted due to their support of the French Revolution and were seen as a direct threat. Violent acts of looting and burning of dissenter property were seen all over the city. There is a record of one man being killed during the looting of Baskerville House, however it may not be Samuel Jones. More research would be needed to connect this entry definitively to the Priestly Riots, although it would be interesting to do so. Also there is an entry for an unknown man who was found in a cowshed near Vauxhall and died whilst being conveyed to his lodgings. What happened to this man? Who was he?
To still have access to these stories almost 230 years on is incredible. From records like this we are able to catch a glimpse of what life was like for the people of Birmingham in the 18th century. If you would like to come and view for yourself these stories, and more about the forgotten people of Birmingham, please come to Level 4 of the Library of Birmingham and speak to a member of staff.
Helen Glenn, Senior Archives & Collections Assistant