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History’s most surprising statistics

Think that numbers should be left to accountants? Then think again. The humble statistic can give lovers of history valuable, fascinating and preconception-busting insights into the huge changes that have swept through the world over the centuries. With this in mind, we've asked eight historians to share some surprising statistics from their fields of expertise – from the Roman empire to the Second World Wa

1,138: The number of London children recorded as dying of “teeth” in 1685. (Illustration: James Albon for BBC History Magazine)
Published: February 26, 2014 at 7:00 am
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This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine


4: The number of years' wages that a pound of wool – twice dyed in best quality Tyrian purple – would cost a Roman soldier during the first century AD

Since c1500 BC, purple – a dye produced from the gland secretions of types of shellfish – was the colour of kings, priests, magistrates and emperors, with the highest quality dye originating in Tyre, in ancient Phoenicia (now modern Lebanon).

Its cost was phenomenal. In the first century AD, a pound of wool, twice dyed in best quality Tyrian purple, cost around 1,000 denarii – more than four times the annual wage of a Roman soldier. The AD 301 Edict of Diocletian (also know as the Edict of Maximum Prices), which attempted to control runaway inflation in the empire, lists the most expensive dyed silk as costing 150,000 denarii per pound! Meanwhile the, admittedly satirical, poet Martial claimed that a praetor’s purple cloak actually cost 100 times more than a soldier’s pay.

The reasons behind the astronomical cost lie in the obtaining of the dye itself. This procedure involved a lengthy process of fishing – using wicker traps primed with bait – followed by the extraction of minute quantities of the dye by a long, laborious and smelly process from thousands of shellfish. Pliny the Elder explained the process and gave production statistics which indicate the vast number of shells required. Pliny stated that if a mollusc gland weighed a gram (in modern weights), more than 3.5m molluscs would produce just 500 pounds of dye.

Pliny the Elder was not exaggerating. In modern times, Tyrian purple has been recreated, at great expense. When the German chemist Paul Friedander tried to recreate the colour in 1909, he needed 12,000 molluscs to produce just 1.4 ounces of dye, enough to colour a handkerchief. In 2000, a gram of Tyrian purple, made from 10,000 molluscs according to the original formula, cost 2,000 euros.

Peter Jones is author of Veni, Vidi, Vici (Atlantic Books, 2013)

10 million: The number of fleeces exported annually from England by c1300

England has often been referred to as the Australia of the Middle Ages, a reference to its booming wool trade (something that Australia experienced in the 19th century). By the 14th century, English farmers had developed breeds of sheep that produced fleeces of varying weight and quality, some of which were among the best in Europe.

English wool was widely sought after by the cloth-makers of Flanders and Italy who needed fine wool to produce the rich scarlet cloths worn by kings, nobles and bishops. The 14th century had seen a huge growth in the cloth trade, particularly in Ypres, Ghent and Bruges.

To keep up with the high demand, English wool producers expanded their flocks, often going to great trouble to keep them from harm. Many kept their sheep on hill pastures during the summer, moving them to sheltered valleys in the winter. Others built sheep houses or sheepcotes where the animals could shelter in the worst weather and where food, such as peas in straw, was kept.

It is often assumed that monasteries such as Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire, which kept thousands of sheep, met Europe’s increasing demand for wool, but in fact the combined flocks of peasants, each of whom kept 30–50 animals, outnumbered those of the great estates. To gather the fleeces of these scattered flocks needed organisation – a role that was filled by entrepreneurs, woolmen or woolmongers who bought the wool and sent it to the ports. Some of the big producers – monasteries and lay landlords – often acted as middlemen, collecting the local peasant wool and sending it with their own.

Finances, too, were complicated, and there was much use of credit during the period. An Italian or Flemish merchant would often advance money to a producer, such as a monastery, on the condition that he would buy their wool, sometimes quite cheaply. These contracts usually stretched into the future, so that a monastery might have sold its wool four years in advance.

Chris Dyer is emeritus professor of regional and local history at the University of Leicester

25: The percentage of English men believed to have served in arms for king or parliament at one time or another during the Civil War

The Civil War of the 17th century saw huge numbers of men leave their towns and villages to go and fight, as England, Scotland and Ireland were torn apart by the bitter conflict between the crown and parliament. The historian Charles Carlton has calculated that, proportionately, more of the English population died in the Civil War than in the First World War, and some 25 per cent of English men are thought to have served in arms for king or parliament at one time or another.

