English Victorian Society

by Kelsey Freeman
Trafton Academy
Dec. 13, 1997

The Victorian period, the years between 1837 and 1901 and named after the great Queen Victoria, was a time of great change. The population of England represented various classes, occupations, and ways of life. The transportation of the period served as the forerunner of much of the transportation used today and the advances in medicine were also instrumental in changing the face of medicine forever.

One of the most important things to know in Victorian society was good etiquette. Both men and women had their own set of rules of etiquette. There was a rule of etiquette for almost everything you did in a day. For women, there were rules about what kind of jewelry one should wear as well as when and where. Who to walk with, who to dance with, how and when to speak to a stranger, were all very critical knowledge. For men, there were rules about bowing, hat tipping, chaperonage, where to sit and next to whom, even about the circumstances in which it was correct or not to smoke or drink in front of ladies. There was also a correct title for almost every type of profession, social standing and rank.

One of the major events in upper class society was the dance. Dances were usually scheduled to correspond with the full moon. Even most great houses did not have very large ballrooms. As a consequence, most balls were held outdoors. Most dances started around eight o'clock or so and the light of the full moon allowed less lighting to have to be put up. The practice was often to have the hostess and her daughters greet guests at the front door. Floral decorations were popular in the 1850's and 60's, but by the 1890's, too much decoration was frowned upon.

At the 'top' of the room, usually the area farthest away from the door, was the band. The best dances had a cornet, piano, violin, and a cello during the 1850's. Occasionally, in order to make everyone's life easier, dance cards were written out. These were small cards upon which guests wrote which dances they preferred. The dances were not without their down side however. Wax quite frequently dripped from the candelabras and chandeliers onto the dancers. Some of the wilder dances entailed such mad sorties across the floor that cavalry officers were warned not to wear spurs, and there is at least one instance of a lady slamming into another and having her jewelry cut open her arm.

Running a house in the 19th century was nearly impossible without at least one servant. Sometimes people showed off by having more servants than they needed, for, just like land and carriages, servants were a sure sign of wealth. A small household would probably only be able to afford a maid-of-all-work, a girl who cooked, cleaned, scrubbed, mended, looked after the children, and got to stay in the kitchen while the family went out or enjoyed themselves in the parlor. A grander household, say, that of a doctor or banker, would perhaps have a cook, housemaid, and nurse, while the servants in a great house could amount to a small army.

In charge of all these servants were the butler and housekeeper. The butler presided over the male staff, which generally consisted of footmen, grooms, a gamekeeper, and a boy or page. The housekeeper presided over the female staff, which usually consisted of a cook, several maids and kitchenmaids, ladies maid, and possibly a governess. In a great house, the whole staff was presided over by a steward.

Servants in a great house were divided into two groups, indoor and outdoor. The outdoor servants were the coachman, groom, and in the country, a gardener and gamekeeper. The coachman maintained as well as drove the coach. The groom looked after the horses and the gardener was in charge of landscaping and indoor plants. The gamekeeper was responsible for raising and protecting the game and taking the master and guests hunting and shooting.

Indoor servants consisted of a butler, housekeeper, maids and footmen. The butler's jobs were to supervise the footmen, be in charge of the wine cellar, taking care of the "plate" and announcing visitors when occasion called for it. The housekeeper's jobs were to supervise the maids, make preserves, serve tea and coffee, order and keep the household accounts and was responsible for the linen. The maid's jobs were to wash the dishes, clean house, wash clothes, and carry water. There were many dishes to wash, too; an eighteen guest dinner party could generate as many as 500 items to be washed.

The footmen had jobs in and out of the house. Outside they attended the mistress when she went calling and family members when they went to the opera, and they also rode on the back of the carriage to discourage young boys from jumping on to get a free ride. Inside the house, they were basically the male equivalent of maids.

Being a servant was not a high paying job, but all servants materially helpful to visitors expected tips or 'vails' as they were called when a guest left. This was one of the only times that a servant could make decent money. A servant's pay just from vails could amount to ten shillings a day, while on regular pay, they would only earn a few pounds a year.

One would have been well advised to stand upwind of anyone one was having a conversation with in the 19th century. The only parts of the body that were at all frequently washed were the arms, neck, face, and hands. However, by the mid-19th century, house plans show that houses had begun to install special houses for baths. In the middle class usually the whole family took part in one big bath on Saturday, mostly because of the nuisance it was to boil the water. The poor however, bathed infrequently at best.

