The Oldest Old in Pre-Industrial Britain:
Centenarians before 1800 - Fact or Fiction?

by Julia Hynes

Vaupel and Jeune (in this monograph) argue that because of the high death rates prevalent in the past, most accounts of centenarians in earlier centuries must be inaccurate. Like many others, these authors are sceptical about the reliability of reported longlivers, particularly those supposedly dying aged at least one hundred before the start of the 19th century. Kannisto (1988) vented similar concerns when he wrote, "The major problem of statistics relating to centenarians is that they are vulnerable to age errors. There is a general tendency to overstate the ages of old persons as they and their family members take pride in their alleged longevity. This tendency is more pronounced in populations that are not accustomed to keeping records of age and often results in fanciful claims to extreme longevity in countries in which there was no birth registration at the time when the persons in question were born".

        The aim of this study is to prove beyond reasonable doubt that individuals did live into their eleventh decade in England and Wales in the era before the demographic transition, that is, before the 19th century. If this aim can be fulfilled, this study will have substantial implications for current research that is focusing on present and future, rather than historical maximal length of life.

        For example, assumptions about the aging process among humans might be revised because the evidence will indicate that in a high mortality regime and adverse environment, some individuals, albeit in small numbers, can survive to ages which even today, are considered to be very old. In their article "Reductions in Mortality at Advanced Ages", Kannisto et al. (1993) wrote, "The traditional view is that a single, universal process of aging produces an exponential increase in mortality with age - the law Gompertz published in 1825 - and that "like a clock" every individual "is constructed to run a certain time". The current evidence, together with the results presented here, suggests a new paradigm of aging that recognizes a rich variety of diverse and often highly plastic aging processes that can be influenced by health interventions, behavioural changes, and environmental improvements and that depend on genetic differences both between and within species". The results of this study might support this new paradigm of aging.

        Unfortunately, results of statistical modelling used to estimate the probability of individuals living to become centenarians in the high mortality regime of the past show that the chances of survival into the eleventh decade of life were extremely small before 1800. Consequently, those few people who did survive substantially beyond the mean age at death are usually believed to be untrue because statistically they are highly improbable. However, if some reports of extreme longevity can be confirmed, those sceptical of the existence of the unusually long lived before the start of the 19th century may have to modify their views.

        Secondly, if centenarians are verified in a high mortality regime, there are substantial implications for potential maximal length of life span in the present and future low mortality regime, which has a healthier environment and which is supported by highly developed medical treatment. The observed increase in maximal length of life between 1800 and 1994 might be deemed less than presently thought and certainly less than the overall mortality decline.

        Thirdly, if the maximum verified age at death has not risen by the same degree to which general adult mortality has declined, the study might provide support for the argument that there is indeed a biological maximal length of life and although it has not yet been reached, it is being approached by an increasing number of people in today's lower mortality regime.

        In order for these implications to be developed further, it must be shown that centenarians existed in the pre-industrial poor environmental, low technology, high mortality era. This is not an easy task because compulsory registration of vital events did not begin in England and Wales until 1537; consequently, mass observation of the population is not possible until the early 16th century. Using figures estimated by Wrigley and Schofield (1981), from 1537 to 1800 there were between 22 and 25 million people in England of whom only a small number, perhaps 900, could possibly have been centenarians at their death. Unfortunately, as it only became compulsory to record age at death in parish registers in 1812 many surviving burial registers lack age at death information, making it especially difficult to locate potential centenarians dying before 1800. Consequently, family reconstitution studies and published potted biographies must be the main source of age at death information when researching the mortality of large groups in the period before the introduction of civil registration in 1837. Although the number of people included in such studies are only a small proportion of the potential 22 to 25 million, so long as a single centenarian can be reasonably confirmed to have died before 1800, the aim of this study will have been fulfilled.

