2/15/13 - child prisoners

In today's selection -- the Industrial Revolution brought the greatest explosion of increased wealth the world had ever seen, and yet this benefit was heavily skewed towards the elite. The poor, especially in the early years of this change, left farms to work in factories, and with that fell victim to poor nutrition that left them far shorter than their wealthy counterparts -- almost ten inches shorter at age fourteen. An official in Australia, upon receiving a group of child prisoners from England (almost all prisoners were poor, a surprisingly large number were children, and many were shipped to colonies like Australia and America as indentured servants to relieve overcrowded prisons), was stunned at how small and fragile the children were for their ages:

"Although agricultural output [in England] more than doubled between 1750 and 1850, population increased by 165 per cent. Imported commodities did little to compensate. ... There is general agreement that as urbanization progressed diet shifted from the home-made to the store-bought and ready-cooked, with an emphasis on the less nutritious commodities of white loaves, tea, and sugar. Nutritional quality was also lost as food adulteration became rife. Alum was added to flour, meat was poor quality and often near rotten, and beer was watered down. Even as wages rose later in the nineteenth century, people chose palatability and ease of effort over (little understood) nutritive content. ...

Author: Sarah Horrell and Deborah Oxley
Title: "Bringing home the bacon? Regional nutrition, stature, and gender in the industrial revolution;"

"In 1843 the Guardian of Juvenile Immigrants in Western Australia, on receiving his first group of boys from Parkhurst Prison, reported that:

'not a little delay arose from the willingness on the part of many potential employers who had no other objection to advance, and receive boys of so small a size and delicate in appearance; so small indeed as to create great doubt in my mind as to whether they could be really of the respective ages set down. In case of any future immigration I would most respectfully urge, that lads of a large growth, should be sent out.'

"As the Governor of Parkhurst Prison observed four years later, the age of the boys sent out tended to be understated -- they were in fact older than was recorded, and thus even more compromised in stature than they appeared. In his little-known work, Gandevia, a medical researcher, found that at the age of 14-16 years the next, native-born generation was on average 15 centimetres taller than the British born cohort.

"Poor environmental conditions bear very apparently on the human frame. In the nineteenth century, contemporaries could easily relate puny children to household poverty, and in a broader sense to the 'condition of England'. By the early twentieth century the satisfactory growth of children was seen as an indication of the health of the nation. Weighing and measuring of newborn babies and close monitoring of the weight and length gain by the use of growth charts is still the prevailing way of measuring the well-being of babies and young children. The World Health Organization's decade-long global project to look at child stature confirms that growth rates are universal and that genetic or ethnic backgrounds do not influence average height.

Floud, [Wachter and Gregory's research] results, based on a comparison of poor boys recruited by the Marine Society and upper-class entrants to the elite military academy of Sandhurst, showed a slow upward trend for cohorts born between 1750 and 1825 but clearly demonstrate a large disparity in height between the two groups. At the age of 14, the Sandhurst recruits were almost 10 inches taller than their poor compatriots. ... While becoming less obvious over time, the difference in height certainly persisted for the whole of the nineteenth century and even longer. ... Convict heights ... suggest a more pessimistic picture than that found by Floud et al. for the late eighteenth century, with stunting evident for the working class in the early phase of intensive industrialization. ... Also, relative deprivation, such as fatherlessness, had a proven impact on height." [from Pamela Sharpe]

Author: Pamela Sharpe
Title: "Explaining the short stature of the poor: chronic childhood disease and growth in nineteenth century England;" 


Edited By: Professor S.N. Broadberry and Professor P.R. Schofield


The Economic History Review: a journal of economic and social history


Wiley and Sons


Volume 65, No. 4 November 2012


1354-1355 & 1475-1476
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