A stillbirth is a birth in which the baby is born dead. There are a variety of conditions and events that can cause a baby to be stillborn. These include bleeding during labour, genetic conditions, infection or pre-eclampsia, a condition which causes high blood pressure in the mother. Problems with the placenta or umbilical cord can also cause stillbirths, either due to problems in the development of the placenta which restrict the foetus’s growth, or problems such as tears or bleeds which occur during the labour and delivery itself.
In the United Kingdom today, a child is considered to be stillborn if they are delivered dead after 24 or more weeks of pregnancy, and any death of foetus prior to 24 weeks is considered a miscarriage. However, definitions of the difference between a miscarriage and a stillbirth have varied hugely over time.
Historically, stillbirth was relatively common, and the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers record over 10,000 cases of stillbirth. For example, from 1917 to 1927, 4.3% of all births in Leeds were stillborn. This high rate is likely to have been due to a variety of factors, including poor diet and malnutrition, lack of sanitation leading to illness and infection, and a lack of access to healthcare and monitoring during the pregnancy and possibly during the birth.
A number of the stillbirths from June 12th 1909 onward recorded in the burial registers are from stillbirths that took place in the Leeds Maternity Hospital. The vast majority of babies from these stillbirths were buried in the Leeds General Cemetery. This may also account for the large number of stillbirths present in the burial registers.
Over the course of the existence of Leeds General Cemetery, both the legal and social status of stillbirths underwent huge changes. The Births and Death Registration Act 1836 made it a legal requirement to register all births and deaths with the General Register Office for England and Wales. However, stillborn children were viewed differently: no registers were kept and funerals were rare. Many of the stillborn children within the Leeds General Cemetery were buried in common graves without a separate ceremony of their own.
It wasn’t until 1926 (1939 in Scotland) that acts were passed requiring the registering of stillborn babies. This act was passed as people began to worry to that parents were falsely claiming their children were stillborn, either because they couldn’t afford a funeral or to cover up the deliberate or accidental killing of a child. Passing the act also allowed the government to keep track of the number of stillbirths in different areas of the United Kingdom and use this data to try to reduce the incidence of stillbirth through education and the provision of healthcare resources.
‘Stillborn’ is one of the top ten most common causes of death recorded in the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers. To find out more, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the numbers of those affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.