Verifying reported centenarians - some problems

It will be revealed below how difficult this task is for the period before civil registration began, mainly due to the lack of surviving records. Although there are numerous studies and publications providing details of long-livers in the past all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, few reports are substantiated (Bailey 1857, Weber 1914, Ernest 1938, Parkin 1992). Indeed most rely on the notoriously inaccurate tombstone inscription or age at death information written in parish burial registers. Others readily accept recollections, usually false, of famous events as proof of the age of an elderly individual or a frequently inaccurate estimate of the age at death of the corpse. Hence, because systematic record keeping was both less frequent and less reliable before the introduction in 1837 of civil registration in England and Wales and because positively linking the birth/baptismal, marriage and death records, which may exist, to an individual requires additional evidence which is dependent on the "visibility" of the person in other surviving records; identifying a true centenarian is a complex process. However, this should not deter the researcher because, to quote Parkin (1992), "Comparative evidence tells us that the number of alleged centenarians in Roman Africa is a gross exaggeration. But that is not to say that some people did not survive the century mark and beyond". Consequently, although many reported centenarians throughout history up to the present day are undoubtedly incorrect, some are true; these individuals must be identified and verified.

        Unfortunately, when attempting to verify probable centenarians, those chosen are not randomly selected, mainly because those in the "Maximal Length of Life" project's database are biased towards the male elite in British society, but also because certain groups are likely to have more surviving records facilitating a life history to be constructed. Those at extreme ends of the spectrum, the wealthy, public figures or paupers are more likely to be featured in records other than vital events which help to build up a picture of the life course of the individual. In the case of the privileged, documentation survives especially for males because they were more likely to attend university, enter a profession or business, later feature in public life in an official capacity and ultimately make a will which was proved upon death. In contrast their wives were likely to remain in quiet obscurity, precluding them from records. However, diaries of middle and upper class ladies are a possible source of evidence to support a claim from one of their number of being a centenarian at death.

        As both male and female paupers appeared in "poor law" records when receiving financial assistance, which lends support to reported death dates and age at death information for the poor in pre-nineteenth century Britain, in some instances less privileged members of society are as well documented, and so traceable, as their wealthier counterparts.

        In contrast, an individual who was neither extremely rich nor extremely poor and was not renowned at a local or national level was probably less frequently recorded and consequently more difficult to trace throughout his/her career.

        However, because verification of a reported centenarian is the primary goal of this chapter, selection and bias are peripheral problems which will only affect the type of person likely to be chosen for attempted verification.

Criteria for successful verification

Thoms (1873), an informed nineteenth century sceptic of reports of extremely long lived individuals, stated that when a centenarian is being verified, "the proof of it should be clear, distinct, and beyond dispute". He has shown many reports of extreme longevity to be false and questioned the use of individual pieces of evidence from the most popular sources; baptismal certificates, tombstone inscriptions, the number of the Centenarian's descendants, the recollections of the Centenarian and the evidence of old people still living who knew the Centenarian as 'very old' when they themselves were quite young. Thoms (1879) believed additional corroborative evidence such as the dates of birth, surname and christian name of the individual's father and mother, the place and date of their marriage, the birth dates of any brothers or sisters, the date of the "potential" centenarian's marriage and of the births of his/her children, the dates of his/her admission to school, entrance into the army, navy or any other public employment or apprenticeship, all to be essential. Unfortunately, the above criteria could be viewed as too rigorous and unrealistic because as made clear above, only very rarely indeed could centenarians dying before 1800 who have all the evidence Thoms recommends be located, primarily due to the small number of extremely long-lived in observation and inadequate survival or initial compilation of relevant records. It must be borne in mind that many reported centenarians checked by Thoms were his contemporaries. Consequently, access to relevant information and documents was rather easier than attempting the same verification procedure one hundred years later when some records will have been lost or destroyed and relations or close descendants are no longer available to discuss the person in question.