The water supply system was not a public service. Instead, it was controlled by private companies who only turned the water on for a few hours a day until 1871. This intermittent character of the water supply was one reason for the unsanitary conditions that prevailed with toilets. Some houses had 'earth closets', but there was no way to keep the fumes from backing up into the house. Some dwellings, mostly those lived in by the poor, had backyard privies that were periodically emptied into cesspools. In some parts of London, the cesspools emptied directly into the Thames. The Thames still being the water supply for parts of the city, it is no wonder that this was one of the major contributors to the great epidemics of the period.

The most popular clothing in any period has always been of the type that distorts the figure the most. This statement could not more accurately describe the women's clothing of the 19th century. The years from about 1835 to 1860 were certainly some of the worst 35 years in the history of women's clothes. There was a general movement in this period towards a more bell shaped figure. In order to achieve this, the waistline moved more towards it's anatomical location, skirts became fuller with thick petticoats piled on beneath, and the corset was invented. Dress material became heavier as rich silks and velvets came into style, and a good deal of ornament such as feathers and jewelry was worn with such dresses. The most common colors were deep reds, greens, and mostly blues. The richness and bluish hue common to dresses of this period seem extreme to the modern eye unless it is seen by 1890's lighting which was dim at best.

The 1850's and 60's saw rise to one of the century's greatest gifts to cartoonists, the crinoline. Women had to abandon 5 or 6 layers of petticoats in favor of this stiff horsehair fabric in order to support the new, heavier dresses. Because of the huge wooden trellis which held it up, it was now difficult to get through doorways, nearly impossible to sit down, and truly embarrassing if the wind caught you underneath. When the crinoline and its big round skirt began to dwindle away, it left only the back of the round skirt, the bustle. The bustle was by far the silliest looking distortion yet and was popular from about 1870 to 1890. This was basically a small pillow worn behind, under the skirts. In the 70's skirts were so long that they trailed along for about a yard behind and had to be held up with one hand. Luckily for women, by the 80's, the skirts were shortened up to just above the ground. Unfortunately, women wore bustles and tight corsets even when playing tennis. If you were in the upper class, you might have as many as 8 dresses, and wear and many as 5 in one day!

The lower classes were usually better off in terms of clothing. They didn't trail their skirts on the floor and ruin their constitution by the popular 'wasp-waisting' with the tight corsets. The fashions ruled less and changed less often, but all the underclothes were unhygenic because they were not changed often and the bathing was infrequent.

Like women, men revolted at the end of the 18th century against the mannered clothing associated with the royal court. Modeled after the riding costume, the new dress was to be more natural and un-artificial. This consisted of a linen shirt, a stiff neck band (a stock) or a piece of cloth folded into a triangle (a cravat). Upper and middle class men wore tights, a vest (or waistcoat, pronounced 'weskit'), a cutaway coat, and a shirt. By the 1840's, the colors grew darker for coats and pants, and by the 60's the standard color would be black. Meanwhile, the dresscoat became less and less everyday wear. It moved to the evening and became today's white tie and tails. During the day, men now wore the frock coat, a long, almost to the knee garment of black that was cut to a uniform length all around. This was the coat which prime ministers and all sober folk appeared in until the end of the period. Games and cycling were the chief influences in modifying men's clothing of this period. In the late 1870's, knickers came into fashion. Men wore them with a Norfolk jacket of the same material first, but then adapted the costume to hunting, hiking and young boys. The process of standardization was helpful in promoting cheap, ready-made clothing, but the old 'occupational' garbs fell even more out of use as workmen of all kinds began to dress like shabbier clerks. This fashion would not change for nearly 50 years.

One prominent feature of Victorian society was the abundant poor. When one looks at some of the occupations of the poor, one would think they were looking at a society that lives by scavenging. For instance, one of the most easily pictured jobs, is that of the chimney sweep. Chimney sweeps would crawl up the twelve by fourteen inch chimneys, some as small as seven inches square, in order to clean out the annual average of 40 gallons of soot that was deposited there. These sweeps were small boys that were often 'encouraged' by older boys standing below holding lit straw to their feet or sticking them with pins.

