Georgians: Food & Health

The Georgian period saw a revolution in agriculture that greatly increased food production – all but the poorest people ate better and more nutritious meals than their predecessors. Though there were medical advances in the period, urban death rates remained high. 

The Tea House bridge in the Elysian Garden at Audley End, Essex

The Tea House bridge in the Elysian Garden at Audley End, Essex

EATING WELL

Prosperous Georgians ate very well – or copiously, at least. On 11 July 1789 the Norfolk parson James Woodforde sat down to fresh salmon, roast mutton, fricasseed rabbit, roast ducks with peas, currant pie and syllabubs, with a dessert of strawberries, cherries and currants.

For the average London craftsman, however, bread, beer and cheese or fatty bacon made an excellent ‘sixpenny’ dinner. Doubtless he sometimes placed the meat between two slices of bread, but the first sandwich was credited to Lord Sandwich, who needed a hasty snack during a 24-hour gambling session in 1762.

The growth of domestic and foreign trade meant that fresh produce, including fruit and vegetables, and groceries, including luxuries such as tea and sugar, were available to townspeople. Even poorer people could afford to eat out occasionally in the thousands of taverns serving cheap meals.

Chinoiserie teapot from Marble Hill House

A porcelain teapot with Chinese decoration from Marble Hill House, Twickenham. Enthusiasm for tea-drinking spurred the creation of English-made porcelain in the 1740s, to copy the way tea was served in China and the Far East.

BREAD AND GIN

Throughout the period, bread remained the basic foodstuff for the underclasses. Its cost fluctuated with the price of corn, which more than doubled during the war years of 1793–1815, leading to food riots. Landowners prospered as the poor starved, or consoled themselves with gin.

The ‘Gin Craze’ originated in the early 18th century, when surplus grain was distilled and flavoured with juniper berries. By 1730 the London poor were drinking over six million gallons annually, rising to over 11 million gallons 20 years later. ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence’ offer the advertisements depicted in William Hogarth’s Gin Lane. This was published in 1751, when 9,000 London children died from gin-drinking – before the government began at last to control sales.

The prosperous preferred brandy or wine, particularly the (then unfortified) Portuguese red called port, much cheaper than heavily taxed or smuggled French ‘claret’.

The icehouse at Kenwood

The ice house in the dairy at Kenwood House, London. Ice houses, introduced into Britain in the late 17th century, were used, in the absence of refrigerators, to preserve perishable food in ice for long periods.

VACCINATIONS

Inadequate nutrition may have contributed to disease. Smallpox was a major 18th-century hazard, killing 20% of those infected and disfiguring most survivors. From 1721 limited protection was available via inoculation with human smallpox matter – but this was a risky process.

The real breakthrough was made by Edward Jenner, who in 1796 began vaccinating patients with far less dangerous cowpox germs. Tuberculosis, essentially a disease caused by overcrowding, which killed 25% of its victims, took over from smallpox as the greatest single menace to health in the later Georgian period.

HYGIENE AND HEALTH

Increasing urbanisation also affected public health: London and other large towns and cities were especially hazardous for new arrivals and the very young, representing reservoirs of disease. Living conditions were often squalid, with no sanitation. Streets were noisy and filthy, and urban death rates remained stubbornly high. Only in 1800 did baptisms overtake burials in London.

Healthcare for the poor was slowly beginning to improve, however. In 1700 there were only two medical hospitals in London, but six more were founded between 1720 and 1750. All depended on the philanthropy of rich hospital governors, and none had a more spectacularly beneficial effect than the Foundling Hospital for unwanted babies, opened in 1745 by sea-captain Thomas Coram.

In many towns and in the countryside, though, the healthcare offered by charitable hospitals and dispensaries, country doctors and apothecaries was basic.

False teeth belonging to the Duke of Wellington

This set of false teeth, belonging to the Duke of Wellington, is made from real human teeth set into a mould with a gold backing. It is not known if these teeth were collected from a battlefield or sourced elsewhere.
© Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

TEETH

Many Georgians, particularly the rich, had bad teeth, one outcome of increasing sugar consumption. At a price, individual teeth could be expensively repaired with lead fillings, or removed and replaced with teeth ‘transplanted’ directly from the mouths of waiting paupers.

If all else failed, false teeth were available, made from silver, walrus ivory, or human teeth, allegedly collected on battlefields. For some years after 1815 they were commonly known as ‘Waterloo teeth’.

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