16 6.1. Society and Culture

Population in the Victorian era

The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented demographic increase in Britain. The population rose from 13.9 million in 1831 to 32.5 million in 1901. Two major factors affecting population growth are fertility rates and mortality rates. Britain was the first country to undergo the Demographic transition and the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.

The Louth-London Royal Mail travelling by train from Peterborough East, 1845

Britain had the lead in rapid economic and population growth. At the time, Thomas Malthus believed this lack of growth outside Britain was due to the ‘Malthusian trap‘. That is, the tendency of a population to expand geometrically while resources grew more slowly, reaching a crisis (such as famine, war, or epidemic) which would reduce the population to a sustainable size. Britain escaped the ‘Malthusian trap’ because the Industrial Revolution had a positive impact on living standards. People had more money and could improve their standards; therefore, a population increase was sustainable.

Fertility rates

In the Victorian era, fertility rates increased in every decade until 1901, when the rates started evening out. There are several reasons for the increase in birth rates. One is biological: with improving living standards, the percentage of women who were able to have children increased. Another possible explanation is social. In the 19th century, the marriage rate increased, and people were getting married at a very young age until the end of the century, when the average age of marriage started to increase again slowly. The reasons why people got married younger and more frequently are uncertain. One theory is that greater prosperity allowed people to finance marriage and new households earlier than previously possible. With more births within marriage, it seems inevitable that marriage rates and birth rates would rise together.

Birth rates were originally measured by the ‘Crude birth rate‘ – births per year in population per every thousand people. This is thought not to be accurate enough, as key groups and their fertility rates are not clear. It also does not take into account population changes, e.g., same number of births in a smaller population (if men go to war, etc.). It was then changed to the ‘Net Reproduction Rate,’ which only measured the fertility rate of women who were capable of giving birth.

The evening out of fertility rates at the beginning of the 20th century was mainly the result of a few big changes: availability of forms of birth control, and changes in people’s attitude towards sex.

Mortality rates

The mortality rates in England changed greatly through the 19th century. There was no catastrophic epidemic or famine in England or Scotland in the 19th century – it was the first century in which a major epidemic did not occur throughout the whole country, with deaths per 1000 of population per year in England and Wales dropping from 21.9 from 1848–54 to 17 in 1901 (contrasting with, for instance, 5.4 in 1971). Class had a significant effect on mortality rates as the upper classes had a lower rate of premature death early in the 19th century than poorer classes did.

Environmental and health standards rose throughout the Victorian era; improvements in nutrition may also have played a role, although the importance of this is debated. Sewage works were improved as was the quality of drinking water. With a healthier environment, diseases were caught less easily and did not spread as much. Technology was also improving because the population had more money to spend on medical technology (for example, techniques to prevent death in childbirth so more women and children survived), which also led to a greater number of cures for diseases. However, a cholera epidemic took place in London in 1848–49 killing 14,137, and subsequently in 1853 killing 10,738. This anomaly was attributed to the closure and replacement of cesspits by the modern London sewerage systemTuberculosis (spread in congested dwellings), lung diseases from the mines and typhoid were also common.

Culture

A picture of Leadenhall Street, London, c. 1837
The Poultry Cross, Salisbury, painted by Louise Rayner, c. 1870

Gothic Revival architecture became increasingly significant during the period, leading to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideals. Charles Barry‘s architecture for the new Palace of Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, was built in the medieval style of Westminster Hall, the surviving part of the building. It constructed a narrative of cultural continuity, set in opposition to the violent disjunctions of Revolutionary France, a comparison common to the period, as expressed in Thomas Carlyle‘s The French Revolution: A History and Charles DickensGreat Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Gothic was also supported by critic John Ruskin, who argued that it epitomised communal and inclusive social values, as opposed to Classicism, which he considered to epitomise mechanical standardisation.

The middle of the 19th century saw The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair, which showcased the greatest innovations of the century. At its centre was the Crystal Palace, a modular glass and iron structure – the first of its kind. It was condemned by Ruskin as the very model of mechanical dehumanisation in design, but later came to be presented as the prototype of Modern architecture. The emergence of photography, showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art with Queen Victoria being the first British monarch to be photographed. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl.

Industrialisation brought with it a burgeoning middle class whose increase in numbers had a significant effect on the social strata itself: cultural norms, lifestyle, values and morality. Identifiable characteristics came to define, in particular, the middle class home. Previously, in town and city, residential space was adjacent to or incorporated into the work site, virtually occupying the same geographical space. The difference between private life and commerce was a fluid one distinguished by an informal demarcation of function. In the Victorian era, English family life increasingly became compartmentalised, the home a self-contained structure housing a nuclear family extended according to need and circumstance to include blood relations. The concept of “privacy” became a hallmark of the middle class life. “… The English home closed up and darkened over the decade (1850s), the cult of domesticity matched by a cult of privacy.” Bourgeois existence was a world of interior space, heavily curtained off and wary of intrusion, and opened only by invitation for viewing on occasions such as parties or teas. “The essential, unknowability of each individual, and society’s collaboration in the maintenance of a façade behind which lurked innumerable mysteries, were the themes which preoccupied many mid-century novelists.”

