Height, national identity and the four nations

Height, national identity and the four nations

This week, Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson (LJMU) examines what height can tell us about cultural identity across the four nations.

Height matters. Social psychologists suggest that tall people are generally more successful, confident, attractive and wealthier than short people.[1] To be short is to be short of other qualities. Some propose that there is a relationship between height and political allegiance.[2] Drawing on various fragments of detail, social and economic historians have drawn correlations between height, wealth and diet.[3] Taken together, these different branches of research, the one generally concerned with the consequences of height and the other its causes, suggest that shortness is a vicious circle.


Height is relative (The Frost Report: ‘I Know My Place’, 1966).

These empirical exercises are rarely complemented by studies that consider the cultural meanings accorded to height on the level of either the individual or the group. Like any other measurement, height and the values attributed to it are relative. Existing work on racial distinctions have considered the place of the subaltern body in colonial culture and in so doing provide some useful questions and approaches to the issue of body image and group identity.[4] Work on masculinity has also considered height and its part in the formation of male and especially military identities.[5] It could be time, however, for height to take a national as well as sharper cultural turn. Nations are narrated, their landscapes venerated and the form of the inhabitants are also open to interpretation. Any dynamic conceptualisation of national identity requires some consideration of the national body. But where do we look for evidence of the relationship between height and the four nations? After all, it is hardly the topic that leaps out of indexes.


Average height ‘without shoes’ from John Munro’s The British Race (1909). The lighter and clearer the area, the taller the men.

The most obvious starting point is to consider the work of those who have actually measured people from one or more of the four nations. These scholars were not only interested in height. There was, for instance, that Irish mark of Cain the ‘prognathous jaw’ and the ‘Index of nigresence’.[6] But height tended to capture the interest of the public. By the Edwardian era studies of height from other countries were circulated in an expanding national and local press. Readers of the Rhyl Record and Advertiser were given a summary of an article published in Revue des Deux Mondes that listed the tallest to shortest nation. Of the nations of the British Isles that were mentioned in the summary, the Scots averaged 1.710 metres, the English 1.703 and the Irish 1.697.[7] Such small differences mattered. Both the Scots and English were categorised as ‘Tall’ while the Irish found themselves among the Russians, French and Germans in the ‘above middle height’ group.


Many did not need to take a magic potion to perceive the Scots as being tall (a slightly perturbing postcard from the 1970s).

Such statistics are an excellent starting point, and the methodology is worth scrutinising as it belies how the studies were founded upon certain assumptions. But to approach the wider cultural significance of height it is necessary to ask what was made of these figures and observations. How were they related to race, class or gender hierarchies? Military discourse often contains references to height. As well as the height requirements for the prestigious Foot Guards, experience of an extensive empire led military authorities to categorise native groups on the basis of their suitability for military service. This was most often applied to the Indian subcontinent.[8] If there was an equivalent of the Sikhs among the four nations, then it was the Scots who, before the establishment of the Irish and Welsh guards in 1900 and 1915 respectively, were the only one of the four nations to have their own Guards regiment (the others being the Grenadiers and Coldstream Guards). Moreover, the Scots were frequently recognised as the most statuesque of the four nations. As one correspondent to the Scotsman put it in 1913 ‘the Scots are the tallest and most bulky men in the British Isles’.[9]


A Middlesex Bantam, from New York (Henry Thridgould, 4ft 9in) looks up to a Scot. 

If the Scots were the Sikhs then the Welsh were assumed to be a non-martial race. Lt Col Charles à Court Repington, author of Imperial Strategy (1906) and military correspondent for The Times surveyed the recently formed Welsh Territorial Division in 1910 and concluded that the men with the best physiques were those from the English border counties that had been drafted in to bolster the Welsh unit. The Welshman was wanting in mind as well as body because ‘[h]e is not a born NCO like the Scot’.[10] According to various studies, the Welshmen were shorter than the Irish, Scots and English. This was only an average, but averages are memorable and anchor perceptions. When there were attempts to establish a Welsh Guards after the Second Boer War, the proposal was opposed by the then Secretary of State for War who felt that there not enough Welshmen would meet the height requirement for a regiment of Foot Guards.[11] After the demands of the Great War resulted in the formation of not only a Welsh Regiment but the enlistment of men between the height of 5ft and 5ft 3in as front line troops, the short men of the 17th Welsh Regiment proudly bore the nickname the ‘Welsh Ghurkhas’. At long last the Welsh could, like the warriors from the Himalayan foothills, be considered a martial people.


Welsh Ghurkas with their recently issued boots in 1915.

Height is an important component of individual identity. A reputation for being a short or tall people may not determine a group’s identity, especially as many will be taller or shorter than the group’s imagined height, but it is a physical feature that has a considerable cultural resonance. As the tall (6ft 3in) Englishman Jeremy Paxman put it ‘still we generalise that the Welsh are shorter and darker than the English’.[12]


[1] Nancy M. Blaker et al., ‘The height leadership advantage in men and women: Testing evolutionary psychology predictions about the perceptions of tall leaders’, Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 16:1 (2016).

[2] R. Arunachalam and S. Watson, ‘Height, income and voting’, British Journal of Political Science, 46:3 (2016).

[3] Roy E. Bailey, Timothy J. Hatton and Kris Inwood, ‘Health, height, and the household at the turn of the twentieth century’, Economic History Review, 69:1 (2016).

[4] Joseph S Alter, ‘Subaltern bodies and nationalist physiques: Gama the great and the heroics of Indian wrestling’, Body and Society, 6:2 (2000).

[5] M. McCormack, ‘Tall histories: Height and Georgian masculinities’,Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 26 (2016).

[6] Steve Garner ‘The Simianization of the Irish: Racial Ape-ing and its contexts’, in Wulf D. Hund, Charles W. Mills and Silvia Sebastiani (eds), Simianization: Apes, gender, class, and race (Lit Verlag: 2016), p. 216.

[7] Rhyl Record and Advertiser, 22 October 1904.

[8] Heather Streets, Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2004), p. 100.

[9] Scotsman, 30 September 1913.

[10] The Times, 8 August 1910.

[11] Cambria Daily Leader, 13 Feb 1915.

[12] Jeremy Paxman, The English: A portrait of a people (Penguin, 1999), p. 46.

Image 1: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/article3730160.ece

Image 2: https://archive.org/details/britishrace00munruoft

Image 3: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/POSTCARD-COMIC-BAMFORTH-Scotsman-Alice-in-Wonderland-/232064073622?hash=item360818bf96:g:E58AAOSwyKxXgoF5

Image 4: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/big-read–small-men-2925191

Image 5: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks14/1400171h.html

Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson is Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University and is particularly interested in representations, symbols and group definition. His latest publication is Voices of the First World war: Merseyside’s War (Amberley Press, 2015).



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