University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The Fitzroy Report, 1904: How the poor physical condition of Boer War army recruits prompted social change

Following the end of the second Boer War in 1902, the government appointed an Inter-Departmental Committee to investigate why so many would-be recruits had been in poor physical condition. The Committee, chaired by civil servant Almeric FitzRoy, has become known as the Fitzroy Report.  Second-year UoP history student Ben Hessey discusses the report, what it tells us about contemporary ideas about parenting, gender, eugenics and social provision, and its longer-term significance.  This piece was originally written for the second-year Danger! module, which investigates issues of censorship and state control between 1850 and 2000 and is taught by Dr Rob James and Dr Mike Esbester.

During the early twentieth century the British government feared mediocrity in the inefficiency of its empire, reflected by the poor health of its subjects, that threatened Britain’s prosperous reputation compared to Britain’s more modernised European rivals, who had greater literacy, numeracy development and more efficient social reforms. [1]. The disastrous conditions of volunteer recruits during the Boer War left a daunting legacy and ensured a strong turn towards a more active state intervention into safeguarding the public health through domestic education.[2]

medical examination at Capetown, 1900

Medical examination at Capetown, 1900, Wellcome Collection no. 23699i

Photograph of Sir Almeric FitzRoy (1850-1935), National Portrait Gallery NPG x67977

Sir Almeric FitzRoy (1850-1935), National Portrait Gallery NPG x67977

While Balfour’s government did not want to raise anxieties on the new looming eugenic concepts on racial degeneracy when “appointing a relatively low-ranking committee” of loyal civil servants in 1903 to investigate the physical deterioration, historians such as Gilbert and Berridge reveal the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration still remained brutally truthful in expressing the vulnerabilities of the working class health and the lack of government intervention regarding welfare.[3] The 1904 Interdepartmental Committee report under FitzRoy recognised a variety of the causes: urban overcrowding, pollution, parental neglect, and incompetence of mothers to explain such a deterioration while simultaneously claiming there was a lack of evidence of any race degeneracy being the cause.

Despite this there remained much debate on causation throughout the period with Fay and Pearson’s eugenics survey research hoping to hold weight as a public health authority with the committee.[4] FitzRoy offered simple solutions for the socially-engineered health dangers and advocated government food provision and provision and domestic education to reform the uneducated care practices of young women, to improve the quality of life of future generations.[5] Extracts from this report show how the government adapted to become a stronger welfare state and show the different debates in historiography on the responsibility and agency of the state and women when amending physical deterioration.


While this report was manufactured for the sake of positive change in the period, both in internationally competitive social reforms and in a move towards liberalisation after government neglect of its citizens, a lot of the language of this report remains traditionally sexist and time-locked regarding the expectations of women’s traditional caregiving roles in society. This report especially showed therefore that the contemporary gender norms about the women of the period were still understandable and reflected on by the middle classes. [6] Though Fitzroy blames both parents at first, stating, “the fact of ignorance and neglect on the part of parents is undisputed”, and shows the openness and honesty of the report in the shared condemnation, it is clear later from the majority of later extracts that “younger women of the present day” met the brunt of the blame, with the authors characterising  them having a “carelessness and deficient sense of responsibility” for society’s future.[7] Fitzroy therefore seems to assume the role of responsibility really falls on that of the individual and not the state. This was problematic for the state as it became enthralled with an “obsession with National Efficiency”, a focus towards combating the incompetence of the British imperial race.[8] It should be argued therefore the report primarily considered the poor public health because of imperial motivations in state progression.

While the report does recognise “traditions of helplessness and despair” in society, historians such as Searle, Berridge and Boyer further argue a case of a detached state responsibility in welfare, that can be seen within the report’s outlook and recommendations on citizens.[9] Searle suggests  the government “fostered a view of men and women as resources”, viewing them just as failing assets that needed not practical aid but advisory aid to heal Britain like the report encouraged.[10] Berridge reiterates this point when she states the report encouraged the “instruction for motherhood”  rather than the provision of material aid” that was needed.[11] Searle explains it is easy to be cynical on the lack of state responsibility as it seemed likely they were cutting corners with the report’s ideas, as “doing something fundamental about the disadvantages suffered by working-class mothers would have been very expensive” but “good advice came cheap”, which shows the government lacked responsibility when duty proved costly.[12] The language of the report even represents an understatement on poverty stating that it is the “wants of the young” but not the needs of the young that are a concern thereby inferring a “maternal mismanagement” in care and expenditure from women.[13] Boyer reveals the report failed to deal “with the relationship between low household income and health” thereby showing the irresponsible reluctant agency of government solutions.[14] This shows some criticism can be made of the report as it held a misguided attitude that no English housewife could be so “deplorably destitute of the necessary equipment”, when poverty was in truth a deeper complication, as emphasised by reformers like Rowntree.[15]




