Life in Victorian England


The reign of Queen Victoria was long and glorious. She was only 18 when she came to the throne and reigned from 1837 to 1901. She oversaw England at the height of its overseas power and the British Empire was greatest ever. Most of the attention at this time was therefore focused abroad. In 1876 Victoria was declared Empress of India and the Empire continued to grow. This period, named after the Queen, was a time of change and exciting inventions - such as steam engine. Time of Industrial Revolution resulted into cities growing bigger and families moving into towns to work in the new factories.

What was it like to live in the Victorian England? That was dependant on if you were rich or if you had nothing. Poor families lived in slums. Their houses were built quickly and cheaply for the factory workers. Such houses had no garden and children had to play in the narrow dirty spaces between the buildings. Poor families were often very large with ten or even more children. All of them often had to share one bed - sleeping at both ends. People did not wash much because everyone in the area had to share one outside tap and one outside toilet. Moreover, the water was often dirty and polluted.

            With no money, people were poorly dressed and children went barefoot. There is no wonder that in unhealthy conditions like these children died young - from fevers, smallpox, measles or tuberculosis. Very poor families or orphans might have had to enter a workhouse where they were fed and given a bed. In those places, families were split up and were only allowed one hour together on Sunday afternoons.

            Work was an inevitable part of everyday life. Many children had to work to help their families earn enough money to live. Even eight or nine years old children worked for twelve hours in factories, doing boring and dangerous jobs or worked underground in the coal mines. Also chimney sweeps used young boys to climb chimneys and clean away the soot. They often got burned or hurt.

            On the other hand, a completely different life waited for the rich people. Wealthy families lived in the countryside, or on the edges of the cities, where there were parks, fields and cleaner air. The father was the head of the family; wife, children and servants were expected to obey him. Children had to be well-behaved at all times, and were taught only to speak when they were spoken to by a grown up. Much of the children’s time was spent on the nursery, being looked after by a nanny who cared for their every need. Apart from the nanny, wealthy families also usually had other servants to make sure that their children were clean, well-fed and well-dressed. The family servants spent most of their time in the basement and their bedrooms were in the attics.

            Until 1870 there was no law to make parents send their children to school. Some poor children went to charity schools, where they paid two pence a week, but many worked instead. After 1870 all children between five and thirteen had to go to school, they were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and scripture in classes with as many as eighty pupils; many of them had to share reading books. Girls from wealthy families were usually taught by governess at home, boys went to one of the large public schools such as Eton, Harrow or Winchester. There were fewer schools for girls as it was thought that it is not important for them to go to school. Their future was to look after a household. They were taught good manners and how to move gracefully and learned reading, sewing, music, dancing and drawing.

            All the children, no matter if they are rich or poor, like to play. At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign most toys were made by hand and were very expensive. Many people couldn’t afford to buy them. Poor children didn’t usually have any toys that had been made by toymakers. After about 1850, toys began to be made in factories and became cheaper. Victorian children enjoyed party games which we still play today like “Hunt the Slipper” or “Blind Man’s Buff”. They played card games such as “Happy Families” or Quartets. Wealthy children read books- such as Alice in Wonderland” and also comics. Among popular toys were Wooden Rocking Horses and Doll’s houses, lead and tin soldiers, and wax-faced dolls. Outside, children enjoyed playing marbles and because the poor didn’t have any, they played with buttons and stones. Both rich and poor children liked to play with hoops. A child used a stick to push the hoop along. In the country, the village blacksmith often made iron hoops. “Spinning tops” were also popular. They were cheap, easy to carry and could be spun anywhere that was flat. Children also liked street dancing or playing Hopschotch or Skipping- jumping over a rope which is held at both ends. They also had many rhymes which they sang while skipping.

            Industrial revolution brought many inventions that made work easier and more effective. That was one of the reasons why people had more free time and could afford more holidays. For many working people in 1937 the only days that were holidays were Sundays and church holidays such as Easter, and bank holidays, which were introduced in 1871. Some people could take a day off for special events such as when the fair came to their town. Some people went there to buy and sell things, others went to find work or just to enjoy themselves; others would go to the ZOO.

At early Victorian fairs people could watch dancing shows, boxing or wrestling matches, there were also simple amusements such as swing for two people. Later the offer was much broader, people could watch some animals or people with strange or unusually-shaped bodies.

Poor people also enjoyed day trips to special events such as Great Exhibition in 1851 at Hyde Park. The railway offered special excursion ticket to visit the Exhibition. This meant that many people who lived outside London could make a day trip in to the City. Other way to enjoy a day off was at the races. For many it was a good place to meet people and show off the latest fashion. Other people would just go to parks, where they could have a picnic.

            Wealthy people, if they could afford it, would spend their holidays away, because after 1840 a wide railway network was built in Britain. Cheap railway fares meant that more people could now travel long distances. At first, railways were not very comfortable, especially for the third class passengers. Carriages were open to the cold, wind and rain and even the first class carriages had no heating and there were no lavatories on most trains until 1870s. Very rich upper class people had more holidays that the poor and could afford to spend a great deal more money enjoying themselves. They could go abroad, some went to improve their health, some went for education, and others looked for adventure. Seaside holidays were also very popular. The Victorians didn’t like other people to see them, when their bathing clothes were wet; therefore they had bathing machines which were kind of large huts on wheels dragged in and out of the water by horses. People changed inside them and then used the steps at the front to climb in and out of the water.

            Life in Victorian England had its ups und downs. Being a middle- and upper-class was a big advantage. Life was made easier by all the new inventions and improvements, people had more free time, could travel more and could enjoy themselves more. British Empire was bigger and stronger than ever and together with the Industrial revolution England became a leading world power. However, life for those poor and unfortunate was tough and difficult. Hard work, living in overcrowded and dirty places, dealing with several diseases; those were the only things that the lowest class knew.

However, Victorian England was a time of growth and prosperity and had a huge impact not only on the United Kingdom, but on the whole world.