Entertainment

Popular forms of entertainment varied by social class. Victorian Britain, like the periods before it, was interested in literature (see Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Brontë and her sisters, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Makepeace Thackeray), theatre and the arts (see Aesthetic movement and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), and music, drama, and opera were widely attended. Michael Balfe was the most popular British grand opera composer of the period, while the most popular musical theatre was a series of fourteen comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, although there was also musical burlesque and the beginning of Edwardian musical comedy in the 1890s. Drama ranged from low comedy toShakespeare (see Henry Irving). There were, however, other forms of entertainment. Gentlemen went to dining clubs, like the Beefsteak club or the Savage club. Gambling at cards in establishments popularly called casinos was wildly popular during the period: so much so that evangelical and reform movements specifically targeted such establishments in their efforts to stop gambling, drinking, and prostitution.

Brass bands and ‘The Bandstand‘ became popular in the Victorian era. The band stand was a simple construction that not only created an ornamental focal point, but also served acoustic requirements whilst providing shelter from the changeable British weather. It was common to hear the sound of a brass band whilst strolling through parklands. At this time musical recording was still very much a novelty.

The Epsom Derby; painting byJames Pollard, c. 1840

The Victorian era marked the golden age of the British circus. Astley’s Amphitheatre in Lambeth, London, featuring equestrian acts in a 42-foot wide circus ring, was the epicentre of the 19th century circus. The permanent structure sustained three fires but as an institution lasted a full century, with Andrew Ducrow and William Batty managing the theatre in the middle part of the century. William Batty would also build his own 14,000-person arena, known commonly as Batty’s Hippodrome, in Kensington Gardens and draw crowds from the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Travelling circuses, like Pablo Fanque‘s, dominated the British provinces, Scotland, and Ireland (Fanque would enjoy fame again in the 20th century when John Lennon would buy an 1843 poster advertising his circus and adapt the lyrics for The Beatles song, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!). Fanque also stands out as a black man who achieved great success and enjoyed great admiration among the British public only a few decades after Britain had abolished slavery.

Another form of entertainment involved ‘spectacles’ where paranormal events, such as mesmerism, communication with the dead (by way of mediumship or channelling), ghost conjuring and the like, were carried out to the delight of crowds and participants. Such activities were more popular at this time than in other periods of recent Western history.

Natural history became increasingly an “amateur” activity. Particularly in Britain and the United States, this grew into specialist hobbies such as the study of birds, butterflies, seashells (malacology/conchology), beetles and wild flowers. Amateur collectors and natural history entrepreneurs played an important role in building the large natural history collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Middle-class Victorians used the train services to visit the seaside, helped by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, which created a number of fixed holidays. Large numbers travelling to quiet fishing villages such as Worthing, Brighton, Morecambe and Scarborough began turning them into major tourist centres, and people likeThomas Cook saw tourism and even overseas travel as viable businesses.

Technology and engineering

The railways changed communications and society dramatically

The Victorians were impressed by science and progress, and felt that they could improve society in the same way as they were improving technology. Britain was the leading world center for advanced engineering and technology. Its engineering firms were in worldwide demand for designing and constructing railways.

A central development during the Victorian era was the improvement of communication. The new railways all allowed goods, raw materials and people to be moved about, rapidly facilitating trade and industry. The financing of railways became an important specialty of London’s financiers. Trains became important factor ordering society, with “railway time” being the standard by which clocks were set throughout Britain, and with the complex railway system setting the standard for technological advances and efficiency. Steam ships such as the SS Great Britain and SS Great Western made international travel more common but also advanced trade, so that in Britain it was not just the luxury goods of earlier times that were imported into the country but essentials and raw materials such as corn and cotton from the United States and meat and wool from Australia. One more important innovation in communications was the Penny Black, the first postage stamp, which standardised postage to a flat price regardless of distance sent.

Even later communication methods such as electric power, telegraph, and telephones, had an impact. Photography was realised in 1839 by Louis Daguerre in France and William Fox Talbot in Britain. By 1889, hand-held cameras were available.

