Life Lessons from Another Era


For much of our lives, we’ve been led to believe we’re living in a ‘golden age’. After all, we’re wealthier than ever before, with greater access to food and water, to housing, to education, and to advanced medical care, than any society that’s preceded us.

And the things we can do, the things we’ve got access to, thanks to technology! The internet; travel by car and plane and boat; television and music and movies; mobile phones that are like an extra limb and which pack way more processing power than the most advanced super-computer of the 20th century; 3-D, HD, OLED; insta-food, instabeauty, insta-fun. Technology’s the best, isn’t it? It’s brought us ease, prosperity, and a quality of life unprecedented in human history.

At least, that’s what we’ve been told. It’s something we’ve heard so many times that most of us have come to accept it as absolute fact.

But it’s not entirely true. Modern science has brought many wonders to our doorstep, no doubt. But there’s a flip side. We’re not happier. We’re not necessarily living longer. And we certainly aren’t healthier.

The thing is, modern life can be toxic and it’s making too many of us sick.

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Life lessons from the Mid-Victorians.

To find out how greatly we’ve been deceived and just how toxic our lives have become, it’s worth travelling back 6 generations in time, 160 years ago, to the mid-Victorian era.

They lived pretty depressing lives back then, right?

The people of that time had a poor diet, were generally unhealthy and had a life-expectancy way shorter than our own.

Not true. The belief that we’re living longer and better today is essentially a falsehood, based on medical advances that have greatly increased the chances of our children surviving infancy and mothers the rigors of childbirth. Surprisingly, analysis of life-expectancy in the mid-Victorian era (a golden ‘bubble’ in time that came prior to mass industrialization and the proliferation of processed goods) shows that provided someone lived to see their 5th birthday, their life expectancy was as good as ours today.1 Not only that, the mid-Victorian could expect to live a healthier life, free of the degenerative diseases that afflict so many in our modern society.

Given the poor sanitation and the tough living and working conditions experienced by the majority of our mid-Victorian ancestors, you might well ask – How can this be?

The answer has something to do with exercise but more to do with diet.

Exercise first.

The working classes of the mid-Victorian era engaged daily in moderate to heavy physical labour. They were on their feet more often than not, and the didn’t have machines to do their work for them. Nor did they have cars to get them to and from work. Instead, many of them walked to work, with some regularly walking up to 10 kilometres a day.

Interestingly, this level of physical activity meant that obesity was practically nonexistent, even though the calorific intake of mid-Victorian workers was even higher than ours today!3

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And what a diet the mid-Victorians had. Not for them the massive supermarkets of the early 21st century, overflowing with heavily processed foods filled to the brim with sugar and trans-fats. Instead, they ate a rounded diet of seasonal green and root vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, fish, meat and eggs, all delivered fresh from the countryside thanks to the recent introduction of trains.4 As an added bonus, almost all of this food was organic, with the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides still decades away from being introduced on a widespread scale.

Equally important, the alcohol content in beer – the most commonly consumed form of alcohol at the time – was significantly lower than it is today,5 whilst the massive expansion in tobacco consumption amongst the working classes was still decades away.6

The net result for the mid-Victorian was a relatively long life, lived well. A great diet, plenty of exercise and a world free of the pollutants and toxic chemicals we wade through every day helped keep degenerative diseases at bay.7 Not only was obesity almost unheard of, but illnesses like cancer and heart disease were considered rarities. Compare this with the epidemic scale of degenerative disease today and it becomes obvious that – despite the extraordinary advances we’ve made in terms of sanitation, surgery techniques, and medical knowledge – something is terribly wrong with the way we are living our lives.

So, where, exactly, have we slipped up?  In tomorrow’s article, we discuss the price we’re all paying for living in our modern world, and what we can do to start turning things around.

1 Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham, ‘How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died’,
Clayton and Rowbotham, Part 2: How the Mid-Victorians Worked
Ibid, Part 3: What the Mid-Victorians Ate
4 Ibid, Part 3
5 Ibid, Part 3
6 Ibid, Part 3
7 Ibid, Part 4,: How the Mid-Victorians Died. Instead of the raft of degenerative diseases we face today, Mid-Victorians – presuming they survived infancy – tended to die of infection, accident, or heart failure associated with old age or rheumatic fever. In other words, their deaths were generally quick, and not foreshadowed by a long and steady decline brought on by a degenerative condition.