Katherine Plunket: A Well Documented Super-Centenarian in 1930
by A.R. Thatcher
[ References | Annex A | Annex B | Annex C ]
According to the documents described in this article, Katherine Plunket was born in Ireland on 22 November 1820 and died there on 14 October 1932 at the age of 111. She therefore became a super-centenarian on reaching the age of 110 in 1930.
She is one of the select band of eight cases who were identified by the American actuary Walter Bowerman (1939) as having died at ages 109-113 in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Ireland over a long period. Since then, some of these cases have been shown to have been invalid, due to mistaken identity. However, when the case of Katherine Plunket was investigated by Julia Hynes, then at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, she (Julia) was able to trace a large number of relevant documents, which place Katherine Plunket in a different category and make a strong case that she was a genuine super-centenarian.
The investigation was made easier by the fact that Katherine Plunket was a member of the Irish aristocracy. She was a grand-daughter of a Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who became the first Baron Plunket. Her father, who was a junior clergyman when she was born, later became a Bishop. He also inherited the title and became the second Baron Plunket. Her mother was the daughter of a Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and was related to the Earl of Clermont. Her first and second cousins included three titled members of the aristocracy.
When she was baptised, her Christian name was recorded as Catherine, but in later life she spelt her name with a K. As the daughter of a baron, her full title was the Honourable Katherine Plunket. She had regular entries in the reference books of the period, namely Whittakers Peerage, Burkes Lodges Peerage and Baronetage, and Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes.
Katherine Plunket was the eldest of six children, though one of these died soon after birth. She inherited a house in Ireland. She also, for a time, had a house in London. She travelled extensively, often with her younger sister Gertrude, and visited almost every capital in Europe. She was an amateur artist and made many sketches in Italy and Switzerland.
She never married and she outlived all her sisters. After her sister Gertrude died in 1924, she lived alone with her servants but continued to be visited by other members of her family.
When she reached the age of 109 she was sent a telegram of congratulation by King George V. Julia Hynes traced many articles about her in the Irish newspapers on her 103rd, 107th, 108th, 109th, 110th and 111th birthdays. When she died, King George V sent a telegram of condolence to her relatives. She had obituary notices in the London newspapers The Times and The Morning Post, and in the Irish newspapers.
Catherine Plunket was born on 22 November 1820 at Kilsaran, County Louth, Ireland, where her father was a curate. She was baptised in Kilsaran Church on 13 December 1820. According to a newspaper report the original parish register has not survived, but there is a copy of her baptismal entry in the International Genealogical Index (IGI). There is also additional evidence of her birth: she was recorded in the Census of Ireland in 1821.
Annex A gives the details of all the members of her immediate family (parents and siblings) and the dates of their births, marriages and deaths. It also gives the details of the registration of her death in 1932.
Annex B gives information from the Census of 1821, relating to the very beginning of her life.
Annex C is an article which was written by her cousin, David Plunket, and which was published in the London magazine The Spectator on 27 December 1930. This gives a most informative account of her life and her later years.
Copies of all the documents mentioned above are held by the Cambridge Group. These include copies of the baptismal entry in the IGI, the death registration, two telegrams from King George V and the many newspaper articles, together with extracts from the diaries of her sisters Gertrude and Frederica.
It is right that all possibilities of error in the case of Katherine Plunket should be considered and examined critically.
First, we note that Katherine Plunket's mother, born in 1804 and married in 1819, was very young when Katherine was born in 1820. However, this is not at all impossible. Moreover, even if there was some mistake about the date of birth of the mother, this does not affect the evidence for the date of birth of Katherine Plunket.
Next, one must consider the remote possibility that the Katherine Plunket who was born in 1820 later died and was replaced by another child, also called Katherine. There was not enough time for this to have happened between the baptism in 1820 and the census in 1821. There was very little time for it to have happened between 1821 and the birth of the next sibling, Emily Anne, in 1823. If it happened after that, the other siblings would hardly have regarded Katherine as their elder sister.
Next, at the request of the Editor, we must comment on a theory put forward by a sceptic that the sibling who died in 1924 was not Gertrude Plunket, but Katherine Plunket herself, and that Gertrude impersonated Katherine Plunket for the rest of her life in order to prevent the inheritance from passing to a nephew. It seems improbable that Gertrude, a lady in a pious Victorian household and the daughter of a Bishop, would suddenly take to serious crime at the age of 83. Is seems even more unlikely that the dispossessed nephew and the rest of the family would not have noticed, that the doctor who signed the certificate of cause of death in 1924 would not have recognised his own patient, and that the person who registered the death would have deliberately made false statements on a legal document.
Next, one must consider the possibility of mistaken identity. The relevant thing here is that Katherine Plunket was surrounded by her immediate family (her parents and then her younger sisters) from birth until she was well over 100 years of age. She was a householder and had servants. She was a member of a famous family. Her existence was recorded regularly in the reference books. On this evidence of her life, there seems little room for mistaken identity.
Finally, there is the question of demographic plausibility. Wilmoth and Lundström (1996) have analysed the maximum ages reported each year in five countries since 1903. The age 110 does not appear in their tables until the year 1945, in France. However, this does not mean that it was impossible for the age of 110 to have been reached in Ireland in 1930. In England and Wales, ages of 107 were recorded in 1914, 1923, 1924 and 1929; ages of 108 in 1911, 1931 and 1933; and age 109 in 1935. The case of Mme Calment has shown us that it is not at all impossible for exceptional people to outlive their contemporaries by several years. Katherine Plunket only lived for three years longer than her contemporaries.
The author would like to acknowledge the work and initiative of Julia Hynes in tracing the documents described in this article.
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