Suspension bridge between two brick built towers, over a wooded gorge, showing mud and water at the bottom. In the distance are hills.
Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol

Similar sanitation reforms, prompted by the Public Health Acts 1848 and 1869, were made in the crowded, dirty streets of the existing cities, and soap was the main product shown in the relatively new phenomenon of advertising. A great engineering feat in the Victorian Era was the sewage system in London. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette in 1858. He proposed to build 82 mi (132 km) of sewer system linked with over 1,000 mi (1,600 km) of street sewers. Many problems were encountered but the sewers were completed. After this, Bazalgette designed the Thames Embankment which housed sewers, water pipes and the London Underground. During the same period London’s water supply network was expanded and improved, and a gas network for lighting and heating was introduced in the 1880s.

The model town of Saltaire was founded, along with others, as a planned environment with good sanitation and many civic, educational and recreational facilities, although it lacked a pub, which was regarded as a focus of dissent. During the Victorian era, science grew into the discipline it is today. In addition to the increasing professionalism of university science, many Victorian gentlemen devoted their time to the study of natural history. This study of natural history was most powerfully advanced by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution first published in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Glasgow slum in 1871

Although initially developed in the early years of the 19th century, gas lighting became widespread during the Victorian era in industry, homes, public buildings and the streets. The invention of the incandescent gas mantle in the 1890s greatly improved light output and ensured its survival as late as the 1960s. Hundreds of gasworks were constructed in cities and towns across the country. In 1882, incandescent electric lights were introduced to London streets, although it took many years before they were installed everywhere.

Sport

The Victorian Era saw the introduction and development of many modern sports. Cricket, cycling, croquet, horse-riding, and water activities are examples of some of the popular sports in the Victorian Era. The modern game of tennis originated in Birmingham, England, between 1859 and 1865. The world’s oldest tennis tournament, the Wimbledon championships, were first played in London in 1877. The first Olympic Games held under the auspices of the IOC were hosted in Athens in 1896. The Games brought together 12 nations and 241 athletes who competed in 43 events.

Football

A sepia photograph with a large old structure in the background obscured by trees. In the foreground there is a large shield surrounded by five trophies. On either side of the shield stands 8 people.
The Aston Villa team of the 1890s

The first football league in the world was established in 1888 by Aston Villa director William McGregor. Aston Villa was the most successful English club of the Victorian era, winning five League titles and three FA Cups by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Other prominent clubs of the era were Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Preston North End. The end of the 19th century saw Britain being swept by football mania, attracting huge crowds of largely working class men.

Health and medicine

Joseph Thomas Clover demonstrating the Chloroform apparatus he invented in 1862

Medicine progressed during Queen Victoria’s reign. Although nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, had been proposed as an anesthetic as far back as 1799 by Humphry Davy, it wasn’t until 1846 when an American dentist named William Morton started using ether on his patients that anesthetics became common in the medical profession. In 1847 chloroform was introduced as an anesthetic by James Young Simpson. Chloroform was favoured by doctors and hospital staff because it is much less flammable than ether, but critics complained that it could cause the patient to have a heart attack. Chloroform gained in popularity in England and Germany after Dr. John Snow gave Queen Victoria chloroform for the birth of her eighth child (Prince Leopold). By 1920, chloroform was used in 80 to 95% of all narcoses performed in the UK and German-speaking countries.

Anesthetics made painless dentistry possible. At the same time the European diet grew a great deal sweeter as the use of sugar became more widespread. As a result, more and more people were having teeth pulled and needed replacements. This gave rise to “Waterloo Teeth”, which were real human teeth set into hand-carved pieces of ivory from hippopotamus or walrus jaws. The teeth were obtained from executed criminals, victims of battlefields, from grave-robbers, and were even bought directly from the desperately impoverished.

Medicine also benefited from the introduction of antiseptics by Joseph Lister in 1867 in the form of carbolic acid (phenol). He instructed the hospital staff to wear gloves and wash their hands, instruments, and dressings with a phenol solution and, in 1869, he invented a machine that would spray carbolic acid in the operating theatre during surgery.

Poverty

Part of Charles Booth‘s poverty map showing the Old Nichol, a slum in the East End of London. Published 1889 inLife and Labour of the People in London. The red areas are “middle class, well-to-do”, light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family”, dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want”, and black areas are the “lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”.
Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire

19th century Britain saw a huge population increase accompanied by rapid urbanisation stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The large numbers of skilled and unskilled people looking for work kept wages down to a barely subsistence level. Available housing was scarce and expensive, resulting in overcrowding. These problems were magnified in London, where the population grew at record rates. Large houses were turned into flats and tenements, and as landlords failed to maintain these dwellings, slum housing developed. Kellow Chesney described the situation as follows: “Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the metropolis… In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room.” Significant changes happened in the British Poor Law system in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. These included significant expansions in workhouses (or poorhouses in Scotland), although with changing populations during the era.

The British Library evanion catalogue has an advertisement for Allen & Sons Cocoa Chocolate and Confectionery Works, c. 1880. The advertisement shows one family in poverty and another which is middle class. This drastic image was normal during the Victorian age when there was a very drastic divide between the classes.

