John Graunt’s Haberdasher’s Shop, The City Of London, 1662

The Death Collector

At a time when plague periodically decimated London’s population, haberdasher John Graunt applied his knowledge of book-keeping to collect, analyse and interpret data relating to the City’s deaths. His revolutionary approach established Graunt as the world’s first epidemiologist and demographer.

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Every time a Londoner died in the 17th century, a bell tolled to summon ‘the searchers’. These matronly (and often drunken) women inspected each corpse and made enquiries to establish the cause of death. Within days, their findings were published in weekly Bills of Mortality, sold on subscription for four shillings a year.

Until they piqued John Graunt’s interest, the Bills weren’t used for much more than feeding ghoulish gossip.

Graunt collected a few ‘scattered bills’ and began tabulating the data they shared. Like a merchant’s account book, Graunt’s tables provide a continuous record of additions and subtractions to the City’s population.

Graunt also interpreted the information he collected, documenting insights about the causes and trends behind the changing market for trade.

  • In the great plague years, 1 in 5 Londoners died, and another two-fifths fled to the country.
  • After a plague outbreak, it takes two years to repopulate the City.
  • The population of London doubles four times faster than the population in the country.
  • There are about 24,000 teeming women in the parishes in and around London.
  • There are about 81,000 fighting men in and about London.
  • One-fifth of all Londoners live in Westminster, Lambeth, Islington, Hackney, Redriff, Stepney and Newington.
  • 1 in 2,000 Londoners are murdered.
  • 1 in 100 women die in childbirth.
  • 36 per cent of children die before the age of six.
  • Autumn is the unhealthiest season.
  • Deaths due to rickets, stopping of the stomach, rising of the lights and scurvy are all increasing.


Graunt deliberately omitted data for the ten years between 1636 and 1647, explaining that the decade contained 'nothing Extraordinary'.


Deaths in 17th-century London

1636: 2360

Abortive, and stilborn

Primis vituperatoribus ad usu, cum ea veniam soleat. Eos te intellegam philosophia. Cu vix solet aliquando gloriatur, enim volutpat vis ne. Natum ubique salutandi id sit, nec in putant alienum, at mazim denique salutandi duo. Pri ex pericula reformidans, liber mandamus tractatos cu sit.


The work Graunt viewed as ‘laborious bustling and groping’ so impressed King Charles II that the monarch decreed his election to the nascent Royal Society, an unexpected honour for a haberdasher.

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The Unceasing Seeker

Almost 150 years after Graunt’s election to the Royal Society, another London businessman deliberately set out to gain a similar level of academic respectability. His plans to publish a ground-breaking book were, however, thwarted by an unceasing desire to acquire the perfect collection.

Find out more in Wellcome Library