        However, failure to locate a relevant record should not necessarily disqualify the candidate from the list of potentially verifiable centenarians. A degree of flexibility and the use of judgement after the presentation of all the evidence is surely essential when seeking a centenarian dying before 1800. Hence, guidelines detailing the degree of probability of the individual being a true centenarian according to the records and combination of records acquired, rather than rules specifying certainty should be introduced because finding enough evidence to verify a centenarian beyond dispute has to be deemed an unrealistic task in most cases. For instance, if there is no birth/baptismal record for a potential centenarian but there is a flourishing date at which an age can be confidently estimated, the calculated birth date should be accepted. Alternatively, if a long-liver has an unusual name and has a birth/baptismal and a death/burial date but has large periods of time when no information is available concerning their activities, as long as potential confusion with name-sakes can be discounted, then the individual's reported vital event dates should be accepted despite lack of supporting evidence for significant periods of time. Perhaps a set of guidelines and probabilities of a person being a centenarian at death according to the available evidence and competing name-sakes should be established along similar lines to family reconstitution linkage introduced by Wrigley and Schofield. This would enable individuals with less than ideal evidence to be allotted a probability level of being a centenarian.

Reported and calculated centenarians in the maximal length of life database: Case studies of attempted verification

The "potential" centenarians dying before the start of the nineteenth century whose life histories will be checked for authenticity originate from the data accumulated in the "Maximal Length of Life" project (table 1). This information was collected to analyse the whole old age mortality curve during the centuries leading up to the demographic transition rather than for the specific purpose of the verification of "potential" centenarians. It follows that there are probably "potential" centenarians who are more easily verifiable but who do not appear in these particular datasets collected for the analysis of historical old age mortality.

        An important distinction has to be made between "reported" and "calculated" centenarians in the database. "Reported" centenarians are those old people whose age at death is stated to be at least one hundred. The report might be a written statement of age at death in the parish register, on an individual's tombstone or it might be a newspaper obituary notice. In many instances, these reported cases cannot be substantiated due to the absence of additional information. However, the evidence for "calculated" centenarians is more robust because they are identified from the summation of their age at death using their stated birth/baptism and death/burial dates. Hence, there are two pieces of information from which the search for additional evidence can begin.

        The datasets forming the "Maximal Length of Life" database on age at death of individuals between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries can be divided into two, those with "reported" and those with "calculated" age at death. Those with "reported" age at death number over 3,500 and were acquired from respondents to advertisements placed in relevant journals requesting information on individuals dying in their ninth decade or above.1

        There are over 39,000 individuals in the database with "calculated" age at death data. These people derive from a number of secondary sources containing potted biographies of sub-groups of the British population from the sixteenth century onwards. Those included are English and Welsh Catholic priests 1558 to 1800 (Bellenger 1884), British Members of Parliament from 1558 to 1885 (History of Parliament Trust), "old boys" of Rugby School from 1675 to 1890 (Solly 1933, Salt 1952), Scottish Ministers from 1558 to the nineteenth century (Scott 1915), and nuns from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.2 The bias of the database towards the privileged and educated is an asset because these individuals are more likely than the general population to be documented in records other than parish registers and therefore aid the verification process.

a) "Reported" age at death dataset

Of the 3557 individuals who were reported to have reached age eighty or above, 89 were stated as centenarians of whom 21 were reported to have died before 1800. It is important to note the relative scarcity of reported centenarians considering the prevailing view that there has always been a wish to exaggerate age among the elderly. It is equally interesting that of those responses to the advertisements reporting a centenarian dying before 1800 and subsequently co-operating with the request for further information on the individuals, only 3 of the original 21 appear possibly verifiable. Several informants admitted that their original letter contained incorrect date information, others had gleaned their material from tombstones or burial registers and could find no additional supporting evidence whilst several had been given the information concerning the reported centenarian from a third party and so were of no further help.

