Historical East London: From a Chiropractic Perspective

East London in the 1800s and 1900s was a notoriously terrible place to live. The outskirts of London was a poverty-stricken slum, and the middle classes ignored it for as long as they could. The depressing living conditions and disease which spread quickly in the overpopulated homes meant life was a constant struggle for survival. A lot of children died of starvation, and if they didn’t then they would be sent to work at an early age to help feed the family. Those who were lucky enough to find work could barely afford a room and enough food to eat.

The working class were subjected to horrendous labour, often working 12-14 hour days with little break. It’s no wonder that some people had to turn to prostitution or a life of crime to get by. If you weren’t skilled then you had to find something to sell, or look for casual work around the town.

General health was extremely poor in the east end of London, as you’d expect when the majority of the population were malnourished. We can’t imagine how terrible back health must have been – but it was probably one of many aches and pains felt daily. No workers got enough sleep, and many were forced to stand all day or undergo hard labour for a very little wage. Here are some of the typical jobs you might have done if you lived in the Victorian ages…

Image of Victorian East LondonSewer hunters and mudlarks

It sounds like a last resort, but some people literally had to wade through waste and rubbish to find anything of value. Mudlarks would go thigh-deep into the Thames, looking to retrieve anything they could sell or use for themselves. Some made the illegal decision to enter the sewers – not a task for the faint hearted. They would search for miles sifting through the waste and filth looking to find scrap metal and dropped coins from the streets above. They could even collect dog muck which could be sold to tanneries to make leather. This was a dirty and dangerous job, and bending down all day probably resulted in prolonged lower back pain.

Dock loader

Thousands of men used to line the London docks every day hoping to get some work as a dock loader. The trouble is, it was very low paid and the work was casual – you never knew how many ships would come in. In the 1800s, London was the greatest port in the world – but it still didn’t pay well to be a casual labourer. The excessive repetitive strain on the dock loaders’ backs would have taken its toll and they probably wouldn’t have been in a condition to work past the age of 40.


Women also had to work to make a living, even though many workers in East London still lived in poverty. From the age of 13 many girls became a matchworker, at a factory on Bow Road. The match girls were exploited, working long hours for a pittance and standing for 12 hours with just a short break. It’s possible that standing in the wrong posture and hunching over the machinery could have caused back pain for a lot of the matchworkers.

Sweat shops

A skilled woman could find a job sewing, making sacks or producing mass clothing in the slop trade. The pay was pitifully low, and even when the sewing machine was introduced not many people in the East End could afford one. Working conditions were poor, and they had to sew by candlelight or gas lamp. One would presume that these seamstresses had to sit in awkward positions for long periods of time to focus on their work, putting pressure on the neck and back.

Back pain would have been a common problem in historical East London – but it was probably that last of everyone’s worries. Each day was full of hardship, diseases such as syphilis, cholera and typhus were rife and Jack the Ripper was at large. Fast forward to the modern day, and most of us don’t need to worry about eating a proper meal or getting basic health care. We have a comfortable life, which is why back pain can be so disruptive and frustrating.

Why is Chronic Back Pain so Difficult to Cure?

Back pain is a huge problem worldwide, and many people suffer chronic back pain long term because it’s very difficult to diagnose and treat. Lower back pain affects 1 in 10 people according to researchers from all over the world, and is becoming increasingly common. Experts think the modern lifestyle is the main cause of back pain – a combination of lack of exercise, too much sitting, bad posture and some types of jobs could also be to blame.

Most of us will experience an episode of back pain at some point in our lives. However for some individuals, the pain is persistent and difficult to treat. There are many different underlying causes of back pain, so it’s important to establish the problem before a GP or back specialist can recommend treatment.

Here’s a few reasons why treating back pain is so difficult.

Difficult to diagnose

There’s a number of different types of back pain and it’s difficult to tell what patients are feeling. There is no test which can perfectly identify back pain and recognise if it relates to an underlying condition, so doctors often have to rely on descriptions of the pain. Someone with chronic back pain could be suffering from sciatica, a slipped disc or non-specific back pain and an accurate diagnosis could take some time.

Image of girl with back painLack of understanding for chronic back pain treatment

Most people know that back pain is a common problem and that it often goes away on its own within a few weeks. The majority of sufferers manage the pain with painkillers – but don’t seek advice or treat the root cause of the pain. There isn’t enough awareness about the wide range of back pain treatments available, including manual therapy, physiotherapy and specific exercise and stretch programmes.

Trial and error

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for general back pain, and people are likely to respond to different treatments. The back has many different muscles, joints and tissues so it can be hard to target the exact area which is causing the pain. There is always more than one option available, so if the first recommended treatment didn’t really have an effect, go back to your doctor and ask for something different. It’s trial and error for most people – sometimes a combination of treatments works well.

Ignoring the symptoms

Many people are reluctant to visit a doctor with back pain – some people prefer the grin and bear it approach. However, ignoring the symptoms can only make the problem worse. Sufferers who are having a ‘bad day’ with their pain may choose to stay off work and lie in bed all day. This is only making the back pain more intense, and other ill informed decisions like these can prolong the episode of back pain. If you see a GP or chiropractor straight away, they can advise certain treatments and give general tips for avoiding pain in the future.

4 Main Causes of Headaches and Migraine

Headaches and migraines are very common and can be extremely difficult to deal with. 40% of people suffer from a headache at least once a week, while 67% admit to having a headache once a month. There is no cure for migraines and doctors don’t fully understand what causes them, or why some people suffer so severely with the condition. However, we do know that there is a genetic link and having certain other conditions can increase the chances of getting a migraine. Read more

How your Sleeping Position Affects your Back

Did you know that we sleep for a third of our life?! That’s a long time to be laying in a position which puts pressure on your back. Obviously when we’re asleep we lose consciousness and don’t really feel what’s going on in our bodies. But with so much time spent lying still, it’s no wonder that the position we sleep in could be the cause of back pain or at least making it worse. Read more