Victorians: Food & Health

In the Victorian period the growth of the railway network made it possible to transport food from the countryside to urban markets much more easily, greatly improving the quality of produce available there. But there was still no cure for most diseases, despite innovations in medicine, and life expectancy remained stubbornly low.

The 19th-century kitchen at Audley End, Essex

The 19th-century kitchen at Audley End, Essex

FEEDING THE CITIES

At the beginning of the 19th century almost all food was still produced locally, and since four-fifths of the population lived in the countryside, they had ready access to it.

As more people moved into the cities, however, it became imperative to find new ways to transport and store food. The arrival of the railways made it possible to move the basic English foodstuffs – flour, potatoes, root vegetables and beer – at speed, and over great distances.

Other innovations that made distributing food easier included long-life products such as condensed milk, dried eggs and soups, and bottled sauces. Britain’s first large-scale meat-canning factory was set up in 1865, and by the 1870s almost every middle-class kitchen had a tin opener.

In the 1880s the refrigerated transport of meat became possible, opening up the option of large-scale imports from the Americas. Meat became cheaper, and a regular part of the diet of all classes for the first time.

Photograph of slum housing in Market Court, Kensington, in about 1865.

Slum housing in Market Court, Kensington, in about 1865. Slums sprang up across English towns and cities in the 19th century as a consequence of rapid industrialisation and unprecedented population growth. Their cramped, squalid and insanitary conditions were breeding grounds for diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis.
© English Heritage Archive

CELEBRITY CHEFS

Throughout the 19th century the most fashionable cuisine was French. Its dominance was encouraged by books by celebrity chefs, most famously Marie-Antoine Carême (1783–1833). His L’Art de la cuisine française, translated into English in 1836, was highly influential. Such works would doubtless have informed the food served at great houses like Witley Court, Worcestershire, and Audley End, Essex.

Middle-class households also turned to books for guidance. The most successful was Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management (1861), which, innovatively, specified exact quantities and precise cooking times.

This recipe for ginger beer, dating from the 1880s, was discovered in the cookery book of Avis Crocombe, cook at Audley End House.

This recipe for ginger beer, dating from the 1880s, was discovered in the cookery book of Avis Crocombe, cook at Audley End House, Essex

BEER AND TEMPERANCE

Beer was by far the most popular drink in Victorian England. In 1900 annual consumption per head was 32.5 gallons. Although it was weaker than beer today – 1% to 3.5% proof compared with about 5% – there was great disquiet about the influence of alcohol on society, and by the 1840s a vigorous temperance movement had taken root. Some of the largest temperance rallies in northern England were held at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire, in 1848–51, attracting up to 19,000 people.

THE FIGHT AGAINST DISEASE

Infectious diseases were the greatest cause of Victorian mortality. Most of these, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and influenza, were old scourges, but in 1831 Britain suffered its first epidemic of cholera. Slowly it was understood that it was spread by water contaminated by sewage.

The impact of cholera and the work of campaigners for public health led in 1848 to the creation of local boards of health, with powers to enforce regulations for clean water supplies and better drainage. Further legislation in the 1870s gave local authorities wider powers to combat insanitary urban living conditions.

Queen Victoria’s portable medicine chest included a range of remedies, including soap liniment, camphorated oil and laudanum (opium).

Queen Victoria’s portable medicine chest at Osborne House, Isle of Wight. It included a range of remedies, including soap liniment, camphorated oil and laudanum (opium). Laudanum in particular was a common Victorian painkiller used by rich and poor alike for a variety of ailments: readily available from chemists, it was even prescribed for babies and young children.

LIFE EXPECTANCY

Among the great 19th-century advances in medicine were anaesthetics, the revolution in nursing instigated by Florence Nightingale, the identification of microbes as a cause of disease, and the development of antiseptic surgery.

These innovations had little significant impact on life expectancy, though, since most diseases remained incurable. Although Victorians who attained adulthood could expect to live into old age, average life expectancy at birth was low: in 1850 it was 40 for men and 42 for women. By 1900 it was 45 for men and 50 for women.

This slow but steady rise resulted from a decline in infant deaths, itself largely a product of better public health.

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