Medicine transformed: on access to healthcare
Medicine transformed: on access to healthcare

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Medicine transformed: on access to healthcare

3.4 Health and the working class

However, for a large proportion of the population, altering diet, clothing or behaviour in the pursuit of better health was well nigh impossible. The working classes, who made up the vast majority of the population, survived on tight budgets. In 1913, the typical workers’ wage of £1 per week just covered the essentials of food and rent, and left limited opportunities to follow a healthier lifestyle (Pember Reeves, 1913). The staples of the working-class diet were white bread, margarine and tea. These cheap foods filled up hungry stomachs, but did not provide a balanced diet (Burnett, 1979, pp. 182–212). In 1901, one-quarter of the population were not getting enough to eat: as late as the 1930s, research showed that half the British population were eating a diet deficient in some vitamins and minerals (Burnett, 1979, pp. 245, 301–19). Just as members of the poorer classes found it difficult to afford a good diet, they also lacked the money, time, equipment and transport, never mind the energy after a long day at work, to take exercise. Personal hygiene too was difficult to achieve. Many working-class women struggled to keep their homes clean, but the poor condition of their houses, the lack of a bathroom and often hot water, and shared laundry facilities meant that the poor were inevitably dirtier than the middle classes. Doctors and midwives going into poor homes sometimes complained of the smell of their patients.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, for the first time governments and charities stepped in to try to improve the diet, exercise and hygiene of the poorest sections of society. While organisations all over Europe shared the goal of guaranteeing the physical health of the nation, the level of provision varied between different countries, reflecting national political agendas.

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