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British history

Life in 19th-century Britain

A cityscape in 1850A cityscape in 1850 During the Victorian era (1837–1901), many British towns and cities became centres of industry. The invention of steam engines meant that goods could now be manufactured on a large scale. It also gave rise to the railways: steam trains transported people and goods from town to town. Factories and workhouses took the place of craft workshops. Gas lighting and underground sewers made the streets safer and cleaner.

Lower, middle and upper classes

Rich and poor on the city streetsRich and poor on the city streetsPeople flocked to the cities to work in the new industries. By the late 19th century, all kinds of people lived in the cities. Labourers and servants were the most numerous. Although some became better-off, many were still poor. They lived in cramped, decaying houses, known as slums. Shop- and office-workers formed a lower middle class, while lawyers, doctors and factory-owners made up an upper middle class. People lived in different areas of the city according to their wealth. Rich people had several servants, kept a carriage and wore fine clothes. They lived as far away as possible from factories and poor areas.

A family of slum-dwellersA family of slum-dwellers


Many towns grew rapidly into large, bustling cities. Because so many people moved to the cities for work, there were often too few buildings for them to live in. Many people lived in terrible poverty. Most lived close to their factories, with whole families sharing one or two rooms. There was no running water: water had to be collected from a public tap. Instead of flushing toilets, many people had to use cesspits, which were emptied infrequently. Children often shared beds.

During the Victorian era, efforts were made to improve public health by better sanitation. Sewage works (where waste is treated) were improved, and so was the quality of drinking water. Despite these efforts, there were outbreaks of deadly diseases in the city slums. In 1848–9, for example, an epidemic of cholera (which is spread by poor sanitation) broke out in London, killing 14,137.

Factories and workhouses

Women working in a mill in about 1890Women working in a mill in about 1890Factory life was extremely hard. Factories were noisy and crowded, with no toilets. The hours were long. Women and children worked in the factories and in mines because their families needed the money. Young boys sometimes worked as chimneysweeps, climbing up chimneys with brushes to clean them. Other children worked as street sellers, errand boys and shoe-cleaners. Luckier working-class children were taken on as apprentices to learn a trade or became servants.

The poorest people, who could not support themselves, had to live and work in workhouses. Although they had a roof over their heads, families were forced to split up and there was never enough food to go round.

A well-to-do Victorian familyA well-to-do Victorian family


Only wealthier people could afford to follow fashion in Victorian times. Women in fashionable society wore corsets and padding to mould their figures into the ideal shape. From the 1850s to the 1870s, they wore frames called crinolines underneath their dresses to make their skirts wide and bell-like. In the 1870s, this fashion was replaced by the bustle, which held their skirts up behind. From the 1880s, women opted for a slimmer skirt. Respectable women and men wore hats when outdoors. Men wore dark suits with waistcoats.

By the end of the Victorian era, clothes were often made in factories using sewing machines (rather than hand-stitched by seamstresses and tailors) and then sold in department stores.

A wealthy home

In a well-off Victorian house, the upper floors were taken up by the servants’ quarters and by the children’s nurseries. The children rarely saw their parents. Instead, they were looked after most of the time by their nanny. She oversaw the children’s meals, washing, lessons and playtime. Children from well-to-do homes had plenty of toys and games. Other children played hoop rolling and other games in the street. The drawing room was where the well-to-do entertained their guests. Only the houses of wealthy people had bathrooms in Victorian times. Before bathrooms were common, servants carried a bath tub up to a bedroom and filled it with hot water from downstairs.

The kitchen of a wealthy 19th-century homeThe kitchen of a wealthy 19th-century homeThe kitchen of a wealthy Victorian home was in the basement. It often had a flagstone floor, a large wooden table and a coal-fired iron oven called a range. There was usually a shallow earthenware sink and piped water. The water was warmed using the heat from the oven. There were no refrigerators, so food was placed in “ice safes”, zinc-lined wooden chests containing lumps of ice. The housekeeper bought meat and vegetables from tradesmen who came to call at the kitchen door.

A Victorian street sceneA Victorian street scene

Consultant: Philip Parker


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    As living conditions and healthcare improved during the 19th century, England’s population nearly quadrupled—from around 8 million in 1800 to 30 million in 1900.

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    In 1800, the literacy rate (percentage of adults who could read and write) was 62% in England. By 1900, it was around 90%.

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    Flushing toilets were invented in the 1770s, but were not common until the late 19th century. In 1900, most working-class homes in the UK still had outside pit toilets or “earth closets”. It was not until after World War II that all new houses in the UK were built with indoor flushing toilets.

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    There were five cholera pandemics (affecting people across the world) in the 19th century. The third, of 1852–60, killed 1 million people in Russia alone. In 1854, 23,000 people died in Great Britain.

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