Cause of death is a key feature of death certificates, not only for family (and the state) at the time, but also for social and family historians.
Knowing an ancestor died of TB helps us to ‘know’ them better, to imagine what they went through. Reading that the cause of death was ‘old age’ tells us that doctors in the past would put anything down when they didn’t have a clue what had actually caused death. Or perhaps didn’t care.
The civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages in England and Wales began in 1837. Death certificates are therefore only available if your ancestor died after that date. Previously, the only records are parish registers, which give burial dates – but rarely any further detail.
Look for statistics
As well as individual death certificates, wider statistics can tell us a lot.
A report on deaths in Cumberland in 1848 mentions smallpox killing 19 victims in Maryport, and two in Dalston. In Kendal, there were 19 deaths of babies aged one or under, and eight deaths of people aged 84 or thereabouts.
A BBC article a few months ago illustrates how common causes of death can change within a few decades.
As well as death certificates, it is worth looking out for death notices and inquest reports.
1786 February 8. Cumberland Pacquet. On the 28th ult, after a tedious illness, at Ellerton, near Hesket in the Forest, Mary Noble, wife of Mr John Noble.
Mary Noble was (given the baptism dates for their children) probably in her late 40s.
Perhaps ‘tedious’ had a different connotation then! Unless whatever she died of really was boring.
An alternative official cause of death for ‘flip knows’ was ‘died by the visitation of God’.
That was the verdict at two inquests in Lincolnshire, in October 1820:
Mary Vickers, aged 81 years, had died somewhat suddenly. ‘Her husband, who is a very young man, and to whom she was married a few months ago, was committed to Skirbeck Quarter prison during the time the inquest was sitting, on a charge of committing a rape at Donnington fair.’
An inquest on William Charles, labourer of Stamford, who suddenly dropped down dead on the dunghill in his own yard, reached the same verdict.
In Cumberland, God was also said to have ‘visited’ the parish of Brampton in 1841.
An inquest at Woodfoot, into the death of Elizabeth Noble (no relation to Mary above) was told by her husband John that she’d been complaining for some time of pain in her face and teeth. He came home on day to find her lying face down on the flagstone floor, speechless. He put her to bed, where she died a few hours later.
Inquest verdict: Died by the visitation of God.
Occasionally, inquests were so newsworthy as to be reported by newspapers across the country, rather than just those in the person’s home town or area.
In 1825, it was widely reported that in Stepney, one Charles Trimmer, 60, a journeyman bookbinder, had sent a boy to buy four pennyworth of arsenic to deal with a cat which kept getting into his room and stealing his food.
Trimmer over-indulged one night, took what he thought was magnesia to settle his stomach…
Chloroform for asthma
Another accidental death, late in 1848, tells us something about how medical conditions were treated in the past. Again, it was widely reported that ‘Mr Carruthers, a gentleman of Dormount, Annan, has perished by the incautious use of chloroform’.
He frequently inhaled it from a handkerchief to relieve his asthma.
Finally, also in 1848, a sad case served up as a warning:
‘Death from drinking cold water. On Saturday last a man named William Fell killed himself at Low Furness (then Lancashire), by incautiously drinking a quantity of cold water whilst in a state of perspiration’.
Poor Mr Fell, who was ‘about 40,’ had been wheeling ballast from an iron ore vessel in port and took a short break to drink water. ‘He’d scarcely got the pitcher from his mouth before he dropped lifeless to the ground.’ The inquest returned a verdict that he died from the effects of taking cold water while in a state of perspiration, caused by over-exertion.–
Death certificates – how to order one
Death certificates for deaths that occurred in England and Wales can be obtained from the General Register Office. You can find more information on the GRO, and a link to the ordering service, here. If you are not sure when someone died, and haven’t got a subscription to a genealogy site, you can search for deaths registered with the GRO here.
You can read about Victorian ‘cures’ for ailments in this post .