10 Things you never knew about Victorian London
- Charles Dickens practically invented the way in which we imagine Victorian London. His novels such as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Bleak House are filled with wonderful descriptions of life in the city.
- In fact, one of the reasons Dickens's work seems to stay relevant through the ages, is because he very often wrote about real people. The names and plotlines are made up, but the characters are often based on personal observations as he wandered around London.
- So what did the city look and feel like in the Victorian era? We've put together 10 facts about London which may surprise you!
- The smell of London once got so bad that Parliament seriously considered abandoning the capital.
London’s population exploded in the 19th century, from a million people in 1800 to over five million in 1900. Many of these new Londoners were poor immigrants from the countryside seeking work, and huge numbers of them ended up living in the city slums. Hot, overcrowded, with little running water or sanitation, the sheer stink of unwashed bodies, tobacco smoke, horses and garbage would have been horrendous.
But worse still was the smell which came from the river Thames. There was no effective plumbing in London until the 1860s. Before that, all toilet waste, animal carcasses, butchers remains and general filth was thrown into the river.
In 1858 the summer got so hot that the river water levels dropped significantly, leaving huge banks of sludgy waste in its place, stinking in the summer heat. Even Queen Victoria was affected. She tried to enjoy a river cruise but abandoned the idea when they reached the river and smelt the almighty stench.
Dickens wrote to a friend complaining “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.”
Parliament - itself built along the river edge - debated whether to flee to Oxford or St Albans to escape the miasma. In fact it was this summer, nicknamed the Great Stink, which eventually prompted the government to invest in a proper sewage network.
- It was a place of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
As the capital of the largest Empire in global history, London was a place of importance. Most British aristocratic families maintained properties in the city, which were especially used during the ‘London Season,’ a period in the summer when it was customary for the wealthy to come to the city for social events, such as Trooping of the Colour and the races at Epsom and Ascot. Many of the grand hotels and public buildings today began their life as the private homes of the rich, including the grandiose Somerset House.
Running alongside this vast wealth, however, was an extreme poverty. We might think of locations such as Whitechapel in the East End as being places of dire need, but in fact slums could be found everywhere, often running right alongside the homes of the wealthy. Take Charles Dickens’s quote from Little Dorrit regarding Covent Garden, “a place where there was a mighty theatre, showing wonderful and beautiful sights to richly-dressed ladies and gentlemen,” but also a place where, “miserable children in rags.. like young rats, slunk and hid, fed on offal huddled together for warmth and were hunted about…”
- The ‘Dosshouse’ was real and often used.
Even today we use the slang word ‘dosshouse’ to mean a filthy or untidy place. In the Victorian times though, the dosshouse was a very real place. With many new people arriving in the city every day, or else being driven from their slum homes by crime or eviction. The dosshouse was a Victorian version of a hostel. They were usually made up of a single, large room in which you could pay for a small cot for the night. You could pay extra for a little food, or, if you wanted to save money, you could refuse a cot and instead opt for the hangover.
The hangover was a large bench placed against the wall. You would sit on the bench and a rope would be tied across your front which you could hang over in order to sleep. This was a very cheap option, usually costing only a penny a night. The hangover would leave you feeling pretty rough, and was often used by people who got too drunk to go home, which is how the word has come to be associated with ‘the night after.’
- Murdering babies could be organised and was well-known about.
Life could be very harsh for women who gave birth outside of marriage. In 1834 the Poor Laws officially absolved the fathers of having any responsibility over their illegitimate children. Women could no longer sue the fathers for financial assistance. The inevitable result of this change was that many mothers and children died from starvation or from disease as they sunk into poverty.
As a result of this desperation, Baby Farms emerged as a place for mothers to leave their children. Some women would leave their children to be raised by the ‘farmer’ in return for a series of regular payments. These were often horrible places, in which the farmers would starve the children in their care to maximise their profits. There are countless children who died from starvation and neglect at the hands of the ‘farmers’ and all the while the mothers believed they were paying for their child’s welfare.
