Friday, 2 September 2011

It really was tough up north

The ravages of HIV / AIDS have had a catastrophic effect on life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa. Swaziland has the world’s lowest life expectancy at 39.6 years according to the UN’s world population report and is joined at the lower reaches of the table by Mozambique, Zambia and Sierra Leone. But even Swaziland’s tragic figures are significantly higher than Manchester, Lancashire in the first half of the 19th century.

Szreter and Mooney have calculated that Manchester had a life expectancy of 25.3 years from birth between 1801 and 1850. These figures, quoted in Danny Dorling’s So You Think You Know About Britain, are the lowest ever seen by this academic.

As late as 1880, Liverpool had a life expectancy from birth of 29 years whilst Glasgow’s 27 years in 1840 illustrates that urban conditions were pitiful across industrialising Britain. The main factor in these rates was the high rate of infant mortality – the averages were dragged down by the sheer number of babies who never reached their first birthdays.

Still, the dark, satanic mills of King Cotton’s Lancashire cast a particularly tragic shadow over this period. In Simon Schama’s History of Britain it is noted that “Manchester was the very best and the very worst taken to terrifying extremes”. An American visitor, Henry Colman, was taken to some of Manchester’s most notorious districts and reported “wretched, defrauded, oppressed, crushed human nature, lying and bleeding fragments”.

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