You probably think that the “new” low-carbohydrate diet regimes were pioneered by far-seeing and learned medical people like Dr. Atkins. Well this is totally incorrect. The truth is that the low-carbohydrate diet was developed by a 19th century English undertaker by the name of William Banting.
Today, the Atkins diet is a household name and William Banting is forgotten (in most places.) However Banting is not forgotten altogether. Today in Sweden the term “banting” is still the word most commonly used for dieting to achieve weight loss. In Swedish ‘Att banta’ means to bant, or to diet. Only three men is history have been immortalized by having their names enter the English language as verbs. The first was the Irishman, Captain Charles C. Boycott. Another was Louis Pasteur, and the third is the focus of this article – William Banting.
William Banting was born in London in 1797. He was born into an upper middle class family of funeral directors who for four generations held the Royal warrant as the undertaker to Great Britain’s royalty. The Banting firm held the Royal warrant until 1928.
The London Directories indicate that a firm known as France & Banting appeared at 101 St. Martin’s Lane in 1780 and continued at that location until 1799 (the year in which George Washington died!). In 1806 William France is listed as an undertaker in Pall Mall and was working with Thomas Banting. The firm of Banting & France also served as cabinet makers and upholsterers to the Royal family. In fact the prestigious auction house “Mallett” of London and New York is at the time of this writing auctioning off a King William IV mahogany breakfast table made by the firm of Banting & France. The auctioneer instructs any potential buyer to “please contact Mallett” for the price!
The history of the France Undertaking firm can be traced back to c. 1713 (this firm is still in business known today as A. France & Son). It was Banting & France who organized the spectacular state funeral for Lord Horatio Nelson in 1806. The mahogany coffin for Nelson, which cost 800 pounds was made from the mainmast of the Orient, the flagship of the defeated French during the Battle of the Nile. The coffin was 6ft 8in long and 26in wide and weighed one ton! The coffin was created by Mr. Chester Chittenden who was the coffin maker and trimmer for France & Banting. (The name of the firm flips back and forth over the years from Banting & France to France & Banting.)
Even though the Banting & France firm had been responsible for the funerals of royalty for many years it was not until June 10, 1811 when King George III issued the Royal Warrant to the firm and henceforth be formally recognized as the Royal Undertakers. The Banting family would hold the Royal Warrant until 1928 – 117 years!
Thomas Banting’s son William Banting, the focus of this article was the second generation to hold the royal warrant. In subsequent generations William Banting 1826-1901 and his son William Westbrook Banting 1857-1932 likewise served under warrant to the Royal Family when any death occurred.
By the time Thomas Banting retired and William took over the family undertaking business the family had done very well. The Banting family lived in a Georgian town house in Kensington, which was lavishly decorated and furnished. William Banting’s wife had a impressive jewellery collection worth several thousands of dollars, and in the basement of their four story property William kept an enviable wine cellar which he passed on to his eight children (two boys, six girls) in his will. It is estimated that William Banting’s estate in 1878 would be worth 4.4 million US dollars today.
William Banting was a good humored man with a distinctive chin beard and a puckish sense of humor. However Mr. Banting suffered from a major life disability – he was fat, extremely fat. Standing only 5’ 5” Banting in 1863 tipped the scales at 305 lbs. Banting had been miserable for a long, long time, and now in semi-retirement he was depressed and in poor health. Banting’s daily routine would depress a hyena.
Every morning Banting would heave himself out of bed at 8:00 a.m. hoist a corset around his bulging stomach as he struggled to get into his three piece funeral suit. He could not tie his shoes, and he had to walk down the stairs of his home backwards in order not to place too much weight on his knees. He also suffered from boils and two carbuncles, he was loosing his hearing because of his weight, his sign was fuzzy because of the weight, and on top of all this he also had an umbilical rupture because of the weight.
