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Bills of mortality – the record of deaths in London.

First published in 1563, the bills became regular after an outbreak of plague in 1592, and from 1603 were printed every Thursday, with a general account of the year published on the Thursday before Christmas. Christenings and deaths were included as the state expanded its authority, and in 1836 the bills were finally replaced on the establishment of a central registry.

Excerpt from bill of 1609

The first study of this material, John Graunt’s Observations on the Bills of Mortality (published in 1662), excluded bills from the Tudor period because of interruptions in the series. A modern study of all the material shows that the Great Plague of 1665 was proportionately less severe in London than the outbreaks of 1563 and 1603 – 17.6% mortality versus 24.0% and 22.6% respectively.

What would I feel about that, when 1/5th of my family and neighbours – young and old – were expected to die in a single season? Awed. Terrified.

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The details given in the bills are sparse, but the reader’s imagination tends to supply a little narrative on what really happened in each case.

Here’s a David Baddiel comedy sketch in 1997, reviewing a bill of mortality – he says it’s from the 16th century, but it looks to be the collection of bills from the year of the Great Plague* (5:44):

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*Daniel Defoe’s novel A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) recounts the events of 1665. He was five years old at the time, and the novel was probably based on his uncle’s journal. Interesting read.

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