        The material on the three possibly genuine reported centenarians, Dorothy Jones (nee Williams), Elizabeth Edward(e)s (nee Owens) and John Lunniss, was acquired from two respondents, one of whom provided the information on the two women who were born in the same parish in the county of Clwyd at a similar point in time. Although the information regarding the two ladies is fairly convincing, it is perplexing that they both died paupers in the same township at a similar point in time; the chances of this happening are, to say the least, small.

b) "Calculated" age at death datasets

Of the 39,083 individuals with "calculated" age at death information, 14,558 died before 1800. Among these individuals, 5 possible centenarians dying before 1800 were located:

i) Nuns Dame Gertrude Chillton and Dame Margaret Markhame
ii) Scottish Minister John Buchanan
iii) Member of Parliament William Badger
iv) English Catholic Priest Ferdinand Ashmall

        In total there were 8 potential centenarians dying before 1800 in the "Maximal Length of Life" database. This might be deemed unrealistic in such a small population, despite the majority of the universe being selective as most were privileged and had survived infancy and childhood because the mean age at entry for the datasets was below twenty only for Rugby School old boys. How many, if any, of these preliminary claims of extreme longevity can be substantiated after the facts have been presented?

        Before these individuals are discussed, in an attempt to reduce the "cult of centenarians" and to identify a definite maximal length of life in England before 1800 upon which we can build, attention should be paid to verifying those dying aged 97, 98 and 99 years old in the "Maximal Length of Life" database. At least one record appears to be watertight. Sir John Holland was born October 1603, matriculated fellow-commoner from Christs College Cambridge in March 1620/1 and was admitted to The Middle Temple 7 February 1622-23. He was a Member of Parliament between 1640 and 1679 and continued to hold local public offices until his death 19 January 1701, aged 98 years. This man's record and career is indisputable and lends weight to those supporting the claims of certain centenarians dying before 1800 because if individuals certainly lived into the latter part of the tenth decade of their life, it is highly likely that a number of others lived beyond this age.

Eight centenarians - fact or fiction?

As the evidence supporting each potential centenarian is detailed in turn, it will become clear, as discussed above, that the process of verification might be an impossible task. Problems met when undertaking the challenge are outlined and are as informative as the evidence gathered.


1. The three "reported" centenarians

a) John Lunniss

The case of John Lunniss was reported by a descendant. He states in one letter, "Although, as I have learnt from my studies with the Open University, many facts in research cannot be proved with absolute certainty, I am confident that John the Younger was a centenarian". This statement, although a personal comment, is based upon the conclusion arrived at after the facts were analysed.

        John Lunniss (Lonyes) was the son of Thomas Lonyes (Juror of Manor Court Shepreth 1540-1543; will made 20/04/1558; buried at Shepreth 1558) and Denyce (buried Shepreth 1560). There were 6 children in the family, John the Elder, Alice, Thomas, John the Younger (the reported centenarian), Edware and Katherine. As John the Elder died without issue in 1585, one of the chief beneficiaries of his will was his brother, John the Younger who inherited the original holding.

        Thomas, a brother of John the Younger married Margaret and had a son named John who was baptized at Shepreth parish church of All Saints on 15 August 1567. This nephew of the reported centenarian died one year before John the Younger and he cannot be mistaken for his uncle because in his will the nephew left legacies for his children when they would reach the age of 21. John the Younger was buried at Shepreth on 27 June 1621 with a Latin insert in the burial register stating "of 107 years or thereabouts".

        The parish register does not record any other ages at death, so the incumbent was obviously aware that he was dealing with special circumstances, whilst it is clear that the reported death date cannot be mixed up with a younger name-sake.

