Health-wise, the Victorian era tends to throw up images of malnourished urchins with rotten teeth and rickets living on hard bread and mouldy cheese (if they were lucky) after a hard day’s work up a chimney. Not that this wasn’t the case where many of the working poor were concerned, but as a dietary portrait of an entire society it can not only have the effect of imbuing smugness and superiority in the Victorians’ descendents; it can also prove highly misleading, as has been pointed out in ‘How the Mid-Victorians Ate Worked and Died’, a new study published by MDPI, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The Mid-Victorian period roughly covers 1850-75 and the MDPI report claims the generation that lived through that quarter-century was the healthiest this country has probably ever had in its history, a statement which certainly contradicts perceived wisdom. The notoriously high mortality rates in infancy could often be the greatest challenge to the prospect of a long life, but if one could make it to the age of 5, the compilers of the study say life expectancy was more or less the same, if not better, than it is today; and contrary to popular belief, we live on average no longer than they did.
Most fatalities in Mid-Victorian society were due to infections that a combination of improved sanitation and modern science has now rendered non-fatal if treated early enough; workplace accidents were a far higher cause of death as well, though the chronic degenerative diseases that are such prominent killers today were as much as 90% less prevalent than they are now. And for all the moral panic over drunkenness amongst the poor, the alcoholic content of beer (the most commonly consumed drink during this period) was lower due to it being watered down to an extent than no publican could get away with in the twenty-first century. Even cancers were far rarer, especially of that of the lung variety, as the Mid-Victorian era predates the mass industrial production of cigarettes.
The more physical nature of work played its part in the health of the Mid-Victorians as much as what they ate; unlike 2016, very few professions consisted of sitting at a desk all day. They may have ingested between 50% and 100% more calories than us, but they burned it off through work; obesity was associated with the idleness of the wealthy and virtually unknown amongst the working-classes. Public transport was threadbare in comparison to now (not to mention pricey), with the majority walking to and back from their workplace, something Dickens vividly described when witnessing the march of the workers at the crack of dawn. Overall, physical activity far exceeded levels we indulge in today, a factor that undoubtedly contributed towards the healthier condition of the Mid-Victorians.
The Mid-Victorian diet in the study is compared to that of the Mediterranean diet and is regarded as superior to any government dietary recommendations issued now, let alone what the populace actually do eat in the twenty-first century. Most fruits and vegetables were affordable for even the poorest households, largely due to the growth of the railways, which enabled food to be delivered to markets and shops in far higher numbers. Onions, leeks, watercress, carrots, cabbage, turnips, peas, beans, artichokes, apples, plums, cherries and gooseberries were commonplace and cheap. Nuts, particularly chestnuts, were consumed with more regularity than they are today, whereas the presence of backyard hens provided a constant supply of eggs. The nature of the meat eaten back then may not appear especially appetising now (on the bone with accompanying offal), but it would seem the large amounts of fish and seafood that constituted the diet also aided good health.
Bereft of margarine and processed foods, not to mention a lower salt intake, the Mid-Victorians were of a sufficiently healthy constitution to power the engine of Empire as well as providing the armed forces with fitter men than ever. Ironically, Britain’s global dominance made it a target market for edible imports that began to flood into the country towards the end of the nineteenth century. Tinned meats were salt-heavy, whereas canned fruit was syrup-heavy, and condensed milk laden with sugar. It was the sudden increase in sugared foods that sowed the seeds of decline in this brief period of good health, rapidly ruining teeth to the extent that many of the foods consumed in large numbers before could no longer be eaten. This decline, which was so evident when men were being recruited for the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, served to create the popular image of the undernourished working poor that we now tend to associate with the whole of the Victorian era.
The MDPI report concludes that today’s intensively grown crops are less beneficial than the organically grown fruit and veg the Mid-Victorians ate, their meat was all free-range, and (to get technical for a mo) their diet contained ‘pharmacological levels’ of phytonutrients that were effectively protection against cancers, heart diseases and other degenerative disorders that are so in abundance today. It makes for surprising, sober and fascinating reading. Not only does it shine a fresh light on an era retrospectively (and, it would seem, erroneously) regarded as a low-point in public health; it also makes one realise that twentieth and twenty-first century advances in medical and pharmaceutical science are only ever a stay of execution when we’re being dished up crap.
© The Editor