None of Banting’s family on either parent’s side had any tendency towards obesity. However, when William was in his thirties he started to become overweight. His physician prescribed exercise, so William would go rowing in his boat on the Thames, but all this did was cause him a tremendous appetite and he put back on more pounds than ever – so much for exercise.
Banting went into the hospital more than twenty times because of his obesity. He tried swimming, walking, riding and taking the sea air. He drank gallons of physic and liquor potassae (this was a Victorian concoction of the juice from a nut, and liquefied herbs which created a cathartic – it did not work), took the spa waters, tried low-calorie foods, tried starvation diets, took up to three Turkish baths a week for one calendar year and lost only 6 pounds.
The worst however for Mr. Banting, as it is for most people with weight problems, was the cruelty of society. Banting tried to laugh off the weight jokes, he tried to be thick skinned and not let the comments sting, he tried not to have his feelings damaged, but nevertheless he felt, as all overweight people do, the inevitable sting of such anti-fatism. The Victorian myth that if you were fat you were extremely attractive because you could afford good food and drink simply wilts when one examines the literature on the subject available in the 1860’s. Overweight people were the object for scorn, even 140 years ago. One publication “The London Examiner” refers specifically to Banting’s dilemma with his corpulence problem in this sarcastic piece of writing:
“…at the end of 1863 these serious matter were set off by one that provided merriment for many a day and year. A Mr. Banting, who was so fat that he could not tie his shoestrings, had to descend stairs backwards and involuntarily provided cheap entertainment for street boys, wrote to the papers (and afterwards also published a pamphlet) that, after taking innumerable Turkish baths, drenching himself at mineral springs and rowing until he was not only fat but dripping, all in vain and more, he had rid himself of a fabulous number of stones by following a simple course of diet. A big discussion followed, many imitators adopted his plans with varied results, and “doing Banting” became a household expression. I doubt whether it is quite extinct yet. The comic papers and signers made themselves merry; every burlesque and pantomime scored it joke, and Banting found himself great in fame as well as in person, rivaling (for a time) even those weighty immortals, Falstaff and Sancho Panza.”
The Royal Undertaker being compared to Falstaff and Sancho Panza! Mr. Banting was so stung by the sniggers and snide aside remarks of friends and strangers as he waddled to his undertaking shop at 27 St. James’s Street off Piccadilly, that he eventually avoided social gatherings and public transport altogether just to escape “the sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious.” Banting even started to refuse to appear at royal funerals preferring to leave exposure at such monumental public events to his son.
Banting was extremely vulnerable, in trouble, and he knew it. He wrote in a desperate tone “If fat is not an insidious creeping enemy, I do not know what it is.”
Here is William Banting’s diet before he wrote “The Letter.” For breakfast he would eat bread and milk, a pint of tea ladelled with plenty of milk and sugar, and slices of buttered toast. For dinner he would eat meat, drink beer, and end up with bread and pastry. For tea time he would eat a meal similar to breakfast, and for supper he would eat fruit tarts or bread and milk.
Finally William Banting read of a physician from Paris who had promoted the idea that starches and sugars accounted for weight gain not simply fat. The pioneering physician in Paris was hooted off the stage by the medical fraternity. So much for a new idea!
Banting decided that he would develop a new type of diet. This is what he came up with. For each meal Mr. Banting allowed himself the following: up to six ounces of bacon, beef, mutton, venison, kidneys, fish or any form of poultry or game; the ‘fruit of any pudding’ – he was denied the pastry; any vegetable except potato; and at dinner, two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira; tea without milk or sugar
Champagne, port, beer were forbidden; only one ounce of toast a day.
Banting jumped into the diet. On this diet Banting lost nearly 1 lb per week from August 1862 to August 1863. After 38 weeks Banting felt better than he had for the post 20 years. By the end of the year, not only had his hearing been restored, he had much more vitality and he had lost 46 lbs in weight and 12 ¼ inches off his waist. He suffered no inconvenience whatever from the new diet, and was able to come downstairs forward naturally with perfect ease, go upstairs and take exercise freely without the slightest inconvenience. Banting even started working funerals again and going to the office in public. His umbilical rupture was greatly improved, his sight was restored, his hearing improved. Banting was delighted and he was able to maintain the new eating habit.
