Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Victorian life and leisure

In addition to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, have consulted the following books for this post:
Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (London Harper Perennial, 2007)
Ruth Goodman, How to be a Victorian (London: Penguin, 2013)
G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004)
F.M.L Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Britain, 1830-1900 (Fontana 1988)

A drawing of Blackpool Tower
1893, the year before it opened

Living standards

Between 1882 and 1899 prices fell while wages rose, bringing about an improvement in average real wages of over a third, and increasing the disposable income of the housewife.  The better-off working-class families were able to purchase a more varied range of foodstuffs, including meat as well as bread. Alcohol consumption was falling from over 15 per cent of the family budget in 1876 to under 9 per cent in 1901. Health also improved, as most communities now had access to clean water, though TB remained the main killer of the adult population.

The demon drink

During the nineteenth century drinking habits changed dramatically. In the eighteenth century taverns and inns were places where all classes drank, if not necessarily together and public business was transacted. By the 1850s no respectable middle-class man would enter a public house. Propertied men had their clubs and the middle-class home was increasingly comfortable. But the pub was a great attraction for the working man, providing him with comradeship and conviviality away from his small, crowded home.

In the budget of 1830 the duty on beer was abolished and beer remained duty-free until Gladstone’s 1880 budget. This meant that any ratepayer, on payment of an annual duty of two guineas, could obtain direct from the excise a licence to sell beer on or off the premises. The prevalence of cheap beer gave a spur to the temperance movement - the word ‘teetotal was coined in 1834 - but drink remained of central importance in the popular culture. 

The Farriers' Arms, Rotherhithe
a Victorian beer-house

The licensing act of 1872 made all drinking houses, beer-houses as well as public houses, subject to magistrates’ approval. By this time the number of beer-houses had peaked at around 50,000, declining to about 40,000 by the end of the century. They were distinct from the older and more respectable ale-houses. Publicans were seen as solid citizens, the owners of beer houses as disreputable and possibly criminal. 

The act of 1830 allowed beer houses to open on weekdays from four in the morning until ten at night, with two short drinking periods on Sunday afternoon and evening. This was a novelty as public houses were able to stay open as long as the publicans chose. From 1854 similar legal restrictions were applied to public houses. The new curb on drinking led to riots in Hyde Park in 1855, after which the government increased Sunday drinking times.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Women and employment

How depicted?

The standard images of Victorian women are the 'angel in the house', the factory girl, and the domestic servant (and possibly Florence Nightingale's nurses).  Women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives subordinate to their husbands and rarely in paid employment. (The exception here is the series of photographs the barrister Arthur Munby took of the domestic servant Hannah Cullwick – whom he subsequently married – and other working-class women.) You can read about his extraordinary relationship with Hannah here.  His revealing photographs are held by Trinity College, Cambridge, and some of them can be viewed here.

Hannah Cullwick (1833-1909)
Servant and  barrister's wife
Public Domain
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton portrays the life of a Victorian working girl. Significantly, she is confronted with severe family problems – an aunt driven to prostitution, a father on strike, and she is threatened with seduction by the employer’s son.

Moralists fretted about female employment. Ashley (Lord Shaftesbury) believed married women should not work outside the home. The social researcher Henry Mayhew highlighted the dangers of underpaid needlewomen turning to prostitution. The world outside the home was often seen as a dangerous place for women.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Women and education

Frances Mary Buss,
pioneer of girls' education
Public Domain
From the 1870 Act working-class girls received the same education as boys. It was among the wealthier social groups that educational provision differed.

Boarding schools

Eighteenth-century boarding schools usually aimed to take girls for no more than a couple of years during their mid-teens. They were housed in the proprietress’s own home. Their prospectuses advertised that they taught modern languages, music, dancing and painting. They varied in quality and by the mid-nineteenth century they were widely thought to be inadequate. However, there were some excellent schools. One of these was the Miss Franklin's school at Coventry, where George Eliot (Marian Evans) was a pupil. 


The census of 1861 lists 24,770 governesses living in England and Wales. While boarding schools could charge £70 - £80 p.a., a governess might cost as little as £25 p.a. (though her upkeep included board and lodging).  This put governesses within the reach of families of relatively modest means.

The reform of the education of middle-class girls began in the 1840s, stimulated by a variety of factors, including the rising wealth and expectations of the middle class, the belief that the mother as the first educator of her children needed a sound education and an increase in the number of middle-class unmarried women.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

How to be a domestic goddess (even if you can't cook)

Isabella Mary Beeton (1836-65)
Public Domain
Here you can access the complete text of Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management. You now have no excuses. Get cooking!

