Victorian London in depth:

The poor
The police
Law Courts
Queen Victoria


London's poor tried to scrape a living doing jobs which one can only imagine the Devil himself thought up. River Men made their living from fishing from drowned bodies, and Scavangers searched the sewers and rubbish tips for coins or rope to sell on. London's docks expanded rapidly. Smaller boats, mainly carrying cargoes such as coal and grain from other British ports, still used riverside wharves, but congestion on the Thames was such that purpose-built docks were needed to handle the big ocean-going vessels. Whole new villages and communities grew up to serve the docks, but poverty was endemic because the wages were extremely low. London became an increasingly stratified city, with a relatively prosperous West End and a poor East End. Model dwellings to house the poor began to appear - the American philanthropist, George Peabody, left substantial funds for their construction - but never enough to make any serious dent in the growing problem of the slums. In workhouses, families were split up and made to wear drab clothing deliberately intended to destroy individuality. A standard workhouse haircut also made them instantly recognizable if they went out in public. Inside they worked pointlessly at stone-breaking and oakum-picking. The situation gave rise to many philanthropic initiatives, such as the founding in 1878 of William Booth's Salvation Army, which set up soup kitchens and hospitals to help the very poor. Ultimately, the extreme poverty in London was to have massive and worldwide repercussions: Karl Marx's observations on its causes and solutions were to become the basis for Communist-inspired revolutions in several parts of the world.

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From Thomas Beames The Rookeries of London (1850): "…the worst sink of iniquity was The Rookery, a place or rather district, so named, whose shape was triangular, bounded by Bainbridge Street, George Street and High Street, St Giles… the colony, called The Rookery, was like an honeycomb, perforated by a number of courts and blind alleys, cul de sac, without any outlet other than the entrance. Here were the lowest lodging houses in London, inhabited by the various classes of thieves common to large cities… were banded together… Because all are taken in who can pay their footing, the thief and the prostitute are harboured among those who only crime is poverty, and there is thus always a comparatively secure retreat for him who has outraged his country's laws. Sums here are paid, a tithe of which, if well laid out, would provide at once a decent and an ample lodging for the deserving poor; and that surplus,which might add to the comfort and better the condition of the industrious, finds its way into the pocket of the middleman…"

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J H Mackay's The Anarchists (1891) casts an eye over the East End of London, "…the hell of poverty. Like the enormous black, motionless, giant Kraken, the poverty of London lies there in lurking silence and encircles with its mighty tentacles the life and wealth of the City and of the West End." The poor lived in horrendous circumstances. An article in The Morning Chronicle in 1849 discusses conditions in a district of Bermondsey called "Jacob's Island", where the river water is "covered with a scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it float large masses of green rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores are heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which tells you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster shells are like pieces of slate from their coating of mud and filth. In some parts the fluid is almost as red as blood from the colouring matter that pours into it from the reeking leather-dressers' close by…" The author of the piece explains that he met a man whose family had died from disease; the man sat eating his meals in a small shop where, "if he put his hand against the wall behind him, it would be covered with the soil of his neighbour's privy, sopping through the wall. At the back of the house was an open sewer, and the privies were full to the seat." The drinking water came directly from the water into which the drains and sewers emptied: "In each of the balconies that hung over the stream the self-same tub was to be seen in which the inhabitants put the mucky liquid to stand, so that they may, after it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid from the solid particles of filth, pollution and disease." London graveyards added to the city's health problems. Dickens' Bleak House describes Nemo's last resting place as being a foot or so beneath the surface of "a hemmed in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed…"

London lacked any kind of system for disposing of waste until the mid-19th century. Rubbish and sewage were introduced into its rivers, earning it the names "Venice of Drains" and "Capital of Cholera." The first covered sewers were introduced in 1858, known as the "Year of the Great Stink" because they were completely ineffectual. Nobody went anywhere near the Thames unless they had to and the windows of the newly rebuilt Houses of Parliament were draped with sheets soaked in chloride of lime to keep the smell at bay. The saviour of London, whose name is forgotten but who ought to be regarded as a national hero, was Sir Joseph Bazalgette: his system of brick-lined sewers, linked to treatment plants and pumping stations, came into operation in the 1860s.

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These are often mentioned in connection with some of Pitt and Monk's wealthier clients/victims. For instance, Cyprian Moidore in A Dangerous Mourning has his club on Half Moon Street in Mayfair, where Bertie Wooster, PG Wodehouse's comic creation, as well as Dr Johnson's real-life friend and biographer, James Boswell, both lived. These institutions have faded out since the 1930s, but in the 18th and 19th century exclusive gentlemen's clubs flourished in an age when men and women led separate social lives, the woman's domain being confined to the home. Some clubs also served as gambling dens, where many an aristocratic fortune was thrown away over an evening's game of cards. The main attraction of the clubs were the snob appeal of belonging to an exclusive, all male circle.