Another job popular for young boys was to be a ratcatcher. They sometimes used arsenic to poison the rats, but as this could be expensive, more often they used a ferret to flush the rats out and a terrier to kill them. This was a popular job because of the pay. The going rate for de-ratting a London house ranged from two shillings to one pound.

Another job that was popular with street children was that of messenger. It was quite common for a gentleman to ask a nearby street urchin to run an errand for him. These children were faster than most normal messengers, because of the fact that they could go to all areas of a city without being intimidated. One good example of this is Sherlock Holmes' use of the Baker Street Irregulars, a small band of street urchins, to run errands for him.

Yet another occupation, though not for children, was that of a dustman. Dustmen periodically come round to haul away household dust-ashes and refuse. Once away from the house, the dustman would sift through it for accidentally discarded valuables and other salable items.

One of the worst occupations a person could have was to be a mudlark. Mudlarks were mostly small children who waded into the Thames at low tide to scrounge for bits of coal, rope, bones and copper nails, hoping they would not cut their bare feet. They were lucky if they earned threepence a day.

Another favorite occupation of both boys and men was pickpocketing. As some may remember from Dickens Oliver Twist, most boys were apprenticed into the trade. This was a trade in which one excelled or found oneself in jail. Some pickpockets were not very good, but the majority of them were very good. Most pickpockets worked in groups, sharing the proceeds (usually quite plentiful) so that if one did not do well one day, he would not have to go hungry.

The most common line of work for all in the lower classes was factory work. One of the good things that it provided were secure employment and housing. Some of the bad things were long hours, overcrowding, and low wages. The urban wages were higher and less liable to seasonal fluctuations than agricultural wages, but workers were entirely dependent on wages for food and shelter. Having limited leisure time and little opportunity for other pursuits, workers tended to spend heavily on drink, setting nothing aside for periods of illness or unemployment. This quickly reduced many to a destitution worse than they would have experienced in the countryside.

Housing for the poor was almost always overcrowded. There were reasons for this however, and good reasons at that. Any improvement in housing conditions meant increased rents, which workers could not afford. Sanitary services would reduce families income from the sale of 'night soil' to farmers. More space per family would increase the distance between home and work, lengthening the already too long working day. Thus, the only way that working class housing could make a profit was by overcrowding.

Children working in the factories almost always had it the worst. At first, there were no rules applying to children and work. Then, in 1819, Sir Robert Peel passed an act that applied only to the cotton mills, prohibiting the employment of children under nine, and imposing a maximum working day of twelve hours for children between the ages of nine and sixteen. The problem was, however, that the local authorities believed that a fourteen hour day was fine, declaring "Nothing is more favorable to morals than habits of early subordination, industry, and regulation". In 1844, as a result of the fact that workers frequently came home too exhausted to look after their children, an act which limited a child's workday to six and a half hours and the working week of women to sixty-five hours was passed. This made the population stronger, healthier, and wiser, only to, in consequence, make it poorer.

In Victorian times, you could travel one of three ways: by train, by horse, or by foot. The most common means of transportation was by far the horse, for it was used by rich and poor alike. The rich owned fancy coaches that had every accessory one could ever need for living on the road, and the poor would go about town on the cheap omnibuses that carried twenty people at a time.

The earliest carriage in the Victorian period was the hackney coach. The hackney acquired a truly shameful reputation in the early years of the 19th century, as they were used extensively by groups of drunk young men. One popular form of enjoyment of theirs was to "fan the daylights" as it was called. They would lash out at storefront windows as they drove by, leaving a trail of shattered glass behind them. A few decrepit old hackneys survived through the period, some painted a dingy yellow color, broken-down and rickety with horses that looked more like a fitting meal for the hounds than anything fit to pull a carriage.

The next cab was the Clarence, better known as the growler, so called because it made a deafening noise when it went over stone or macadam roads. The growler has the distinction that it was one of two types of cabs which survived throughout both Victorian and Edwardian times. The growler was the cab-of-all-work. It was popular with parties of sailors and soldiers home on leave looking for a cheap ride, servants moving furniture, newlyweds of working class weddings, and patients going to the hospital. Unfortunately, towards the end of their reign of the carriage world, they became rickety and unreliable, much like their predecessors, the hackney coaches.

