DK History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide (2011) claims:

17 The average life expectancy in years in Liverpool during the 1850s. High infant mortality depressed the figure, as did the city’s unhealthy cellar dwellings and an influx of famine-weakened Irish immigrants.

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    "Average" is highly misleading when looking at historic life expectancies. Throughout much of history, if you lived to the age of five, you had a good chance of seeing 70, but only a 25% chance of surviving those first five years.
    – Mark
    May 19, 2022 at 3:08
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    @Mark: When academics use the term "life expectancy" (without qualification), they mean life expectancy at birth. Otherwise they should be careful to specify e.g. life expectancy at age X. (This is a common source of confusion among laypersons.)
    – user62611
    May 19, 2022 at 3:26
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    @user24096 yes, but that's not what Mark seems to be getting at. An average of 17 could be achieved by a normal distribution centred at 17, or by a bimodal distribution with peaks in infancy and old age, suitably weighted (or of course more realistic patterns with similar shapes). <ark describes the latter distrubution
    – Chris H
    May 19, 2022 at 11:15
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    @user24096 this may well be true but still-births were recorded elsewhere and not included in mortality rate and average ages but, as Mark correctly points out, thousands dying before age 5 will have a significant downwards effect on the average,
    – Greybeard
    May 19, 2022 at 12:18
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    @user24096 It's misleading precisely because the average person thinks the distribution of age at death resembles the distribution of household income. Common arguments like "Social Security was designed when the average life expectancy was a lot lower" or "The US Constitution requires the President to be 35 because that was really old and wise at the time" betray an assumption that age at death was normally distributed. May 19, 2022 at 16:19

1 Answer 1


False at least according to these sources:

Davenport (2021):

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Davenport (2020):

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Szreter and Mooney (1998) give two sets of estimates:

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Szreter and Mooney (1998) started a debate about whether life expectancies fell around the mid-19th century. But even if we use their pessimistic estimates, average life expectancy in Liverpool in the 1850s was 27, not 17. See also Razzell and Spence (2005)

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    Wow, Liverpool may never have been 17, but it was always almost a decade younger than the rest of the country.
    – CGCampbell
    May 19, 2022 at 11:45
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    @CGCampbell: Is there any reason why? Coal? Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll? May 19, 2022 at 12:38
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    @EricDuminil Child mortality. Pre 1900 life expectancy at birth is not really a good indicator for anything else but child mortality. Whether 40 or 60% of children die before the age of 5 has a much bigger influence on average life expectancy at birth than the difference between those reaching 5 years living on to 40, 60 or 80 years.
    – quarague
    May 19, 2022 at 13:15
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    @quarague not sure that answers the question about why was Liverpool worse than other places, which presumably also had child mortality
    – DavidW
    May 20, 2022 at 7:15
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    @DavidW Liverpool was worse because child mortality was higher than in other places. One can now look into the reasons why it was worse, coal dust or dirtier water are candidates. Even a generous interpretation of "Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" can be mostly excluded because it would predominantly affect adults and not babies or small children.
    – quarague
    May 20, 2022 at 7:59

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