This is a very good read, well put together with some some real eye openers. It appears the Soldiers in the Zulu war, were more nourished, than those years later in the Boer war.
The mid-Victorian period is usually defined as the years between 1850 and 1870, but in nutritional terms we have identified a slightly longer period, lasting until around 1880. During these 30 years, we argue here, a generation grew up with probably the best standards of health ever enjoyed by a modern state. The British population had risen significantly and had become increasingly urbanised, but the great public health movement had not yet been established and Britain’s towns and cities were still notoriously unhealthy environments . Despite this, and contrary to historical tradition, we argue in this paper, using a range of historical evidence, which Britain and its world-dominating empire were supported by a workforce, an army and a navy comprised of individuals who were healthier, fitter and stronger than we are today. They were almost entirely free of the degenerative diseases which maim and kill so many of us, and although it is commonly stated that this is because they all died young, the reverse is true; public records reveal that they lived as long – or longer – than we do in the 21st century.
These findings are remarkable, as this brief period of great good health predates not only the public health movement but also the great 20th century medical advances in surgery, infection control and drugs . They are also in marked contrast to popular views about Victorian squalor and disease, views that have long obscured the realities of life and death during that ‘period of equipoise’ .
Our recent research indicates that the mid-Victorians’ good health was entirely due to their superior diet. This period was, nutritionally speaking, an island in time; one that was created and subsequently squandered by economic and political forces. This begs a series of questions. How did this brief nutritional ‘golden age’ come about? How was it lost? And could we recreate it?
One key contributory factor was what used to be called the Agricultural Revolution; a series of developments in agricultural practice that massively improved crop and livestock yields. This slow green revolution started in the late seventeenth century, gradually accelerated into the mid-19th century, and underpinned both modern urbanisation and the associated Industrial Revolution . Arguably the most critical agricultural development was a more complex system of crop rotation, which greatly improved both arable output and animal husbandry. In the 1730’s a new breed of innovative land-owner (epitomised by Marquis ‘Turnip’ Townshend) introduced new systems of crop rotation from Sweden and The Netherlands, and new crops like the swede (Brassica napus napobrassica). The new crop rotation systems avoided the need to let land lie fallow one year in three, and instead used a four or five year cycle in which turnips and clover were used as two of the crops because of their ability to replenish the soil. These new systems created immense gains in food productivity. Between 1705 and 1765 English wheat exports increased ten-fold, while the increased availability of animal feed meant that most livestock no longer had to be slaughtered at the onset of winter so that fresh (instead of salted) meat became cheaper and more widely available throughout the year .
Population shifts also played a key contributory role. The bulk of the population had always lived on the land but by 1850, as revealed by the 1851 census, more Britons were living and working in towns than in the countryside . The agricultural improvements of the previous 150 years meant that agriculture produced far more than before, but used far fewer people to achieve this. As a result, people moved to towns to find work: Britain was the first modern consumer society and there was real demand for workers in an increasing number of urban industries . Traditionally, urban life expectancy was significantly lower than rural life expectancy, but from the mid-Victorian period on this difference disappears.
Victorian society was very different to traditional society. It was a class society as we understand it today rather than the older, more deferential model, and this created enormous social tensions though it is important not to exaggerate these . For the very poor, towns remained deeply unpleasant places to live, and it can be argued that for many, the social structure of towns even got worse. As more of the working classes moved into towns, more of the middle classes moved out to create the beginnings of suburbia . The great Victorian commentator Thomas Carlyle claimed that in cities, little tied one human being to another except for the ‘Cash Nexus’, where employer and employee met in an uncomfortable wage and profit-driven relationship , as Mrs Gaskell revealed in books like North and South .
In many ways, however, urban socio-economic conditions were getting better by the mid-century.
Trades unions and philanthropists were slowly but surely improving urban working conditions and wages throughout the last half of the century . The threats of political instability which had seemed most threatening in towns up to the late 1840s were largely dispersed during the mid-Victorian era, as a result of changes in the political and legal systems. For example, the Great Reform Act of 1832 was followed by the 1867 Reform Act, which meant that most male urban heads of households were now able to vote. In 1845 the notorious Corn Laws were finally repealed ushering in the era of cheap food for the urban masses.
One of the most important results of these changes was that the interests of the landed classes were no longer protected. Traditionally, parliament had always sought to protect the income of farmers and landowners, and after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, this stance had seen the introduction of the highly unpopular Corn Laws from 1815. These kept the price of grain at a level that ensured agricultural prosperity, but they had a disastrous effect on the price of food. This particularly affected the new urban, industrial workforce, which was heavily dependent on bread as a staple food. The Corn Laws kept the price of bread artificially high, even during economic depressions such as the 1840s, a decade which became notorious as the ‘Hungry 40’s’ .
