9.6. Heights

What should also be of use to check the living standards of the people in the Industrial Revolution would be a revision of the development of the average heights of the men and women. It would appear that there should be a definite effect in this sense, as a certain proportion of people (men, women, children and young children) had physical afflictions, were affected in their growth, did not eat enough, or were weak. There are academic investigations on the subject, but some of the conclusions have to be handled with care.

The average height of the men during the nineteenth century was from 5 ft. 6 ½ in. to 5 ft. 8 in. There does not seem to have been much movement in the heights in the different years.

A comparison with present height figures certainly is useful, as it does help to give us an idea of the persons we would have seen “walking along the street”. But if we wish to evaluate if the men were particularly short, due to their living and nutritional situation, we should use the year e.g. 1950 as a base point, and not 1990 or 2020. It is not the “fault” of the men of the 19th century, that there was a considerable improvement in nutrition and in health in the second half of the 20th century. The heights were/are: 1808 = 5 ft. 6 ½ in., 1840-1880 = 5 ft. 7 ½ in., 1950 = 5 ft. 7 in., 1990 = 5 ft. 8 in., 2020 = 5 ft. 9 ½ in.

The definition of the World Health Organization for “stunting” is “more than two standard deviations below the average of the general population at the given age”. This would be 4 inches for adult males in the nineteenth century. The only groups which would be in this case, were the silk weavers in Spitalfields, and possibly the nail- and chainmakers in the Black Country, and the framework knitters (hosiery) in the Midlands. 

There is a point of view that supposes that the height of the men in the general population was around 5 ft. 5 in. to 5 ft. 5 ½ in., as this was the average height of the convicts (of whom we have a large amount of data), or 5 ft. 6 in. to 5 ft. 6 ½ in., which is the case of the soldiers. The next following pages show only data collected with respect to the general population.

Our first source is of the Dorset Militia Ballot List of 1798-99. The Militia Ballot Lists collected the names, ages, heights, and family status of all adult males in each county. If the domestic Militia was made active – against a real risk of invasion from France – a ballot would be carried out to decide those men who would be enlisted. 

The evidence that has survived in the case of Dorset, gives us all adult males 18 – 45 in half of the parishes. We have 6753 useful observations from 227 parishes; the total population of the county was about 95,000. The men who appear in the list are 3.0 % elite, 4.9 % lower middle class (clerks, merchants, dealers), 38.5 % skilled workers (makers, smiths, weavers), 8.8 % farmers and yeomen, 44.8 % unskilled workers (agricultural and general labourers). 

The average height was 66.4 inches (168.7 cm.). The farmers were about 0.8 inch taller than the labourers. There is no reason to doubt that this sample is representative of the whole of England at that time.

(Jaadla, Hannaliis; Shaw-Taylor, Leigh; Davenport, Romola; Height and Health in late eighteenth-century England; Population Studies, A Journal of Demography, published online 29th September 2020)

Height 60616263646566676869707172 Total
Per cent 100.0

(The “inch column” for e.g. “64” shows the numbers of 63.5 inches to 64.5 inches)

AVERAGE HEIGHT 66.4 INS. (168.7 CMS.) 

The next information is an extract from the British Soldier Compendium (part of the National Archives), referring to 7,300 of the British Soldiers in Spain under Wellington. The soldiers who enlisted in the Napoleonic Wars were about 300,000 at any one time, so we can take them as representative of the general population (i.e. they were not a specific segment). The Army authorities needed to have a maximum of soldiers, so they did not impose any “minimum height standards” at that time. Thus we see that the distribution is a well-formed “bell curve”, i.e. there is no “truncation” of the left tail, which would be visible if there were effectively minimum height standards. 

Coss, Edward J.; All for the King’s Shilling: The British Soldier under Wellington, 1808-1814; University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, 2010


(Coss, Figure 3, Chapter 2)


We now have some “innocent remarks”, which show that the “normal height” of men outside the manufacturing towns was 5 ft. 7 ins. to 5 ft. 8 ins.

“A recruiting officer testified that operatives were little adapted for military service, looked thin and nervous, and were frequently rejected by the surgeons. In Manchester he could hardly get men of 5 ft. 8 in.; they were usually only 5 ft. 6 in. to 7 in., whereas as in the agricultural districts, most of the recruits were 5 ft. 8 in.”

(Wing, Evils of the Factory System, 1837, p. cii; quoting the First Report of the Factories Inquiry Commission, 1833, Mr. Tufnell’s Evidence, p. 59)

“Their stature low – the average height of four hundred men, measured at different times, and at different places, being five feet six inches.”

(Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England, 1833, pp. 161-162)

Serjeant Buchan – Recruiting Serjeant: “The general height of men in this town [Birmingham] is 5 ft. 4 in. to 5 ft. 5 in. …. They are generally shorter than in any town he has known. … The countrymen from the neighbouring districts, are generally taller and stouter.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Appendix to the Second Report of the Commissioners: Trades and Manufactures, 1843, part 1, p. f 170, interview 495)

In 1844, a Dr. John Hutchinson, who wished to test his new invention, a spirometer (for measuring the strength of the lungs), invited a number of people from different walks of life, to use the object. He registered their height and weight, as well as the measurement of the expulsion of the lungs. 

(John Hutchinson, Surgeon, Lecture on Vital Statistics, The Lancet, Vol. 1, No. 19, June 1844, pp. 567-570)

The data as to heights were as follows:

5 0
5 05 15 25 35 45
5 65 75 85 95 105 116 0 more
Fire Brigade    1220172620312 
1   69915171053  
Mixed Class1155171620202816147914
Grenadier Guards   1 12 72216111 
Compositors  325675863   
Pressmen 1   2837142  
Draymen      1134164 
Gentlemen  11791410181681255
Pugilists, &c.  12143312352 
Horse Guards (Blue)            3026

Average without Horse Guards, 5 ft. 7.3 in., average without Horse Guards, Metropolitan Police, Grenadier Guards, Gentlemen, 5 ft. 6.7 in.


The most objective evidence for the heights in the past, is that of skeletons, as they do not change in length, and are perfectly measurable (more exactly, the length of the femur is taken, and converted by a formula to the height of the person while alive).             

We have a number of results from different Burial Grounds in England, from the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. 

ChurchPlacePeriodContextSocial classAdults numberMales height ins.Males height cms.Females height ins.Females height cms.
NLancashire19th CenturyUrbanN31166.4168.762.2158

(Excavation 2020-2021, Personal communication)

ChurchPlacePeriodContextSocial classAdults numberMales height ins.Males height cms.Females height ins.Females height cms.
Quaker Church, Coach LaneN. Shields1711-1857UrbanLow and Middle15466.516961.8157
St. Hilda, Coronation St.S. Shields1816-1855UrbanWorking Class11467.717262.3159
Chelsea Old ChurchLondon1712-1842Sub-urbanHigher Class16566.116864.2163
St. Benet SherehogCity of London<1853UrbanMiddle Class16666.917063.0160
Bow BaptistOutskirts London1816-1856Sub-UrbanMiddle Class21466.917062.2158
Cross BonesSouthwark1800-1853UrbanPauper4466.716963.0160

(Newman, Sophie Louise; The Growth of a Nation: Child Development in the Industrial Revolution in England, c. AD 1750-1850; Doctoral Thesis, Durham University, 2016; Figure 6.4., p. 246)

Adults NumberMales height ins.Males height cms.Females height ins.Females height cms.
St. Bride’s, Lower CemeteryFarringdon Street London1770-1849UrbanWorkhouse and Prison12566.516963.2160.5
St. Pancras Old ChurchCamden London1793-1854UrbanOutside Metropolis, Immigrants Refugees?44867.317161.8157
St. Mary-le-bone West- minster1773-1850UrbanHigh Status13866.917062.6159

Museum of London > Wellcome Osteological Database > Post-Medieval Cemeteries

ChurchPlacePeriodContextSocial classAdults NumberMales height ins.Males height cms.Females height ins.Females height cms.
St. Peter-le-Bailey, Bonn SquareOxford1726-1855County
Poor and paupers12067.717262.2158
St. Luke’sIslington1760-1850Suburb LondonUpper working class53366.917062.2158
Poor working
St. Bartholo- mew’sPenn, nr. Wolver-hampton1664-1818Country
Upper middle class20268.917563.0160
St. NicholasSevenoaks1550-1875Country
St. George’s (crypt)Bloomsbury1800-1856Inner LondonUpper
Christ ChurchSpitalfields1729-1852Inner
Masters, weavers, traders 62366.516961.4156
Quaker Burial Ground, London RoadKingston-upon-Thames1664-1818Country

(Helen Webb and Andrew Norton, The Medieval and Post-medieval Graveyard of St. Peter-le-Bailey, at Bonn Square, Oxford, Oxoniensia 2009, Oxford Architectural and Historical Society, pp. 137 et seq., Excavation in 2008. 

Angela Boyle, Ceridwen Boston, and Annsofie Witken, The Archaeological Experience at St. Luke’s Church, Old Street, Islington, Oxford Archaeology, 2005, Table 5.21.

Other sites taken from this above source, Table 5.21 and pp. 205-7)

John Beddoe was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 1889 to 1891.

He carried out a survey of the whole of the United Kingdom, through a system of written questionnaires, which he sent out to a large number of academic contacts and administrative persons in the country. The responses that he reports in his book, refer to all classes of persons, except the rich and the professions, and the destitute and unemployed, and to many types of occupation. But exclusively men! In general from 25 to 49 years old. The total of men documented in the book was 8,583. The number with complete data was 3,498. 

They are presented as one line for each reply from a “coordinator” about a group of persons, for example “agricultural labourers in the neighborhood of Hull”. Each line may refer to from 10 to 100 men. Returns for “recruits”, “lunatics”, and “convicts” are given in separate sections.

5 ft. 6 in.
5 ft. 6 in. 
to 5 ft. 7 in.
5 ft. 7 in. 
to 5 ft. 8 in. 
5 ft. 8 in.
to 5 ft. 9 in. 
5 ft. 9 in.
Normal14768247205 ft. 7.4 in.
Criminals19101  5 ft. 5.7 in.
Recruits 1013  5 ft. 7.0 in.

Compilation of data, per report line (here: only England), made by this author.

Beddoe, John; On the Stature and Bulk of Man in the British Isles; Reprinted from Vol. III of the Memoirs of the Anthropological Society of London; Asher & Co., London, 1870

Some years ago, James Riley was able to access (in the University of Bristol), the original reports which had been received by Dr. Beddoe.

Riley, James C.; Height, Nutrition, and Mortality Risk reconsidered; The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Winter, 1994), pp. 465-492 

He was able to carry out analyses of the data in different dimensions. The distribution by occupations was as below, showing a larger proportion of working class than in other contemporary estimates (this would mean that Beddoe’s value of the average might have been a little low). We note that the workers in manufacturing are the shortest.

Page 475 of Height, Nutrition, and Mortality Risk Reconsidered

Mr. Riley’s calculation of the average height in the population of England and Wales in 1870 was 66.9 inches (169.9 cm.). 

He also plotted the heights against the ages:

Page 478 of Height, Nutrition, and Mortality Risk Reconsidered

We see that the height practically does not change with age. But we are processing men with an age of 23 to 50 years, in which period the height of the man does not change. This then means that the average of the final heights of men through the period 1841 to 1866 (born 1817 to 1841) did not change.

Report of the Anthropomorphic Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1879 and 1883)

This was a collection of data from a) the Beddoe survey, b) the investigation of Dr. Roberts about Factory Children (1876), and an own survey. In total, these were about 53,000 individuals of all classes, all ages (including children), and both sexes. The total of adult males of the United Kingdom was 8,585, and the adult males in England only was 6,194.

Heights 585960616263646566676869707172737475
Per mille 12612205285119142148143122764119822


There are also two tables which show the heights of the men in the report, detailed according to the age of the men in approx. 1880. This allows us to say that the men of age 29, who were born in 1851 and were 20 years old in 1871, had an average height of 67.9 inches in 1871. Thus we may take as a reasonable assumption, that referring to all the men of 20 years old, who were alive in the country in 1871, they had an average height of 67.9 inches. 20 years was the age at which the men attained their maximum height, which generally they maintained until 60 years old. 

So we can suppose that the average height of men of from 20 to 60 years old, was from 67.5 to 68.0 inches in the period 1840 to 1880.

Age 188020th Birthyear Height inches
201880 67.5
211879 67.6
221878 67.7
231877 67.5
241876 67.7
251875 67.7
261874 67.8
271873 67.9
281872 67.7
291871 67.9
30-351865-1870 68.1
35-401860-1865 68.0
40-501850-1860 68.0
50-601840-1850 67.9

Table XVI, p. 290, and Table XX, p. 294

There was a considerable differentiation in heights in the different counties of the British Isles:

Anthropomorphic Committee 1882, Map no. 1, Plate I.

We return to the point at the beginning of this sub-chapter, that the high value for the men’s stature in our days, is due to the increases since the end of the Second World War; these were caused by considerable improvements in medicine and health care (National Health Service), monetary income, and food consumption. The average height of men in the general population was a little more than 5 ft. 7 in. This means that the average height of men in the nineteenth century was the same as that of the men who fought in the Second World War. See the following studies:

W. F. F. Kemsley, “Weight and Height of a Population in 1943”, Annals of Human Genetics, 1950, 27,000 men and 33,000 women; men 20-24 67.0 in. (170.1 cm.); women 20-24 62.4 in. (158.5 cm.)

E. M. B. Clemens and Kathleen Pickett, “Stature and Weight of Men from England and Wales in 1941”, British Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine, 1957, study of 21,300 men measured by medical boards in 1941, previous to call-up; height of men in England 67.1 in. (170.4 cm.)

W. J. Martin “The Physique of Young Adult Males”, Medical Research Council, Memorandum No. 20, H. M. S. O. 1949, report of 91,000 men intended for Air Force 1939; 67.3 in. (170.9 cm.)

The report of the Anthropometric Committee also tells us the average height is clearly affected by the type of occupation, particularly that the factory workers were about 1 ½ inches shorter than the generality of the population.

  Average height, inches,
25-30 years
Total Population 67.4
Class IProfessional Classes69.1
Class IICommercial Classes, Clerks and Shopkeepers67.9
Class IIILabouring Classes:Agricultural, Miners, Sailors, Shopkeepers67.5
Class IVArtisanal Classes, living in Towns66.6
Class VSedentary Occupations:Factory Operatives, Tailors65.9

This was generally commented at the time (together with the statement that town dwellers were shorter than rural inhabitants), for example:

“I have been informed that of those labourers now employed in the most important manufactories, whether natives or migrants to that town, the sons who are employed at the same work are generally inferior in stature to their parents.”

(Edwin Chadwick, Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition…., 1842, p. 185) 

The working people in Manchester (not just the cotton workers) were well known to have a “shrunken” appearance, but this did not mean that they were physically weak.

