Lies, damn lies, and Manchester's recruiting statistics: degeneration as an "urban legend" in Victorian and Edwardian Britain

J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2008 Apr;63(2):178-216. doi: 10.1093/jhmas/jrm032. Epub 2007 Oct 27.


Few historians have attempted to discuss British medicine, health and welfare policies, or the biological sciences around 1900 without due reference to the concept of degeneration. Most tie public concern with degeneration to a specific set of military recruiting figures, which stated that of 11,000 would-be volunteers in Manchester, 8,000 had to be turned away due to physical defects. Further, most histories point out that these figures had a direct influence on the formation of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration in 1904. With its absolute denial of hereditary decline, the 1904 Report acts as a dénouement of degenerationist fears in Britain. No historian has sought to contextualize these recruiting figures: Where did they come from? How did Manchester react? What role did that city play in the subsequent 1904 Report? Far from being the epitome of urban decay, the 1904 Report repeatedly hails Manchester as a glowing example of innovative urban reform. This article contextualizes the recruiting figures and explores how Manchester had been tackling the three key problems of Physical Deterioration-diet, exercise, and alcohol-for thirty years prior to the 1904 Report. By discussing Manchester, a new understanding of degeneration is outlined; as slogan, rhetorical tool, and urban legend, degeneration was largely feminized and domesticated. Military/masculine problems such as the recruiting figures were the exception, not the rule.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Health Status*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Nutritional Status
  • Physical Fitness*
  • Public Health / history
  • United Kingdom
  • Urban Population*