Child labour

Girl pulling a coal tub in mine. From official report of the parliamentary commission in the mid 19th century.

The Victorian era became notorious for the employment of young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. Child labour, often brought about by economic hardship, played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset: Charles Dickens, for example, worked at the age of 12 in a blacking factory, with his family in a debtors’ prison. In 1840 only about 20 percent of the children in London had any schooling. By 1860 about half of the children between 5 and 15 were in school (including Sunday school).

The children of the poor were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages. Agile boys were employed by the chimney sweeps; small children were employed to scramble under machinery to retrieve cotton bobbins; and children were also employed to work in coal mines, crawling through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. Children also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or sold matches, flowers, and other cheap goods. Some children undertook work as apprentices to respectable trades, such as building, or as domestic servants (there were over 120,000 domestic servants in London in the mid 19th century). Working hours were long: builders might work 64 hours a week in summer and 52 in winter, while domestic servants worked 80 hour weeks. Many young people worked as prostitutes (the majority of prostitutes in London were between 15 and 22 years of age).

“Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit’s bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom. I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs.” (Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer, testimony gathered by Ashley’s Mines Commission 1842)

“My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to mill; all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers; one lives at home and does nothing; mother does nought but look after home.

All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write; I go to pit at five o’clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out;” (Patience Kershaw, 17 years old, coal-bearer, testimony gathered by Ashley’s Mines Commission 1842)

Children as young as 4 were put to work. In coal mines, children began work at the age of 5 and generally died before the age of 25. Many children (and adults) worked 16-hour days. As early as 1802 and 1819, Factory Acts were passed to limit the working hours of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day. These acts were largely ineffective and after radical agitation, by for example the “Short Time Committees” in 1831, a Royal Commission recommended in 1833 that children aged 11–18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, children aged 9–11 a maximum of eight hours, and children under the age of nine should no longer be permitted to work. This act, however, only applied to the textile industry, and further agitation led to another act in 1847 limiting both adults and children to 10-hour working days.

Prostitution

A victim of Jack the Ripper

Beginning in the late 1840s, major news organisations, clergymen, and single women became increasingly concerned about prostitution, which came to be known as “The Great Social Evil”. Estimates of the number of prostitutes in London in the 1850s vary widely (in his landmark study, Prostitution, William Acton reported that the police estimated there were 8,600 in London alone in 1857). When the United Kingdom Census 1851 publicly revealed a 4% demographic imbalance in favour of women (i.e., 4% more women than men), the problem of prostitution began to shift from a moral/religious cause to a socio-economic one. The 1851 census showed that the population of Great Britain was roughly 18 million; this meant that roughly 750,000 women would remain unmarried simply because there were not enough men. These women came to be referred to as “superfluous women” or “redundant women”, and many essays were published discussing what, precisely, ought to be done with them.

While the Magdalene Asylums had been “reforming” prostitutes since the mid-18th century, the years between 1848 and 1870 saw a veritable explosion in the number of institutions working to “reclaim” these “fallen women” from the streets and retrain them for entry into respectable society — usually for work as domestic servants. The theme of prostitution and the “fallen woman” (any woman who has had sexual intercourse out of marriage) became a staple feature of mid-Victorian literature and politics. In the writings of Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth, Charles Dickens and others, prostitution began to be seen as a social problem.

When Parliament passed the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864 (which allowed the local constabulary to force any woman suspected of venereal diseaseto submit to its inspection), Josephine Butler‘s crusade to repeal the CD Acts yoked the anti-prostitution cause with the emergent feminist movement. Butler attacked the long-established double standard of sexual morality.

Prostitutes were often presented as victims in sentimental literature such as Thomas Hood‘s poem The Bridge of Sighs, Elizabeth Gaskell‘s novel Mary Barton, and Dickens‘ novel Oliver Twist. The emphasis on the purity of women found in such works as Coventry Patmore‘s The Angel in the House led to the portrayal of the prostitute and fallen woman as soiled, corrupted, and in need of cleansing.

This emphasis on female purity was allied to the stress on the homemaking role of women, who helped to create a space free from the pollution and corruption of the city. In this respect, the prostitute came to have symbolic significance as the embodiment of the violation of that divide. The double standard remained in force. Divorce legislation introduced in 1857 allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce if adultery were accompanied by cruelty. The anonymity of the city led to a large increase in prostitution and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Dickens and other writers associated prostitution with the mechanisation and industrialisation of modern life, portraying prostitutes as human commodities consumed and thrown away like refuse when they were used up. Moral reform movements attempted to close down brothels, something that has sometimes been argued to have been a factor in the concentration of street-prostitution in Whitechapel (where the Jack the Ripper prostitute murders took place), part of the East End of London, by the 1880s (near the end of the 19th century).

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