For those who were even more desperate, they could pay to have a ‘farmer’ adopt their child. The fees were higher, and there was an understanding that the mother would never see the child again. It was heartbreakingly common for the adopters to simply kill the child, either through slow starvation, or simply through outright murder, in order to pocket the adoption fee. A number of ‘farmers’ were caught and prosecuted for infanticide and yet no regulation was passed to control or restrict Baby Farms until 1872.The last prosecution against a baby farmer for infanticide was in 1907.
Yet the horrors of the Baby Farms were well known. Charles Dickens was condemning them in Oliver Twist as early as 1838, and the horrible reality is that most people in London were fully aware of the practices of the farms, they simply chose to ignore it.
- Music Halls offered a vivid escapism.
Even an iconic London writer such as Dickens had a rather dim view of the capital, “London is shabby by daylight and shabbier by gaslight.” And ,”Old iron and fried fish, cough drops and artificial flowers, boiled pigs feet and household furniture that looks as if it were polished up with lip-salve.”
In fact, London was grimy from the heavy coal pollution, so much so, that many Londoners opted to wear black simply to hide the dirt. There was one place where you could find colour and escapism though, and that was the music hall.
These were not as respectable as theatres. They were full of smoke and noise. Spectators would eat and drink and laugh while the performers tried to entertain. “They are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood,” wrote Dickens.
It was very common for performers who failed to entertain to be pelted with rotten vegetables, or even dead animals. Some music halls actually had to erect cages around the stage to protect the performers, while someone was usually employed to stand on the edge of the platform with a big hook to drag weak performers off the stage.
But rowdy, noisy and garish they may be, they offered a dazzling break to the otherwise bleakness of Victorian poverty. The influence of the music halls is still with us today, in popular ditties such as “Daisy, Daisy, Give me your Answer Do” and “Oh, We do like to live beside the Seaside.”
In fact, noisy, shabby and chaotic it may have been, but London inspired Dickens. He wrote, "a day in London sets me up again and starts me." and referred to the city as his 'magic lantern.'
- People drank a lot.
Very few people drank water on its own. Although improvements had been made in sanitation in the 19th century, water supplies were still uncertain and unreliable. In fact, although various parish authorities tried to introduce water pumps in the 1830s, they often faced hostility by the local middle class families who were worried that water pumps might cause the poor to congregate near their properties.
Because of all this, most people opted to drink alcohol instead. Dickens recorded that the working class in particular would scorn beer and mild alcohols in favour of gin. By 1840 London was consuming 10 litres of gin per person per year. To Dickens, there was a direct parallel between the miserable poverty experienced by the poor and their desire for strong drink, “If temperance societies would suggest an antidote against hunger, filth, and foul air… gin-palaces would be numbered among the things that were.”
- London was diverse
Even in the early 19th century, London was an incredibly diverse city. Remember that this was a city which dominated world trade and politics, which meant people came here from every corner of the globe. Cartoons and sketches by George Cruikshank, a satirical illustrator who often collaborated with Dickens, captured many real and imagined scenes of London life.
Although the cartoons themselves often portray racist stereotypes of the time, they also depict a city in which diversity is a normal part of everyday life for ordinary Londoners. People of all races are portrayed drinking and dancing, cuddling and fighting alongside each other. In fact there were approximately 10,000 people of African heritage in the UK at the turn of the 19th century.
There were also a number of people from European countries: huge numbers of Irish and Italian Catholics alongside German and French Protestants. Nor was London wholly Christian, with a number of Jewish people having been resident in the city from the 17th century and a rising number of Muslims arriving particularly with the lascar sailors of the East India Company. In fact, London opened its very first Indian restaurant in 1810, the Hindoostanee Coffee House.
- Most people were illiterate.