On the other hand, Mrs Beeton herself couldn't cook. Her first recipe for a Victoria sponge left out the eggs. This fascinating nugget of information (together with more of the same) comes out in Kathryn Hughes' biography.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries


The legal status of English women was defined by the centuries’-old common law, a system built up by custom, precedent and legal judgement as well as statute. Under the common law English women took their husbands’ names – a practice that was not found in Scotland or the rest of Europe. But the common law also gave some women rights not available on the Continent.

Contrary to popular belief, English common law never stated that wives were the property of their husbands - even if many men might have acted as if this were the case! Wife-sales happened from time to time but they were never legal and were often simply an unofficial, mutually-agreed divorce. See here for more details.

Before 1882 the law made a clear distinction between married and unmarried women. An unmarried woman or a widow was a 'feme sole' with the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. She had the same legal freedoms as a man. However a married woman was defined as a 'feme covert'. She took her husband's name in marriage and by the end of the eighteenth century the term 'Mrs' was coming to describe a married woman only, and the usage 'Mrs John Smith' to describe a married woman was becoming customary. See here for more information. See here for my blog post on the subject. A married woman  could not own separate property or enter into contracts and if she had any debts her husband was answerable for them (this was a mixed blessing for men!). The status of coverture was defined by the jurist William Blackstone:

'By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.'

Wednesday, 8 February 2017


Maths class at the Cable Street
Board School
Eric J. Evans (The Forging of the Modern State, 3rd edition, p. 290) has written:
‘The spectre of an irreligious, overcrowded, and brutalized working class herded together in monstrously multiplying towns … haunted more than the humanitarian reformers’ and educational reform became an urgent question.'
By the early 1830s about one and a half million pupils were enrolled in schools – and these schools were extremely varied.

Educational provision comprised:
  • a handful of public schools for aristocrats and the upper middle classes,
  • a number of endowed grammar schools in the older towns,
  • private instruction, often run by clergy from their own homes,
  • Sunday schools
  • charity schools.
There were various kinds of charity schools, ranging from the large foundations of the 1690s to small village establishments. 

Some charity schools catered for middle-class children whose parents could not afford anything better. The most notorious is the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, attended by Charlotte Brontë and her two elder sisters. It was renamed Lowood  and described in vivid and unforgiving detail in Jane Eyre.

Dame schools continued to be popular with working-class parents. They were cheap and the hours were flexible. Judging from working-class autobiographies, the quality varied greatly. Some did little more than child-minding, others gave a thorough grounding in reading and spelling, with sewing and knitting for the girls. 

An idealised depiction of a
dame school
From the BBC

The voluntary schools

The charity schools had largely been subsumed by two bodies:  the (Nonconformist) British and Foreign Schools Society (founded in 1808) and the (Anglican) National Society for Educating the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (founded in 1811). For more about the Anglican National Schools, see here.  The schools taught according to the monitorial system.

Northchurch St Mary's School, Hertfordshire
A National School constructed in 1864
Creative Commons Attribution
Share-alike license 2.0

However, at least two million children were untouched by the system. As late as 1840 probably a third of all children never attended a day school, and by the middle of the nineteenth century about 30 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women could not sign marriage registers.

Cholera epidemic

This is a very interesting blog post on the 1831-2 cholera epidemic, with some amusing contemporary caricatures. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Victorian religion

The chancel of St Mary's Morthoe, Devon: a Victorian
restoration of the medieval interior
Public Domain

‘Never was Britain more religious than in the Victorian age. Contemporaries agonized over those who did not float upon the flood of faith. We marvel at the number who did.’ Theodore Hoppen, The Mid Victorian Generation (Oxford, 1998), p. 425.
See here for a very comprehensive site - much better on this subject than Wikipedia!

Victorian religious philanthropy

The denominations

Within the British Isles there were two established churches, the Church of England (Anglican) in England and Wales and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) as well as a number of other denominations. In Wales Protestant Dissenters were a clear majority. Until 1869 the Anglican Church was established in Ireland though three quarters of the population were Catholic and half the remainder Presbyterian. In Scotland Presbyterianism dominated though since 1843 it had been split between the mainstream Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (the 'Wee Frees').

'Papal aggression'

From the 1840s Irish immigration was changing Britain, adding a new Catholic population to the existing older Catholic families. From being a religion of rural country gentry, Catholicism was rapidly becoming a religion of the urban poor in centres like London and Liverpool.

