Health 1901

A ‘special correspondent ‘of the Daily News made a tour through the villages of Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk in 1899, observing how the poor lived in the villages.

It is often assumed that country living was healthier than living in a town but before WW2 the lack of sanitation and forward planning meant that rural villages were not pleasant places to live if you were poor.

“When one sees women and children pale and sickly-looking, the latter often rickety, where with the wholesome country air about them they should be strong and healthy, it is impossible to avoid attributing the result very largely to cottages in which there is not sufficient air and what there is, it often contaminated maybe by the near-standing privy. Sometimes the latter will be built right up against the mud wall of a cottage which naturally becomes so saturated that the stench fills and vitiates the air of the living room.”

Low Levels of Healthcare

Families on low wages were unable to afford a doctor if a family member became ill. There was no free health care in 1901 A 19th Century Living Room
Patent Medicine Advert c.1900
and many families relied on home remedies and over the counter medicines from the local chemist that often did more harm than good! Some families also referred to books such as Buchan's Domestic Medicine, with its coloured frontispiece showing the symptoms of smallpox, scarlet fever and measles.

Medicine was not very advanced. X-rays were in their infancy having been developed in 1895, penicillin was yet to be discovered and there were few cures for serious diseases. Surgery was slightly more developed with anaesthetics and antiseptics but it was still a very dangerous and risky procedure. Life expectancy had risen to 45 years for men and 49 for women compared with 40.2 years for men and 43.6 years for women in 1851.

Mental Health Problems

It is difficult to find comparable data for the rates of mental illness in the nineteenth century as in a small village such as Stowupland those who had disabilities or mental health problems would have been cared for by their own families. Only the most seriously affected would have been placed in a mental institution, with others working and contributing to the family income.

Out of a population of 1,326 in 1901 just 7 people are listed as having a disability or mental health problem;

  • 1 imbecile,
  • 3 feebleminded,
  • 2 cripples
  • and one deaf person.

Of course many children born with problems would not have survived and adults injured in accidents also had a lower chance of survival than in modern times.

The County Asylum

Those who find themselves in the Suffolk County Asylum were not shunned by society when they returned and the asylum had a reputation for forward thinking treatments such as working in the open air.

Contrary to popular belief the asylum was not normally used to house unmarried mothers. In fact in Stowupland and surrounding villages the birth of a baby outside of marriage was common. Jane Burch (1832-1916) who worked at the Stowupland Crown was famous in the area for having had 9 illegitimate children.


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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