The best of times, the worst of times

The best of times, the worst of times

Never has Britain seen such invention, industry and confidence as during Victoria’s reign. Liza Picard explores every aspect of Victorian Britain from the Penny Post to public toilets

Liza Picard, English lawyer and historian

Liza Picard

English lawyer and historian

Victorian Ladies
By the 1890s, Victorian ladies’ jackets gave them a more confident air

The Victorian period in Britain was one of huge industrial and technological change, shocking divisions between rich and poor, sensational crimes, spectacular entertainments for the masses, and grand attempts to combat squalor and disease.

During Victoria’s reign the lives of her middle class subjects were transformed. For those workers who could take advantage of the new openings for skilled labour, the future was bright. For those at the bottom of the pile, life was even worse than before.

a steam bath cabinet
a steam bath cabinet (Photo: Oxfordshire Museum)

By the 1860s, iron cooking ranges had arrived in most middle class kitchens. They were a huge improvement on the old open fires, since they had built-in ovens and tanks for heating water. In the bathroom, water could be heated by gas powered ‘geyser’s, which were terrifying to the user but a blessing to the maid who no longer had to carry bath water up the stairs.

In the City, the old coffee houses were replaced by modern offices, using the new telegraph system to trade world-wide. Women were taken on as ‘typewriters’ and, later, telephonists.

The Victorian period in Britain was one of huge industrial and technological change

After the triumph of Mr Jennings’s lavatories at the Great Exhibition, public toilets known as ‘halting stations’ began to make a coy appearance in the streets. By 1852 there was one for men in Fleet Street, and one for women in the Strand, but they were slow to spread.

After the triumph of Mr Jennings’s lavatories at the Great Exhibition, public toilets known as ‘halting stations’ began to make a coy appearance in the streets

The textile industry was at the centre of Britain’s industrial expansion in the Victorian period. Technological advances meant that cottons, wools, silks and dyestuffs could be produced at unprecedented rates, and the results were exported around the Empire.


Cotton needs a humid atmosphere, to keep the fibres pliable. The cotton industry settled in rainy Manchester for that reason, but the weaving and spinning sheds were still full of dust and fibres, which irritated and damaged the lungs of the operatives. The factories were tightly packed with moving machinery, without guards. There were moving belts everywhere which could catch a woman’s hair and scalp her. A worker who leant over to adjust a spindle risked losing a finger or a hand, or worse.

Children were employed to clear faults, and accumulated dust, from underneath the machines. They often lost concentration, or fell asleep, with terrible results. The appalling clatter of a weaving or spinning shed led to occupational deafness, that was taken for granted.

Cotton spinning and weaving had been mechanized since the 1790s, using water power. By 1870 steam power was general. If the power-driven shafts and belts were to be economically used, factory workers had to comply with ‘factory discipline,’ imposed by the overseers. Gradually the old one-to-one relationship between piece-work weaver and ‘putter-out’ gave way to impersonal contracts of mass employment.

Leeds and Halifax remained the centres for worsted and woolen spinning and weaving. Macclesfield became the new silk-weaving centre. Spitalfields in London still produced elaborately designed, beautiful, silk fabrics, but the market for them was shrinking. The chemical industry on Merseyside developed synthetic dyes which produced brighter colours than the old vegetable dyes. Magenta, a harsh purple, was a Victorian favourite.

silk dress belonging to Alice Liddell
A silk dress belonging to Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Oxfordshire Museum)

The landed gentry made huge fortunes from coal discovered under their land. Coal-fired steam engines powered the booming economy, whether in factories or on the rail network.

Conditions in coal mines were dire. Women and children were employed to pull the wagons of coal from the coal face to the shaft foot, because they were smaller, and cheaper, than a properly trained horse. Underground workings get very hot, so they often worked more or less naked. The employment of children under 12 was only prohibited in 1859.

