Brittney K Shields Wilford
British Archaeological Reports, £21
ISBN 978-1404316093
Review Natasha Powers

Based on the results of the author’s MPhil research at Durham University, this volume examines an intriguing hypothesis: that the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834 had such a profound effect on the diet of the poor that it left visible traces on their bones. It does so by interrogating historical data, with an osteological assessment of the health of five buried populations.

An integrated approach to examining the past is an important one to take, but it is also notoriously tricky. Differences between the Old Poor Law, enacted in 1601, and the New Poor Law, introduced in 1834, are outlined at the end of Chapter 2. Inevitably there is some historical generalisation, and aspects would have benefited from further use of primary sources, but the information on the changes in society’s view on poverty has a sobering modern resonance. The writers of the 19th century felt the Old Poor Laws were operated with ‘unregulated kindness’, leaving an indolent population happy to live on handouts. This resonance is picked up in conclusions discussing the cyclical nature of welfare reform and briefly bring us to the present day.

Records from St John’s, Hackney, coupled with commissioners’ reports, enable the dietary and calorific value of the recommended diets (found wanting in both respects), and the activities that this diet had to sustain, to be presented; indolent inmates they were not. Shoreditch workhouse provides details of age and sex, and it is refreshing to see a study using the ‘big data’ of the Museum of London’s osteological database.

There is a non-technical outline of the pathological conditions examined, and the author discusses the limitations of her approach, from the ‘osteological paradox’ to the problems of phasing cemeteries. Her approach provides a springboard for further research and, while she is ultimately unable to prove a direct correlation between the introduction of the New Poor Law and changes in the incidence of skeletal pathology, the attempt to demonstrate the effect of widespread societal changes on health and longevity is to be commended.

This review appeared in CA 341.

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