About the Bills

The London Bills of Mortality were compiled, and later printed, from the late 16th century through to the 19th. They began an unbroken run of weekly publication from 1603 (apart from a short hiatus during the Great Fire of 1666; but that’s another story). The Bills listed the burials and christenings throughout the metropolitan area, which itself became known for want of a better contemporary phase as ‘the area of the bills’ or more simply ‘within the bills’.

The content of the Bills was provided by the parish clerks who reported weekly accounts from each parish to the Hall of the Company of Parish Clerks. The Company then collated and printed a weekly sheet; one side held a listing of the number of burials by parish and from the mid 17th century the reverse listed a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’. These covered a wide range of illnesses some of which are readily identifiable to the modern reader and some which are not. The cuases of sudden violent death are more explicable, and often provide additional information. Murders are baldly stated however the reporting of suicides uses the phrasing ‘killed himself’ or ‘herself’, hence gender can be deduced, and an agency or method of death is also frequently given. The same is true of accidental deaths, including drowning, but with the additional information of parish of death or burial.

The Bills are published, and survive, on a fairly regular basis from the 1650s onwards. They appear to fail in terms of reporting accuracy in the late 1730s at which time a some parish clerks begin to make cumulative reports for a number of preceding weeks – thus impacting on the reliability of the source as a form of serial data.  The weekly Bills can be found today in several archives and libraries; such as the Bodleian in Oxford, and the Guildhall Library and the Wellcome Institute both in London. A microfiche edition was also produced during the 1980s which some libraries may have copies of (although the run for this starts with the Bills from 1700).

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