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

Vanessa Heggie*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    17 Citations (Scopus)


    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.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)178-216
    Number of pages39
    JournalJournal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2008


    • Alcohol
    • Degeneration
    • Diet
    • Exercise
    • Manchester
    • Physical deterioration
    • School meals
    • Temperance

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Geriatrics and Gerontology
    • History


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