Stagecoaches had their beginnings in the 1830s. Wealthy lords and ladies traveled to London in post-chaises or traveling chariots, the early aristocratic equivalent of the stagecoach. These were by far the greatest advancements in coachmaking yet. They were equipped with everything that a lord or lady might need while traveling in foreign parts. There were sword cases, folding sunshades, Venetian blinds, interior lamps, hat boxes, pantries, chairs, and beds. The one problem was that they had to stop every 10 to 20 miles at a posting inn to engage fresh horses and new postboys. Stagecoaches were driven from two areas. One was from the driver on the coachman's box, the other was from the postboys on the horses. These postboys were tough little men, similar in build to today's flatrace jockey. They drove not from the coachman's box, but mounted on a horses or horses as postilions. There was an iron guard strapped to the inside leg to keep it from being crushed between the horse they were riding and the pole. The reason these were mainly used by the aristocracy was the high cost. The usual charge for a pair of horses was 1 shilling and sixpence a mile and threepence to sixpence a mile for postboys. This added up quite fast. The stagecoach had it's ends in the 1850's. By this time the old stage and mail coaches were being sold off for scrap or were allowed to rot, unused in some barn or coach house in a country stables. Luckily for people today, a handful of coach-loving aristocrats preserved them as large keepsakes for us today.

Stagecoaches were followed by the two-wheeled hansom. This was the other cab which had the distinction of being used throughout both Victorian and Edwardian periods. The first hansom cab was made by a coachbuilder of that name in 1834. This first hansom looked more like a packing case suspended between two wheels than a cab. It had a slightly sloping roof and two huge wheels that were seven feet, 6 inches in diameter. The well known hansom cab that we see driving through the gaslit foggy streets of the Sherlock Holmes stories was a very different looking vehicle. This hansom, the model which lasted the whole period, was designed by John Chapman. The driver sat at the back of the cab, controlling the faraway horse by means of reins being draped over the roof. Some of the disadvantages of this design were that the only part of the horse that the cabbie could see were the horse's ears, and because it had no front, it let in rain and snow and whatever might decide to drop from the sky. The only thing that made it at all possible for the driver to see was the seat, which was often seven or eight feet off the ground. Inside, the passengers communicated with the cabbie by means of a small trap-door in the roof while reclining on a padded leather or cloth seat that had just enough room for two.

The last great horse-drawn carriage to become popular was the brougham. The brougham is usually what one pictures in one's mind when one things of a carriage. This was the most admired middle class carriage, and the first and greets single innovation of the new modern carriage age, providing a cheap substitute for the coach. They were cheaper to buy too, starting at around 120 guineas. They were even less expensive to run as they only required one horse. It was equally suitable for town or country, single person or a whole family. This particular carriage was extremely popular with doctors because it attracted patients who wanted doctors with money. Although they were the most desirable and one of the least expensive middle class carriages, few could afford to keep one; a simple brougham and one horse cost about 200 pounds per year to keep.

London cabbies were a special breed of men. They were independent, proud, quick-witted, and disputatious. Most were London-born with an inherited gift of Cockney wit and repartee. They had a wide range of general knowledge acquired through hours of newspaper reading and discussion while waiting for a fare. A small number of cabbies were owner-drivers, and usually had the smartest turnouts. The majority however, hired their horses and cabs by the day or night. Cabbies who did this had to pay up to twenty-five shillings a day in the season and up to fifteen shillings other times. With a minimum fare a shilling for two miles, many cabbies had trouble making enough money to pay the fee.

By horse was not the only way to travel in Victorian England, there were also railways and bicycles. The more popular of the two was the railway. In 1833 only 3.5 million people traveled from one city to another every year. By 1863, however, the number of railway travelers had reached an annual total of 204 million; an increase, allowing for population growth, of forty times.

By this time there had also been a great increase in freight traffic as England entered the era of the steam locomotive. However, the modern technology stopped at the rail terminal. These vast memorials of the Victorian age, engineered in iron and glass, served as a place where passengers had to and still have to step back into the age of horse and carriage.

The other means of transport, the bicycle, was developed in the 1880's. The first bicycles were the ones with a huge front wheel and tiny back wheel and were called velocipedes. However, by the 1890's bicycles had evolved to look very much like what we have today. By this time, bicycling had become popular among the middle and upper classes, and strangely enough, amongst the ladies as well.

