Diets In Victorian Britain Were Better In Poorer Regions Than Richer Ones

Artist John Slezer thought the arrival of the second agricultural revolution in Scotland was something to celebrate, but it actually made nutrition levels worse in the regions where it occurred. Public Domain

The Industrial Revolution saw vast floods of people moving from rural areas to the cities. Despite the horrendous poverty and disease to be found there, it seems logical people came because conditions in the countryside, at least for the poor, were worse. However, new evidence on Victorian-era diets complicates the situation, finding that people in the most isolated parts of the country ate relatively well, and had mortality rates to match. The findings have implications for fighting poverty today.

The fruits of science and engineering have enabled people today to live much longer and richer lives than ever before. However, the path hasn't always been smooth. Dr Peter Greaves of the Leicester Cancer Research Centre has made use of Britain's high-quality 19th-century record-keeping on births and deaths to investigate regional variation in mortality during that time. Using our modern understanding of the association between certain causes of death, such as pulmonary tuberculosis, and poor diet, combined with dietary surveys done at the time, Greaves has created a picture of how well people ate. The results are unexpected.

Farming was changing during this era. New technologies allowed greater efficiency of production, but these spread to some regions far more rapidly than others. Ironically, Greaves reports in the journal JRSM Open, systems of production that increased quantity, and profits for farm owners, actually worsened the average inhabitant's diet.

Greaves found residents of poorer regions like western Ireland and rural Scotland, where more advanced farming methods arrived later, ate a balanced diet. “The rural diet was often better for the poor in more isolated areas because of payment in kind, notably in grain, potatoes, meat, milk, or small patches of land to grow vegetables or to keep animals," Greaves said in a statement.

Meanwhile, in more developed areas, commercial farming meant there might be more food in total, but vital nutrients went missing, for example with white bread replacing whole grains. Life expectancy was actually lower, both in cities and in wealthy rural counties such as Cambridgeshire. As transport links improved, the urban poor slowly gained access to food diversity again, increasing their lifespan. However, many parts of Britain suffered decades of worsening diets even as incomes rose.

These findings might seem obscure, but could be highly relevant today. Policy makers and commentators often assume the key to ending world hunger and malnourishment lies in increasing the production of food, at least in regions where shortages prevail. Certainly, technologies to increase production have a key role to play, but Greaves' evidence reinforces more recent examples demonstrating that too much focus on production without considering social questions, particularly of distribution, can make nutrition worse.

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