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8 Defining Features of Victorian England

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

What Is the Victorian Era?

The Victorian Era is the name given to the period of English history during which Queen Victoria reigned (1837 to 1901). It warrants its own classification because Queen Victoria's reign was long and marked by significant change.

This era saw the British Empire at the height of its power, covering much of the globe. It saw the Industrial Revolution and the resulting upheaval. It saw the rich enjoy a life of travel and cultural pursuits while the poor suffered amidst the filth of increasingly overcrowded cities.

Here are eight defining features of Victorian England:

  1. It was an era of imperial might.
  2. It was an era of globalisation.
  3. It was an era of sickening pollution.
  4. It was an era of urban poverty.
  5. It was an era of curiosities.
  6. It was an era of gin.
  7. It was an era of sexual repression.
  8. It was an era of music halls.
The victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 paved the way for the British Empire to become the dominant force on the globe.

The victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 paved the way for the British Empire to become the dominant force on the globe.

1. An Era of Imperial Might

Famous victories over Napolean's forces paved the way for the British Empire to become the dominant force in the world. By 1901, it covered one-fifth of the globe.

India was the jewel in the empire's crown, but there was also an obsession with Egypt and the many ancient artefacts found there. Other colonies included Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In the 1880s, the Scramble for Africa began, with European powers dividing the continent up amongst themselves. Britain gained control of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Southern Africa (including Zimbabwe and Botswana).

This map shows the territories controlled by the British Empire in 1898.

This map shows the territories controlled by the British Empire in 1898.

Young Adventurers

The younger sons of the British upper crust did not stand to inherit anything, so they travelled to the colonies to seek their fortune. There, they could serve in the military or the civil service, helping to guard the territories, build railways and expand infrastructure.

Uprisings and Wars

Of course, all was not rosy in the empire, which had to contend with occasional violent outbursts from subjugated peoples.

Examples include the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica (1865). Jamaicans marched on the Morant Bay courthouse to protest poor working conditions and lack of rights. British soldiers opened fire and killed around 400 protesters. This sparked intense debate back in London as to how a supposedly enlightened empire should govern.

There was also the infamous Opium Wars in China (1839 to 1842, 1856 to 1860), where Chinese officials lashed out at British traders in response to them smuggling Opium into the country to pay for luxury goods such as tea and silk.

The launch of the SS Great Britain, which provided a sea route from Bristol to New York.

The launch of the SS Great Britain, which provided a sea route from Bristol to New York.

2. An Era of Globalisation

Railways and steamships connected the empire. People from the colonies could travel to London seeking wealth and education, making for an increasingly diverse city.

The first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, opened in London in 1810.

10,000 people of African heritage were in England by the turn of the century. Irish and Italian Catholics, along with German and French protestants, flocked to the city.

Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century and have been residents in London ever since. Muslims from the Arab World and East Asia were employed on the ships of the East India Company.

The railways allowed Victorians to holiday in peaceful seaside towns such as Llandudno.

The railways allowed Victorians to holiday in peaceful seaside towns such as Llandudno.

The Railways and Steamships: Connecting the World

A defining feature of Victorian England was the rapid expansion of the railways. Trains are taken for granted today but were a revelation in the British Empire. Before the railways, the fastest way to travel was by horse.

Just as the Roman Empire built roads wherever they went, the British Empire built railways. Trains allowed for speedy travel throughout the empire and facilitated the expansion of infrastructure in the colonies.

London's first rail line, connecting London with Birmingham, was completed in 1838. This was also the year the SS Great Western, the longest steamship in the world at the time, made its maiden voyage from England to New York, completing the journey in under 15 days. The world was becoming smaller.

"The Silent Highwayman" cartoon from the July 1858 issue of Punch Magazine. Death is depicted rowing along the filthy waters of the Thames.

"The Silent Highwayman" cartoon from the July 1858 issue of Punch Magazine. Death is depicted rowing along the filthy waters of the Thames.

3. An Era of Sickening Pollution

The Industrial Revolution brought many detriments as well as benefits. Machines reduced the need for labour in the fields, so people migrated to the cities in droves to find work in factories.

For the first time in history, more people lived in the cities than in the countryside. London's population grew from a million people in 1800 to five million in 1900.

Squalor intensified. There wasn't enough space to support the burgeoning population. The poor gathered in slums and workhouses.

"The Great Stink"

There was no effective plumbing in London until the 1860s, so waste was dumped into the Thames. The stink of the river became so bad that Parliament considered moving out of the city.

“I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.”

– Charles Dickens, in a letter to a friend.

Fog of Death

The era's pollution was dramatised and catalogued in Charles Dickens' 1852 novel Bleak House, including the fumes coal plants spewed into the air, which created a fog so dense that crossing the road was a life-threatening act:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards . . . . (Chapter 1: In Chancery)

People wore black simply to hide the dirt. The fog took on a greenish hue that earned the nickname "pea-souper." Asthma and bronchitis were rife among the populace.

It's no wonder so many sought to escape to the colonies to access fresh air.

Tainted Food

For the poor, there was a risk of consuming food that had been tampered with. Chalk was mixed with flour, and sweets were laced with chemicals to produce bright colours.

Houses of Lead

Lead was utilised heavily in the construction of housing, so inhabitants were being slowly poisoned. This was an issue even for middle-class homeowners.

A soup kitchen for distressed weavers in St. Mary's hall, Coventry, 1861.

A soup kitchen for distressed weavers in St. Mary's hall, Coventry, 1861.

4. An Era of Poverty

Until now, the countryside had been the place for poor peasants while the middle class occupied the cities. But that changed with the Industrial Revolution.

