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Oliver Twist

Death, Diet and Disease

Death, Diet and Disease title graphic

Life in Victorian England

During the Victorian era England was undergoing rapid change. Advancement in science, medicine, industry and political thought was at its height. Britain was the wealthiest country in the world, with its Empire expanding and adding to this prosperity. However this prosperity was not shared by all of Victoria’s subjects. Women did not have the vote and many could not work. The only common occupations for women were governess or teacher. Their working-class counterparts may have found employment in factories or even prostitution as a last resort. Poverty during this period was atrocious. Many people lived in conditions that we would find shocking today. The workhouse was a looming presence. Many chose a life of crime rather than the slow starvation that this institution inflicted. People lived the best they could; some survived, many did not.

Death, Diet and Disease

The three D's are very interconnected. Children, again, dependent on social class, were vulnerable to a whole host of diseases. Some were air born and others were carried in the water supply. Modern technology ensures that today we all get clean drinking water and the UK has a National Health Service (NHS), whereby everyone can have access to doctors and healthcare without charge. Science and medicine have also progressed. You may remember having injections to immunise you from diseases such as polio, measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough. All of these diseases and illnesses are now preventable, but during Victorian times they were major killers. Malnutrition and a poor diet in general resulted in other conditions such as rickets (caused by a deficiency in Vitamin D) and scurvy (a deficiency in Vitamin C). In Oliver Twist the character of Mr Sowerbury is a subtle reminder that death was a constant part of every day life. During Oliver's short stay in his household, we see that he has a continuous demand for coffins, receiving an order practically everyday. Even the rich were touched by these factors. Queen Victoria herself lost her husband, Prince Albert, to typhoid. Her son Edward Albert also suffered from typhoid, which he contracted from 'the bad drains at Sandringham'

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy was influenced by a number of factors. One of these was social class, which affected both living and working conditions. This meant that the living conditions of the poor were so appalling that they would be unrecognisable today. Open sewers were commonplace and were breeding grounds for germs and disease. The situation was highlighted when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert planned a trip on the Thames, but had to stop because the smell was so overwhelming. The stench was so bad the Houses of Parliament were closed. The main victims of these conditions were children, as almost half the numbers of funerals at that time were those of children under 10. It was not until improvements in these conditions came about through legislation that the life expectancy of all increased. Since the Victorian era, life expectancy has increased enormously and on average we now live at least 25 years longer than people could expect to during Victorian times.

Related Learning Resources

Oliver's London: Street Life
Oliver's London: Workhouses
Rich and Poor

Elsewhere on the web

Victorian Child Health

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