As bad as Victorian times?
The Conservative Party’s election manifesto asserts: “The difference in male life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas in our country is now greater than during Victorian times”.
Is this possible? Data on life expectancy in the 19th century is scantier than it is today, but in 1842 Edwin Chadwick published his Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. He calculated life expectancies at birth and found wide differences by class and location.
The table summarises some of his findings:
Chadwick’s report led to the setting up of a Royal Commission and to the Public Health Act of 1848. If he is right, there was a gap of at least 35 years between the longest lived (Rutland professionals) and the shortest (Liverpool labourers). Even within towns the gaps were close to 20 years between professionals and labourers. These were by no means the extremes of the social divide, either.
Today’s gap in life expectancy between the richest and the poorest remains wide. The latest ONS figures show that the highest life expectancy today is in Kensington and Chelsea – 84.3 for men, 88.9 for women. The lowest is in Glasgow – 70.7 for men, 77.2 for women. That is a gap of almost 14 years for men, and 12 years for women.
This is a big gap and a growing one, but greater than Victorian times? Almost certainly not.
I put this to the Conservative Party, who said that they were confident about the claims. Their source is a paper published in BMJ in 2005 by Mary Shaw, George Davey Smith and Danny Dorling. But the only reference in this paper to Victorian comparisons is a sentence saying that the gap between lowest and highest (at the time, Glasgow Central and East Dorset) was 11 years. “Since Victorian times, such inequalities have never been as high” the authors add.
That is not at all the same as claiming that the gaps “are now greater than during Victorian times” as the Conservatives do.
The BMJ paper cites two references for the claim it makes, a Rowntree Foundation report of 1997 by Danny Dorling, and a 1998 paper in Economic History Review by Simon Szreter and Graham Anthony. The latter is an exhaustive and fascinating study of life expectancy in the 19th century but it does not set out specifically to compare rich and poor. However, its figures for life expectancy in England and Wales as a whole can be compared with those for industrial cities to give an idea.
The table below summarises the data for selected towns:
This shows that the average life expectancy in England and Wales throughout the second half of the 19th century was 15 years or more above that for the inner districts of Liverpool, the lowest on Szreter and Mooney’s tables. The gap between the longest-lived and the people of inner Liverpool would have been considerably greater.
So the Conservative claim is wrong. Is anybody likely to challenge it? Probably not Labour, which has seen such inequalities increase during its period of office, in spite of promises to reduce them.