Was Victorian life really so grim?

Rosalind Crone reveals surprising truths about the experiences of the urban poor in 19th-century Britain...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Gustave Doré’s famous engraving, produced to illustrate the 1872 book London: A
Gustave Doré’s famous engraving, produced to illustrate the 1872 book London: A Pilgrimage, depicts (and exaggerates) the squalor of tightly packed terraced houses. Yet, as Rosalind Crone observes, the washing lines in Doré’s picture demonstrate that “slum-dwellers were not all very dirty – or, at least, they didn’t choose to be”. (© Getty)
 

The most familiar images of Victorian life are bleak indeed: impoverished children working long hours in factories and mines; blankets of smog suspended above overcrowded cities; frightening workhouses run by cruel governors; violent criminals lurking in the shadows. In black-and-white photos of the period, people both high and low-born are invariably unsmiling – a miserable bunch, surely?

There is some truth in this portrayal. The twin processes of industrialisation and urbanisation did force a drop in living standards for some, and the turbulent decade after Queen Victoria came to the throne became known as the ‘Hungry Forties’. These years were punctuated by economic depression leading to social unrest, popular protests and growing fears of revolution.

Such impressions can be explained by the collision of three unique processes. The first, combining industrialisation and urbanisation, had acutely visual effects. Just as important was the expansion of print culture, which provided a vehicle for such images as well as a growing and captivated audience. The third ingredient, equally crucial, was the emergence of a reforming spirit among the social elite from the 1830s onwards. Grave images of deprivation were circulated precisely because reformers such as Dickens, Disraeli and Gaskell, plus journalists and MPs, wanted to remedy such social problems.

But was life truly miserable? Did the labouring poor believe they were living in exceptionally tough times? Social historians have worked hard to give voice to those at the bottom, uncovering new evidence and taking a fresh look at old material related to five aspects of life. In doing so, they have challenged the very grimmest portrayals of urban Victorian Britain…

 

1) Were the mills really dark and satanic?

Workers toiled in dangerous factories or mines – but conditions improved substantially. The mention of work in the Victorian period rarely fails to conjure up an image of an imposing factory or a bleak mine, run by a merciless employer, in which employees – including small children – are forced to work long hours, often in poor light, using dangerous machinery. It is a picture created by novels such as Dickens’ Hard Times; by government inquiries, such as Ashley’s Mines

Commission of 1842, which exposed brutal physical and moral conditions; and by scandals about real factories throughout the century. But is it accurate? Not entirely.

Industrialisation in the early 19th century did drive down wages and lead to an increase in the employment of women and children, especially those of a very young age, in the manufacturing sector. Work in factories and mines certainly could be dangerous. In 1879, one MP who had visited a Bradford textile factory in the late 1830s described the 80 crippled and deformed children gathered for his inspection in the courtyard: “No power of language could describe the varieties, and I may say the cruelties, in these degradations of the human form. They stood or squatted before me in all the shapes of the letters of the alphabet.”

However, from the 1830s onwards, legislation was introduced to restrict child and (in some cases) female labour, to improve conditions and to regulate working hours. Reforms were limited, but often by the realities of working-class life. Take child labour, for example. While it offends our 21st-century sensibilities, it was not necessarily socially detrimental – after all, the wages that children brought in could raise the standard of living for the entire family. The alternative – schooling – cost money and rarely bettered a child’s future prospects.

What’s more, working in a factory could be preferable to other types of paid work. Days were controlled by the clock, but they were not necessarily longer than those of agricultural labourers. Clocking in and out, combined with the physical separation of work and home, could be more attractive than the endless days of domestic servants – another expanding industry. For every merciless master there existed at least one paternalistic employer who cared about his workers. Some even created model villages near workplaces for families to live in some comfort, one of the most famous being the Cadbury’s Bournville establishment near Birmingham.

Not only did some workers enjoy protection for traditional holidays (raucous St Monday festivities continued as late as the 1870s in the West Midlands) but time for leisure increased: the working day was limited to 10 hours, and the Saturday half-day was introduced. Many employers organised trips for their workforces to the seaside.

Even employees without these privileges were increasingly able to enjoy an expanding world of leisure, as workers’ real wages increased from the middle of the century. At the same time, industrial unrest and popular narratives of factory accidents subsided because the majority of working people became more comfortable with new patterns of work and industrial capitalism.

Young children carry heavy loads in a Midlands brickyard in this 1871 illustration from The Graphic, a weekly London newspaper. It has been estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 children aged under 16 worked in British brickyards at that time. (© Getty)

 

2) A route out of poverty

Not all paupers were condemned to hellish workhouses. One of the most enduring images of the Victorian period is entirely fictional: the painfully hungry Oliver Twist begging the tyrannical workhouse beadle, Mr Bumble, for gruel. Charles Dickens wrote his novel in the wake of the New Poor Law of 1834, legislation that aimed to reduce government spending on welfare by deterring the poor from seeking assistance. Local relieving officers were tasked to send those in need to the workhouse, where families were split up. Those who could work were pressed into hard labour and those who couldn’t were cared for at the minimum standard. All were subjected to a harsh disciplinary regime.

