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Friday, 4 November 2016

Upstairs Downstairs

Victorian Britain had many similarities with the Roman Empire ... these have often been couched in terms of Imperial ambition, Empire and governance of the natives etc, and even at a stretch the 'classical education' that the upper classes received.

However, lower down the social scale, it was the more mundane similarities, such as living conditions for the common man and woman that more readily identified the linkage. For instance most city dwelling Romans lived in poor multi-story flats that had no cooking facilities, and little privacy.

Many Victorians Ate Only In The Street

Similarly in Victorian times few of the lowest working classes lived in anything much better than multi-occupancy slum dwellings and would also have had no ovens or cooking utensils. Many didn't even own plates or spoons. Like their poor Roman counterparts of 1,800 years earlier, they lived mainly on food obtained in the street  ..... however often nowhere near as healthily, with the stock foods for the very poor being bread, gruel and broth (made from boiling up bones), as opposed to the healthy Mediterranean diet that the typical Roman ate in the street.  

The result of this imbalance in wealth, diets and privilege was that the physical stature of lower- and upper-class English youth showed the widest discrepancy in the Western world at the time. The average height gap between sixteen year old's who were rich or poor in England reached 22 cm. This was a larger gap than any other European or North American groups. The English rich were the tallest group at that time (including any other European or North American group), and in fact were only 2.5 cm shorter than today’s US standards. Generally the height of the poor declined in the late-18th century, and again in the 1830's - 1840's across the UK and European area, while the height of the wealthy tended rather to increase until the 1840s, and then levelled off.

British Army Recruitment Heights Are A Yard Stick Of Victorian Health ...

This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that teen recruits to the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst, with middle or upper class backgrounds, were amongst the tallest young men in the world at that time, averaging almost 175cm (5ft 9in), while naval recruits from the slums, were 22cm (8.6in) shorter.

Of course once you left the Victorian slums, even the working classes who were not slum dwellers had it far better, with a further life expectancy, if you reached age five, as good or better than exists today, and the incidence of degenerative disease was 10% less than we experience today. This was down to eating a similar diet to those Romans ....

Breakfast might well be stone-ground bread smeared with dripping or lard (consisting largely of healthy monounsaturated fats), accompanied by a large bunch of watercress, rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Other meals would include plenty of cheap, seasonal vegetables including onions, cabbage, leeks, carrots and turnips. The main fruits were apples in the winter and cherries in the summer.

They also ate lots of healthy, fibre-rich nuts, such as chestnuts and hazelnuts, which were often roasted and bought from street-corner sellers. So even though meat was relatively expensive (you could buy a sheep's head for about 3d - £2.50 in modern money), they ate plenty of omega-3-rich oily fish and seafood such as herrings, sprats, eels, oysters, mussels, cockles and whelks, cod and haddock. All rather Mediterranean if you look at it in the round .... and all fresh and unprocessed with little sugar.

Technically this is described as being a result of the fact that Victorians of all classes above the meanest had 'levels of physical activity (50 to 60 hours a week with resultant higher calorific intakes) approximately twice ours. They had relatively little access to alcohol and tobacco; and due to their correspondingly high intake of fruits, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables, they consumed levels of micro- and phytonutrients at approximately ten times the levels considered normal today.' ...

The result was that most Victorians also suffered less from chronic degenerative diseases than we do. They were 90% less likely to develop cancer, dementia and coronary artery disease than we are today, and diseases like type-2 diabetes, which plague modern society, were almost unheard of.

Sadly this golden age of mid Victorian health and growth in the general population was squandered after 1870, and by the 1890's conditions for all but the richest classes had been replaced by poorer diets.  

This diary of an unemployed family living in York in 1910, where a Mr Nevinson was having a very hard time ..... gives a good indication of how the very poor ate. If they didn't find a job,they didn't eat. From this diary its apparent that these families were only eating about a third of the calories they needed.

"Up at five, walked round and round the town until 12. Nothing doing anywhere, so I was fairly sick of walking about. No breakfast, no tea and no supper. Went to bed around 7.30."

The diaries reveal that in one week the family had just tea and bread for most meals. Occasionally they could afford margarine or jam as well. Sundays seemed plentiful in comparison.

Monday:
  • Breakfast - Tea, bread and margarine
  • Dinner - Tea, bread and margarine
  • Supper - Tea, bread
Tuesday:
  • Breakfast -Tea, bread and jam
  • Dinner - Tea, 3 stale buns
  • Supper - Tea, bread
 Sunday:
  • Breakfast - Tea, kippers, bread
  • Dinner - three pennyworth of meat pieces boiled with potatoes
  • Tea - bread and margarine, onions

2 comments:


  1. Tea and bread!? COLD tea - without milk or sugar - OR tea! In a filthy, cracked cup!
    - We never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper...

    Not to trivialise an excellent summary of bygone lifestyles, but it does conjure up some classic comedy.

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