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Life expectancy in Preston, a historical perspective

Posted on - 21st November, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Fulwood, History, Preston News, Ribble Valley News
A couple born in the 1770s
A couple born in the 1770s

Preston was once notorious for poor life expectancy.

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Before 2020, life expectancy for males in Preston was 77.5, while life expectancy in the Ribble Valley was 80.9 years. Figures for 2020 indicate the pandemic has reduced life expectancy by 1.5 years in England. So what is the historical perspective on lifespans?

A short and brutal life?

Pic: listverse

Life expectancy in the middle ages was about 35. However infant mortality was very high with 40 per cent not making it to adulthood. After the Black Death, things gradually improved. By the end of the 18th century life expectancy was around 40.

Undoubtedly improvements in food production and nutrition helped. Additionally this was the boom time for hand loom weavers:

“Their little cottages seemed happy and contented… It was seldom that a weaver appealed to the parish for relief… Peace and content sat upon the weaver’s brow.”

Some people still made it to old age. Early photographers often took images of people born in the mid 18th century, and there were a number of people who lived beyond 100 years of age. They were mostly of the upper classes.

Woman born in the 1750s
Woman born in the 1750s

Mortality in 19th century Preston

Unfortunately life expectancy actually decreased during the industrial revolution. For example, in industrial cities such as Preston poor living conditions shortened lives. A report on the sanitary conditions of Preston written in 1842 by the Rev. John Clay, chaplain of the house of correction, painted a grim picture.

Back to back houses in Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Back to back houses in Preston, foul water often ran down the back streets. Note the privies in each yard Pic: Preston Digital Archive

“Notwithstanding the natural advantages of Preston, the condition of the dwellings of the lower classes has been but little attended to, and in consequence of the inefficient sewage, the scanty supply of water… the unremoved collections of animal and vegetable mater, and the general absence of means of ordinary cleanliness, disease is engendered or aggravated, and the mortality materially increased”.

Shockingly the report stated that while the wealthy lived to 47 years of age, poor people only lived to 18 years of age. Undoubtedly, this number was skewed by the high infant mortality rate.

Read more: Hard Times in Preston in 1861 – squalor, poverty and disease 

Things had improved vastly by the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, despite the wars, life expectancy for men increased from 48 to 74 years.

Pensions begin

Labour poster from 1930s Pic: Labour Party, Rathfelder
This Labour poster from the 1930s finds ammunition in the low pension rate Pic: Labour Party, Rathfelder

Old age pensions began in January 1909, with only half a million people over 70 being eligible. The amount was a paltry 5s a week for couples, or about £26 in today’s money. However before this there was nothing. Before the 20th century, being poor was treated as a semi-criminal state.

Workhouses were not abolished until 1930, although some continued as Public Assistance Institutions until Work War II.

The workhouse in Watling Street Road became the Preston Civic Hostel. Reforms gradually brought in the welfare state we know today.

Read more: To the workhouse! Bed sharing and the ‘itch’ in Victorian Preston



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