Some workhouses were abhorrent institutions. Local penal authorities were convinced that paupers deliberately tore their uniforms or smashed windows in order to be sent to prison – where both accommodation and food were better.

The workhouse also held a special attraction to journalists eager for explosive copy. In 1866, James Greenwood disguised himself as a vagrant to spend a night in the male ‘casual ward’ of the Lambeth Workhouse. After being registered, he was forced to bathe in a “liquid so disgustingly like weak mutton broth” and allocated a shirt and rug, then entered the ward to find “30 men and boys stretched upon shallow pallets which put only 6 inches of comfortable hay between them and the stony floor. These beds were placed close together… In not a few cases two gentlemen had clubbed beds and rugs and slept together.”

But how helpful are such portraits in understanding the experience of poverty in Victorian Britain? They certainly have their limits. Written between 1837 and 1839, Oliver Twist could at best describe conditions only in pre-Victorian poorhouses, and the New Poor Law was in practice not nearly as harsh as its promise – probably why campaigns against it died away fairly quickly.

It’s also worth acknowledging that workhouses functioned as providers of services ranging from education to health care, particularly from the mid-1860s onwards when improvements in provision were made.

What’s more, poverty was not a permanent state but often a condition that working people, or even lower middle-class people, could slip into and out of, depending on circumstances. And the poor had multiple resources upon which to draw. First was charity, which many socially conscious and religiously motivated elites were only too eager to supply. And the poor were not docile recipients of this charity. They knew just how to play the role required to secure funds – combining a display of respectability with evidence of poverty.

Secondary survival strategies ranged from gleaning (gathering leftover grain after harvest), keeping livestock, co-residence and pawning, to less legitimate activities – poaching, petty crime, prostitution and fraud. The poor routinely pawned their Sunday clothes early in the week to put food on the table, and redeemed them on Saturdays after wages had been collected. A London pawnshop assistant described the merriment of the trade on Saturday evening: “Some was eating fish and chips, some was eating tangerines, some had pease pudding and faggots. Cor blimey it was like Mother Kelly’s doorstep in there.”

 

3) The war on dirt

Urbanisation and industrialisation worsened living conditions for town dwellers. New industries pumped pollutants into the air and water. Expanding populations increased pressure on existing sewerage. Overcrowded neighbourhoods deteriorated into slums. The most notorious – St Giles, Old Nichol and Jacob’s Island in London, Angel Meadow in Manchester – were immortalised by artists, journalists and novelists, and some even featured in Baedeker’s famous travel guides.

The need to address such problems was recognised at the start of the Victorian period. To the investigations of reformer Edwin Chadwick must be added protestations from residents of ground-floor and cellar apartments inundated by sewerage overflows during heavy rain. Those living beside urban burial grounds witnessed daily the turning out of recently interred bodies to accommodate the stream of fresh corpses, as described by Thomas Munns in 1842: “I saw them bring up intestines in a bucket and put them out on the earth, and bones were thrown up, which were put in a barrow and wheeled away.”

Improvements came quickly. From the 1840s, new drain systems and other ambitious projects started to remove waste and clean up water supplies. Scavengers removed filth from the streets. New laws imposed regulations on construction of dwellings to combat the growth of slums. Some towns built public conveniences; by 1875, Glasgow had 198 urinals.

Notably, 80 to 90 per cent of the population did not reside in slums, and many working-class families, especially in the later Victorian period, did not live in overcrowded conditions. And what seriously needs reassessing is the assumption of dirt. By contemporary standards, slum-dwellers were not all very dirty – or, at least, they didn’t choose to be. Evidence lurks in depictions of slum life. Gustave Doré’s famous etching (on page 50) shows lines of washing hanging in tenement backyards. Some even served as laundries for the well-to-do – those most offended by the slums’ dirty existence.

Jacob’s Island, a notorious slum ‘rookery’ in south London, portrayed around 1810. (© Getty)

 

4) When crime paid

Newspapers made a mint out of exaggerating the threat posed by ‘the criminal class’. Though the Victorian age has come to be remembered as criminal and violent, most of the best-known vicious anti-heroes of the 19th century are fictional or semi-fictional – for example, Fagin and Jack the Ripper.

Our perceptions have been largely driven by the Victorians’ own fears and claims of a large, hardened, uncivilised and largely irretrievable criminal class in towns and cities. The famous early Victorian social investigators Henry Mayhew and John Binny boasted that they had managed to assemble 150 of these creatures in a room, the effect a “spectacle of squalor, rags and wretchedness… Some were young men, and some were children… [many] had the deep-sunk and half-averted eye… so characteristic of natural dishonesty and cunning… The hair of most of the lads was cut very close to the head, showing their recent liberation from prison.”

