Essential Reading

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Monday, 17 October 2016

Old Age and Dry Rot - Investigating Elderly Ancestors

'Old Age and Dry Rot' : Investigating Elderly Ancestors

For more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Often seated whilst others stand, the oldest family members in some photographs might be people who were actually only middle-aged. Without the benefit of modern cosmetics, twentieth-century dental expertise and even hair dye, people in the past tended to look much older than they actually were and it is quite easy to mistake a 45 year old for someone twenty years older.

Early photographers enjoyed working with old people whom they found were capable of sitting still for longer, and who were less vain than their younger counterparts. If your elderly ancestor is portrayed alone in a photograph in his/her best clothing, it’s worth considering whether the photograph might have been taken to mark a significant senior birthday such as a 60th, 70th or 80th.

An elderly woman (portrayed probably in the 1860s). She may have been born as far back as the 1780s. With the permission of Ron Hunt
Photographs featuring grandparents and great-grandparents as couples might have been taken to celebrate significant wedding anniversaries. 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries were celebrated from the late nineteenth century onwards. On birthdays, anniversaries, at wedding and after funerals, three-generation or four-generation photographs were a popular Victorian convention which often featured the eldest family member cradling the youngest.

How old was old in the Victorian and Edwardian periods?

Don’t be too surprised to find ancestors on death certificates and censuses who lived to a good old age. Although average life expectancy was much lower in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than it is now (47 (for men) and 51 (for women) in 1900 as opposed to 76 (for men) and 81 (for women) in 1991, this doesn’t mean that most people died in middle age. Calculations of life expectancy were influenced by very high infant death rates which inevitably brought down the ‘mean’ age of death. In fact, those of our ancestors who managed to survive infancy had a pretty good chance of living to 60 and beyond. From 1870 onwards with improvements both in the medical sciences and in public health, life expectancy started to increase. Middle-aged people were less likely to die from infectious diseases such as cholera or smallpox, for example, and thus might more frequently sally on into old age.

Nevertheless, you should be wary of some of the given ages of your oldest ancestors on official records. A Government Report into the 1881 census ( suggested that some very elderly persons were tending to overestimate their age, perhaps because extreme old age conferred some degree of respect and social status at the time, perhaps because they had genuinely forgotten how old they were and did not have the documentation to back up their claims. The report advised future enumerators to put little trust in ‘anyone stating their age as a multiple of 5 or 10 over 85’. Although 150 people claimed to have reached the age of a hundred or more in Britain that year, the report advised that they be treated with scepticism. Extreme old age was still very rare in the Victorian period. In 1901, only 74 people claimed to have reached a century and this figure is, of course, vastly below that of the 3,000 people who made the same claim in the year 2000.

The mid-twentieth century brought increasing longevity. At 96, Thomas Tattum was the oldest member of the community in Ashton-in-Makerfield on the day of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.
Wigan World Website With the permission of Ron Hunt.

Support in Later Life


The chances are that your elderly ancestor will have had to carry on working way past what we now consider to be ‘retirement age’. According to an audit by  (based on 1007 records from the 1891 census) over 88% of men and 33%  of women carried on working after the age of 65 in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Some men were still working in highly physical jobs as farmers and miners well into their 80s and even, in some cases, their 90s. Women too might have carried on working as servants, laundresses, cooks and cleaners.

Family Support

Censuses might reveal that older members of your family moved to live with their children, or that a single daughter had stayed at home – perhaps forfeiting her own marriage prospects in the process – to look after her elderly parents. However, it is worth remembering that multi-generational households in the Victorian period were much less common in Britain than in any other country in Europe and the older people in your family might have had to rely on a variety of other forms of support.

Religious and Private Charities, and Friendly Societies

Some of our elderly ancestors would have benefitted from the generosity of religious or private charities. It is worth checking in local and county archives, trade directories and local history books to find out what sorts of charities might have been in operation in the areas in which your ancestors lived. Additionally, some kinds of employment had charities attached to them. The Governesses’ Benevolent Society (founded in 1841) for example, aimed to help some of those women who had made a living teaching in the homes of others and who, in their old age, had no other means of support. Whilst they were still of working age, other people (male and female) joined so-called ‘Friendly Societies’ to which they paid a weekly or monthly ‘sub’. This money could then be called upon in times of sickness, hardship, or less frequently old age.    

Public Relief

After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, some elderly people in England and Wales qualified for a Poor Law Pension (which covered meals and a small allowance, but no accommodation costs) and were able to stay within their own homes or be looked after by relatives (The Scottish Poor Law Act came into operation in 1845). The names of the recipients of this so-called ‘outdoor relief’ can be found in Poor Law records kept in local, county or national record offices and searched via the National Archives website ( 

In the worst cases of poverty, an elderly ancestor will have been admitted to a workhouse. You should check for the location of the relevant workhouse records at the National Archives.  Conditions in the workhouse were frequently crowded and unsanitary, work heavy and repetitive, nursing provision poor and the food uninspiring to say the least. Some workhouses had adjoining ‘workhouse infirmaries’ which housed the incapacitated poor, very many of whom were elderly.

Old Age Pensions

In 1908, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Lloyd George passed the Old Age Pensions Act which was quickly followed by the institution of the State Pension Scheme (enacted from the 1st August 1908). Don’t assume, however, that your elderly ancestor would definitely have benefitted from a pension at this point. To have been considered eligible for a pension, he or she would have had to be over the age of 70, and earning less than £31 and 10 shillings a year (that is 12 shillings weekly). He or she would also have had to undergo a character test to ensure that he or she had a history of employment, had been a British citizen for at least ten years, was of sound mind, was not receiving poor relief, had not been in prison during the previous decade, and had not been convicted of drunkenness. The pension was 5 shillings a week for individuals and 7s and 6d for married couples.


The general health of elderly people was very far down the pecking order in terms of the State’s priorities in the Victorian period. Hospitals concentrated on health services targeted at the young and more productive workforce such as vaccination and the treatment of infectious diseases. The Admissions Regulations for some hospitals, indeed, expressly forbad the admittance of elderly people.

It was not until the inauguration of the National Health Service in 1948 that our elderly ancestors who were suffering from mundane but disabling conditions (impaired hearing, failing eyesight, dental and podiatric problems, for example) could, for the first time be treated for free. The health and well-being of Britain’s elderly population was finally being taken seriously.

Case Study

On the 1911 census, 86 year old William Sheader is described as the ‘great-grandfather’ in this Scarborough fishing family (See above). The terminology is potentially confusing to the family historian. Family members were supposed to be described on the census in terms of their relationship to the heads of households but old William is unlikely to have been the great-grandfather of the 44 year old George William Sheader mentioned here. With high mortality in the nineteenth century it is possible that the intermediate generation had died, leaving old William to be cared for by his grandson and his young family.

Useful books and websites

Bothelo L., and Thane, P., Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500, (Routledge, 2001).

Chase, K., The Victorians and Old Age, (OUP, 2009).

Johnson, M. L. et al., The Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing, (CUP, 2005).

Thane, P., Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues, (OUP, 2002).  For more on the nineteenth century workhouse. On ageing and mental illness during the Victorian period.

This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors online periodical in 2015.

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