Was Victorian life really so grim?

Rosalind Crone reveals surprising truths about the experiences of the urban poor in 19th-century Britain...

Gustave Doré’s famous engraving

The most familiar images of Victorian life are bleak indeed: impoverished children working long hours in factories and mines; blankets of smog suspended above overcrowded cities; frightening workhouses run by cruel governors; violent criminals lurking in the shadows. In black-and-white photos of the period, people both high and low-born are invariably unsmiling – a miserable bunch, surely?

There is some truth in this portrayal. The twin processes of industrialisation and urbanisation did force a drop in living standards for some, and the turbulent decade after Queen Victoria came to the throne became known as the ‘Hungry Forties’. These years were punctuated by economic depression leading to social unrest, popular protests and growing fears of revolution.

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