“Of course the air in which they work exercises a marked effect upon the appearance of the people. This is a subject which I shall treat of at length later; but I may be here permitted to remark upon the more obvious physical characteristics of carders, spinners and weavers. In the first place I do not remember seeing one male or female adult to whom I would apply the epithet of a “stout “ man or woman. There is certainly no superfluity of flesh in the factories. When I say this I do not by any means intend to insinuate that the people are unhealthy or unnaturally lean; they are generally thin and spare but not emaciated. By such occupation as is afforded in the various branches of cotton spinning, much muscle cannot be expected to be developed. There is no demand for it – the toil does not require it – it would be useless if it existed. I cannot therefore term the appearance of the people “robust”. They present no indication of what is called “rude” health. They are spare, and generally – so far as I can judge – rather undersized. At the same time their appearance cannot rightly be called sickly. Their movements are quick and easy, with nothing at all of langour expressed either in face or limbs. The hue of the skin is the least favourable characteristic. It is a tallowy-yellow. The faces which surround you in a factory are, for the most part lively in character, but cadaverous and overspread by a sort of unpleasant greasy pallor. Now and then you observe a girl with some indications of roses in her cheeks, but these cases are clearly the exception to the rule; and amid the older and matronly women not a single exceptional case of the kind did I find. Altogether, the conclusion which a very careful examination of the people led me to was this, that the labour cannot be said to exercise a seriously stunting or withering effect upon those subjected to it – that it does, perhaps, make them actually ill, but that it does prevent the full development of form, and that it does keep under the highest development of health. Men and women appeared to be more or less in a negative sanitary condition. At any rate what is called the “bloom of health” is a flower requiring more air and sunshine than stirs and gleams athwart the rattling spindle.”

Morning Chronicle Poor 1849-1851, pp. 15-16

The Physical Appearance of the Factory Workers  

“It is perfectly true that the Manchester people have a sickly, pallid appearance; but this is certainly not attributable to factory labour, for two reasons: first, because those who do not work in factories are equally are equally pallid and unhealthy-looking, and the sick society returns show that the physical condition of the latter is not inferior:- secondly, because the health of those engaged in country cotton factories, which generally work longer than town ones, is not injured even in appearance … Mr. Wolstenholme, surgeon at Bolton, says that “the health of factory people is much better than their pallid appearance would indicate to any person not intimately with them.””

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report … as to the Employment of Children in Factories, 1834, Part I, Mr. Tufnell’s Report from Lancashire, p. 198)

The question is, how did it happen that the factory workers were shorter (but not to the degree of “stunted”) than the average of the population?

It was not due to insufficient food, because we know that the people in the Northern industrial towns ate a considerable amount of meat. It was not due to excesses in the physical human work required, because – at least from 1830 onwards – the work of pushing, cutting, winding, pulling, etc. was done by the machines, and the human being only had to supervise the work of the machines. It may have been partially due to the sanitary and epidemic problems in the towns.

The main reason was probably the low amount of physical bodily work required in the factories. As it says in the table above: “sedentary”. “The work appeared to us, like most of the labour in a cotton mill, to require very little muscular effort beyond that of standing and working” (Bridges and Holmes, 1873, p. 15).

Curiously, if the work in the factories had been at a level that the human frame had been used to for the previous 500 years, the average height of the manufacturing workers would have been more, and the male population might have been about ½ inch taller.  


 The data from above referring to skeletons, give averages per burial ground of from 61.4 to 63.2 inches

The Anthropometric Committee Report of 1883 gives an average height for women of 62.6 inches, but this is based on only 379 observations.

There was practically no movement in heights until the end of the Second World War. The average height of women in 1943 was 62.4 inches; see Kemsley (1950) above.


