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The Decline of Life
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  • 21 tables
  • Page extent: 340 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.67 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 305.26/0944
  • Dewey version: 21
  • LC Classification: HQ1064.G7 O88 2004
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Older people--England--Social conditions--18th century
    • Old age--England--History--18th century
    • Aging--England--History--18th century

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521815802 | ISBN-10: 0521815800)

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

$124.00 (C)

The Decline of Life

Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England

The Decline of Life is an ambitious and absorbing study of old age in eighteenth-century England. Drawing on a wealth of sources – literature, correspondence, poor law, and workhouse documents and diaries – Susannah Ottaway considers a wide range of experiences and expectations of age in the period, and demonstrates that the central concern of aging individuals was to continue to live as independently as possible into their last days. Throughout the eighteenth century, aging men and women stayed closely connected to their families and communities, in relationships characterized by mutual support and reciprocal obligations. Despite these aspects of continuity, however, older individuals’ ability to maintain their autonomy, and the nature of the support available to them once they did fall into necessity declined significantly in the last decades of the century. As a result, old age was increasingly marginalized. Historical demographers, historical gerontologists, sociologists, social historians, and women’s historians will find this book essential reading.

SUSANNAH R. OTTAWAY is Assistant Professor of History at Carleton College. She is co-editor (with Lynn Botelho and Katharine Kittredge) of Power and Poverty: Old Age in the Pre-Industrial Past (2002).

Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time 39

Series Editors

Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

University of California at Berkeley

London School of Economics and Political Science

Yale University

Recent work in social, economic, and demographic history has revealed much that was previously obscure about societal stability and change in the past. It has also suggested that crossing the conventional boundaries between these branches of history can be very rewarding.

  This series exemplifies the value of interdisciplinary work of this kind, and includes books on topics such as family, kinship, and neighbourhood; welfare provision and social control; work and leisure; migration; urban growth; and legal structures and procedures, as well as more familiar matters. It demonstrates that, for example, anthropology and economics have become as close intellectual neighbours to history as have political philosophy or biography.

For a full list of titles in the series, please see end of book.

The Decline of Life

Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England

Susannah R. Ottaway

Carleton College

The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge, CB2 2RU, UK
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011–4211, USA
477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC 3207, Australia
Ruiz de Alarcón 13, 28014 Madrid, Spain
Dock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa

© Susannah R. Ottaway 2004

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2004

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

Typeface Times 10/12 pt.System   LATEX 2e   [TB]

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data
Ottaway, Susannah R., 1967 –
The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England / Susannah R. Ottaway.
p. cm. – (Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time ; 39)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0 521 81580 0
1. Aged – England – Social conditions – 18th century. 2. Old age – England – History – 18th century. 3. Aging – England – History – 18th century. I. Title. II. Series.
HQ1064.G7O88 2003305.26′0944 – dc212003055081

ISBN 0 521 81580 0 hardback

This book is dedicated to John, Alex, and Audrey, and to the memory of my grandparents: Mary and Harris Ottaway, Ruth Donaldson, and Mary Luise.


List of figures page x
List of tables xi
Acknowledgments xii
List of abbreviations xiv
Introduction: Old age in eighteenth-century England: no “golden age of aging” 1
1   Who was “old” in eighteenth-century England? 16
2 The activities of the “helmsman”: self-reliance, work, and community expectations of the elderly 65
3 “The comforts of a private fire-side” 116
4 Independent but not alone: family ties for the elderly 141
5 Community assistance to the aged under the Old Poor Law 173
6 Continuity and change in community assistance to the elderly over the eighteenth century 221
7 Within workhouse walls: indoor relief for the elderly 247
  Conclusion: Old age as a useful category of historical analysis 277
Bibliography 284
Index 315


1.1 Ages given in the Ardleigh census of 1796 page 46
1.2 Age at which men were labeled “old” 60
1.3 Age at which women were labeled “old” 60
3.1a   Household headship rates: males aged 45 and over 128
3.1b Household headship rates: females aged 45 and over 128
4.1 Women with co-resident grandchildren (and no spouse) in the Corfe Castle, Dorset, household listing, 1790 162
5.1a Total yearly amounts of relief given to five individuals in Terling 204
5.1b Total yearly amounts given to four aged females in Ovenden 204
5.1c Total yearly amounts given to four aged men in Ovenden 205
6.1 Percentage of elderly paupers who are women 239
7.1 Percentage of inmates 60 and over in Terling’s workhouse 251


