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Decorative Initial T he consequences of poverty are most apparent in the diets of the poor. It takes a considerable leap of the imagination to recapture the Victorian working-class diet, for we have preconceived notions of the 'good old days' before the onslaught of pre-packaged, processed, artificially coloured, 'convenience' foods, and we have, perhaps, an image of John Bull, contentedly overweight from all the benefits of free trade and the beef and ale diet which distinguished the English from unfortunate foreigners. But to enter the world of the Victorian working man's diet is to enter the world of the savage — it was uncertain in supply, primitive in content, and unhealthy in effect. Few of the poor had ovens and had to rely either on open-fire pan cooking, buy their hot food out, or make do with cold meals. Even at the turn of the century social workers entering the homes of the poor to teach wives how to cook were aghast to discover that the family possessed only one pot, and that before their lesson in economy stews and soups could begin the pot would have to be cleaned of the baby's bath water, or worse. As late as 1904 an official committee of inquiry was distressed to learn how few of the poor had sufficient utensils and appliances to cook at home. Primitive or non-existent cooking facilities, lack of cheap fuel, poverty, ignorance, and adulterated foods combined to produce a nation, not of John Bulls but, by today's standards, of pygmies, who were undernourished, anaemic, feeble and literally rickety.

. . . Esther Copley's Cottage Cookery (1849) suggests the poverty of the rural diet, for her recipes were for potato pie, stirabout, stewed ox-cheek, and mutton chitterlings. In Wiltshire, admittedly one of the poorer counties, the Poor Law Commission found that the standard fare consisted of bread, butter, potatoes, beer, and tea, with some bacon for those earning higher wages. . . .If the rural poor ate birds then the urban poor ate pairings of tripe, slink (prematurely born calves), or broxy (diseased sheep). Edgar Wallace recollects working-class families along the Old Kent Road shopping for 'tainted' pieces of meat and 'those odds and ends of meat, the by-products of the butchering business.' Sheep's heads at 3d each and American bacon at between 4d and 6d a pound (half the price of the native product) were too expensive for the irregularly-employed casual labourer to have frequently. In Macclesfield 23 per cent of the silk workers and in Coventry 17 per cent of the labourers had never tasted meat. Stocking weavers, shoe makers, needle women and silk weavers ate less than one pound of meat a week and less than eight ounces of fats. . . .

It was not until the last quarter of the century that the working man's diet improved significantly. Between 1877 and 1889 the cost of the average national weekly food basket of butter, bread, tea, milk and meat fell by some 30 per cent, and it was in this period that the first really appreciable nutritional improvement (aided by a greater variety of foods and new methods of retailing), occurred. The cheaper food products which came in with the refrigerator- and then freezer-ships, the development of inexpensive margarine, the fall in price of most consumer items, all served to increase both the variety and quantity of the workmen's diet in this period.

References

Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. pp. 48-49, 50-51.


Victorian Web Public Health

Last modified 11 October 2002