What was life like in Victorian England?

Blackpool Tower and Pier, Victorian leisure facilities still in use (photo by apdk - CC-BY)

Blackpool Tower and Pier, Victorian leisure facilities still in use (photo by apdk - CC-BY)

The Victorian era lasted from the coronation of Victoria in 1838 until her death in 1901. It coincided with a period of massive industrial development in the United Kingdom and a rapidly changing life for its inhabitants.

Great political developments occurred during Victoria’s reign. The elected House of Commons increased its power at the expense of the hereditary House of Lords. Britain’s power and influence increased around the world with the growth of the British Empire.

This opened up trade opportunities and, with Britain having the largest merchant fleet in the world, brought new markets for British goods and new foreign goods to Britain.

The spread of gaslighting throughout the country extended the hours during which people could work, or go out during the evening.

The proportion of the population living and working on farms continued to decrease as industrial employment increased. The work was hard, the hours were long, and the pay was often low, yet it brought a higher standard of living than could otherwise have been achieved. For most of the Victorian era, Britain had a higher income from industrialisation than any other country.

Many children worked in the factories. Their conditions improved gradually during Victorian times, starting with a reduction in their maximum workload to twelve hours a day near the start of Victoria’s reign.

By the age of 14, many girls were working as domestic help in private homes, or in the factories along with the boys and adults. A boy might start in the Shoddy mills, tying together the thread whenever it broke (a frequent occurrence with shoddy), dodging the moving parts of the machinery.

Industrial accidents were frequent and debilitating. Despite that, the children generally welcomed the opportunity to go to work for the income and independence that it brought.

Younger children, who in rural areas would have helped with the farm work, found that they had time to play. In a sense, the Victorians invented childhood. Children’s toys were developed and sold, or simply improvised from a spare wheel and stick, or piece of string and a conker.

Transport developed rapidly during Victorian times. There was already a basic network of canals, and railways had been invented the previous century, but they saw unprecedented growth during the 1800s. It was often a race between canal and rail to see which could capture new markets. Rail eventually won, and by the end of the 1800s there was an extensive network of economical, efficiently run, fairly reliable railways.

The spread of the railways facilitated the movement of people to the cities, helped trade, and transported mail and parcels.

The postal service grew rapidly following the adoption of pre-payment with the release of the world’s first postage stamp in 1840. This proved much more convenient and efficient than the previous system of collecting payment from each recipient, and use of the post boomed, with a corresponding benefit to business.

The population more than doubled, growing at a higher rate during the last 50 years of Victoria’s reign than it did in the following century.

Housing conditions varied greatly. The rich built mansions. The middle classes lived in smaller houses, but ones we would still find comfortable today. The poor lived in overcrowded houses with outside toilets (often shared, and with open sewers), and the houses were frequently riddled with damp.

Disease spread easily in these conditions. Child mortality was high, but dropping. The Victorians built many large orphanages, lunatic asylums, and infirmaries. The chronic diseases of the 20th century (cancer, diabetes, etc) had not yet taken hold and the middle-class adult, having escaped childhood mortailty, could often look forward to a long life in generally good health.

Education was on the increase, with many new schools established during this time. We would find the teaching techniques and subject matter old-fashioned but recognisable. The Church, too, had a major role in education.

Victoria’s reign saw the movement towards universal primary schooling, and by the end of her reign this had been largely achieved.

Victorian capitalism allowed for the accumulation of great wealth by the owners of factories and other industries, yet it also allowed other forms of venture to be formed. Co-operatives flourished from the 1840s onwards and some still operate today. These businesses were owned by and for the benefit of their workers, their suppliers, or their consumers.

There was of course no universal socialised medical care. Instead, there were friendly societies: voluntary membership organizations based around a place of work or a profession. In return for regular contributions from members, the society would protect the members against the financial consequences of ill-health and unemployment.

Some friendly societies operated credit unions, to match those needing a loan with those who had money to deposit. Some became building societies, to fund house-building. Others specialised in investment or insurance. Sometimes where was a ceremonial and social aspect as well.

Unionisation became more legitimate and widespread as the Victorian era moved on. Taxation was still relatively low, without the burdens of the great wars which were to come during the following century.

In some cases, philanthropists who had accumulated great wealth chose in their later life to disburse this wealth for the good of the people. Streets, and sometimes entire suburbs, were build with the proceeds of their wealth.

Towards the end of the Victorian era, the use of electric power in industry was starting to become established. Huge reservoirs were built, and water was pumped into the reticulation systems. An increased understanding of sanitation was reducing the incidence of many diseases.

Working hours were reduced, and the increase in leisure opportunities (combined with the availability of cheap rail transport) led to the growth of the seaside resorts. New theatres were built to cater for the burgeoning leisure opportunities. Fun-fairs, swimming pools, picnic gardens and amusement parks were built.

Many people found the pace of change unsettling, and there were instances of industrial strife, rural depression, severe pollution and outbreaks of disease. But in many other ways the Victorian era was a satisfying and exciting time to be alive.

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