The Victorian era is widely regarded as a golden age of innovation and industry, when humanity made great leaps in technology and thinking. But what was life like for ‘ordinary’ Victorians whose daily struggle for survival was far away from the sweeping progress and prosperity?
“Pretty grim”, answers Professor Sarah Richardson. “Life expectancy at birth for the average Victorian was about 42, and more than 25 per cent of children died before their fifth birthday. Disease was rife – there were four major outbreaks of cholera alone between 1832 and 1866. And although, in general, standards of living did improve over the period, a third of the population was still living in poverty at the end of the 19th century.
“Of course, there was some light on the horizon – universal education came in during the 1870s, there were improvements in health and sanitation, and also the introduction of leisure pursuits such as football, libraries, music halls and the like. So it wasn’t all doom and gloom, but life wasn't a positive story for most Victorian working-class people.”
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Grim city living
Between 1800 and 1850, England’s population doubled, and as factories sprung up across the country, churning out the products of Britain’s imperial expansion, and new technology meant fewer farm workers were needed, thousands flocked from the countryside to the city in search of work. The cost of accommodation rocketed as demand increased, and many families were forced to live side by side in slum housing – hastily built houses, known as tenements, divided into individual rooms in which entire families would live.
Conditions were terrible: many houses flooded or collapsed, and sanitation was non-existent. Lodging, or ‘doss’, houses were common, renting out cheap beds for the night. For the homeless, an alternative to sleeping on the streets or entering the workhouse was a ‘penny sit-up’ where, for the price of a penny, you could sit - but not lie - on a bench for the night. Two pence could see you upgraded to a bench with a rope strung up to lean over, while four pennies would pay for a wooden coffin in which to bed down.
Poor children fared little better. Until 1842, when new laws were introduced which prevented children under 10 working underground, children made up 25 per cent of the workforce in mines, factories, and workshops. Infants as young as four could be found deep underground, holding open ventilator doors for coal wagons to pass through, usually pushed by other children. Britain’s factories, too, employed thousands of child workers – smaller than adults, they could crawl beneath moving machines to clean and tidy. It’s small wonder that accidents and deaths were so common.
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If you were lucky enough to have been born into a middle-class family, though, – a social class of merchants, bankers, doctors and the like, which emerged and grew rapidly during this period - life would have been easier. As the British Empire expanded and industry grew, the newly rich enjoyed the sorts of luxuries once afforded only by the super wealthy. Domestic servants could be hired, shopping trips taken and even excursions to the seaside were possible. The Victorian era was a golden age for the middle class.
Life in the workhouseOne of the biggest changes to the lives of the poor took place in 1834, when, faced with the return of unemployed or injured servicemen from the Napoleonic Wars and a national poor relief bill that had quadrupled between 1795 and 1815 – from £2 million to £8 million – the British government passed the Poor Law Amendment Act.
The new system of poor relief was now administered by Unions – made up of groups of parishes – which would each operate a workhouse. Outdoor relief (money or assistance issued without requiring an individual to enter an institution) was mostly abolished: for the able-bodied poor, it was now the workhouse or nothing.
The workhouse was designed to be a deterrent, and life inside its walls was not supposed to be any easier or more pleasant than life as one of the lowest-paid workers outside in the community – the decision to enter was not one that was taken lightly. After being admitted to the workhouse, personal clothes were placed in storage, and inmates were issued with uniforms, given baths and subjected to medical examinations. Families were separated, as were the able and infirm. Men were put to work, performing physical labour such as bone crushing, stone breaking or oakum picking, while women were expected to take on domestic chores, such as cooking, laundry and sewing. Children, too, lived separately and were only permitted to see their parents for a few hours a week.
Food was basic and sparse. Inmates were usually provided with between 137 and 182 ounces of food per week, in addition to soup and gruel. At Andover Union Workhouse in Hampshire, inmates were so hungry that they were found gnawing at the old, mouldy animal bones they were meant to be crushing for fertiliser.
But entering the workhouse did not necessarily mean staying there forever. Many inmates who were employed in seasonal work used the workhouse to get through periods of hardship and unemployment.
One enduring problem faced by Victorian Poor Law Unions was how to assist the homeless poor, for whom no provision had been made in the 1834 act. What’s more, Unions were only permitted to serve people who resided permanently within the Union boundaries. In 1840, casual blocks were introduced to workhouses, where homeless people could stay for one night per 30-day period. Although it varied from place to place, homeless people were generally subjected to harsher treatment than the so-called ‘deserving poor’ – those unable to work because they were sick, old or disabled.
The workhouse era is often seen to have officially ended in 1930, when the 643 Boards of Guardians in England and Wales were abolished. Many former workhouse buildings were destroyed, converted into public hospitals, or turned into museums – in remembrance of those Victorians who had nowhere else to turn.
- Read next | How gruelling was the Victorian workhouse?
This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast