How hungry were the poor in late 1930s Britain?†

Ian Gazeley, Andrew Newell, Kevin Reynolds, Hector Rufrancos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article re-examines energy and nutrition available to British working-class households in the late 1930s using individual household expenditure and consumption data. We use these data to address a number of questions. First, what was the extent of malnutrition in late 1930s Britain? Second, how did the incidence change over time? Third, what were the nutritional consequences of the school meals and school milk schemes? We conclude that, for working households, energy and nutritional availability improved significantly compared with current estimates of availability before the First World War. These improvements were not equally shared, however. In the late 1930s, homes with an unemployed head of household had diets that provided around 20 per cent less energy than their working counterparts and female-headed households had diets that provided around 10 per cent fewer kcalper capita than the average male-headed household. The availability of most macro-and micronutrients showed similar relative reductions. State interventions designed to improve diet and nutrition, such as school meals and school milk, made children’s diets significantly healthier, even if they did not eliminate macro- and micronutrient deficiencies completely. Not surprisingly, they made the greatest difference to children in households where the head of household was unemployed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-110
Number of pages31
JournalEconomic History Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 May 2021

Bibliographical note

Research support for this work was provided by Economic and Social Research Council grants RES-062-23-2054 and ES/L002523/1.


  • Economics and Econometrics
  • History


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