‘Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working-class families were dead by five years of age.’
During the Victorian era, the United Kingdom became a world power. An industrial revolution had begun, and craftsmanship took a backseat to mass production. This was a major change for most of the agricultural towns in England. These rapid changes brought new wealth to some a crushing poverty to others and led to the astronomically high rates of infant and child mortality in London and other parts of the UK.
Often working for 12 hours a day, exhausted children would return home to not much of a meal in an overcrowded, damp house in a slum where outbreaks of disease were commonplace. Scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhus and typhoid are now quite rare, but were untreatable killers 150 years ago. Living in such terrible conditions meant poor children were weak, malnourished, and unable to fight off illness.
These days, nearly 80 percent of deaths happen in hospitals, not in the home, so it removes us from this process. In mid-nineteenth century London, the average life span for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for a tradesman and 22 for a labourer. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working-class families were dead by five years of age.
The environment throughout London itself was atrocious. The blackened rain that fell from the sky from the smog, which hovered over London and inadequate sewage systems that polluted water sources, created outbreaks of disease. When pregnant women became ill, there was an increased probability their infant would be stillborn or develop a complication. Even if the baby was healthy at birth, their lungs were still developing and could be overwhelmed by the chemicals in the air which could bring diseases to the child as well.
Death was a common visitor to Victorian households, and the younger a child was, the more vulnerable it would be. Tuberculosis was also a common killer and by the mid-19th century, it accounted for 60,000 children’s deaths per year.
Before the epidemic of 1845, they thought rancid food caused cholera. As one can imagine, the medicine for this included avoidance of the foods suspected of spreading the disease. Of course, through what we know today, this is undeniably ridiculous. However, their lack of biological and medical understanding made these causes believable.
The early Victorian medical practises were a world away from what we are used to seeing today. In the first half of Victoria’s reign, treatments didn’t evolve the way they were expected to. Early Victorian physicians had some understanding of anatomy. However, their ideas of the nervous system and understanding of blood was a far-cry from what is understood today.
Surgery was another place the Victorians struggled on. In the early Victorian era, they performed surgery with no anaesthetic. Although a skilled surgeon could amputate a broken leg in thirty seconds, often the blood loss and pain would kill the patient before the surgery was done. During these times, the mortality rate was, on average, one in four. As the Victorian era went on, pseudo-anaesthesia was introduced: alcohol and opiates, though these did little in the way of making the pain at least tolerable. Surgery was often a last resort due to not only the pain and suffering the patient would go through, but also a surgeon would often have to deal with a patient squirming out of pain or fear; some also tried to escape. Therefore, surgery was only used if they thought no other treatment would work.
During the later Victorian years, medical improvements were vast; the practises were more recognisable to what we are familiar with today.These developments and improvements included the ophthalmoscope and improved microscopes that revealed micro-organisms, to instruments like the kymograph, to measure blood pressure and muscular contraction.
During the infamous cholera outbreak of 1854, thought to be caused because dirty air from rotting fruits spreads diseases such as cholera, chlamydia and the Black Death, Dr John Snow established that contaminated water caused the epidemic from a public pump in crowded Soho. This made physicians more aware of bacteria and all the effects that cleanliness and sanitation had on the health of others. They understood more about the causes of illnesses and how to avoid them more appropriately.
Much greater developments, in terms of cleanliness and sterilisation, occurred in the 1890s with dressings allowing surgical wounds to heal more effectively and healthily, and instruments that could be easily sterilised, replacing the bone and wooden handled tools that could not be sterilised so easily. With the understanding of bacteria, the diagnosis of a person’s illness became more reliable, and the treatment, especially surgery.
TALES OF LONDON’S DARKER HISTORY
Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.
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