[History by Numbers] League tables of death
For three centuries the bills of mortality recorded the deaths (and births) of Londoners
The bills of mortality were statistics on the deaths (more precisely, the burials) of Londoners which were first compiled in the 16th century in order to keep track of the impact of various outbreaks of plague (Covid-style stats are nothing new). The earliest known such document dates from 1532 (you can see it here), but they were compiled more regularly from 1592, and then continuously every week from 1603 to the mid 19th century, with an annual report typically published each December. One theory for their publication in the 1590s was that Queen Elizabeth wanted to put people off moving to the fast-growing capital.
From 1611 they became the responsibility of the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks, one of the guilds of the City of London; a charter of 1639 gave them responsibility for 129 parishes, 84 per cent of them within the City itself, and 21 further parishes in Surrey and Middlesex were added over the next two centuries.1 One of their duties was to act as registration officers for the mayor of London, which included compiling the bills. The original premise was that the bills listed burials of freemen and children under 21. The company printed the bills, and in fact the clerks were allowed to sell extra copies to raise money – presumably the early movers and shakers in the insurance business took an interest!
The bills become of particular interest from 1629 onwards, when they started to list the details of all causes of death from both disease and accidents, and included women. They also tallied the overall rates of burials plus deaths from plague compared to the previous year. From 1728, the ages at death were included, and in fact, despite their focus on mortality, the bills also tallied births in each parish from the late 16th century onwards.