Victorians: Food and Health

In the Victorian period the growth of the railway network made it possible to transport food from the countryside to urban markets much more easily, greatly improving the quality of produce available there. But there was still no cure for most diseases, despite innovations in medicine, and life expectancy remained stubbornly low.

The 19th-century kitchen at Audley End, Essex
The 19th-century kitchen at Audley End, Essex


At the beginning of the 19th century almost all food was still produced locally, and since four-fifths of the population lived in the countryside, they had ready access to it.

As more people moved into the cities, however, it became imperative to find new ways to transport and store food. The arrival of the railways made it possible to move the basic English foodstuffs – flour, potatoes, root vegetables and beer – at speed, and over great distances.

Other innovations that made distributing food easier included long-life products such as condensed milk, dried eggs and soups, and bottled sauces. Britain’s first large-scale meat-canning factory was set up in 1865, and by the 1870s almost every middle-class kitchen had a tin opener.

In the 1880s the refrigerated transport of meat became possible, opening up the option of large-scale imports from the Americas. Meat became cheaper, and a regular part of the diet of all classes for the first time.

Slum housing in Market Court, Kensington, in about 1865.
Slum housing in Market Court, Kensington, in about 1865. Slums sprang up across English towns and cities in the 19th century as a consequence of rapid industrialisation and unprecedented population growth. Their cramped, squalid and insanitary conditions were breeding grounds for diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis. © Historic England Archive


Throughout the 19th century the most fashionable cuisine was French. Its dominance was encouraged by books by celebrity chefs, most famously Marie-Antoine Carême (1783–1833). His L’Art de la cuisine française, translated into English in 1836, was highly influential. Such works would doubtless have informed the food served at great houses like Witley Court, Worcestershire, and Audley End, Essex.

Middle-class households also turned to books for guidance. The most successful was Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management (1861), which, innovatively, specified exact quantities and precise cooking times.

This recipe for ginger beer, dating from the 1880s, was discovered in the cookery book of Avis Crocombe, cook at Audley End House, Essex
This recipe for ginger beer, dating from the 1880s, was discovered in the cookery book of Avis Crocombe, cook at Audley End House, Essex


Beer was by far the most popular drink in Victorian England. In 1900 annual consumption per head was 32.5 gallons. Although it was weaker than beer today – 1% to 3.5% proof compared with about 5% – there was great disquiet about the influence of alcohol on society, and by the 1840s a vigorous temperance movement had taken root. Some of the largest temperance rallies in northern England were held at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire, in 1848–51, attracting up to 19,000 people.


Infectious diseases were the greatest cause of Victorian mortality. Most of these, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and influenza, were old scourges, but in 1831 Britain suffered its first epidemic of cholera. Slowly it was understood that it was spread by water contaminated by sewage.

The impact of cholera and the work of campaigners for public health led in 1848 to the creation of local boards of health, with powers to enforce regulations for clean water supplies and better drainage. Further legislation in the 1870s gave local authorities wider powers to combat insanitary urban living conditions.


Queen Victoria’s portable medicine chest at Osborne House, Isle of Wight
Queen Victoria’s portable medicine chest at Osborne House, Isle of Wight. It included a range of remedies, including soap liniment, camphorated oil and laudanum (opium). Laudanum in particular was a common Victorian painkiller used by rich and poor alike for a variety of ailments: readily available from chemists, it was even prescribed for babies and young children.


Among the great 19th-century advances in medicine were anaesthetics, the revolution in nursing instigated by Florence Nightingale, the identification of microbes as a cause of disease, and the development of antiseptic surgery.

These innovations had little significant impact on life expectancy, though, since most diseases remained incurable. Although Victorians who attained adulthood could expect to live into old age, average life expectancy at birth was low: in 1850 it was 40 for men and 42 for women. By 1900 it was 45 for men and 50 for women.

This slow but steady rise resulted from a decline in infant deaths, itself largely a product of better public health.

More about Victorian England

  • Victorian Architecture

    The architectural profession is largely a Victorian creation. From the 1820s, architects began to experiment with a profusion of styles.

  • Victorian Power and Politics

    Although England in the late 1830s was still ruled by a propertied upper class, there had long been a degree of social mobility.

  • Victorian Daily Life

    Although the Victorian era was a period of extreme social inequality, industrialisation brought about rapid changes in everyday life.

  • Victorian Commerce

    Overseas trade and an extensive commercial infrastructure made Britain in the 19th century the most powerful trading nation in the world.

  • Victorian Food and Health

    In the Victorian period the growth of the railways made it possible to transport food to markets. But there was still no cure for most diseases and life expectancy remained low.

  • Victorian Parks and Gardens

    An extraordinary number of innovations in the study and cultivation of plants were made during the Victorian period. Meanwhile, gardening became a national obsession.

  • Victorians: War

    Victorian Britain was both the greatest power in the world and the least militarised. Its military shortcomings were starkly revealed by the disastrous Crimean and Boer Wars.

  • Victorian Religion

    The Victorian era saw the Church of England become increasingly only one part of a vibrant and often competitive religious culture.

Victorian Stories

  • Below Stairs at Audley End

    What were Victorian servants’ lives like? Discover the stories of the men, women and children who worked at Audley End House, Essex, in the 1880s.

  • How Dracula Came to Whitby

    How Bram Stoker’s visit to the town of Whitby provided him with atmospheric locations for a Gothic novel – and a name for his famous vampire.

  • Birthdays at Osborne

    Find out how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrated their birthdays, and what the gifts they exchanged tell us about their private lives.

  • The ‘Osborne Style’: From Naples to Melbourne

    How Osborne House’s Italianate design – the inspiration of Prince Albert – came to be imitated in public buildings throughout the British Empire.

  • The Darwin Family at Down House

    How Charles and Emma Darwin’s children were both seen and heard during their surprisingly boisterous childhood at Down House in Kent.

  • Child Labour in the Lake District

    Stott Park Bobbin Mill is located in an idyllic spot, but life was far from ideal for the ‘bobbin boys’ who worked there in the 19th century.

  • The Dilessi Massacre and a Gothic Revival Masterpiece

    How the death of a young English aristocrat taken hostage in Greece inspired the building of St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal.

  • The Match Girls’ Strike

    Read about one of the most important strikes in modern British history, which took place at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888.

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