There was no legal obligation to send your children to school until 1880. Before that, there were a number of ways people could get an education, whether that be through a charitable school for the poor (these were often referred to as ragged schools), or through a religious school system. There were big arguments between these groups and the government as to how best to educate the country.
The Victorian middle class did not like the idea of the government interfering in peoples private lives (and education was seen as the responsibility of the parents, not the state), while there were also debates about whether schooling should encourage the Church of England as a faith, or whether schools should be affiliated with various faith groups, including Catholics and Non Conformists. They also had big debates about who should pay for the education system. While these arguments raged, generation after generation went uneducated.
In truth though, in the slums, not many people saw the value in a schooled education. This was an age when children were sent to work in factories, as apprentices or to sell goods on the streets. If parents opted to send their children to school then they would lose that income. It’s also worth remembering that there were very different expectations for different classes. If you worked on the docks, in the factories or as a pedlar, you probably wouldn’t see the value in being able to read or write, certainly not enough to justify pulling out of work.
In fact it was so difficult for the authorities to convince the poor of the need to send their children to school, that a law was passed requiring every child employed under the age of 13 to carry a certificate to prove they had received an adequate amount of schooling. School meals were also introduced as a way of offsetting some of the lost income that poor families had to face by sending their children to school. Even as late as 1870 it is estimated that half of all British children had no access to schooling at all.
- The food could literally kill you.
Many people lived desperately in Victorian London. There was an almost constant need for cheap food and in an age with little to no regulation, this left the poorest people vulnerable to food which had been tampered with.
Tea could be mixed with ash or even lead as a way of maximising the profits of the producers. Flour was often mixed with chalk or even lime, which was not only horrible but potentially lethal too. Certain meats were also highly suspect, especially minced meats such as sausages. Sometimes they were mixed with breadcrumbs to stretch the meat further – there are some genuine complaints from this period that sausages would turn to toast when cooked. Others were mixed with rotten meats or gristle, which could both make you sick and would taste vile. The Victorian Londoners even began to refer to sausages as Bags o’Mystery since you never knew what you were going to get.
Worst of all though was the sweets. Most people in the slums would have eaten sweets only very rarely as a treat, they did not have the disposable income to spare. But while sweets may have tasted good, they were often heavily laced with chemicals to create the bright colours, including plaster of Paris, copper, lead and even mercury. On at least one instance arsenic was added to them, causing a number of people to die from the poison.
- If the food didn’t kill you your home probably would.
London, for most of the 19th century, was a filthy place. First of all there was the smog. Thick clouds of coal dust and ash which wafted down onto the city. This was not just in the poor areas either: even Buckingham Palace was heavily blackened by the smog and began to crumble. Londoners began to call the heaviest smogs ‘pea-soupers’ owing to the greenish hue which often coloured the smoke.
One great example of just how heavy the smog was is Downing Street. Downing Street is famous for its black brickwork, however the street is actually built out of a yellowish stone. It is only the years and years of smog which had coloured the street black. (Although in the modern era they have to paint the houses).
The polluted air brought with it a plethora of medical ailments such as asthma and bronchitis, as well as deaths and injuries from accidents - crossing the road could be dangerous when the smog was so dense.
You might think – and certainly Victorian Londoners did think – that the best thing to do during a thick smog was to stay safe at home with the windows barred shut. The problem was the Victorian home itself was riddled with hazards, including the houses of the middle class.
For a start, lead was put into almost everything. Even paint and wallpaper was often created with lead, meaning that if you were sat in your home with the windows shut, you would be slowly poising yourself. Lead was also put into the paint on children’s toys, and when you remember that children often put their toys in their mouth, it had a horrific effect. Not only are there a number of records of people suffering from lost teeth or gum disease – both caused by too much exposure to lead – there are a heart breaking number of deaths, particularly among children, from lead poisoning. Eventually the use of lead was controlled and restricted, however it would continue to be used in UK paint until 1992.