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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]


A series of debates emerged in the thirties concerning the relationship of food and health, and in these the vegetarians took a lively interest. (1) Part of the background to this was the emergence in the previous decades of scientific nutrition; it was now increasingly possible to quantify diet and to identify previously unknown essential elements like the vitamins; this, and the understanding of some of the worst forms of deficiency diseases, laid the basis for a series of studies during the thirties exposing the relationship between poor diet and ill health, the most famous of which was that of Boyd Orr. (2) Taking not the minimum requirements for life, but the optimum diet – he estimated, giving, full weight to the relationship between income and family size, that a diet completely adequate was reached by only half the population. Boyd Orr felt deeply that too many still believed, or chose to believe, that if people were not starving, they were alright; and he and others published a range of statistical material showing the relationship between poor diet and physical underdevelopment and predisposition to a range of illnesses. The work of Rowntree, McGonigle and others, though differing in detail, broadly supported his conclusions. (3) The BMA work, for example, placed about one third of the population in the category of the chronically undernourished; and startling evidence from the Depression areas, such as that of Lady Williams in the Rhondda where the distribution of food to expectant mothers reduced the material mortality rate by seventy-five percent, confirmed the pattern of poverty, poor diet and ill health.

During the early and mid thirties the issue became highly politicised. James Klugmann recalled how revolutionary an approach it was to see diet and. health in class terms, and how these correlations galvanised many young radicals like himself into an understanding of the essentially class nature of English society. (4) Food became a central issue in the larger Condition of England debate, as a series of writers on the left attempted to expose the human misery of the Depression, arguing for the existence in England of primary levels of want. Fenner Brockway, for example, in his Hungry England of 1932, gathered life histories and statistics that argued for widespread malnutrition, overcrowding and inadequate levels of benefits. Brockway was primarily concerned with the affects of unemployment and the Depression, though ironically what emerges from his work and that of others is the survival into the thirties of older patterns of want. Even the critical Boyd Orr admitted that there had been improvements in the post-war years, and there is evidence for rising standards of diet, at least over the country as a whole, during those years. These largely resulted from relatively cheaper food and rising real incomes. (5)

The vegetarians were brought into these debates by their strong belief in the importance of diet, and above all of better diet, their belief in health coming from positive environmental factors and not medicaments, and lastly their general leftish sympathies. One significant change here, however, is that vegetarianism is no longer directly advocated as a solution to, or salve for, poverty. The individualistic approach to poverty - the how-to-live-on xd-a-day approach - whether advocated by individuals or in the form of advice to the poor, has gone; and poverty is understood, by more at least, to be rooted in fundamental economic and social factors.

  1. 90. See issues of the VM and VN of the mid thirties and later for reports of the work of Boyd Orr, McGonigle and others, especially VM, Feb 1936, p207, July 1936, p181, VN, May 1936, p117, July, p181. Nature-cure doctors like Bertrand Allinson (VN, Nov 1924, p263) had earlier criticised the national diet, especially that of the working class. Peter Freeman argued for widespread industrial fatigue and sickness as a result of poor diet (VN, Sept 1925, p220). Rennie Smith believed a third of the population was under-nourished and under-par (VN, May 1929, p169).
  2. 91. Food, Health and Income: A Report of Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income, 1936. See also his autobiography, As I Recall, 1966, especially p111-20.
  3. 92. See Burnett, Plenty and Want, for a survey of the evidence gathered.
  4. 93. Jon Clark, ed., Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, 1979, p29.
  5. 94. By 1938 average real wages were a third higher compared with 1913 and, for those in work in the 1930s, there was a 15% rise. The distinction between those in long term unemployment and those in work was a vital one in determining income and diet. A large part of the increased disposable income was spent on food; and food consumption rose by about a third in the 1930s. More money also resulted in more being spent on fresh foods and what were called the 'protective' foods, i.e. milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables. The average consumption of fruit rose by 88% between 1913 and 1934; of eggs by 46%. For this background, and figures, see Burnett, Plenty and Want, chapter on the interwar years; and John Stevenson and Chris Cook, The Slump, especially the chapter 'The Hungry Thirties'. Despite claims made for the influence of nutritional advice increasingly offered in the newspapers and on BBC during the 1930s, the principal factor in better food choice appears to have been money.

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