Today I heard a passing claim that in the 1950s… “Workers in the Potteries couldn’t expect to live far beyond 50”.
Given the source I suspect this claim must arise from a footnote on page 48 of the oral history book Missuses and Mouldrunners (1988), which had a footnote that “Life expectancy for anyone who survived his or her fifth birthday was an average of forty-six years”. This assertion referenced the local historian J. H. Y. Briggs in his A History of Longton (1982), though the author curiously fails to give a page number for this reference.
However, the author of the footnote was obviously talking of the pre-1914 period 1901-1912. Since the Briggs reference is followed by the statement that, across the UK, the 1901-1912 average was “51.5 for men and 55.4 for women” (referencing Gittins, 1982, p. 210). In that case, taking into account the amount of deep coal miners working in North Staffordshire, it looks to me like a pre-1914 Stoke worker who was not a coal miner was likely to have been fairly average in terms of their overall UK life expectancy.
Further, the full title of Briggs’s 113-page book, issued by the Dept. of Education at Keele, was A History of Longton. Part 1: The Birth of a Community. So it seems likely he was only addressing the very early days of Longton. There never seems to have been a “Part 2” book. I’ve been unable to see the book, to see if Briggs used a valid reference for his claim.
Still, I’ve had a very good look for a source that he might have used, searching among all the major public online resources. Archive.org is a mess to search, these days, but there seems to be a curious lack of data and tables from 1920s-1980s. I also looked on Hathi, Google Books, Scholar etc. From what little I can find, mostly post-1970s, the Potteries district appears to have followed along with the general UK upward rise in good health, usually lagging behind by a decade or so. Presumably, as other areas raced ahead in health, our averages were then dragged down for the obvious reasons in the 1990s and 2000s — such as 1990s deaths among pensioners who had been miners in the 1970s, the inner-city heroin epidemic of 1985-2005, and often poor elderly healthcare (the Stafford scandal and the post-1998 pressure on the NHS etc).
I’m also made rather suspicious of the Missuses and Mouldrunners / Briggs claim, because academics dealing with demographic matters usually make gender-specific claims such as… “For babies born in 1901, life expectancy was then estimated to be 45 for boys and 49 for girls.” (from Life in Britain: Using Millennial Census Data, 2005). Thus a broad-brush claim that for the Potteries “Life expectancy for anyone who survived his or her fifth birthday was an average of forty-six years” fails to make the expected gender distinction. The lack of a date-range or page number for the Briggs reference in Missuses and Mouldrunners also adds to the imprecision.
One then has to wonder if Briggs was referring to some specific Longton data (and presumably from the pre-1914 period since that was the topic of his book), and if the imprecision of the reference to Briggs in Missuses and Mouldrunners then allowed his claim to be grabbed and assumed to cover the whole of the Potteries (as well as being time-shifted forward to the 1950s)?
Sadly there seems to be no chart of actual life expectancies of workers here, from say 1901-1981 (i.e.: prior to the heroin epidemic, and mass retirement of miners). Still less a simple and reliable one. Certainly there appears to be no solid public data on life expectancy in the Potteries at the end of the 1950s, and indeed one might expect that the death-rate in Second World War would have made the meaningful assembly of such figures impossible.
The claim of “Workers in the Potteries couldn’t expect to live far beyond 50” is anyway highly misleading. Even in the Potteries of the 1950s had actually been stuck at 1901-1912 levels for about 50 years (which is doubtful, given the medical advances), then age 50 would still have been the average. Some would have lived far longer, a few far less. The phrasing of “Workers in the Potteries couldn’t expect to live far beyond 50” wrongly suggests that nearly everyone dropped dead within a couple of years of their 50th birthday.
I’ve previously looked at the 1990s life expectancy figures here, and at Marx’s oft-repeated but very shaky 1860s claims here. I’ve also taken a close look at “Air pollution in the Potteries”, including a big study that appears to show that of a “cohort of 7,020 male pottery workers born in 1916-1945” only “47 deaths could be even tentatively tied only to silica dust exposure.” I’ve also looked at claims of cobalt poisoning.
Here are the 1980 onwards figures for Stoke-on-Trent, with future projections…