The Economic History Review

The growth pattern of British children, 1850–1975

Volume 74 Issue 2
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Pages: 341-371Authors: Pei Gao, Eric B. Schneider
Published online: May 1, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13002

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This article is the first to use individual-level, longitudinal measures of child growth to document changes in the growth pattern in Britain between the 1850s and the 1970s. Based on a unique dataset gathered from the records of the training ship Indefatigable, this study analyses the mean heights of boys at admission and their longitudinal growth using regressions that control for observable characteristics. Our findings show a secular increase in boys’ mean height over time, and that height gain was most rapid during the interwar period. In addition, longitudinal growth velocity was low and similar at different ages for boys born before the 1910s, suggesting a substantially weaker pubertal growth spurt (three standard deviations lower) than that which occurs in modern populations. However, for boys born in the 1910s and later, higher growth velocities associated with pubertal growth appeared in a narrow range of ages (14 to 16 years). Thus, it appears that there was a substantial change in the growth pattern beginning in the 1910s with the emergence of a strong pubertal growth spurt. The timing of this shift implies that declines in child morbidity mattered more for the changing growth pattern than improvements in nutrition that occurred before 1910.