The post-Great Reform Act parliament, however, was susceptible to pressure from groups such as the Anti-Corn Law League led by Richard Cobden and Joseph Bright. When the situation was exacerbated by the Irish Great Potato Famine, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, the grandson of a mill-owner, forced through the repeal of the Corn Laws . From that time on farming interests were under pressure to produce cheap food because it had become clear that the prosperity of the country depended on industrial rather than on agricultural output As the Great Exhibition of 1851 underlined, Britain had become the Workshop of the World
Improved agricultural output and a political climate dedicated to ensuring cheap food led to a dramatic increase in the production of affordable foodstuffs; but it was the development of the railway network that actually brought the fruits of the agricultural and political changes into the towns and cities, and made them available to the mid-Victorian working classes
The start of the modern railway age is usually marked by the opening of the Stockton & Darlington line in 1825. From the late 1830s on, progress was impressively rapid. Important long-distance lines came first, followed by smaller local lines criss-crossing the country. The London and Birmingham line opened in 1838, part of Brunel's London to Bristol route the same year and the London and Southampton line in 1840. By the mid century the key lines were already laid. The railway system grew exponentially, reaching 2500 miles by 1845, and continued to expand, carrying goods as well as passengers. Thanks to trains, producers were now supplying the urban markets with more, fresher and cheaper food than was previously possible. This boosted urban demand for fresh foodstuffs, and pushed up agricultural output still further A survey of food availability in the 1860s through sources such as Henry Mayhew’s survey of the London poor shows very substantial quantities of affordable vegetables and fruits now pouring into the urban markets
This fortunate combination of factors produced a sea change in the nation, and in the nation’s health. By 1850 Britain’s increasing domestic productivity and foreign power had created a national mood of confidence and optimism which affected all levels of society. Driven by better nutrition, far more than the new schemes of clean air and water which were only beginning to have an effect from the 1870s on, adult life expectancy increased from the 1850s until by 1875 it matched or surpassed our own The health and vitality of the British population during this period was reflected in the workforces and armed forces that powered the transformation of the urban landscape at home, and drove the great expansion of the British Empire abroad
Unfortunately, negative changes that would undermine these nutritional gains were already taking shape. Thanks to her dominant global position, and developments in shipping technology, Britain had created a global market drawing in the products of colonial and US agriculture, to provide ever-cheaper food for the growing urban masses. From 1875 on and especially after 1885, rising imports of cheap food basics were increasingly affecting the food chain at home. Imported North American wheat and new milling techniques reduced the prices of white flour and bread. Tinned meat arrived from the Argentine, Australia and New Zealand, which was cheaper than either home-produced or refrigerated fresh meat also arriving from these sources. Canned fruit and condensed milk became widely available
This expansion in the range of foods was advertised by most contemporaries, and by subsequent historians, as representing a significant ‘improvement’ in the working class diet. The reality was very different. These changes undoubtedly increased the variety and quantity of the working class diet, but its quality deteriorated markedly. The imported canned meats were fatty and usually ‘corned’ or salted. Cheaper sugar promoted a huge increase in sugar consumption in confectionery, now mass-produced for the first time, and in the new processed foods such as sugar-laden condensed milk, and canned fruits bathed in heavy syrup. The increased sugar consumption caused such damage to the nation’s teeth that by 1900 it was commonly noted that people could no longer chew tough foods and were unable to eat many vegetables, fruits and nuts For all these reasons the late-Victorian diet actually damaged the health of the nation, and the health of the working classes in particular.
The decline was astonishingly rapid.
The mid-Victorian navvies, who as seasonal workers were towards the bottom end of the economic scale, could routinely shovel up to 20 tons of earth per day from below their feet to above their heads . This was an enormous physical effort that required great strength, stamina and robust good health. Within two generations, however, male health nationally had deteriorated to such an extent that in 1900, five out of 10 young men volunteering for the second Boer War had to be rejected because they were so undernourished. They were not starved, but had been consuming the wrong foods
This reality is underlined by considering army recruitment earlier. The recruiting sergeants had reported no such problems during previous high profile campaigns such as the Asante (1873–4) and Zulu (1877–8) Wars
The overall pattern of Victorian causes of death broadly resembles that found in developing countries today, with infection, trauma and infant/mother mortality in the pole positions, and non-communicable degenerative disease being relatively insignificant.
Common causes of death
1.Infection including TB and other lung infections such as pneumonia; epidemics (scarlet fever, smallpox, influenza, typhoid, cholera etc), with spread often linked to poor sanitation: and the sexually transmitted diseases.
2.Accidents/trauma linked to work place and domestic conditions. Death from burns was an important cause of death among women, due largely to a combination of open hearth cooking, fashions in dress, and the use of highly flammable fabrics.
3.Infant/mother mortality This was generally due to infection, although maternal haemorrhage was another significant causative factor.
4.Heart failure. This was generally due to damage to the heart valves caused by rheumatic fever, and was not a degenerative disease. Angina pectoris does not appear in the registrar general’s records as a cause of death until 1857 – and then as a disease of old age - although the diagnosis and its causes were recognised
Uncommon causes of death
5. Coronary artery disease (see above)
6. Paralytic fits (strokes, see Webster’s Dictionary). Stroke was mainly associated with the middle and upper classes who ate a diet in which animal derived foods had a more significant role, and who consumed as a result rather less fruits and vegetables. Strokes were generally non-fatal, at least the first time; although mortality rates increased with each subsequent stroke
7. Cancers were relatively rare . While the Victorians did not possess sophisticated diagnostic or screening technology, they were as able to diagnose late stage cancer as we are today; but this was an uncommon finding. In that period, cancer carried none of the stigma that it has recently acquired, and was diagnosed without bias. For example, in 1869 the Physician to Charing Cross Hospital describes lung cancer as ‘… one of the rarer forms of a rare disease. You may probably pass the rest of your students life without seeing another example of it..
Not only were cancers very uncommon compared to today, they appear to have differed in other key respects. James Paget (of Paget’s Disease) built a large practice on the strength of diagnosing breast cancer, which he did by sight and palpation – that is at Stages 3 and 4. In this group he describes a life expectancy of 4 years after diagnosis, extending to eight or more with surgery .The corresponding figures today are Stage 3: 50% survival at 10 years if given surgery, chemo- and radio-therapy, and Stage 4: overall survival about 15 months. These figures suggest that breast cancer during the Victorian period was significantly less rapidly progressive than is the case today, probably due to the Victorians’ significantly higher intakes of a range of micro- and phytonutrients which slow cancer growth.
In summary, although the mid-Victorians lived as long as we do, they were relatively immune to the chronic degenerative diseases that are the most important causes of ill health and death today.