In October 1850 Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman issued a pastoral letter announcing the reintroduction of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales. He himself was to be Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The press and the public reacted with outrage to what was dubbed 'papal aggression' and the government of Lord John Russell introduced a bill to make Catholic ecclesiastical titles illegal. (Queen Victoria's reaction was much more measured and sensible.) 

From Punch, November 1850
The Pope as Guy Fawkes
Public Domain

But in spite of this reaction, the Catholic hierarchy was restored and the ecclesiastical census (see below) recorded that on 30 March 1851 about a quarter of a million Roman Catholics attended mass in England and Wales.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Factory reform

Female and child labour
in factories

Industrialisation: the human cost

The Industrial Revolution is associated above all with machinery. The machines undoubtedly speeded production and reduced the price of goods to the consumer. But they were expensive to install and the best way to pay for them was to keep them going for as long as possible. This led inevitably to a long-hours culture, with factories often operating fourteen hours a day six days a week. The transitions must have been painful for the first generation of industrial workers. There were also huge implications for the health of these workers.
Dean Clough Mills,
Calderdale, Yorkshire
One of the carpet
factories built 1841-69
Public domain

Industrialisation is also associated with child labour though it did not invent it, as child labour had been an essential aspect of the pre-industrial economy. In the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe thought it admirable that in the vicinity of Halifax scarcely anybody above the age of 4 was idle. What was new was the element of regimentation, with children working from 12 to 14 hours a day.

Public health

Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-90)
Public Domain

Dirt and disease

It was in the 1830s and 1840s that the links between dirt and disease were conclusively established, though ignorance of bacteriology meant that the reasons for the link remained unknown. Dr James Kay (later Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth) established that typhus was a major killer in areas of poor hygiene.

Knowledge about the state of towns was greatly enhanced by the establishment of the civic registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837. The first Registrar-General was a London doctor, William Farr, and one of his earliest decisions was to require doctors to cite cause of death. In 1838 Farr published a table of deaths which showed that deaths from fevers, smallpox, consumption, pneumonia stood at 8-9 per thousand in the rural counties while in Lancashire and Middlesex they were 18 and 29 respectively.

Public health legislation was the biggest breach in the dyke of laissez-faire ideology. The state had to have a role.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The new Poor Law and the workhouse

‘Eventide’ by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1878)
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 
There is a fantastic and comprehensive site (though a bit cluttered by ads) here. There is also a good summary on Wikipedia.

The Poor Law in the eighteenth century

The origins of the poor law go back to a series of sixteenth-century statutes that culminated in the Act of 1601. These were dealt with in my earlier post. There is a good blog post on poverty and the eighteenth-century poor law here.

The origins of the workhouse can be traced back to the Poor Law Act of 1576, which encouraged the setting up of Houses of Correction where the idle and disorderly could be punished and set to work. Towards the end of the seventeenth century some workhouses were started in individual parishes, and in large towns special authorities known as Guardians of the Poor ran Houses of Industry.

In 1723 the Kentish MP, Edward Knatchbull, put forward a bill that authorised the setting up of workhouses by individual parishes or groups of parishes without the need to obtain a special Act of Parliament. This gave a considerable impetus to the spread of workhouses. 

Gilbert’s Act of 1782 aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis, with each county being divided into large districts. These unions of parishes could set up a common workhouse which was to be used only for the aged and infirm and for children, not for the able-bodied. In practice, however, workhouses were often used to relieve the able-bodied. 

The distribution of relief was carried out by a paid guardian in each parish supervised by a visitor, both officials being appointed by the justices of the peace. This represented a major shift of power from the parish to the landed gentry.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The coming of the railways

"Euston Station - 1851 - from Project Gutenberg - eText 13271".
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 
See here, here and here for some excellent sites.

This post is heavily indebted to Christian Wolmar, Fire and Steam. How the Railways Transformed Britain (Atlantic Books, 2007) and Michael J Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (Yale, 1999), Simon Bradley, Railways: Nation, Network & People (Profile Books, 2015); and also to Simon Garfield, The Last Journey of William Huskisson (Faber and Faber, 2002).


The idea of putting goods in wagons that were hauled by people or animals along tracks built into the road is extremely old. In Britain the history of these ‘wagon ways’ stretches back at least to the mines of the 16th century when crude wooden rails were used to support the wheels of the heavy loaded wagons and guide them up to the surface. The logical extension of the concept was to run the rails out of the mine to the nearest waterway where the ore or coal could be loaded directly onto barges. By the end of the 17th century tramways were so widely known in the north east that they were known as ‘Newcastle Roads’.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017