Now, the poor were living in the cities, which probably made things worse for them. At least the countryside had space and fresh air.

Quality of life improved significantly for the upper and middle classes, but three-fourths of the population was working class.

Poverty was more impactful on city life than ever before, and not just in London. Manchester had a slum so infamous it was nicknamed "hell on earth", with around 30 000 workers crammed into one square mile.

The Dosshouse

The Victorian version of a hostel, the dosshouse offered small cots for those who could afford it, while the rest had to sleep on a large bench placed against the wall or in a "hangover", a rope that held the sleeper up as they leant over it.

The hangover cost a penny a night and was often used by drunk sailors who had spent all their money on alcohol.

The dosshouse — a Victorian-era hostel.

The dosshouse — a Victorian-era hostel.

Child Labour and "Baby Farms"

Queen Victoria believed in the importance of education and made it available to all. But many families desperately needed income, so they would have their children work in factories rather than attend schools.

Then there were the "baby farms". The Poor Laws of 1834 absolved fathers from any responsibility for illegitimate children. There was no child support here; single mothers had to support their children independently.

Many couldn't afford to and left their children at so-called "baby farms". The people running these "farms" would often pocket the adoption fee and then leave the child to starve—or worse, in the case of Amelia Dyer, who made a career of drugging, starving, and strangling babies to death.

A Victorian "Cabinet of Curiosities", displaying crystals, skulls, and fossils, among other curios.

A Victorian "Cabinet of Curiosities", displaying crystals, skulls, and fossils, among other curios.

5. An Era of Curiosities

Trains and steamships aided travel across an empire that included all sorts of exotic places, making the collection of curiosities a popular hobby for Victorians. Many would have a specially dedicated "Cabinet of Curiosities" to hold antiques acquired from all over the world.

A Victorian poster advertising a "freak show", in this case featuring Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and his father,  the ‘Wild Man from the Kostroma Forest’.

A Victorian poster advertising a "freak show", in this case featuring Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and his father, the ‘Wild Man from the Kostroma Forest’.

"Freak Shows"

Unfortunate souls suffering from unusual conditions would be shipped to London and put on display for onlookers from all classes of society (though the rich would attend on different days from the working class, so they didn't have to mix with the rabble).

A classic example is the Elephant Man, aka Joseph Merrick, a hideously deformed individual who, instead of receiving the medical care he would today, was made a subject of morbid fascination. Eventually, a surgeon named Dr. Frederick Treves took pity on him and brought him to the Royal London Hospital, where he spent his last days:

The showman — speaking as if to a dog — called out harshly: ‘Stand up!’ The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed.

– Dr. Frederick Treves on The Elephant Man.

A vintage engraving of a scene from a Charles Dickens's novel featuring a gin shop.

A vintage engraving of a scene from a Charles Dickens's novel featuring a gin shop.

6. An Era of Gin

During the Middle Ages, tainted water supplies meant peasants generally preferred beer with their meals, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Inhabitants of Victorian England similarly didn't trust the water supply, despite gradual improvements in plumbing. However, by this time, gin had become the drink of choice, even for the working class who, as Charles Dickens noted, scorned beer in favour of gin.

Gin on the Go

By 1840, London was consuming 10 litres of gin per person per year. Gin shops or "dram shops" sold gin which was drunk while standing up (like espresso bars in Italy). Larger establishments known as "gin palaces" began to pop up, with more glamorous decor than dram shops, although still considered places of ill repute by the upper classes.

The rowdiness was such that the government tried to halt the flow of gin, imposing heavy taxes on sales and requiring licenses to sell the product. Anti-gin campaigners such as Bishop Thomas Wilson claimed that gin produced a "drunken ungovernable set of people".

A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroom.

A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroom.

7. An Era of Sexual Repression

Victorians had less of an issue talking about death as modern folk but avoided the subject of sex like the plague. Upper-class women actually considered it a point of pride to know as little about sexual matters, including their own anatomy, as possible.

Gender Roles

Gender was as much a stratifying feature as class in Victorian society. Male and female roles were believed to be rooted in their biology rather than any form of social pressure. Women were simply not designed, so society believed, to engage in public pursuits such as politics.

Victorian society refused even to acknowledge that women had sexual desire, believing that to be a solely masculine pursuit. It was held that women only engaged in sex to please their husbands.

The Underbelly

Some historians have questioned this perception of Victorian society as prudish, arguing that they were more open about sexual matters than we've been led to believe.

What's for sure is that, for all society's emphasis on good manners, there was no dearth of prostitution and pornography.

8. An Era of Music Halls

Theatre was a sophisticated pursuit reserved for the upper classes. For the rest of society, the vibrant music hall provided an escape from the filth and poverty of the city.

Singers, acrobats and other performers were on-hand to entertain the jovial (and often intoxicated) crowds. The upper class considered these venues vulgar, with their smoky interiors and noisy crowds, but the lower classes were completely immersed in the experience.

Except for when the performance was poor, in which case the audience would pelt the stage with rotten vegetables. Thankfully, someone was usually stationed on the edge of the stage to drag such performers off with a large hook.

The largest music halls, such as the Canterbury Music Hall, were fitted with glittering chandeliers, grand staircases and art galleries. An experience any poor Victorian child was sure to treasure.

References

An Introduction to Victorian England. English Heritage.

Jordan Evans. June 17 2021. 10 Things you never knew about Victorian London. Dickens Museum.

Aimee Dyamond. October 16 2020. On Death & Curiosities: The Great Victorian Hobbies. Medium.

Jessica Brain. The Great British Music Hall. Historic UK.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.