The terms childbed, childbearing and parturition as causes of death all refer to death during or following childbirth.
Childbirth is the process of giving birth at the end of a pregnancy following the process of labour. Labour is broken into three stages, at the end of which the baby is generally delivered vaginally. In some complicated births, a caesarean section is performed. This is a surgery in which an incision is made in the mother’s abdomen and the baby is removed from the mother's uterus through this incision. Some caesareans are performed after the mother has entered labour in response to complications developing, such as a prolapsed umbilical cord or a breech birth (a birth in which the baby is presenting feet first, rather than head first). Others are performed as a preventative measure because doctors have strong cause to suspect complications will develop.
Complications in childbirth have been a key cause of death for adult women throughout history. Many deaths during or following childbirth are caused by hemorrhaging: today, blood loss accounts for 15% of all childbirth-related deaths. Complications from high blood pressure and pre-existing conditions (such as cardiovascular problems and anaemia) can also cause death during childbirth. Infections following the birth are another prevalent cause of death following childbirth.
The number of deaths in childbirth in the United Kingdom has fallen over the last two centuries. It is difficult to known exact numbers due to lack of accurate records and changes in the definition of ‘death in childbirth’. During the 19th century, some recordkeepers defined death in childbirth as deaths occurring within one month of the birth from obviously related issues, whilst others considered the postpartum period to last until six weeks after the birth.
Regardless of the precise cut-off point, childbirth was regarded as a high risk process. Though the rate of maternal mortality in 1800 was half that of 1700, Church of England services often included a prayer for women who had recently given birth asking that they be ‘preserved from the great dangers of childbirth’. Haemorrhage was a large risk: although the first successful blood transfusion to treat postpartum haemorrhage was performed in 1818, it was decades before this was widely available.
Infection was also a large cause of maternal death in this period. As the cause of infection was not widely understood until the late 19th century, preventative measures such as proper hand washing and sterilisation of instruments were not often adhered to, increasing the risk of infection.
The sheer number of variations of phrases for ‘childbirth’ contained within the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers reflect the long period over which the cemetery operated. Further, it suggests that different registrars had different preferences for the terminology to be used for death in childbirth.
Visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index to view all entries in the registers relating to childbirth. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the breakdown of who this 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.