Child deaths

Infant mortality varies from time to time and place to place. In my family it is striking that infant mortality is much higher in my father’s family than in my mother’s. All of them lived in the north east of England, in similar places, dominated by heavy industry — my father’s family in Jarrow and Darlington and my mother’s in Middlesbrough. With the exception of my paternal great-grandfather, who was a mariner, the men were all manual workers in the steelworks for most of their working career.

Graphic shows children of grandparents and great-grandparents who died before 5. Described in text.

My paternal grandparents had 7 live births, of whom only 3 lived to school age. Both my paternal grandparents had 10 siblings, but only 7 of my grandfather’s siblings reached school age, and only 6 of my grandmother’s. These children did not die soon after birth, but as toddlers.

My mother was one of four children. Her father had 6 siblings and her mother had 12. The only children who died were two babies born prematurely, who lived just a few days.

This is a very different pattern for people at the same date, in similar places, doing similar jobs, and living in similar houses. The child mortality rate of my father’s family is about twice as high as the average for England at the relavant date. The child mortality rate of my mother’s family is less than the average. What accounts for this difference?

Two family groups. One has parents and 5 daughters, the other parents and 10 children. Shields grandparents (7/10 children grew up). Bowyer grandparents 11/13 children grew up.
Two sets of great-grandparents and children, early 1900s

Most of the children in my father’s family died of pulmonary problems, variously labelled as TB, bronchitis, or pneumonia. One of my father’s sisters also was identified as having rickets, though there should not have been a problem of food security for this family.

My paternal grandmother thought that she lost so many babies (and she also had several miscarriages) because her husband beat her.

My mother thought that my paternal grandmother and her family did not know how to nurse someone who was sick.

It’s possible that there was extensive exposure to TB.

There could be a genetic defect, perhaps cystic fibrosis. My grandparents were second cousins, descended from two sisters, and several of those descended from the sisters show a similar pattern. Their family had a cultural preference for cousin marriages, of which there are many. There are no marriages of close cousins in my mother’s family.

Finally, although the two families appear to be of similar social background, there was an important difference. My mother’s family were teetotal Methodists. There were several consequences of this. In my mother’s family income was put into the family well-being, whereas in my father’s a good deal of it went on alcohol. My mother’s family were opposed to violence and corporal punishment. They were very strong on mental and physical hygiene. Their commitment to the Methodist ideology could well have helped the high rate of survival of their children.