Photographs of two school groups

Photographs of school groups contained in the Fitzroy report


However other historians understand the value of the report, since its purpose symbolised a progression in government action. FitzRoy primarily served to inform the public, but Zweiniger-Bargielowska and Pope show more significantly that the report inspired progressive reforms that grew from the report’s ideas, like supporting the provision of meals for children and standing against “evils”, in the 1906 Education Act.[16] Lowe also confirms that the focus on female domestic education was less controversial to headmistresses in the Edwardian era in contrast to the nineteenth century, though again mentioning the factors of eugenics and superior race in 1911 still as underlying influences.[17] This shows the report may have failed to quell fears of racial degeneracy, but that government responsibility did grow and popularise from the report’s segregated gender education recommendations.


As an army officer reads out the oath, four young men hold Bibles and confirm their allegiance at a recruitment office. Probably taken in 1917, Imperial War Museum, Q 30071

As an army officer reads out the oath, four young men hold Bibles and confirm their allegiance at a recruitment office. Probably taken in 1917, Imperial War Museum, Q 30071


To conclude, FitzRoy’s report managed to emphasize an easy conclusion regarding what needed to change concerning the physical deterioration. Though his argument tends to blame the individual more than the state quite harshly in his writing it is, as historians point out, an easier, low-costing solution he provides. He uses language which intensely plays on received gender role traditions; under such attitudes, social policy led to an intensified domestic learning and passing of responsibility onto women from government.  These attitudes were, nevertheless, surprisingly uncontroversial for headmistresses of the decade. The report also successfully managed to inspire positive social reforms enacted by the subsequent Liberal government of 1906-14, and the closer development of a welfare state, motivating decisive government action. Overall, in defining the domestic problems on physical health, this report shows a limited sense of governmental responsibility in welfare but provides progressive considerations that improved the agency of government in social reform.

Graphs of children's heights from the Fitzroy report.

Graphs of children’s heights from the Fitzroy report.

[1] John O’Farrell,  An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, Or, 2000 Years of Upper-class Idiots in Charge.(London,  Transworld Publishers, 2007), 419; Geoffrey R. Searle, A New England? : Peace and War 1886-1918. (Oxford University Press, 2004), 372.

[2] O’Farrell,  Impartial History, 419.

[3] Bentley Gilbert,  “Health and Politics: The British Physical Deterioration Report of 1904,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39, No. 2 (March- April 1965): 113-114; Virginia Berridge, et al, Public Health in History. (New York City, McGraw-Hill Education, 2011), 164.

[4] George Boyer, The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain. (Princeton University Press, 2018), 179; Theodore Porter,  Genetics in the Madhouse the Unknown History of Human Heredity. (Princeton University Press, 2018), 234.

[5] Almeric FitzRoy, Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (Parliamentary Papers, 1904).

[6] FitzRoy, Report; Searle, New England?, 372; Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Women in Twentieth-Century Britain : Social, Cultural and Political Change (Taylor & Francis Group, 2001), 37.

[7] FitzRoy, Report.

[8] Searle, New England?, 305; Berridge, Public Health, 164-165.

[9] FitzRoy, Report.

[10] Searle, New England?, 305.

[11] Berridge, Public Health, 165.

[12] Searle, New England?, 379.

[13] FitzRoy, Report; Searle, New England?, 379.

[14] Boyer, Winding Road, 179.

[15] FitzRoy, Report; Boyer, Winding Road, 179.

[16] FitzRoy, Report; Rex Pope,  et al. Social Welfare in Britain 1885-1985. (Taylor & Francis Group, 1986), 90-91; Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Women in Twentieth-Century Britain, 337.

[17] Roy Lowe,  “Education, 1900- 1939,” in A Companion to Early Twentieth-Century Britain, ed. Chris Wrigley. (Wiley-Blackwell; 1st edition, New Jersey, 2008), 431.



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