'By the 1850s when Charles Dickens was at his most creative and influential London was the world’s most powerful and wealthiest city. But it was also the world’s most crowded city with a growing problem of poverty that threatened at times to overwhelm its magnificence. Whilst at the beginning of the 19th century less than 1 million lived in London by the 1850s the capital’s population had doubled and, by the end of the 19th century 6.5 million lived in an ever expanding Greater London. London was now home to one in five of the UK population.'
Epidemics of diseases such as cholera and typhoid in such an overcrowded city were never far from the surface. Whilst those living in overcrowded slum conditions were at greatest risk of infectious disease it was not just the poor who died young. Tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera and typhoid were no respecter of class and killed both rich and poor. In the mid-19th century the high death rate amongst young children brought average life expectancy in London down to just 37 years.
'It is incontrovertible that children grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless breed, that crumples up and goes down in the brute struggle for life with the invading hordes from the country. The railway men, carriers, omnibus drivers, corn and timber porters, and all those who require physical stamina are largely drawn from the country’. (Jack London, The People of the Abyss 1903)
Malnutrition remained a problem for London’s poorest and it was estimated up to 500 starved to death in the capital annually. Those who could afford to eat regular meals usually had a diet lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables resulting in vitamin deficiency and diseases such as rickets. In the East End rickets, caused by a lack of Vitamin A and with consequent fragility of bones, was common among young children - there was noticeable weakness and deformity of the legs.
So when we read of the Gibson brothers being 'of slender build' we can understand the years of deprivation that led to such a description given in their Army papers. They were just two of many. And it was from this population that the British Army drew most of their recruits eventually to be sent off to fight in one or other of Victoria's little wars and to form the basis of the 'PBI' - the Poor Bloody Infantry.
East End boy.