William Banting was so thrilled with his “new diet” that he wanted to share the good news with others. The news of the Banting diet started with a small pamphlet or booklet which Banting wrote entitled “Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public.” It is an interesting footnote in history that the first diet instruction book was not written by a dietician or a medical doctor, but by an undertaker. It became one of the most famous works on obesity ever written. First published in 1863, it went into many editions and continued to be published long after Banting’s death.
A hundred and forty years later Dr. Atkins reaped millions from his diet, while William Banting asked for no recompense for his publications. Indeed, the elderly undertaker saw is as a public duty to pass on the “cure” for obesity and gave all the profits from the many editions of “Letter on Corpulence” to hospital charities. The Banting Letter sold 63,000 copies in Great Britain alone. In 1868 Banting published a proposal and started a fund from the Letter’s profits to found and endow a new institution for the service of humanity – the Middlesex County Convalescent Hospital. Banting’s dream was to have an institution for working-class people who could not afford to convalesce but had to return to work to make ends meet thus allowing no time to get over their hospital treatment and hence succumbed to relapses. The hospital opened in 1868.
Predictably William Banting’s greatest detractors were as Atkins is today the medical establishment. Some physicians in Banting’s time even started the rumor that Bantings own diet had killed him. The result was a severe howl of protest and a bitter controversy and Banting’s papers, character and book were ridiculed and distorted. Center to the attack was that Mr. Banting was just an “undertaker.” The medical people asked this question: “What does an undertaker know about the workings of the human body?” The medical community looked their noses down, way down on the undertaking profession. Again Bantings was hurt and stunned by the attack, however the public was impressed. Many desperate, overweight people tried the Banting diet and found that it worked. Like it or not the undertaker had shown the physician something new!
So popular was the Banting diet that a popular song made the music hall rounds:
Some time ago where e’er I strayed
I heard the observation made,
To which I close attention paid,
‘How very stout you’re getting.’
Said one, ‘Dear me, you waddle, quiet,
You bid fair to become a fright.’
Another said, ‘you’re such a sight,
You’re like a bladder blown out tight.
And only see where e’er you go
How you’re compelled to puff and blow.
You surely soon will bust your clo’.
If you don’t follow Banting,
If you continue thus so stout,
You’ll fall a victim to the gout,
You really must try Banting.
William Banting died in 1878 at the age of 81 years. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery a short distance today from Harrods’s Department Store. A few years ago I visited William Banting’s grave in the Brompton Cemetery. I was in London doing a series of seminars for the Funeral Directors Association of Great Britain. Finding Banting’s grave was short of impossible and if it had not been for the charming sexton of the cemetery I would never have located the stone. The area where the Banting’s are interred is somewhat grown over (due to lack of maintenance funds) but the large, dark impressing stone still stands straight. I was honored to pay my respects to this great funeral director.
William Banting’s papers, his letters, his diary, details of where he was educated, and most importantly his notes concerning Royal funerals and the history of the Banting Undertaking Establishment were inherited by his great granddaughter-in-law who after experiencing a major depression in the late 1950’s and who for some odd reason thought William Banting a “horrid little man,” destroyed ALL the documents by burning them. Unforgivable!
William Banting was truly a philanthropist, he did not profit monetarily from the “Letter”, he simply wanted, by having a good heart, to share his great discovery. Banting wanted the world to know. I suspect that William Banting would be extremely pleased to know that 140 + years later, his diet really is known worldwide to thousands, millions, albeit under another name.