        Unfortunately, there can only be an estimated date of birth as no records survive with this information. In addition, this man is followed through his life course by the use of indirect evidence from wills and parish register material which is less satisfactory than acquiring direct data. Hence, although there are no known name-sakes competing with the potential centenarian there is too little evidence to conclude this man was a centenarian at his death.


b) Dorothy Jones (nee Williams)

Dorothy Jones, both common names in this part of Wales, was reported to be a centenarian at her death in 1769 by a respondent to one of the advertisements. This lady is reported to have been baptized 14 September 1662 in the parish of Gresford in Clwyd. She married Humphre Jones of Llay on 7 January 1703 and after spending some time in the parish almshouse she was buried on 5 November 1769 with the parish burial register recording her age at death to be 106 years.

        The late marriage of this lady is suggestive of an incorrect baptismal date. However, such marriages are reported by local historians to be common in this locale and the fact that the couple remained childless might support the claim of Dorothy's "calculated" late age of marriage.

        A Dorothy Jones of Burton township (Gresford Parish) received payments from 1735 to 1743 from the overseer for keeping Cooper's boy and then received an allowance from 1744 to 1769 when the burial register suggests she died. A grave in the churchyard states "Underneath lies the body of Dorothy Jones of Gresford who departed this life the 1st day of November 1769 aged 106 years".

        There are name-sakes in the parish registers, but only two could feasibly be mistaken for this lady. A (.....) Williams, daughter of John of Burton, was born 25 December 1672, which would make her aged thirty if she is the person who married Humphre Jones of Llay on 7 January 1703; perhaps more realistic than the reported baptismal date given for Dorothy Williams? However, if the marriage and death date belonged to this baptismal date, the age at death would still be 97. The other option is the burial record of the Dorothy Jones of Llay (Gresford parish) who was buried 7 June 1729. It is possible that upon marriage Dorothy migrated to Llay with her husband and died there in 1729.

        Although the burial register notation and the gravestone information point to this woman being the same female who was baptized in Gresford 14 September 1662, the two alternatives outlined above introduce an element of uncertainty. It is the second option which is of most concern because this would make her under seventy years of age at her death, whereas the first would place above ninetyfive.


c) Elizabeth Edward(e)s (nee Owens)

The case of Elizabeth Edward(e)s, again not uncommon names in this part of Wales, reported by the respondent who informed us of Dorothy Williams, has even less supporting evidence than the afore mentioned.

        Elizabeth is reported to have been baptized in Burton (Gresford parish) on 1 March 1678/9, to have married Thomas Edwardes 6 October 1695 and to have been buried as a pauper aged 104 on 26 January 1783 as Elizabeth Edwards of Mold Parish. Additional evidence includes the recording from the paupers' weekly allowance for the poor of Mold of Elizabeth Edward(e)s receiving funds. However, a gravestone does not survive and the burial register states that Elizabeth was of Mold Parish whilst the other vital events state that she was of Burton in the parish of Gresford. Did she migrate to Mold at some point and return to her roots to enter the almshouse towards the end of her life or does the burial record belong to a namesake?

        Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence to rigorously support any of the three claims of centenarian outlined above. Dorothy Williams is the most promising case but there is still enough doubt for the sceptics to remain unimpressed that any of the above three were undoubtedly centenarians at their death. The fact that all three had common names with close relatives of other generations being namesakes helps to complicate the situation. Yet many of the namesakes can be ruled out of contention for the vital events allotted to the reported centenarian.

        Unfortunately, as in the instance of Dorothy Williams, it only takes one of the vital events allotted to the centenarian to be challenged by one alternative to make the identification problematic. The lack of information in years between vital events is of concern for three people with common names because doubt of correct linkage can be placed on the reported baptismal, marriage and burial dates.


2. The five "calculated" centenarians

a) Dame Gertrude Chillton (nun)

Henrietta Chillton was the daughter of Christopher Chillton of Newcastle, Northumberland. She was received into the Brussels convent of the Benedictine nuns 7 September 1689 and was invested with the holy habit, taking the religious name of Gertrude on 5 April 1693. She was professed 3 June 1694 at the age of 19 and died in 1794.