We do have more surveys (actual measurement) of the heights of children during the ni

Leonard Ward, “The Effect, as shown by Statistics, of British Statutory Regulations directed to the Improvement of the Hygienic Conditions of Industrial Occupations”, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Sep. 1903), pp. 435-525, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2339590

(Numbers rearranged by Mr. Ward)

Page 461


Years of Age Number
   Ft. in.  Ft. in.
From 8 and under 9 6663 10.2  5393   9.5
From 9 and under 10 9453 11.6 8133 11.8
From 10 and under 11 11244   1.3 9274   1.2
From 11 and under 12 12234   2.8 10554   2.7
From 12 and under 13 14274   3.7 13304   4.1
From 13 and under 14 21334   5.7 22404   5.8
From 14 and under 15 1174   8.2 1404   9.0
From 15 and under 16 824 10.5 1064 10.7
From 16 and under 17 435   0.5 904 11.5
From 17 and under 18 475   0.0 1125   0.0

(The age data were given in the publication, in divisions of half-years; the heights were given to the nearest eighth-inch)

Charles Knight (ed.), “Practical Application of Physiological Facts”, The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volume 6, 1837, pp. 270-272.

One Thousand Boys / Girls of each age

Bridges and Holmes

About 10,000 children

Table A: Factory Children of Factory Parents (Urban and Suburban)

Age  Boys  Girls
  No.Inches No.Inches
8 3045.7 3046.5
9 8048.0 11047.6
10 14049.8 13049.5
11 13051.4 12050.8
12 12052.8 14053.1

Table B: Children in Non-factory Districts (Urban and Rural)

Age  Boys  Girls
  No.Inches No.Inches
8 14046.7 10046.7
9 23049.2 16048.6
10 24051.0 14050.1
11 18052.9 14052.7
12 15054.0 9054.4

Table C: Non-factory Children of Non-factory Parents in Factory Districts (Urban and Suburban)

Age  Boys  Girls
  No.Inches No.Inches
8 2046.7 2047.4
9 6049.1 3049.4
10 5051.0 3049.8
11 3052.6 3052.8
12 2053.6 1753.4

Table D: Urban Factory Children (Irrespective of Parentage)

Age  Boys  Girls
  No.Inches No.Inches
8 10946.8 8946.5
9 23548.3 26947.9
10 36149.6 31450.0
11 28451.4 29251.6
12 31652.6 31252.7

Table E: Suburban Factory Children (Irrespective of Parentage)

Age  Boys  Girls
  No.Inches No.Inches
8 13147.1 9546.3
9 27948.3 21648.1
10 28250.4 27949.8
11 30251.8 27551.7
12 26453.2 26653.3

As is to be expected, the non-factory children are taller than the factory children.

            “He was perfectly satisfied from close observation during the last ten years, in a situation which gave him the best opportunities of judging, that the children of the mill population were steadily, year by year, getting smaller and physically less capable of doing their work. If they asked him how that was he would tell them. In the first place, it was owing to a great extent to the intemperate habits of the parents transmitting feeble constitutions to the children; and in the next, to the mistaken manner in which the mill people feed their children. They brought them up on tea and coffee, instead of upon more substantial food. As an example: During the last month in the Great Bolton district, he had had to reject as many as 19 children simply because they had not the strength and development required by the Factory Act, and these numbers were steadily year by year increasing. Another evil he had noticed was that many young children of 12 years of age or thereabouts were beginning to learn to smoke, acquiring the habit from their fathers, and possibly from their mothers also. This was a condition of things which, in his mind, excited painful considerations. What was to become of the factory population if this physical degeneration went on?”

(Mr. Alderman Ferguson, Bolton, was also a Certifying Surgeon under the Acts; Bridges and Holmes, pp. 41-42)  

One Thousand Boys / Girls of each age

Charles Roberts, The Physical Requirements of Factory Children, 1876 

Age Average Height Boys Average Height Girls
8 46.9 46.5
9 49.0 48.4
10 50.6 49.9
11 52.1 51.7
12 53.8 53.2
13 55.0  


   Boys  Boys   Girls  Girls 
   1833  1873   1833  1873 
Age No.Inches No. InchesDif. No.Inches No.InchesDif.
9 1748.1 12648.3+0.2 3048.0 11448.3+0.3
10 4849.8 25649.8 0.0 4149.6 20150.3+0.7
11 5351.3 19651.6+0.3 5151.1 17451.2+0.1
12 5353.3 17553.3 0.0 8053.7    