Throughout the many years that the Banting firm served as the Royal Undertakers the firm survived through many social changes like transportation of remains by the railroad, the advent of embalming and the extremely lavish and opulent royal funeral décor. Banting’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of English Royalty (Prince Albert – 1861, Queen Alexandra – 1925, Prince Alfred – 1782, Queen Anne – 1714, Kind Edward VII – 1910, Kind George I – 1727, Kind George II – 1760, King George III – 1820, King George IV – 1830, Lord Mountbatten – 1922, Queen Victoria – 1901). In 1852 Bantings were responsible for the Duke of Wellington’s funeral. While Wellington’s funeral was not “royal” in the strict sense of the word it was the grandest public event of the century, likened perhaps only to the funerals of Lord Nelson in 1806 or Sir Winston Churchill in 1964.
In 1900 Bantings had arranged just 16 funerals in the whole year. By 1903 that number had doubled. Bantings were expensive, very expensive. The firm was able to accept only the cream, the carriage trade of London society. During this period of time the firm was headed by the last of the Banting line of undertaker’s William Westbrook Banting. On February 27, 1902 William Westbrook Banting reissued his grand-father William’s now famous Letter on Corpulence from the address of the Banting firm 27 St. James’s Street. The family had used 26 & 27 St. James’s Street for over 50 years. Queen Victoria’s funeral procession had passed right in front of Bantings from Pall Mall to Piccadilly. In later years W.W. Banting lavishly refurbished the shop-front in pink marble, which can still be seen to this very day.
By the beginnings of the 1920’s W.W. Banting was rarely involved himself in conducting any funerals, except royal funeral occasions. The firm basically contracted out every service to other companies, however always ensuring the very best and costliest quality. A number of other top-ranking London undertakers looked to attract the “Banting” type of funeral practice however they were never able to match the mastery of funeral rituals and ceremonies which was the hallmark of a Banting service.
In 1928 W.W. Banting was 71 years of age and it was time to retire. Upon his retirement the royal warrant was terminated. There were no Banting decendents to continue the tradition of the “Banting Service.” W. W. Banting never married and his brothers had died or moved. One Banting brother moved to Canada and his child became Dr. Frederick Grant Banting who later in 1923 won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of insulin. The Banting Institute located on the campus of the University of Toronto is named in his honor, and for years the Canadian School of Embalming was headquartered in the Banting Institute building.
The long history of Banting conducting funerals for the crown was now at an end. A bid for the royal funerals was made by J. D. Field (who had done much of Banting’s contract work) but in the end the royal warrant went to the better socially connected firm of J. H. Kenyon. Kenyon’s were to hold the royal warrant for many years, and Michael Kenyon conducted Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1964. Today, however, the royal warrant has not been reissued.
William Westbrook Banting died on December 9, 1932 at 158 West Hill, Wandsworth. The death certificate records one brother present and the cause of death as anuria and pulmonary infarct, and carcinoma of the bladder. His estate was valued at some 92,000 pounds. Mr. Banting’s remains were deposited in the Kensal Green Cemetery in the Banting tomb on December 14 after a funeral service in the chapel of St. John the Evangelist, Notting Hill at 12 noon. Mr. Banting was described as a man of “independent means.”
What a fascinating legacy! From funeral service to the royal family for nearly 300 years, to the creation of a diet which today is still used today the Banting family has certainly left their mark. Still no matter how impressive the funeral history of the Banting firm is, the true historic endurance for the survival of the old English name is and probably will always be the diet and also the possibility of suspicion that Dr. Atkins, rest his soul, just might have had a ghost writer!
A fitting end to this interesting story is found in the closing paragraph of William Banting’s “Letter on Corpulence to the Public.” It reflects Mr. Banting’s hope for those who suffer from obesity.
“I have now finished my task, and trust my humble efforts may prove to be good seed well sown, that will fructify and prod
uce a large harvest of benefit to my fellow-creatures. I also hope the faculty generally may be led more extensively to ventilate this question of corpulence or obesity, so that instead of a few able practitioners, there may be hundreds distributed in the various parts of the United Kingdom. In such case, I am persuaded that these diseases will be very rare.”