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Weighty Issues

Something is missing from the archives – weight. Or, so it was thought. Trawling through 19th century sources, just occasionally, it is possible to find data on both the height and weight of humans. Dr Deborah Oxley reports on using the archives at the BLARS to further her research.

Why would you want to? For over 30 years, economic historians have been using stature – adult height, and the time it takes children to reach that height – to measure historical wellbeing. How tall we grow is a function of genetic inheritance, on the one hand, and a clever bodily calculation on the other: the balance between nutritional intakes, minus outtakes demanded by work, keeping warm, fighting illness etc. We need a surplus on that equation for the body to grow. Good nutrition over the growing years should mean we reach our maximum height. Good times mixed with bad times may compromise whether we reach our genetic potential, and it is likely to be attained at a later age: the body is clever and malnourished children can grow for longer to ‘catch up’, if their conditions improve. Ongoing deficit, and we are stunted. When we analyse large data sets, we minimise individual genetic variation, and capture this bigger nutritional-activity balancing act. Over time, average adult heights go up and down, and age at maturity alters. Such patterns tell us something about historical living standards.

Arguably even more potent is the relationship between height, weight and health. Body mass index is weight adjusted for height (BMI = kg/m2). At either end of the body mass spectrum, morbidity and mortality risks are elevated. Today we are all aware of the dangers of being obese (that is, having a very high body mass): Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, and seemingly some cancers. Being underweight is also perilous. It increases susceptibility to infection, especially respiratory ones, obstructive lung disease, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease, and neoplasms (growths, both benign and malignant). For women there are added risks of amenorrhea and dysmenorrhoea (absence or disruption of the menstrual cycle), osteoporosis, and having babies whose birth weights and survivorship prospects are compromised.

Never before or since the 19th century has being underweight been such a health hazard: earlier, and the infectious disease environment was partly tamed by a more dispersed population; later, antibiotics saved the day. In 19th century Britain, overcrowded cities, lack of sanitation, public health, medical knowledge and pharmaceuticals meant that your best chance of surviving an illness was outlasting it – and that meant having enough body weight to see you through fever, diarrhoea and vomiting.

BMI tells historians about health risks and about how those risks were distributed within a population. It is revealing about gender, too, and ageing, and labour productivity. If we can measure the BMI of boys, girls, men and women from similar types of households, then we can say something about a matter that has perplexed historians for a very long time: how families distribute scarce resources between their members. With BMI, we have a direct measure of consumption versus expenditure, at least in terms of nutrients. And, unlike height (which changes only a little after the mid-20s), weight can fluctuate throughout an individual’s lifetime. Weight and BMI therefore can be used to look at the human body as it aged, and measure the likely health consequences faced.

The ideal data set would contain many males and females of all ages, and would record their ages, heights and weights, and preferably other information, like marital status, number of children, occupations, level of education, places of birth and residency, etc. The people covered in the records would be representative of the broader population, or – at least – there would be some way of establishing from which strata of society they came (such as trade or calling). So far, we have found height and weight data for nearly 50,000 prisoners held in just a couple of prisons, one in London, and one near Glasgow. Not surprisingly, these 19th century bodies were much shorter and lighter than we are, on average, and older London women were dangerously undernourished. Intriguingly, the BMI and health of women seems to have been very much tied to labour market opportunities for themselves and their children, with work improving their bargaining position in the household.

Now, the hunt is on! This is why we visited the Bedfordshire and Luton Records and Archives Service on Monday 22 February 2010, lured in part by their excellent websiteand intriguing database of gaol records.  

The staff at the Archives Service really know their stuff, and they came up with great suggestions for places to look for weight data. Approved Schools, prison records, executioners’ macabre measurements, asylums, hospitals, maternity records, and Poor Law Unions. It transpires that the Carlton Training School repeatedly measured the heights and weights of boys [ref. X521/8/4 below], while ref. QGV10/4 is a volume of prisoners that records the weight of male offenders, and contains photos of both men and women!

Frank Small measurements

Beds Reformatory Weights and Measurements

To close, consider the poignant case of Catherine May, recorded in this document (below). At 28 years of age, this illiterate young woman was to be found incarcerated

To close, consider the poignant case of Catherine May, recorded in the gaol register. At 28 years of age, this illiterate young woman was to be found incarcerated in Bedford Gaol. She was a little shorter than average at 4’ 11½ ‘’ tall, a dressmaker by training, living without fixed abode. Born in London, she had moved around, and had previously been convicted in Brighton in 1860 for picking pockets. Catherine was arrested in Bedford for ‘stealing from the person of one Maria Burne a purse and money at the parish of St Paul, Bedford on the 21st April 1863’, for which she was sentenced to three years penal servitude. She was missing two of her upper front teeth, was ‘a little sunfreckled + consumptive, has also a diseased leg’. We do not know her weight, but in her photograph she looks undernourished and depressed. In the event, the length of sentence was largely immaterial. Just five months later, her record notes: ‘Died, Sept 26 1863’.

One hundred years later, in October 1963, I was born in Bedford Hospital, once the Workhouse for the parish – and now want to know about the heights and weights and stories of men, and women like Catherine, in order to piece together the gender and health history of 19th century Britain.

Dr Deborah Oxley & Dr David Meredith, All Souls College and History Faculty, University of Oxford

Work on the Wandsworth Prison records is discussed in Sara Horrell, David Meredith and Deborah Oxley, ‘Measuring misery: Body mass, ageing and gender inequality in Victorian London’, Explorations in Economic History 46 (2009), pp. 93-119.