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Wealthy Victorian ladies were very interested in fashion and fashion magazines. The invention of the sewing machine by Isaac Merrit Singer in 1851 led to the mass production of clothing, but many still had their clothes made by an exclusive dress-maker. Style was led by couturiers like Charles Worth, an Englishman who owned a salon in Paris patronised by Princess Eugenie and the leading figures of all the courts in Europe. As with most expressions of taste, Victorian fashion was formed in the upper levels of society and affected the most humble of working people. Fashions changed as the Victorian world changed: in the economic revival after the 1840s, which had been a period of great hardship, women's dresses began to be made from lighter, brighter fabrics, waitlines rose, skirts became fuller and leg-o'-mutton sleeves, which had been tight at the wrist, began to fill again.

The quintessential female silhouette of the mid-Victorian period was a tight bodice blossoming out from the hips into a bell-like voluminous skirt. This was achieved by the invention of a light dress frame made from steel hoops called the crinoline. Up to thirty-five steel springs increased in diameter as they reached the ground. The crinoline replaced large numbers of stiffened petticoats lined with horsehair which women has been wearing to acheive a shionable form, despite their weight and discomfort. Its major disadvantage was considered to be that it occasionally tilted and revealed the ankles. Less socially gauche difficulties, such as the discomfort of sitting, were overcome with better materials and design. The 1860s saw greater restraint in fasionable dress. The number of steel hoops was reduced to three or four at the bottom of the skirt. In the later 1860s this shape, known as a half crinoline, became the bustle, a small frame attached to the lower back, which supported a pronounced mass of material often running into a long train.

As with architecture, Victorian dress was frequently historicist. In the 1880s, the 18th century style of draped overskirts and tight-fitting bodices, associated with the marquises of the Pompadour period, were revived. But these were rarely pure historical recreations, for the Victorians brought the character of their age to their costume. A full-skirted dress derived from 18th century patterns, in a richly-coloured fabric, would be decorated with machine-made embroidery and lace. Aniline dyes were discovered by Sir William Perkin in 1856 and cloth manufacturers quickly realised their potential for producing brilliant colours such as mauve, magenta, or brilliant pink. Victorian fashions could be hazardous to women in various ways. The weight of the large number of petticoats placed great stress on the pelvis. Numerous accounts circulated through society of women blown over cliffs in high winds. They were fire-hazards too: in a packed antiago Cathedral in 1860s, over 2,000 people died when a crinoline caught fire and people were unable to escape. Narrow waists were so fashionable that some women went to extraordinary lengths to be in vogue. Waists of less than 20 inches were achieved at the cost of damage to internal organs. In 1895 two women are reported to have had ribs surgically removed to be able to wear narrower corsetry.

These trends in fashion prescribed the delicate and ornamental roles for women in society. A long box-pleated train hanging from a bustle in a beautiful silk with applied decoration of floral motifs not only indicated obvious wealth, but also leisure. Its owner always travelled by carriage, for such a train could never be allowed to drag the streets. Such a vision was reinforced by the jewellery and accesories so necessary for the maintenance of sartoiral face. Elegant women would not be seen promenading without the appropriate paraphernalia of long gloves, monogrammed fans and ornate parasols. Prestigious events in the social calendar demanded ostentatious displays of wealth and aristocratic women were bedecked with jewellery and accompanied their husbands like glitering symbols of accomplishment. For the very wealthy, even simple and basic items of accessory, such as hair grips, could be encrusted with diamonds and pearls. In the 1880s, taste was ostentatious, though less skilled than earlier with jewel encrusted pieces based on simple shapes. The lower classes copied all this as far as they could. Cheap illustrated magazines showed what fashionable women were wearing and they sought to emulate it; skirts could be purchased with a band to hold the train up while a woman worked. A number of attempts at dress reform were made. In 1851, an American, Amelia Bloomer, came to England proclaiming the merits of a sensible and not unfeminine costume known as bloomers. She proposed that women should wear a simple bodice, a wide skirt reaching just below the knee, and underneath a pair of loose fitting trousers reaching to the ankles and tied with lace. This notion was derided by the British press and public. The greatest attempt at dress reform did not happen until the 1880s under the auspices of the Aesthetic Movement.

By the somewhat exaggerated standards of women's costume in the period, men's dress in the era was relatively practical. Although social convention wrapped masculine dress in strict social codes, where different occasions demanded particular costume, men were not greatly inhibited by the clothes they wore. The essential character of men's dress was in most respects little different from the formal dress of the 20th century. Lounge suits first worn in the 1850s were a useful and comfortable style of dress. It is the fashionable accessories of the period that mark the characteristic Victorian differences in masculine fashion. Top hats, and silver and ivory topped canes have long since fallen out of use. Victorian men appear to have allowed colourful novelty to entire their wardrobes in one respect: their waistcoats. Often known as 'fancy' waistcoats, these were fasionable until the 1870s when the three piece suit came to dominate taste. They were often decorated with lavish embroidery, figured silks with small patterns, or woven velvet. Under the influence of Prince Albert, tartan waistcoats became very popular in the 1850s.