2.1 Age structure of Members of Parliament page 103
2.2 Age at which Members of Parliament aged 45 or more stopped serving 104
3.1 Co-residence with spouse and children for individuals aged 60 and over 127
3.2 Percentage household heads by occupation: the elderly in 18th-century rural populations 130
3.3 Widows as executors of husbands’ wills 136
3.4 Provisions for widows in 18th-century wills 138
3.5 Changing provisions for widows over 18th century 139
4.1 Presence of children in households of individuals 60 and over 151
4.2 Co-residents of individuals aged 60+ (aggregated by period and economic type) 158
4.3 Married and widowed men: bequests beyond family of procreation 168
5.1 The age structure of relief in 32 parishes 185
5.2 Regional variation in age structure and amount of relief 187
5.3 Average adult pensions: Ovenden, Terling, and Puddletown (in pence) 199
5.4 Age distribution of poor-relief recipients in the three parishes 200
6.1 Relief recipients aged 60 and over: Terling and Puddletown 223
6.2 Average weekly pensions for linked adults (in pence) 228
6.3 Proportion of relief given in kind in Puddletown and Terling 235
6.4 Average age of onset of pensions for those aged 60+ 240
6.5 Old-old and young-old relief recipients in Terling and Puddletown 243
6.6 Weekly pensions for aged in Terling and Puddletown (in pence) 244
7.1 Age and gender of Ovenden’s workhouse inmates 260


Support for the research and writing of this book was provided by a grant from the Joint Committee on Western Europe of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council, with funds provided by the Ford and Mellon Foundations. Additional assistance was provided by a Research Institute for the Study of Man Research Fellowship, a RISM Landes Awards Training Grant, an Emmison Visiting Fellowship from the Friends of Historic Essex, Brown University Renaissance and Early Modern Studies Traveling Scholarships, and a Brown University Graduate School Research Fellowship. Carleton College also generously supported the revision of the manuscript through a Class of ’49 Fellowship and a Bush Fellowship, which provided both the time and the funds to complete the final revisions.

  I have also incurred a number of less tangible debts in the process of researching and writing this work, and it is with great pleasure that I acknowledge the help of colleagues, friends, and family. My colleagues at Carleton from both the history department and the Medieval and Renaissance Colloquium have provided a stimulating intellectual environment, as well as emotional support and good advice, and I am very grateful to them all. My students have taught me a great deal about communicating historical knowledge, and I am especially grateful to Rachel Branch, Michael Cohen, Jason Peckenpaugh, and Elizabeth Treat for serving as research assistants. I owe much to Tim Harris, my dissertation director, who has continued to offer advice and whose suggestions for revising the second chapter were especially helpful. In addition, for their advice, support, and suggestions at various times in the preparation of this book, in all of its initial forms, as well as in its current incarnation, I would like to thank: David Kertzer, R. Burr Litchfield, and Ingrid Tague; Lynn Botelho, Rab Houston, Katharine Kittredge, Peter Laslett, Richard Smith, Richard Adair, Jim Oeppen, Roger Schofield, Richard Wall, Samantha Williams, and Keith Wrightson, as well as the participants in the conference on “Old Age in Preindustrial Western Society” held at the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute in 1999. The research for the book would have been a much more difficult task without the help of the many archivists who assisted me at the Calderdale District Archives in Halifax, at the Essex Record Office and the Dorset Record Office, in particular, Jan Smith and Sarah Bridges (from the ERO and DRO). Thanks must also go to my excellent and patient editors at Cambridge University Press. I am most grateful to my family: to John, Alex, and Audrey for putting up with my frequent absences, to my sister Sally and my parents Esther and Gerald for their trips to Northfield to be with my children during those absences, to Kathy for keeping me company on my intellectual journeys, and to Bill and Mary, for their continuing support and encouragement.


DRO Dorset Record Office
ERO Essex Record Office
CDA Calderdale District Archives
BL British Library
TEC The Eighteenth Century Microfilm Collection

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