18th-century suicides highlight struggles of growing old in Georgian England

Suicides during Georgian England were more likely linked to pain, dependency and loneliness, not lunacy, according to new research. Photo by ddgarton/Pixabay
Suicides during Georgian England were more likely linked to pain, dependency and loneliness, not lunacy, according to new research. Photo by ddgarton/Pixabay

Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Growing old has never been easy, but new research suggests that for many the prospects of old age in Georgian England were especially grim.

Suicides in 18th century England are mostly characterized as "medicalized" in the historiography -- acts driven by lunacy.


However, a new survey of suicidal deaths among the elderly suggests those dying by suicide considered the act a rational response to the hardships of growing old.

For the study, published this month in the journal Social History of Medicine, scientists examined 106 coroners' inquests into the suicides of older people, the records of which were recently uncovered archives from London, Kent, Cumbria, Essex, Suffolk and Bath.

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Though coroners' juries issued a formal verdict of non compos mentis, or insanity, in 97 percent of suicides, a closer look at the depositions from each inquiry -- which often included extensive details about each victim, provided by close acquaintances -- showed those dying by suicide rarely thought of themselves as mentally ill.


"The people described in these documents were suffering from a range of age-related illnesses and disabilities, as well as distressing social and financial problems," study author Ella Sbaraini said in a press release.

"Many showed great determination to seek out help but they lived at a time when the kind of support now available just wasn't there," said Sbaraini, a historian at the University of Cambridge.

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Many of the challenges facing the elderly in Georgian England remain issues for older people today.

"The tragic experiences of many older people in the 1700s emphasize the importance of health and social care today, but also the power of community," Sbaraini said.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has hit older people extremely hard, leaving many feeling isolated and powerless. History reminds us how important it is to make sure older people feel a strong sense of purpose and a valued part of society," Sbaraini said.

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Of the 106 suicides investigated by researchers, three-quarters were carried out by men.

Many of coroners' inquiries referenced anxieties about "lameness" or the inability to maintain employment. Well into the 19th century, the vast majority of men performed jobs that required strength and dexterity.

For example, one man in his 60s, Isaac Hendley, a shoemaker who died by suicide in Shoreditch in 1797, expressed "his apprehension that he should come to want" and "that he should be incapable of working." Hendley feared infirmities would leave him unable to perform his duties as a shoemaker.


Though most of the subjects of the surveyed coroners' inquiries were laborers of moderate means, researchers found examples of suicide among members of the aristocracy.

One gentleman, Thomas Norman, who died by suicide in London in 1771, was driven to depression by a series of debilitating illnesses. Upon his death, he left his apothecary 1,000 pounds -- worth just under $1,400 in 2021 -- for their efforts to relief his suffering.

Another well-to-do gentleman, John Braithwaite, who died by suicide in Cumbria in 1803, became frustrated by memory-loss and confusion.

"While memory loss, confusion and behavior changes are now well-known signs of dementia, there was far less understanding and support available in the 1700s," Sbaraini said.

"For independent, respected people to lose their grip on the behaviors expected by their community, including politeness and self-control, must have been extremely distressing," Sbaraini said.

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