        The above information is provided in the annals of the order to which Dame Gertrude Chillton belonged. Unfortunately, no record can be found of either her birth or death date as few English Catholic records survive from this period. It is likely that the reported year of death, 1794, is incorrect because if it were to be accurate she would have been 119 years old at her death. It is more likely that she departed this life in 1694 at a young age. As there is absolutely no supporting evidence, little progress can be made in the attempt to verify the report of this individual, firstly because few English Catholic records survive from before the nineteenth century and secondly because this lady's adult life was spent abroad, finding further evidence is virtually an impossible, and certainly an impractical task.


b) Dame Margaret Markhame

Margaret was the daughter of George Markhame Esquire of Ollerton, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Like her father, Margaret's mother, Judith Witherwick Fitzwilliams, was also from a wealthy landed family. At least one of Margaret's brothers, after his training at Douai, joined her in devoting his life to God. Dame Margaret professed with the English Benedictine nuns on 27 December 1639 at the age of 22 years. In 1652 she was sent to Boulogne and later to Pontoise, before visiting Ireland in 1687. Her obituary states that she died in the 105th year of her life and the 77th of her profession on 25 July 1717. However, if she was aged 22 when she professed in 1639 she would be aged 99 or 100 at her death.

        There are several points to be made about the verification of the age at death of this nun. Although a birth record has not been found, the stated age at profession is probably reliable. Her career, situation and age at death are detailed and convincing. However, like other obituary notices which both date and specify the age at profession and date of death, the stated age at death often deviates from that calculated. Although no evidence has been found to support the information provided in the obituary notice, unlike that of Dame Gertrude Chillton, it was a detailed and continuous record of her adult life as a nun. Consequently, there is sufficient evidence to argue that the date of and age at profession, and date of death are accurate, making this lady at least 99 years of age at the end of her life.


c) John Buchanan (Scottish Minister)

The publication, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae (Scott 1915) states that John Buchanan was born in 1619, son of John Buchanan, a merchant in Stirling. He was ordained on 29 April 1691 and he died 27 February 1726. He married Catherine Spruell and had a son John who was baptized 20 December 1694 and who was his successor as the minister of Covington Parish, Stirlingshire.

        The birth date of John Buchanan of 1619 should be treated with great suspicion because if it is correct, he would have been aged 72 when he was ordained, aged 75 at the birth of his namesake and aged 107 at his death. His age at ordination and at the birth of his son although not impossible according to experts on Scottish history, is highly improbable. There was possibly a typing error in the birth date but this cannot be confirmed because his birth record cannot be located and is not in The International Genealogical Index. Consequently, in the absence of any other corroborating evidence, there is reason for scepticism about this individual having been a centenarian at death.


d) William Badger (Member of Parliament)

In the publication edited by Hasler (1981) titled The Commons 1558-1603, a potted biography is given of the Member of Parliament for Winchester in 1597, a William Badger. It provides an approximate date of birth of c1523 based on the date by which he was a freeman, 1551. The biography states that he was an attorney, three times mayor of Winchester in 1572, 1586 and 1597 respectively and the Member of Parliament for Winchester in 1597 when aged about seventy. He died intestate and was buried in Winchester Cathedral 18 January 1629. The biography further states, "Though it is stretching credulity to have a man make his first appearance in Parliament aged over seventy and live to be a centenarian, the evidence in Badger's case seems conclusive, both as regards its known dates and the absence of any break in career which might imply confusion between name-sakes" (Vol.1 p.383). It is clear that he had two sons and one daughter, one son was named Robert and the other William. A birth record is available for Robert but not for William (junior) or Grace, the daughter. However, William (junior) can be identified as entering Winchester School in 1561 aged ten years, going up to New College Oxford in 1569 and becoming a fellow there 1571-74. Between 1575 and 1576 William Badger (junior) was admitted to Lincoln's Inn before being presented by William Badger (senior) to the prebendary of Beaminster Secunda. Hence, William (senior) must have been born about 1523 as stated in the International Genealogical Index. In the surviving manuscripts for Winchester it states that William Badger the three times mayor of Winchester became a Member of Parliament in 1597. However, it makes no comment on the individual's age which could imply that the individual was not deemed aged or unusual in any way and that he was known to the community. If it had been William (junior) who was elected, it is likely his relationship to his locally renowned father, William (senior) the three times mayor of the city, would have been commented upon.