Ship-building still continued in London but by the end of the century ship-building and other heavy engineering had mostly moved to the north-east of England, the south of Wales and the Clyde in Scotland, where supplies of coal and iron were nearer.

Sheffield was the centre for cutlery, Leicester and Nottingham for hosiery, Northampton for shoes, Birmingham for metalworking and small arms. Norwich had a small niche in exporting flat-packed kits of corrugated iron to the Empire, supplying the market for churches (known as ‘tin tabernacles’), millionaires’ mansions in South Africa and summer residences in Darjeeling.

The railway network flourished between 1830 and 1870. By 1852 there were over 7,000 miles of rail track in England and Scotland

The railway network flourished between 1830 and 1870. By 1852 there were over 7,000 miles of rail track in England and Scotland, and every significant centre could rely on rail communication. Britain’s railways transformed the landscape both physically and culturally, producing new opportunities for commerce and travel, and fuelling industrial and economic expansion.

Construction of the Underground
London’s underground railway – the first in the world – began construction in 1863

Major cities, such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol were now interconnected. An express train could reach speeds of 80 miles an hour. Newspapers printed in London in the early hours could be loaded on a train to be sold that morning ‘hot from the press’ in the provinces. Fresh produce such as milk or meat could be rushed from rural producers to city consumers on a daily basis. Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes could send a letter at breakfast time and receive a reply before lunch the same day – something previously unimaginable.

The first class was tolerably comfortable, but packed excursion trains provided transport only. The third class coaches were like converted cattle trucks, open to the weather. Nevertheless an intrepid provincial traveller could attend a public execution in London, or the Great Exhibition, and be home the same day.

Crystal Palace
Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851

The traffic in inner cities was becoming chaotic. The answer that those astonishing Victorians came up with was obvious: move the whole problem underground. In 1863 the first underground railway in the world was built, connecting Paddington station to Farringdon Street, just minutes away from the Bank of England.

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The Bell Edison Telegraph building in Birmingham
The Bell Edison Telegraph building in Birmingham, built in 1896, is typical of late Victorian Gothic revival architecture

Beside the rails ran the telegraph wires. To begin with, they were confined to railway matters, but their usefulness was soon perceived by the business community, and as the Victorian world expanded, the telegraph kept pace.

When Queen Victoria pressed a button in the telegraph room in Buckingham Palace, on 22 June 1897, to send her Diamond Jubilee message – ‘Thank my beloved people. May God bless them’ – she was speaking to nearly a quarter of the population of the earth.

In 1844, 19 ‘Ragged Schools’, which taught children to read so that they could read the Bible, joined to form a union. By 1861 they were teaching over 40,000 children in London, including the children of convicts, drunks and abusive step‐parents, and deserted orphans.

Parish workhouses were supposed to provide education for the children in their care whom they had not managed to apprentice out, but this duty was poorly observed. The Church of England and the non‐conformist movement both provided elementary education, and both adopted Joseph Lancaster’s system whereby the brightest pupil taught what he had learned, to a group of fellow‐pupils, each of whom in turn passed it on, and so on: a tidy and superficially efficient system but prone to errors. The system was replaced by properly trained pupil‐teachers in 1846.

Meanwhile the ‘public’ schools – something of a misnomer if ever there was one – produced self-confident young men ready to become leaders destined for the army or the civil service, at home or in the Empire.

In the upper classes it was assumed that a girl would marry and that therefore she had no need of a formal education, as long as she could look beautiful, entertain her husband’s guests, and produce a reasonable number of children. If she could not find a husband she faced a grim future as a ‘maiden aunt’ or a governess, shut away in the schoolroom with children who had little interest in absorbing the information she was teaching. Their future was improved when Queen’s College in Harley Street, London was founded in 1848, to give governesses a recognized qualification. Ten more years saw the foundation of Cheltenham Ladies’ College and other girls’ public schools followed.

This increase in female education led to renewed demands for the vote. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was founded in 1897, hotly denounced by the Queen.

