© 2016 Neil Stacey

back to backs

Last Saturday I visited Birmingham Back to Backs Museum (National Trust). The guided tours take 100 minutes or so and are very good. The story of sanitation and health is prominent. The guide was also keen to highlight evidence of a positive sense of community and belonging in spite of harsh conditions.

I was struck by information about mortality and life expectancy: 23 years in the 1800s. This is alarming – but familiar information. Yet possibly it hides a more interesting truth. Behind such an alarming figure is the extremely high rate of infant mortality up until the age of five. If you lived beyond five your life expectancy was ….. ? I wish to see if this has been calculated. Almost all the life-stories that were used to bring the museum to life referred to “lived into their 80s”.

In spite of the relative poverty, associated poor diets, clogging city air, poor sanitation and harsh employment conditions and practices, was it the case that general health was no where near as poor as we tend to understand it, was it not a million miles away from current standards in the West? Prevailing histories clearly indicate ‘no – health was poor’. But if one substitutes ‘well-being’ for ‘general health’ can one say ‘no’ with conviction? Something to pursue.

image: National Trust