Health Advice for Young Gents – 1836

This is from the i paper of 30 December

As the season of overindulgence takes its toll, it is perhaps heartening to know that pre-Victorians faced a similar dilemma over gym regimes and fad diets.

Researchers at Cambridge University have unearthed an 1834 manual called British Manly Exercises, which aimed to help the middle and upper classes, whose sedentary lives and fatty diets could lead to obesity and gout, to get in shape. the guide, written by Donald Walker, gives instructions on a range of physical activities deemed suitable for young gentlemen, from leaping and vaulting to skating and wrestling.

While it reveals that the pre-Victorians knew much about the benefits of regular exercise, there are some more questionable entries. One of these is a diet to attain the “highest condition”, in which one exclusively drinks cold beer and cider, avoiding all other liquids save for half a pint of red wine after dinner. The author attributes the diet to one Captain Barclay, while noting that it has received glowing user reviews and comes recommended by “professional men”.  As part of the Captain’s regime a gentleman must gradually increase his level of exercise to 24 miles of walking and running a day.

His diet should consist of lean met, stale bread and biscuits – no other vegetable matter is permitted and “everything inducing flatulency must be carefully avoided”.

After diligently following these instructions, downing a series of odd mixtures and sweating profusely, Walker’s 19th century gentlemen were on their way to a summer body.

The guidebook, which claims to be the first to describe the procedures of rowing and sailing as exercise, gives instructions on how to exercise “with a direct, immediate and obvious purpose.”

The manual is held in the Special Collections at St John’s College, Cambridge, and can be viewed by appointment.

This is fascinating for several reasons. Why did men need such advice? Didn’t they learn such things from school, family and friends? The vegetable free diet also seems odd especially coming from an apparently military man – this is decades after the cause of scurvy was established as lack of vitamin C so the benefits of fresh food were well known. I doubt if these young men were sitting round doing nothing – transport was still largely by foot, so few were completely idle. Walking or running 24 miles a day seems a huge distance, but family histories are full of people who walked many miles to and fro work with a heavy day’s labour in between. Our modern notion of fitness is pathetic. No wonder people tended to do so little on Sundays.

What I think it does suggest is that the desperate shortage of eligible bachelors, as in Austen’s time – caused by them going abroad to found colonies, lost at sea or in wars – had reduced. No longer were young women throwing themselves at any male with some form of income. These young men seem to have realised the need to be presentable to get a good wife, and it seems there was some competition for this.

4 thoughts on “Health Advice for Young Gents – 1836

  1. ‘cold beer and cider, avoiding all other liquids save for half a pint of red wine after dinner.’
    My hope is that it is going to pay off EVENTUALLY as long as I can stick with it


  2. I had a biography of Captain Barclay by Peter Radford which was very interesting – about his pedestrian feats (betting raised the money to make it worth his while) and other sporting stuff. You might like it – seem to be inexpensive 2nd hand copies about.

    Liked by 1 person

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