Burials and causes of death in Lanreath in the 19th century
Transcribing a Burial Register can be a tedious process, particularly when the incumbent’s hand-writing is not of the best, but occasionally the tedium can be alleviated when one encounters an enlightened Minister. One such was the Reverend Richard Buller of Lanreath.
Crockford’s Clerical Directory indicates that Richard Buller graduated with a B.A. from Oriel College, Oxford in 1826, and gained his M.A. 3 years later. He was made a deacon in 1828, in which year he appears to have been appointed Curate of the parish of Lanreath in Cornwall, and he was appointed Rector of the parish the following year. He was then 23 or 24 years old. He died on 19th June 1883 at Pounds near Plymouth (his death was registered at Plympton St Mary) but he had certainly been carrying out his duties in the parish until the previous month – he performed his last baptism on 13th May and conducted his last burial on 17th May.
He had therefore served his parish for some 55 years. That is, of course, a commendable and remarkable record of service, but in terms of social history, he left us so much more.
In 1812 Parliament had decreed that with effect from 1st January 1813, Parish Registers should be in a standard format, with one volume for baptisms, one for marriages and one for burials. The format was set out in the 1812 Act, and the Burials Register was to have 5 columns, headed ‘Name’, ‘Abode’, ‘When Buried’, ‘Age’, and ‘By whom the Ceremony was performed.’ Anyone who has transcribed a Burial Register will know that the majority of incumbents recorded just the information they were obliged to record, but not the Reverend Richard Buller.
Beginning on 8th October 1828, when he had only been in post for a few months, he recorded that Mary Searle, aged only 49, had died of consumption. Between then and 17th May 1883, when he conducted his last burial service, there were 615 burials in Lanreath. Of that total, Reverend Buller had entered some further information on no less than 245 occasions. Some of those entries related to the personality of the deceased – in August 1841, for example, when he buried Samuel Willcock, aged 78, he noted ‘55 years Parish Clerk’. Similarly, in March 1855, when he buried James Stevens, aged 72, he noted ‘A Peninsular hero; medal with 2 clasps’. But the most interesting entries, arguably, are those where he recorded the cause of death. There are 237 such entries, and the biggest killer, by far, was consumption with 52 entries, followed by accidental death (22), scarlet fever (14), diphtheria (13), typhus (11), decline (10), dropsy (10), inflammation of the lungs (9), childbirth (8) and atrophy (5).
Of the 52 deaths from consumption, 23 were female and 29 male. The ages of the deceased ranged from 9 to 76, but the average was just 29 years 9 months.
Of the accidental deaths, 2 were of children (aged respectively 1 and 8) who were ‘burnt’, 1 (aged just under 2) was drowned, and a baby aged just one month old was killed ‘by a stick running thro' the eye to the brain’. In 1842, James Martin aged 10 had been ‘killed by a well falling in’, and in 1849 Philippa West died as a result of ‘poisonous berries’.
The accidents claiming the lives of adults were in some cases somewhat bizarre – in 1835, William Searle, aged 58, was killed when ‘a gutter fell on him’; the previous year Edward Tucker had died when he ‘fell from a rick’ and in 1846 Francis Hicks, aged 40, died as a result of ‘fall from a horse in frost’. On 14th May 1876 three men were buried as a result of ‘explosion of gunpowder’ (presumably an accident at the powder mills in the parish). The most unfortunate, however, was surely Anne Stephens, aged 32, who in 1831 was ‘run over by the Mail Coach’. For sheer misfortune, you have to feel for the family of Elizabeth Hockin, buried in June 1867, aged just 37. In the Register, Reverend Buller has recorded ‘childbirth; the 3rd sister who died thru’ the same cause’.
It seems unlikely that the Reverend Buller had any assistance from a medical practitioner, because of the sometimes rather strange explanations for deaths. According to the Register, ‘cold on Erysipelas’ claimed Richard Rowe in 1846; Philip Hicks, aged only 21, was buried in 1843 and the Register records his death as having occurred from ‘fright’. Strangely this idea of fright being the cause of death also appears in 2 burials, one in 1840 and the other in 1842. They were both females, aged respectively 75 and 72, and the Register gives their cause of death as ‘typhus – from fear’. ‘Hysteria’ is the somewhat surprising cause of the death of Mary Hill in 1865, aged only 17.
If anyone in the parish could have afforded to call in a doctor, it would certainly have been the Buller family, and yet when he buried his 3 year old daughter Jane Elizabeth, in 1838, Reverend Buller records the cause of death as ‘malignant sore throat’ which does not sound a reason which originated from someone medically qualified. Four youngsters succumbed to measles – 1 with ‘suppressed measles’ and of those who were claimed by scarlet fever (14 children, all under 10 years of age) 4 of them are recorded as having the ‘suppressed’ form of the disease.
As you work your way through the Register, one fact that you cannot miss is the apparent high number of child burials. Much has been written, of course, on the subject of infant mortality in the 19th century, and I was interested to see the actual numbers, rather than rely on impression. Of all the burials in the parish between 1813 and 1900, the age group of 0-10 bears the brunt – on average 30% of total burials, and in some decades over one third. No other age group comes anywhere near that percentage – the closest is the 71-80 group (where one would expect the death rate to be fairly high) but in fact it is not far off half of the rate for youngsters.
(Click on image to enlarge)
John R.P. Evans