Was Dick Whittington taller than those he left behind?: anthropometric measures, migration and the quality of life in early nineteenth century London
Using a new source of evidence we explore the geographical mobility of mid-nineteenth century seamen. Among seamen born outside London, the tall, the literate and those who could remember the exact day, month and year when they were born - characteristics that we suggest mark them out as men with more choices in life - were more likely to migrate to London. Contrary to what might be inferred from contemporary descriptions of urban disamenities or from persistent differentials in mortality, London appears as a desirable destination for those who could choose. The conclusion must be that London was not so bad, and we should adjust our perception of the problems of urbanisation accordingly, with implications for the wider debate on the standard of living during the industrial revolution. The paper’s methodological innovation is the use of height as an explanatory variable in the analysis of migration. Although correlated with other variables that are routinely used in anthropometric studies to indicate life chances, such as literacy and the ability to recall date of birth, height has many advantages over these alternatives in that it exhibits higher levels of significance, and is more flexible. Moreover while literacy and heaping are in essence binary variables, height is a (near) continuous one, and one that allows us to test for linear and non-linear responses, as we do with interesting results in this paper. Perhaps the most fruitful use of height in historical analyses may turn out to be as an explanatory variable; at the very least such a research strategy provides anthropometric historians with fresh opportunities.
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