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Victorian England, at any rate until its final years, was a deeply religious country. A great number of people were habitual church or chapel-goers, at least once and probably twice, every Sunday. The Bible was frequently and widely read by people of every class; so too were such books as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Yet towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the hold of organised religion upon the English people began to slacken. This was due in part to the expansion in the range of careers for university graduates, many of whom chose to go into education, business and scientific work rather than become priests or ministers. The depression in agriculture brought the stipends of the country clergy, dependent on tithes, down and recruitment to the Nonconformist ministry was challenged by the growth of the trade unions and the beginnings of the Labour party which attracted men who would probably have become preachers to become officials or lecturers instead. Another reason was the growth of scientific doubt - Charles Darwin's 1859 tome The Origin of the Species put forth the theory that man was not a seperate creation but had evolved like any other species of living thing by a process of natural selection in response to his environment and the pursuit of pleasure. This led not to a positive disbelief but to indifference to religion, which ceased to occupy a central position in men's minds.

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The 18th century had been a rough and disorderly age, with mob violence, violent crimes, highwaymen, smugglers and the new temptations to disorder brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Clearly something had to be done. In 1829 the Metropolitan Police Force, organised by Sir Robert Peel, was established to keep the order in London. The force, under a Commissioner of the Police with headquarters at Scotland Yard, was essentially a civilian one: its members were armed only with wooden truncheons and at first wore top-hats and blue frock-coats. The "Peelers" or "Bobbies" were greeted largely with derision by Londoners, but they did become accepted fairly quickly. Thier primary purpose was to prevent crime, and some London criminals left their haunting grounds of London for the larger provincial towns, which in turn established their own forces on the Metropolitan model. The pattern followed through to the small villages and countryside. To secure co-operation between the spreading network and establish further forces, Parliament passed an act in 1856 to co-ordinate the work of the various forces and gave the Home Secretary the power to inspect them. In the counties, under the Police Act of 1890, the police became the combined responsibility of the local authorities - the County Councils - and the Justice of the Peace, while in London, the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard remained under the Commissioner appointed by the Home Office. At the turn of the century, the British police force established a reputation for humane and kindly efficiency. Their mere existence undoubtedly did a lot to prevent crime, and they built up what was on the whole a highly effective system of investigation and arrest.

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The English system of law courts was firmly established long before the 18th century. There were the main central courts in London - King's Bench, Common Pleas, and the Court of Chancery; the Assizes held periodically in the county towns, when the King's judges from the central courts came down to try offenders in their own shires; the jury system used in these courts; the local sessions held by Justices of the Peace, both the Petty Sessions at which they dealt with minor offences and the Quarter Sessions for more serious crimes - all these were the principle features of a system whose origins lay in the Middle Ages. It remained little changed until the 19th century when Henry Brougham, the official head of the legal system, began to carry out extensive changes: for his own Court of Chancery he introduced various new rules to accelerate its activity; he got rid of numerous minor officials; he made the procedure of the central courts as a whole simpler; and he created a special new court to deal with cases of bankruptcy. Further developments in the 19th century included the setting up in 1846 of County Courts, whose chief purpose was to provide a cheap and quick means by which creditors could recover small debts; and an extension of the use of Stipendiary Magistrates to assist the unpaid Justices of the Peace in the cities. In 1873 Parliament passed the Judicature Act, which reorganised the central courts, grouping the seven major courts into one Supreme Court of Judicature, with heaquarters at the newly built Central Courts in London. At first this act abolished the old custom of a final appeal to the House of Lords, but three years later this was restored.

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Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819. Her father, the Duke of Kent, died when she was only eight months old. She was brought up by her mother and a German governess. She was never left alone and seldom saw anyone her own age. On 10th June 1837, following the death of her uncle, William IV, she became queen at the age of eighteen. Her diary recounts: "I was awoke at 6 o'clock by Mama who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. Lord Conyngham then acuainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning and consequently I am Queen." She started to enjoy herself, riding., staying up late at balls and going to opera and theatre. She fell instantly in love with her German cousin, Prince Albert and they were married on 10 February 1840. She adored him and depended on him, spending her time then looking after her family and doing her public duties. Between 1841 and 1857 Queen Victoria had nine children - four sons, five daughters. She and her husband built a holiday home at Balmoral in their beloved Scotland. Prince Albert was very interested in art, science and manufacturing and took a keen interest in the building of the Crystal Palace. He died suddenly of typhoid in 1861. His widow was overcome with grief and wrote in her diary, "My life as a happy person is ended!" She wore black for the rest of her days. For a long time she refused to appear in public, which made her very unpopular. Then she began to enjoy life again, discovering an interest in in the many new inventions - the telephone, gramophone and photography - and she travelled all over Britain on the railway. 1887 was her Fifty Year Jubilee, and she drove through streets of London, cheered by thousands. Her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in the whole Empire. Queen Victoria died aged 80 on 22 January 1901 and a new age - the Edwardian - began.

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Page adapted by  Cecilia Herrero Vila
© Anne Perry