The village of Myddle in Shropshire is the only parish in England for which we know exactly how many people went to war. This is thanks to the writings of yeoman Richard Gough, whose History of Myddle, written between 1700 and 1706, tells us that “out of these three towns – that’s to say the hamlets of Myddle parish – of Myddle, Marton and Newton, there went no less than 20 men, of which number 13 were killed in the wars...”

Gough then proceeds to name the Myddle men who went to fight, along with their occupations and whether they lived or died. “Richard Chalenor of Myddle”, he writes, “being a big lad went to Shrewsbury and there listed, and went to Edgehill Fight which was on October 23rd 1642, and was never heard of afterwards in this country...”

The experience of Myddle in the Civil War is by no means unique: it is remarkable simply for the information recorded by Gough. What’s more, his description of one John Mould – who “was shot through the leg with a musket bullet which broke the master bone of his leg” so that it remained “very crooked as long as he lived” – reminds us that, just as in modern wars, huge numbers of men returned to their daily lives physically scarred by the events of the Civil War.

In the wake of the conflict, parliament, which was now in power, provided pensions for wounded parliamentarian soldiers, but offered nothing for those who had fought for the king. In 1660, however, when the monarchy was restored in the form of Charles II, the situation was turned on its head and injured royalists received financial help. Others had to rely on the assistance of their charitable neighbours.

Gough’s writings give historians a wonderful insight into the lives of ordinary soldiers in an era that is so often recorded by the gentry alone. And, to quote Gough himself, who was a young boy during the Civil War: “If so many died out of these three [hamlets], we may reasonably guess that many thousands died in England in that war.” Gough’s History of Myddle is a fitting tribute to those men.

Professor Mark Stoyle is author of The Black Legend of Prince Rupert’s Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War (Exeter, 2011)

6: The life expectancy in weeks for newly arrived horses in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War

Horses played an essential role in the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), but paid a terrible price: of the 518,704 horses and 150,781 mules and donkeys sent to British forces in South Africa during the conflict, around two thirds (347,007 horses, 53,339 mules and donkeys) never made it home.

At the start of the war, British units travelled from a northern hemisphere winter to a South African summer, meaning that cavalry horses still had their winter coats and suffered severely from the heat. What’s more, the animals endured a long sea voyage of up to six weeks before they even reached South Africa. On arrival, horses were often given no time to recover from the voyage or acclimatise to South African conditions; instead they were rushed into action right away. What’s more, some 13,144 horses and 2,816 mules and donkeys were lost on the outward voyage.

The constant demand for fresh animals meant that additional horses had to be imported but, in contrast to the ponies of the Boers, these imported horses could not eat South African foliage. It proved almost impossible to provide enough food for the animals, especially as Boer guerrillas constantly attacked British supply lines.

After the war, cavalry officer Michael Rimington recalled that the process of bringing animals to the front was “thirty days’ voyage, followed by a five or six days’ railway journey, then semi-starvation at the end of a line of communication, then some quick work followed by two or three days’ total starvation, then more work...”. Ignorance in horse care did not help either: one newly arrived soldier asked Rimington whether he should feed his horse beef or mutton, and the animals were often ridden until they simply collapsed. Little surprise, then, that the average life expectancy of a newly arrived horse in South Africa was just six weeks.

Dr Spencer Jones is author of Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914 (Helion & Co, 2013)

$1,000: The price per ounce that the US government was paying for penicillin in 1943

In 1940, a team of scientists, led by pharmacologist Howard Florey, discovered the means of extracting penicillin from the very dilute solution produced by penicillium mould. After proving that the substance could cure infections in mice, the Oxford team tested penicillin on human patients – with remarkable results.

But despite taking a small sample of the mould to America and discussing production methods with the US government laboratory and several US companies, by 1943, penicillin was being produced at scarcely more than the laboratory scale previously seen at Oxford.

After testing the substance on patients, the US government purchased penicillin from its manufacturers at a price of $200 for a million units. This was equivalent to $1,000 an ounce at a time when gold cost just $35 an ounce.

The big breakthrough for the drug came with developments in manufacturing techniques, which saw pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer producing penicillin on a massive scale in huge vats. This meant that a single tank of 10,000 gallons could produce the equivalent amount of penicillin as would fill 60,000–70,000 two-litre bottles. The impact of this engineering triumph was intensified by the discovery in 1943 of a new strain of penicillium mould that was much more suitable for growing in the deep vats than the original British strain. This new strain was first found on a melon in Peoria, Illinois, by a technician who later came to be known as Moldy Mary.

