In the Victorian period, adulterated food was everywhere, and nothing was as it seemed. For instance, bread often contained ground bones, plaster, lime and pipe- clay; alum was also added to increase the weight and add whiteness, but it frequently caused severe indigestion.
Adulteration was evident in many other foods, too. Confectionery was bright and attractive because potentially lethal salts of copper and lead were used to colour it. Beer was diluted and adulterated with vitriol and cocculus indicus, which could cause convulsions, gastroenteritis and over-stimulate the respiratory system.
Until 1875, there was very little control over the food and drink sold to the public. Under the Sale of Food and Drugs Act, passed in that year, inspectors had the power to sample food and drugs, and to test them for adulteration. This was the beginning of trading standards legislation to protect customers.
By the 1890s, a clear link had been demonstrated between diet and health. Regular reports were made by the Medical Officer of Health for each particular area, and they provide details about health and disease, including food standards. The National Archives of Scotland holds Scottish reports from 1891-1972; local record offices and health service archives also have reports for various years but there is no complete run. Check the Scottish Archive Network for availability ( www. scan.org.uk).
You can also view more than 29,000 Medical Officer of Health reports from across Britain online ( https://archive.org/details/ medical officer of health reports ). The Well come Library’s fantastic digitised resource London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 18481972 is worth looking at if your ancestors were from the Greater London area ( https:// wellcomelibrary.org/moh/).
The poor diet of the working classes continued to be a cause for concern up to World War 1. In Maud Pember Reeves’ Round About a Pound a Week (1913), ‘Mrs B’ was a typical working- class woman with three children and ‘a careful husband’. In 1911, after paying rent, coal, gas and other bills, the family had only 10 da week, or 1 da day, per head, for food.
Between 1916 and 1918, 2.5 million men conscripts were medically examined, and almost half were considered unfit for service because of ill-health. This led to the establishment of the Ministry of Health after the war. Ironically, rationing during World War 2 would leave the nation fitter and healthier because of better knowledge about nutrition.
The poor diet of the working classes continued to be a cause for concern up to World War 1