‘People died young there, and any man living on it who reached the age of forty could consider himself fortunate indeed’ is how one novelist described a bad street in the East End of London in 1898.
She has made a mistake common to writers and television historians. She is referring to statistics on average life expectancy. Life expectancy at birth in England was indeed around forty for most of the nineteenth century. However, average life expectancy is not the same as age at death.
Average life expectancy was reduced by the very high levels of infant mortality. In 1899 (by which time levels of infant mortality had begun to fall), sixteen or seventeen out of every hundred babies born died before their first birthdays.
It is true that there were fewer elderly people in the population in the nineteenth century than there are now. Between 1821 and 1901 the proportion of the population of England and Wales aged 65 or over was between five and seven per cent. In the early 21st century it is nearly twenty per cent.
But it is not the case that no, or very few, people lived beyond their thirties and forties.
In Stepney Workhouse in the East End of London in 1881, out of 736 inmates, about 450 were aged 65 or over. Some were over eighty, such as Daniel McCarthy, an 87 year old dock labourer from Cork, and Elizabeth Hennigan, an 86 year old blind washerwoman, born in Bury St Edmunds.
The author of the Census report for 1901 believed that there was a tendency for people, especially the very elderly, to overstate their ages, so that the number of men and women in their eighties recorded in the Census was greater than it should have been. However, a man or woman claiming to be 85 was presumably older than 65, so this overstatement does not distort the proportion of older people in the population.
Some people might have added a few years to their ages when they were young. Many family historians will have encountered ancestors who claimed to be 21 when they were married, who were in fact younger. They might have kept those few extra years throughout their lives.
No-one born in England before the middle of 1837 would have proof of date of birth. He or she might have proof of baptism, but that isn’t the same thing. For most people, the ten yearly Census was the only time they were required to state their age for official purposes. (For marriage, it was only necessary to say that one was ’of full age’.)
Quite possibly, many people genuinely did not know how old they were.