Health 1851

There was no free health care in 1851 and life expectancy was low. Many women died in childbirth and a significant number of infants did not survive beyond 5 years old. Households were large, often with more than one generation sharing a small home of two or three rooms. Diseases could spread easily with so many people living in such a small space. Diseases common at the time included tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and rickets. All of these illnesses posed a risk as they were all contagious (except rickets) and there were no cures.

Danger in the Home

A 19th Century Living Room
A 19th Century Living Room
From an album of Norfolk / Suffolk photographs
possibly by Clutterbuck
©Gressenhall Workhouse Museum
The most common cause of death in the nineteenth century was, however, due to open fires. Clothing often caught alight from a range or open grate and the victim could die from their injuries.

Some of the ‘cures’ prescribed by doctors could also harm the patient, the poison arsenic was often taken as a ‘pick-me-up’! The poor would not have been able to access a doctor, as prices were too high. They relied instead on home remedies.

Nineteeth Century Diet

Diet is important to good health and Julian Jeffreys commented upon the rural diet in his report of 1871 for the Bury and Norwich Post

“The average dietary of the labouring population in rural areas in Southern England may be described as following-beef and mutton was rarely tasted so that they do not form part of their diet…Bread and cheese forms the main part of the diet for adults, the poor man’s cow being a blessing of the past as milk does not or rarely forms much part of the diet in village children, even in infancy….” Bury and Norwich Post, March 14th 1871

Diets in the countryside were often better than in the towns. Householders could grow their own fruit and vegetables, perhaps keep a pig or two and some chickens to supplement their diet. Most of the men in Stowupland were manual labourers which meant backbreaking work out in the fields but this physical labour kept them fit and healthy.

Sent to the Workhouse

For poor families in Stowupland their greatest fear would have been the workhouse in Stowmarket, where homeless and penniless families were forced to live. If a family was taken into the workhouse they were split up, dressed in uniform and had their hair cut short. This could happen to a family if the wage-earner became sick, was unemployed or too old to work. There were no state benefits.


This exhibition is part of a wider sustainability project delivered through the Rural Museums East Partnership. It is funded by Renaissance East of England.

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