manchester, children, and sunlight -- 10/06/17

Today's selection -- from Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. In the early 1800s, Manchester, England, was the center of the new coal mining boom that was powering the Industrial Revolution. The smoke produced was so thick that children developed rickets from, in part, the lack of sunlight:

"Like most factory towns, Manchester grew rapidly, and little value was placed on aesthetics, health, or anything other than industry. No space was set aside for public parks or patches of greenery, and their absence was sorely felt in the tightly packed slums. A doctor testifying before a parliamentary commission commented on the paucity of public gardens and walks in Man­chester, stating that 'it is scarcely in the power of the factory workman to taste the breath of nature or to look upon its verdure, and this defect is a strong impediment to convalescence from dis­ease, which is usually tedious and difficult in Manchester.'

"One 1840s government report notes that the density of smoke in Manchester had 'risen to an intolerable pitch, and is annually increasing, the air is rendered visibly impure, and no doubt unhealthy, abounding in soot, soiling the clothing and fur­niture of the inhabitants, and destroying the beauty and fertility of the garden as well as the foliage and verdure of the country.' An 1842 account describes 'an inky canopy which seemed to embrace and involve the entire place.'

"Overall, this was a time when the population of England was increasing, for reasons that are still the subject of debate, but national statistics hide what was actually happening in the grow­ing slums. An 1842 government report on the sanitary conditions of the working class -- a report that would help launch the public health movement in Britain -- stated that 'it is an appalling fact that, of all who are born of the labouring classes in Manchester, more than 57 per cent die before they attain five years of age.' The report makes it dramatically clear that the high death rates were a function of both poverty and urban surroundings. The childhood death rates gave the poor of Manchester an average life expectancy of only seventeen years; the professionals and gentry of the city could expect thirty-eight years. By contrast, the rural poor (taking as an example one region where wages were reported as half those of Manchester) had an average life span of thirty-eight years (the same as the well-off in Manchester), and the well-off in the countryside had an average life span of fifty­-two.

England, after urbanization and industrialization: Manchester, mid-1800s

"Those who did survive had a pronounced lack of health and vitality. One observer, writing in 1833, recalled 'the robust and well-made' men who worked in the preindustrial cottage indus­tries, and bemoaned the 'vast deterioration in personal form which has been brought about in the manufacturing population, during the last thirty years' -- a deterioration marked by pallid skin, sunken cheeks, bowed legs, flat feet, curved spines, and a general air of dejection. Queen Victoria visited the city in 1851, and although she approved of the orderly behavior of the Man­chester crowd, calling it the best she had seen ('nobody moved, and therefore everybody saw well'), she couldn't help but notice that they were a 'painfully unhealthy-looking popula­tion.' Declining urban health soon became a national security issue. During the Crimean War, which broke out in 1854, 42 per­cent of urban recruits were rejected for physical weakness (compared to only 17 percent of rural recruits), and these were young men who had already been screened by local recruiters.

"A malady that stunted and deformed those living in the shad­ows of the mills, even before they could be employed within them, was rickets. Rickets mainly strikes infants and toddlers, but it can hit later, too, and severe cases cause permanently bowed and stunted legs, a shrunken chest and pelvis, a curved spine, weakened muscles, and an impaired immune system. The chest deformities and immunity problems predispose victims to bron­chitis, emphysema, and pneumonia, and in females the con­tracted pelvises make subsequent childbirth much more dangerous.

"Rickets has an unusual cause and an unusual cure. Humans share with the most primitive algae the ability to photosynthesize part of the solar spectrum into a critical nutrient, ours being vita­min D. We can also get vitamin D from our diets, but even today much of the world gets its vitamin D from sunlight, and sunlight was undoubtedly an even more important source of vitamin D in the past. Cut us off from sunshine without giving us another source of vitamin D and, like plants kept too long in the dark, we will begin to wilt. Our bones will literally soften and bend, even­tually taking on a consistency more like cartilage than bone.

"Babies raised in the new industrial darkness of the 1800s were vulnerable to rickets for many reasons: They were gener­ally malnourished, no one had the time or space to take them strolling outdoors, and, perhaps most important, Manchester's smoke-blocked sun was no more than 'a disc without rays,' in Tocqueville's words. In the new industrial cities, rickets reached epidemic proportions among urban children, and came to be known elsewhere simply as 'the English disease.' In some neighborhoods, doctors reported that every child they saw showed signs of rickets. As recently as 1918, a government report found that not less than half the general population in Britain's industrial areas suffered from rickets, and called the disease 'probably the most potent factor interfering with the efficiency of the race.'

"A century before the role of the sun in preventing rickets was established, a doctor testifying before a parliamentary com­mission investigating night work by children in the factories argued that sunlight was critical to children's growth. He pointed out that the deformities common in the industrial towns were absent among Mexicans and Peruvians, who were continu­ously exposed to light. These concerns were brushed aside by Dr. Andrew Ure, who wrote a lengthy defense of the factory sys­tem in his 1835 book The Philosophy of Manufactures, and who was certain that the brilliant coal-gas lighting of a cotton mill was more than adequate to meet the developmental needs of the young 'factory inmates.' "



Barbara Freese


Coal: A Human History


Basic Books


Copyright 2003 by Barbara Freese


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