        Hence, although the information is not conclusive and might be slightly confusing, there is a fairly solid case that the Member of Parliament for Winchester in 1597 died a centenarian in 1627, having had his son Robert in c1550 and William shortly after, and having held a series of public offices from the middle of the sixteenth century until his old age. The fact that his precise birth date is unknown does not disqualify this individual because supporting evidence suggests his date of birth to within a short time span.


e) Ferdinand Ashmall (secular Catholic priest)

The case for Ferdinand Ashmall dying a centenarian is strong and surprising because research has shown that married women had a higher survival rate than unmarried men. Luckily, because his family was of some social standing they were "visible" in documents and their pedigree has been detailed.

        Ferdinand was born at Amerston in County Durham on 9 January 1695. His father Thomas and his mother Mary Addison bought an estate at Amerston which became the family seat for several years. Ferdinand was admitted to Lisbon College (Portugal) on 9 August 1711 at the age of fifteen to train for the priesthood. He was ordained 18 February 1720 and returned to England in 1723, becoming the chaplain to Mary Salvin at Old Elvet, County Durham, for the next four years until her death. In 1727 Ferdinand retired to his father's estate at Amerston to recover from ill health. Nothing is known of his activities until 1745 when he became priest at New House near Esh, County Durham, where he remained until his death on 5 February 1798 aged 104 years. His will had been made on 14 April 1787 and was proved on 10 February 1798, leaving his money and goods to his niece and the children of his brother-in-law. His obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine states, "At Newhouse, near Esh, County Durham, in the 104th year of his age, and the 73rd of his ministry, the Reverend Ferdinand Ashmall, a Roman Catholic clergyman". In Buller's Record and Recollections of St. Cuthbert's College, Ushaw, it states that the ancient and venerable priest, the Reverend Ferdinando Ashmall, who had charge for so many years of the (R.C.) mission at Newhouse, died on February 5th 1798, aged 104 and "was buried at Esh, in the graveyard of the Protestant Chapel". Additional information about this incumbent includes the inheritance of his father's estate in 1758 after the death of his two brothers Thomas and Robert. He was listed in the Returns of Papists 1767 as Mr. Ashmon, priest of Esh Chapelry, aged 70 and resident for twenty three years whilst Laity's Directory for 1799 records him in the obituary notices as dying in February 1798, R. Ferdinand Ashmall, Durham, age 104.

        This man could have been mistaken for only one known name-sake, his uncle. This older Ferdinand Ashmall was also a priest whose life course can be verified as being independent of that of his nephew, and so avoiding confusion between the two relations. The author of the book English and Welsh Priests 1558-1800 (Bellinger 1884) in which all priests associated with this geographical area are listed and details given, states in a letter about this potential centenarian, "His name-sake Ferdinand Ashmall (born 1650) definitely died in 1712. Thus the man retired to Amerston was almost certainly the long-lived Ferdinand Ashmall ....The ordination lists of the English College giving Ferdinand Ashmall as of Lisbon College and ordained in 1723 are complete. It is unlikely anyone of this name would be ordained from an Irish College....In this case longevity is more likely than imposture".

Long Livers in the "Maximal Length of Life Database"

There is little doubt that many potential centenarians from the past will never be proved or disproved purely because of the lack of surviving records providing definite evidence. Researching certain types of people makes the task more difficult as, for instance, the survival rate of non-conformist vital event records is lower than for conformists before 1800 in England and Wales and those who were neither rich nor poor tend to be less "visible" as they were less regularly recorded than those at extreme ends of the social and economic spectrum. On the other hand, researching males of the conformist persuasion who spent most of their life in England and who held some sort of official position is an advantage because in their case evidence is more likely to be available.