By 1945, the American pharmaceutical company Merck was selling penicillin at $6,000 per billion units at a time when penicillin in Europe was still scarce. Three years later, the price had halved and Procaine penicillin, which was metabolised more slowly (meaning fewer injections), had been introduced.

Although two large processing plants were built in Britain after the Second World War, demand for penicillin was so great and so unexpected that its cost – and that of other new drugs including streptomycin and cortisone – forced the new NHS to charge for medicines.

Robert Bud is keeper of science and medicine at the Science Museum, London

17: The number of women candidates who stood for election to parliament in 1918

Thousands of women during the Edwardian era became politicised during the campaign for the parliamentary vote, so at first glance it may seem surprising that only 17 women stood for election in 1918 – the first in which women could participate in the representative process, both as voters and as parliamentary candidates.

The Representation of the People Act, which received Royal Assent on 6 February 1918, was unclear as to whether women could stand as parliamentary candidates and opinions on the issue were divided. When the coalition government rushed through the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill, which became law on 21 November 1918, a general election for 14 December had already been announced, with 4 December given as the date when nominations for parliamentary candidates had to be received. This gave women who wished to stand for election just three weeks in which to find a seat, enter a nomination, choose an election agent, draw up election policy, secure the support of unpaid helpers, raise funds, organise meetings and publicity – and, perhaps most importantly of all, decide whether they would stand as an independent or seek the nomination of one of the main, male-oriented political parties of the day: Conservative, Liberal or Labour.

Of the 17 women who stood as parliamentary candidates contesting 706 seats, only nine were adopted by the three main political parties. Christabel Pankhurst was the most well-known, but she stood for the Women’s Party, an organisation that she and her mother had founded in 1917. Christabel was the only woman candidate to receive the support of the coalition government, but lost out to her Labour rival by just 775 votes.

Only one woman was elected to parliament in 1918 – Constance Markievicz. But, as a member of Sinn Fein, she refused to swear allegiance to the British crown and never took her seat in the Commons.

June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth

500,000: The estimated number of German civilian deaths from strategic bombing during the Second World War

The Blitz was the biggest thing to happen to Britain during the Second World War, and in many ways has come to define the whole of Britain’s experience of war on the home front. But what many people tend to overlook is that, inflicting 50,000 deaths, strategic bombings on Britain by German aircraft killed around a tenth of the number of those who died in similar attacks on Germany. Many of these attacks were carried out by Britain’s Bomber Command, which itself lost some 50,000 crew in the conflict.

The story of Britain during the Second World War needs to be less fixated on the Blitz, and recognise that Britain was itself the perpetrator of far heavier bombing raids on Germany. This was not an aberration, or a response to the Blitz, but rather a long-standing policy of the British state to use machines to wreck the German war economy.

David Edgerton is professor of modern British history at King’s College London

1,138The number of London children recorded as dying of “teeth” in 1685

This statistic is taken from a 1685 London Bill of Mortality, which listed causes of death in London parishes. Poor women called ‘searchers’ were responsible for collecting the data; they were paid small sums to knock on doors to find out causes of death. Searchers were widely feared because they were associated with infection.

The diseases listed are bizarre: they include things like “frighted”, “suddenly” and “teeth”. The latter was short for “the breeding of teeth” – or teething as we would know it today. It was considered a major cause of infant disease and death in the early modern period: in 1664 the physician J.S. declared that teething “is alwayes dangerous by reason of the grievous Symptomes it produces, as Convulsions, Feavers, and other evils”.

But how did teething cause disease? It was believed that living beings were made up of special substances called humours, which contained different amounts of heat and moisture. When the humours were balanced, the body was healthy, but when they became imbalanced, disease resulted. Teething was dangerous because it caused “sharp Pain like the pricking of needles”, which in turn generated “great heat”, and heat brought diseases caused by hot humours, such as fevers. In childhood, bodies were especially warm; ageing was deemed a cooling process. Thus, any extra warmth in children was believed to spell trouble health-wise.

Doctors and parents went to great lengths to mitigate the hazards of teething. The most popular treatment was to “annoint the gummes with the braynes of a hare”. The midwifery expert François Mauriceau suggested giving children “a little stick of Liquorish to chomp on”, or “a Silver Coral, furnish’d with small Bells”, to “divert the Child from the Pain”. More extreme measures included cutting the gums with a lancet, or hanging a “Viper’s Tooth about the child’s Neck”, which by a “certayne hidden propertie, have vertue to ease the payne”.


Dr Hannah Newton is author of The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580–1720 (Oxford University Press, 2012)


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