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Opportunities to explore the history of population health using individual level data are extremely rare. Opportunities to do so in the rapidly growing service sector in nineteenth-century Britain are even rarer. Apart from studies that rely on membership records from friendly societies, there has been little to no research that uses individual data to answer questions about the incidence and experience of ill health in the population. The British Post Office provides an opportunity to address that gap. It was the largest employer in late nineteenth-century Britain with a workforce of over 160,000, a fifth of whom were women. Its geographical reach extended across the entire country, including Ireland, reaching into the smallest villages and the largest cities. As part of the Civil Service, it provided pensions and relatively generous sick pay for its workers and in the process monitored carefully sickness absence and the causes of retirement.

Based on the pension records of around 30,000 postal workers who retired between 1860 and 1908, together with additional information about death, the Addressing Health project is exploring the dimensions and experience of sickness in the Post Office workforce. The records provide information about each pensioner’s working life, including their sickness record in the years prior to retirement and the reason for retirement, as well as a medical assessment of their fitness to work.

This individual level information provides an opportunity to compare health outcomes by person (occupation, age, gender), place and time. By following through a subset of workers (c. 8000) to the time of their death, we can also understand better the relationship between sickness and death. Preliminary results show distinct regional variations in health outcomes: Scottish workers, for example, took less time off sick than their equivalent English counterparts. Health outcomes were particularly bad for indoor sorters compared to postmen who delivered the mail, even in similar locations. The majority of retirements were the result of sickness, including poor mental health. By identifying these kinds of health outcomes, we can begin to understand better the significance of the workplace in relation to health, taking into account geographical as well as occupational and personal factors.

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All welcome- this seminar is free to attend, but booking is required.