The 19th century was not a time in which one would want to become sick. In the medical world, there were four types of doctors. The highest on the medical totem pole was the physician. In the early half of the century physicians made up a tiny handful of doctors in practice. Most were concentrated in London, where there was a greater chance of finding a patient of wealth and standing. The only jobs of a physician were merely to dispense drugs and do very simple physical exams. To become a physician, you had to have gone to the Royal College of Physicians and gone to Oxford or Cambridge.

The real eye-opener of 19th century medicine is that the licensing exam given by the Royal College of Physicians required applicants to interpret 1st and 17th century medical texts. Until 1819, the fellowship exam was entirely in Latin. To be a physician was to be a gentleman, and anything that hinted of manual labor was not gentlemanly.

The jobs that involved manual labor were given to the surgeon, the next step below the physician. These were the men who cut people open and dealt with fractures, skin diseases, venereal disease, eye problems, in short, anything for which the physician could not simply write a prescription. Another reason, besides that the job involved manual labor, that the surgeon was below the physician, was that until 1833, surgeons got the bodies they learned anatomy on from graveyards, sometimes by rather shifty means.

The lowest profession on the medical totem was the apothecary. His job was to mix prescriptions for physicians, but in areas where there were no physicians, they began to offer advice, too. This was the poor man's doctor.

As the century wore on, the boundaries between physician and surgeon began to blur, and apothecaries slowly disappeared. This casual rise of the general practitioner, or G.P. was to change the face of medicine forever. This was the doctor that you called whether you had pneumonia or a broken leg. These were some of the first doctors to carry about the famous doctor's bag, because they, unlike physicians who carried very little, or surgeons who did not make house calls but instead had their patients come to the hospital, had to carry all their instruments with them at all times. General Practitioners knew their medicines but did not mix them, that was the chemist's job, and they knew enough about surgery to get by. If a case was too serious however, such as a compound fracture, a surgeon was called in. The G.P. was an increasingly influential figure in the English medical world.

Without disease, there would be no doctors, and in the 19th century there was plenty of it. One of the more common diseases was cholera. Cholera made its first appearance at Sunderland in 1831, but until well into the 1860's it was frequently epidemic.

In 1845 it was made illegal to dump trash and waste into the streets, but this had only a marginal effect. Ill-ventilated working conditions frequently caused outbreaks of bronchitis and tuberculosis. In 1864 the Factory Act legislated against dirty, ill-ventilated factory premises, but the next year, new epidemics of typhus, smallpox and cholera raged. The inspection of all merchant seamen was made mandatory to prevent against scurvy. In 1866 the Public Health Act was passed which extended the range of local authorities empowered to compel adequate house drainage, proper water supplies, and to enforce sanitary works in any house or lodgings, not only the poorest. But with all their efforts, in 1869, large parts of Birmingham and Manchester still lacked water sewage and the London water supply was officially described as "of a quality that displays a criminal indifference to the public safety".

With all this disease in the 19th century, death and early death was no stranger to the English family. Victorians loved to weep over lingering demises and made a big production of them in every respect. The ritual began even before death. The ringing of a 'passing bell' in the parish church was the signal that the person lay on their death bed. This was pealed six times for a woman and nine times for a man (the famous 'nine tailors'). This was followed by a peal for each year of the person's life. A large funeral was usually held, with everyone in black, unless the deceased was a child or young, unmarried girl, when the color was white. Then the dead were mourned for a specifically prescribed amount of time. This mostly affected the clothes that the widowed could wear and whether they could have fun or not. Men had it easy. All the had to wear was a black arm band. Women, on the other hand, had to dress all in black. The loss of a husband or wife was mourned for two years, parents or children for one, a brother, sister, or grandparent for six months, and an aunt or uncle for three months. Queen Victoria wore mourning clothes from 1861, when her Prince Albert died, to her death in 1901, forty years later.

The Victorian period, an age which started around 1837 and ended around 1901, was a time of great development. The population represented people from all walks of life. The transportation developed then served to keep a nation moving successfully, and the medical practices, although sometimes primitive, served to change the medical world forever. The Victorian period laid the foundation for the 20th century.

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