The Factory Act of 1833 had imposed a duty on employers to provide half‐time education for employees under 13, but was easily ignored. In 1880 the provision of elementary schooling for both sexes was made compulsory. By 1874, 5000 ‘Board Schools’ were running. Another change in the law enabled grammar schools for girls to be founded and funded. By 1898, 90 such schools had been founded.

A typical Victorian medicine cabinet
typical Victorian medicine cabinet

Middle class men might live, on average, to 45. The average lives of workmen and labourers spanned just half that time. Children were lucky to survive their fifth birthdays.

It was believed that bad smells caused disease. It seemed obvious: in poor districts, the air was foul and the death rate high. In the prosperous suburbs, no smells – therefore no disease. The miracles Florence Nightingale achieved in the Crimean War hospitals resulted from her insistence that bad smells must be eradicated by thorough cleaning.

There were recurrent, terrible epidemics of cholera between 1832 and 1853. It took Dr John Snow years to persuade the establishment that cholera is a water-borne disease: nothing to do with bad smells.

Smallpox was endemic. From 1853 vaccination was compulsory. ‘Consumption’ (tuberculosis) seemed to run in families. One after another, the girls would sicken, take to the sofa, and die. A light diet of jelly and port might comfort them, but their end was inescapable. In the slums, prostitutes caught the sexually transmitted disease syphilis and infected their clients – who infected their wives. There was arsenic everywhere in the home, including the floral wallpapers in prosperous parlours.

Few upper-class ladies breast-fed their children. The babies’ immune systems would have benefited from their mother’s milk. Victorian nurseries were plagued by childhood diseases – measles, mumps, diphtheria, scarlet fever, rubella – that are mostly, now, a nightmare of the past.

Victorian women might be almost continually pregnant between marriage and menopause. Some contraceptive advice was available, and condoms could be bought, but only ‘under the counter’. Childbirth was risky and painful. It took Dr Snow – the same man who discovered the source of cholera – to alleviate labour pains by administering chloroform.

Treatment for mental illness or nervous disorders had changed little since medieval times. Those sufferers lower down the social scale were locked up in County Asylums. Private ‘madhouses’ were often profitable institutions. Women might be locked away there by their husbands if he disapproved of her behaviour.

The middle classes deplored the reliance on quacks and quack medicines by the poor: the middle classes could afford proper medical care; the poor could not. Street vendors, ready to run if necessary, sold patent medicines on a ‘no cure, no pay’ basis. The popular press was full of advertisements for dubious remedies.

Chloroform was useful in an attack of toothache. Or the sufferer could try morphia, or laudanum, another derivative of opium. They could all be bought from chemists, no questions asked.

Florence Nightingale changed nurses into highly trained professionals. There were huge advances in medical knowledge. The death rate from post-operative shock and ‘hospital gangrene’ fell dramatically, now that operations were performed on an anaesthetized patient, in an operating theatre disinfected with carbolic, by a surgeon who had washed his hands.

Life expectancy at the end of the Victorian era was still low by today’s figures, but these medical advances had at least made life a little less painful.

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There were huge advances in medical knowledge. The death rate from post-operative shock and ‘hospital gangrene’ fell dramatically

Victorian popular culture

No matter how poor people were, they could usually raise a penny or so for some light entertainment.

Just one penny admitted you to the back room of a public house thick with tobacco smoke. At the ‘penny gaff’ a raucous singer delighted the audience with a repertoire of crude ballads, competing with shouts for more gin.

By the late 1860s penny gaffs were giving way to more respectable, and comfortable, music halls and theatres. There you could sing along to your favourite popular songs, or watch entertainment as diverse as acrobats, trapeze artists, ‘operatic selections’, ‘black-face minstrels’, or can-can dancers. The price was still surprisingly low: a box at the Garrick Theatre cost only 2 or 3 pence.