   Boys  Boys   Girls  Girls 
   1833  1873   1833  1873 
Age No.    Lbs. No.   Lbs.Dif. No.   Lbs. No.  Lbs.Dif.
9 1751.8 13658.1-0.7 3051.3 13755.9+4.6
10 4857.0 24760.2+3.2 4154.8 17960.6+5.8
11 5361.8 18967.7+5.9 6359.7 18065.4+5.7
12 4266.0 16769.8+3.8 8066.1    

Table XXIV – Showing the average Stature and Weight of Factory Children at an interval of 40 years, 1833-1873 (Stanway and Roberts).

   Boys  Boys   Girls  Girls 
   1833  1873   1833  1873 
Age No.Inches No. InchesDif. No.Inches No.InchesDif.
9 4148.6 6049.1+0.5 4348.4 3049.4+1.0
10 2850.6 5051.0+0.4 3849.4 3049.8+0.4
11 2551.0 3052.6+1.6 2952.1 3052.8+0.7
12 2053.0 2053.6+0.6 2753.7 1753.4-0.3

   Boys  Boys   Girls  Girls 
   1833  1873   1833  1873 
Age No.   Lbs. No.   Lbs.Dif. No.   Lbs. No.Lbs.Dif.
9 4153.3 6059.4+6.1 4350.4 3057.8+7.4
10 2860.3 5063.8+3.5 3854.4 3060.8+6.4
11 2558.4 3070.2+11.8 2961.1 3069.0+7.9
12 2067.2 2070.9+3.7 2766.1 1770.5+4.4

The first study that we can analyze is one of 16,000 convicts who were transported to Australia from 1770 to 1815. This shows that the group of men from an urban background, as a function of their birth dates, had a rapid decrement in adult height of 1.0 inches from 1784 to 1789, and remained at the lower level at least to 1815; the men from a rural background had a lesser decrement, of 0.5 inch, but in the same period. If there was a real external cause for this, it would have been in the period 1784 to 1800, when the boys were growing up; since the low figure is maintained up to 1815, this means that the external cause continued up to 1825, when the last boys were 10 years old. Since the Industrial Revolution had not yet gathered speed in the earlier dates, except somewhat in Lancashire, this cannot be the cause. The idea of the investigators is that it could have been the series of bad harvests, or the poverty caused in England by the Napoleonic Wars (possibly a large number of families, in which the father had died in the wars); see Horrell, Humphries, Vogt, 1998.

(Nicholas, Steckel, 1991, p. 948, figure 3)

(The exceptional minimum in this chart and the next, shown for the birth years 1784 to 1789 has nothing to do with the economy or the living standards in England. It was very probably caused by the secondary effects of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki in June 1783 to March 1784. This sent large amounts of sulphur to the higher atmosphere, and caused a decrease of temperature of 1° C in the Northern Hemisphere in the following months. The effects were felt all over Northern Europe: fog, thunderous storms, death of livestock, and defoliation of vegetation. There is an estimate of 20,000 extra deaths in England in 1783-1784 due to the meteorological effects, and another estimate of more than 16,000 in France. 

This statement about the cause in these dates is corroborated by studies of men’s height for the second half of the eighteenth century from Saxony in Germany, Toledo Province in Spain, and Bas-Rhin in France, showing a decrement in exactly the same years.

Thus the graphs should be corrected, in the first graph removing the data for 1783 to 1793, and drawing a straight line from 1782 to 1794 and in the second, removing the data for 1785-9)

The second study is of registers of height of military recruits, taken at the moment of their enlistment. The table below shows the average heights, registered at 18 years of age, in function of the birth year. The heights improve gradually from 1770-74 to 1830-34, from around 64.00 to 65.50 inches; there is a sudden fall from 65.50 inches in 1830-34 to 62.39 inches in 1835-39 (i.e. 3.26 inches), and in all the periods to 1855-59 the average height does not exceed 64.30 inches. These figures are corroborated by the data for other ages at measurement date, and other studies of military personnel. 

