DIFFERENT DEATH RATES OF MEN AND WOMEN IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND

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Date:
01 Jan 2011

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In large parts of Victorian England, women had higher death rates than men. Research by Andrew Hinde of the University of Southampton reveals that the relative life chances of men and women varied substantially from place to place because of differences in the impact of tuberculosis of the lung, the most common single cause of death at that time.

His study, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2011 annual conference, shows that the two other main causes of premature death, childbirth and accidents and violence, tended not to have major regional differences, except for accidents in coal mining areas. Deaths associated with childbirth cost women about half a year of life on average, but this did not vary much from place to place.

But deaths from tuberculosis varied considerably across the country. In poor rural areas of England, it cost adult women an average of two years of life more than men. But in London, death rates from tuberculosis were higher for men than for women, and women lived on average four years more than men. Most remarkable was the west of Wales, where women lived an average of five years longer than men – and 60% of this difference was due to higher male death rates from tuberculosis.

It had been thought that the higher mortality of adult women in Victorian England was associated with their lower status within the household, particularly discrimination in access to food. This study shows that this story is too simple, and does not apply to substantial areas of the country where men suffered from heavy occupational mortality or suffered more than women from tuberculosis.

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During the lifetimes of most people alive today, females in England and Wales have lived longer lives than males. Yet this was not always true. In large parts of Victorian England, women had higher death rates than men. In the poor rural areas of southern England and East Anglia, a girl aged five years could expect to die three years earlier than her twin brother.

But this was not true everywhere. In south Wales, the five-year old girl could expect to live almost five years longer than her brother; and in London, almost four years longer.

Why did the relative life chances of men and women vary so much from place to place? It turns out that differences in the death rates for men and women were largely due to three causes of death:

childbirth
accidents and violence
tuberculosis of the lung (the ‘consumption’ of Victorian novels).

Of these, tuberculosis was the most important in explaining the relative life chances of men and women.

Deaths associated with childbirth cost women about half a year of life on average, but this did not vary much from place to place (it was most important in the areas where women had the largest families). So childbirth does not explain why the difference between male and female death rates varied from place to place.

Deaths from accidents and violence were always more common among men than women. The death toll from accidents was greatest in coal mining areas, where the dangers of deep mining were a constant threat to men. In the major coalfields accidental deaths cost the average man almost three years of life, and more than one in six of men and boys over the age of five would die for this reason, most of them at ages under 50.

In England and Wales as a whole, tuberculosis of the lung was the most common single cause of death. It is also the most mysterious, for in some places, women were more vulnerable than men, yet in others male death rates were higher than those of females.

In poor rural areas of England, tuberculosis cost adult women an average of two years of life more than males. But in London, death rates from tuberculosis were higher for men than for women, and women lived on average four years more than men. Most remarkable was the west of Wales, where women lived an average of five years longer than men – and 60% of this difference was due to higher male death rates from tuberculosis.

It had been thought that the higher mortality of adult women in Victorian England was associated with their lower status within the household, particularly sex discrimination in access to food. Poor households relied on the wages of husbands and older boys, whose take-home pay often depended on their ability to perform physical labour.

Thus, the standard view goes, the males were given preferential access to food, with their wives and mothers making do with what was left. This made women less able to resist infections such as tuberculosis.

This study shows that this story is too simple, and does not apply to substantial areas of the country where men suffered from heavy occupational mortality, or suffered more than women from tuberculosis.

ENDS

‘Sex differentials in mortality in nineteenth-century England and Wales’
Andrew Hinde
Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute
University of Southampton

Contacts:
email: PRAHinde@aol.com

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