Illusionists and spiritualists were popular attractions in theatres and exhibition halls: audiences could sit amazed as ghosts appeared on stage and automata solved mathematical puzzles. Victorian audiences had no qualms about staring at human beings with disabilities or physical abnormalities, with ‘freak shows’ popular at travelling circuses and fairs.

Waxwork shows provided another form of cheap entertainment. From 1843 Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’ documented current murders, exhibiting uncanny likenesses of the murderers within a few days of their executions.

All mod cons?

In 1837 there were just five cities outside London with populations of over 100,000; by 1891 this number had grown to 23. In 1851 more than half the population of England lived in towns, and many of them worked in the new factories.

The affluent middle classes lived outside the city, in leafy suburbs, usually to the west of the city, so that the prevailing wind could blow the smells of industrial development away. The proud house owner would expect central heating, piped water, flushing ‘water closets’ and even, perhaps, electric light.

Respectable artisans lived nearer to their employment, often in terraces of pleasant cottages, with piped water and gas lighting. Each had a water or earth closet in an outhouse. Wallpaper in charming flowery patterns was affordable by all.

But the slums housing the labour force of the new industrial cities were not so idyllic. Water came from a stand pipe in the neighbourhood, which flowed only a few hours per week. There might be an earth closet in a yard serving a group of families. When it overflowed landlords typically turned a blind eye, and the yard filled with sewage. The most notorious slums were the ‘back-to-backs’ in Leeds, without even a yard.

The Queen and the Publican

Queen Victoria Lithograph after W. Nicholson

The life of Sarah Monk (1819-1903) life mirrored Queen Victoria’s: born within six months of each other, married within three, nine children, a husband lost in mid-life, just surviving into the new century. Yet while one ruled, the other catered. For over 40 years, at the south-west corner of Kensal Green Cemetery, where the West London line crosses the Grand Junction (now Union) Canal, Sarah and her family provided beer, in a tavern (1901), beer shop (1871, 1881) or just as a retailer (1891), to the local community of railway employees, brickwork labourers, and other manual workers, lubricating the cogs of Victorian industry. (The dates in brackets show how the censuses reveal her life.)

A life on track

The heart of the British Empire relied on men like Charles Warman (1829–1893) to keep it beating. The son of an agricultural labourer, he spent his adult life in the service of the railways, starting on the lowest rung of the ladder as a simple railway labourer (shown in the 1861 census), rising to be a platelayer (1871) and then a foreman (1881) and finally ending up as a permanent way ganger (1891), in charge of a group of men and a few miles of track for the GWR. He died on 11th August 1893 working between Westbourne Park and Acton in Middlesex, leaving his wife the tidy sum of £479 5s 8d.

Changes in rural life

The Victorian era saw unprecedented change in agricultural practices and fortunes. Originally pursuing the family carpentry trade, Isaac Hall (1815-1890) only came to farming during the boom years of the mid-1800s. In 1861, he had 36 acres in Devon and was employing eight men and one boy. Twenty years later, he was farming five times the acreage but needing only half the number of workers. The collapse of agriculture and the rural economy in the late 19th century finally caught up, though, and, on his death in 1890, his estate, which he left to a local vicar, totalled just £70 17s 6d.

William IV dies and his niece Victoria becomes Queen at the age of 18
Photography developed by Louis Daguerre in France and William Fox-Talbot in Britain
Postage stamps first used (post boxes came in the 1850s)
The Great Western Railway from Bristol to London is completed, with a four-hour journey time
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol sells out in six days
The Great Exhibition opens at Crystal Palace
A cholera epidemic leads to demands for clean water supply and proper sewage systems
India comes under British rule, with the end of East India Company control
The first underground railway opens in London, from Paddington to Farringdon
The last public hanging
Alexander Bell invents the telephone
Jack the Ripper terrorises East London
Queen Victoria, Britain’s longest serving monarch, dies

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