The popularisation of phrenology (a pseudoscience primarily focused on measurements of the human skull – see our feature on page 47) gave the idea of the ‘criminal class’ a scientific authority. The arrival of crime statistics in 1857 brought accurate estimates of the dimensions of this class (20,000 members in London alone, according to journalist James Greenwood in 1869), and the introduction of criminal registers with photographs enabled the monitoring of every individual.

Historians have worked hard to explode this myth: there were probably no more than about 4,000 truly ‘habitual criminals’, and most theft and violence was opportunistic and carried out by poor, young men.

Contemporary fears about crime and violence were further inflamed by an expanding and increasingly pictorial newspaper press. Crime news was readily available and sold well. Detailed coverage of a particularly gruesome murder could increase circulation several fold; the proprietors of several national and London newspapers made small fortunes from coverage of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders.

With its thirst for crime, the media also manufactured moral panics by compiling reports over several weeks to suggest that a crime wave had hit a local area. The most famous of these was the London garrotting panic of the early 1860s, sparked when several London newspapers published a wave of reports on violent street robberies. In fact, according to the criminal statistics, there was no significant increase in robberies. However, popular fears forced the government to take action, increasing penalties for offenders and granting police new powers of surveillance over known criminals.

Victorian statistics also tell us that crime – or at least serious theft and violence – was in decline through the second half of the 19th century. They are supported by other evidence, notably the emergence of a disciplined, efficient police force accepted – if not always liked – by almost every level of society. At the same time, society was becoming less violent. Male-on-male violence almost certainly declined as displays of aggression were increasingly regarded as unacceptable. But that didn’t stop many Victorians believing they were living through a crime-ravaged age. As one committed working-class newspaper reader declared to Henry Mayhew: “I read Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on a Sunday, and what murders and robberies there is now!”

Perceptions are important in assessments of quality of life, but so too is lived experience. Victorians were predominantly spectators rather than victims of crime. And spectating – when violence was presented in neatly packaged, entertaining forms – could be an enjoyable pastime.

 

5) A nation rises from its sickbed

The Victorians, especially poor ones, were at high risk of catching some nasty diseases. Most of the common killers – measles, scarlet fever, smallpox and typhus – had blighted Britain for centuries. Yet overcrowded and unsanitary conditions created by rapid urbanisation did assist the spread of these infectious diseases, as well as various illnesses of the digestive system such as diarrhoea and gastroenteritis.

What’s more, life expectancy, which had previously shown long-term improvement, took a tumble in the second quarter of the 19th century. By the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, it had fallen to around 25–27 years in the industrial towns of Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. As the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure calculates, life expectancy in urban slums of the 1830s and 1840s was the lowest it had been since the Black Death.

The primary reason was the high rate of child mortality. Around one-third of children, and more than half in some poor neighbourhoods, died before they reached the age of five. High child mortality was a factor driving increased numbers of offspring. However, as the letters, diaries and memoirs of men and women from all levels of society show, having more children never compensated emotionally for those who were lost.

As grim as these mortality statistics appear, overall the Victorian period was an era of improvement in terms of health. Life expectancy increased from around 1870 onwards, largely due to the fact that the Victorians became better at fighting diseases. Sanitary reform helped, because stagnant dirty water was flushed away. Doctors and scientists began to develop a better understanding of the causes of diseases.

Though cholera killed more than 50,000 people in Britain during the 1848–49 epidemic, the death toll fell to around 14,000 in the last epidemic of 1866, after John Snow successfully demonstrated that the disease was transmitted via contaminated water. Infectious diseases were responsible for around 40 per cent of urban deaths in 1840, but this figure dropped to about 20 per cent by 1900. The moment at which the prevalence of degenerative disease overtook that of infectious disease came during the Victorian era.

Alongside better hygiene, improved nutrition also helped combat disease, which might sound unlikely in light of a commonly told story of the period – the numbers of short men with bad teeth and poor eyesight, enlisting for service in the Boer Wars at the end of the century, who triggered a government inquiry.

Then there were tales of food adulteration – the use of chalk or alum in white bread, plaster of Paris in boiled sweets, horsemeat in sausages – encouraged by an unregulated industry under pressure to sell ready-made food at cheap prices. However, from 1860, new legislation on food standards combated the worst abuses. And anyway, having developed a taste for many ‘rogue’ products, the working classes were largely indifferent about most low-level adulteration.

Recent research suggests that Britons of the mid-Victorian period enjoyed a diet rich in fruit, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables – superior to ours today, in fact. Nutritional problems came in the form of tinned foods and cheap sugar imported during the late 19th century – detrimental in the long term but, in the short term, sources of delight rather than misery.  

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here