        The eight examples discussed above exhibit a range of difficulties which might be impossible to overcome, forcing a negative conclusion to the search for verification. The stumbling block for Dorothy Jones (nee Williams) was an alternative date of death which cannot be proven not to belong to the lady in question because upon marriage it is possible that she moved to her husband's abode in Llay. In the case of Elizabeth Edward(e)s (nee Owens) the main obstacle was the lack of supporting evidence linking the vital events, the poor law register and ultimately the burial record to the same woman. The case of Dame Gertrude Chillton is the same but complicated by her adulthood having been spent overseas. The major concern in the instance of the Scottish Minister is possible incorrect typing in his potted biography of his birth date resulting in a rather late age at ordination and the birth of his namesake. Finally, in the case of the Member of Parliament William Badger, there is a suggestion that there is confusion between himself and his son.


a) General

The results of this study certainly suggest that some persons did survive to become centenarians in the high mortality regime of the pre-demographic transition era and the problems with historical research which have been highlighted during this study have failed to force a negative conclusion. Despite the imperfect evidence, the nun Dame Margaret Markhame, the Member of Parliament William Badger and Catholic priest Ferdinand Ashmall may be seen as very promising cases of examples of centenarians dying before 1800. In addition, there are others who died aged just under the "magic" figure of one hundred.

        It is important to remember that although expectation of life at birth was low before 1800 in England and Wales, if one survived into young adulthood one could on average expect to live into the sixth or seventh decade. Although mortality after this age was high and stable, there is no reason to believe that small numbers could not live on into their eleventh decade. The evidence supports this theory.

b) Implications

The implications are two-fold. Firstly, although statistical modelling indicates that the probability of surviving to the age of 100 before 1800 was small, this study argues that such extreme long livers did exist. If mortality in old age was high but stable for at least the three centuries leading up to 1800, then it is feasible that there were centenarians long before the beginning of the nineteenth century. Historians should not be dissuaded from pursuing information supporting the claims of long-lived individuals and believing them to be true centenarians after persuasive evidence has been presented simply because statistically, it is highly improbable that the individual found was a centenarian at death.

        The results of this study may also imply that the maximal length of life in the high mortality era was not significantly lower than today. If Reverend Ferdinand Ashmall really was 104 years old at his death and William Badger died at a similar age, there was likely to have been someone dying at a later age in the population at risk of 22 to 25 million in England between 1537 and 1800. The search for such a person must continue because he or she has not yet been located due to the problems associated with the verification of centenarians in a historical setting. On the other hand, the oldest ever verified person is the French super-centenarian Madame Calment who is presently 120 years old. There is unlikely to have been another person living to above this age in recent times because the developed registration systems throughout the world would have identified such a spectacularly long-lived person.

        Perhaps the evidence suggests that rather than absolute change with the shift in mortality there has been some form of continuity in observed maximal length of life over a long period of time and less change in the last two centuries than at earlier points in the life cycle, including old age. Parkin (1992) summarises this argument when he implies that there has indeed been more continuity than change, stating "...despite the "demographic transition" and the advances in medicine this century, a person does not live significantly longer today than his or her ancestor did in the historical past. The simple fact is that more people survive into old age today, not that they live any longer than elderly people in past times". However, more evidence concerning maximal length of life in the high mortality past must be presented before this argument can be pursued further. Approaching this task by attempting to verify literary evidence detailing reported centenarians in the past might be a useful exercise.


1 The advertisement was placed in journals such as Family Tree Magazine, The Genealogists Magazine, Local Population Studies and Family News and Digest Magazine.
2Database provided by Mr. M. Gandy and Mr. A. Nye




Updated by V. Castanova,   March 2000