The increase of 1.5 inches from 1790-94 to 1830-34 would appear to demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution in its worst moments actually improved the standard of living of the working class.  

Table 4.1. Mean heights of military recruits by age and date of birth

Age 18

Date of BirthMean HeightMean Height

(extracted from Floud, Roderick; Gregory, Annabel; Wachter, Kenneth; Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990; Table 4.1., p. 140)

There is a clear downward movement, starting around 1834:

(Graphical presentation by this author)

The decrement for the other age groups was: 19 years, 1830-1834 to 1835-1839, minus 2.43 inches; 20 years, 1830-1834 to 1835-1839, minus 1.53 inches; 21 years, 1830-1834 to 1835-1839, minus 1.85 inches; 22 years [page not visible]; 23 years, 1830-1834 to 1835-1839, minus 1.58 inches; 24-29 years, 1830-1834 to 1835-1839, minus 1.03 inches.  

The third investigation refers to three data sets of criminal persons, collected by Johnson and Nicholas. These show a similar negative movement, particularly in the graph below, we see that the males had a decrease of 2.8 centimetres, beginning in birth year 1834, and the females a decrease of 2.5 centimetres, beginning in birth year 1838.

(Floud, 1998, Figure 17, p. 55)

The last example causes more questions than answers. The research refers to the records of the Marine Society, a charitable association which received boys from the poorest classes of London, and found them work on Her Majesty’s ships. The boys’ families were very poor, and the boys were stunted, badly fed, and often clothed in smelly rags.

The boys’ registered height – as a function of their birth date and of their age – increased considerably from birth date 1750 to birth date 1830, and particularly from birth date 1790 to birth date 1830. The boys of 16 years old changed from 57.9 inches (birth date 1756) to 59.5 inches (1800), and to around 61.5 inches (period 1817 to 1830).  

(Floud, Wachter, 1982, p. 435)

An incontrovertible evidence comes from the movement in the minimum height fixed for intake into the Society. The increase is so large that it cannot be explained by changes in policy, but must be due to real changes in the heights of very poor boys in London.

Year in which Minimum
came into Effect
Minimum Height (inches)
179854 or 52
180950 or 51

(Floud, Wachter, 1982, p. 430)

            These data raise two questions:

  1. what is the external cause which results in these changes?
  2. how could these figures have any causal relation with the Industrial Revolution? There was not much heavy industry in London in the period from 1775 to at least 1825 (see Barnett, 1996, particularly the list on p. 52).   

But there is a grave problem with the idea, “we can learn about the nutrition level of the British population, by looking at movements in the heights of people”. The cause of decreases in height, if and where found, may also be the extreme working hours and general poverty of the people concerned. We know that boys in the mines, framework knitters, silk weavers, and boys and girls in the informal manufacturing industry, in many cases were from 3 to 5 inches shorter than the normal person of their age and sex. (But the boys in the mines, by the age of 12, were very muscular, and had large chest measurements.) The adult male workers in the Potteries worked 72 hours a week, and we know that their average height went down by 2 inches from 1840 to 1860.  

Thus, if we find some decrease in height in the data analyzed, it might well be due only to the very hard work, and not to insufficient food. The correct methodology would be to examine the “population universes” of each research, and delete the individual records with employment in the categories above. 

It should also be noted that generally, field workers were 1 to 2 inches higher than town workers. This was an effect of the more healthy working conditions, and harder muscular work. If we find that a comparison of a given region / period shows that the agricultural workers are higher, it does not necessarily mean than the manufacturing workers are suffering from an abnormal “work load”.  


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