VICTORIA TO VIKINGS
THE GEORGIAN AND VICTORIAN ERAS
The 1800s and 1900s were magical eras when Britain was undeniably the world’s most powerful nation on the planet. It was a time of great reforms: technology, engineering, entertainment, medicine, sport and above all, sanitation. Britain was in a state of industrial euphoria and her people were absolutely besotted with mechanical gadgets.
It was also a time of a different sort of brilliance. Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Bronte and her sisters virtually blossomed in this atmosphere, as did the theatre, and Britain saw a series of fourteen comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan being performed. People were enjoying the sound of a brass band while strolling through parklands and they were being entertained by one of the many travelling circuses dominating the kingdom. Gentlemen were visiting dining clubs and the gambling establishments, called casinos, and they were becoming wildly popular.
To get a better idea of Victorian times, let’s take a walk around London. Imagine an overcast day with the promise of rain to come but you’ve decided to brave the elements anyway. Water puddles in dark alleys and the drains have overflowed from the previous night’s downpour and the filthy water is coursing down the middle of the cobbled streets. People are bundled up warmly as they hurry along in their scruffy hats and cloaks, scurrying either to work or their homes before the inclement weather arrives. Huddled under dripping eaves away from the fluttering pigeons who trickle white streaks on everything below, you would perhaps glance at the line of hideous slums stretched out ahead of you where you know thirty or more people of all ages inhabit a single room. A sedan chair rattles past, carelessly splashing water on your already threadbare clothes and the bearer curses loudly at you as he roughly pushes you aside.
There are any number of places they could be going. These days, locomotives hurtle people across the country from London to Birmingham at an astounding thirty miles per hour. By 1845, two thousand miles of railway lines had been laid and 30 million passengers are being carried around the country every year, so the wealthy could be heading for a train that will take them to the seaside. Or if business is booming, people with cash were also heading to America by steamship, only taking twenty-two days to cross the Atlantic since three major shipping lines had popped up and trade routes to India, South Africa and Australia had been established. Essentials and raw materials such as corn and cotton were arriving daily from the United States along with meat and wool from Australia.
Most days a heavy blanket of smoke hangs over the city and the pollution gets in your eyes. The stonework of every building is blackened by it. You wrinkle your nose as a breeze brings the smell of noxious fumes from parts of the city where tanning is taking place and you know that the smell will only intensify as the day progresses unless the sky opens up and washes way the smog, the tanning stench and the smell of aromatic horse dung lying in piles in the street.
But there’s a reason you’re out and about today. Very soon the streets will fill, not just by permanent residents who contribute to the overcrowding feeling, but by thousands of people who are also on their way to town. You see, today is a special day. Today is one of the eight hanging days a year and you would not want to miss this social occasion. On these public holidays, the condemned are driven through the streets from Newgate prison in a wagon, taking pause for alcoholic refreshment along the way, and you would have already pushed your way to the front to get a closer view. Many arrive at Tyburn mercifully drunk, but for even the most hardened of criminals the clamour and crush would have been overwhelming.
As you watch the criminals’ progress along the crowded street, you remember stories your mother told you. These stories were not Gilbert and Sullivan tales where the punishment fits the crime. Those criminals were beheaded, limbs were cut off and thieves were chained up and whipped. Others were forced to carry hot stones or wear bridles over their tongues – a favored method for troublesome wives - and of course, witches were burnt and poisoners were boiled alive. As for murderers, they risked being hung up in a cage, usually after execution, occasionally before, so people could watch them die slowly. Like today, it was a holiday for the ordinary people who could bring their lunch and have something to tell the neighbours that night.
As usual, today’s hanging will not be the final moment in the program. You would be looking forward to the scuffle afterwards between the various surgeons who vie for the smorgasbord of limbs for research after the Hangman takes the criminal’s clothes as a perk. You make a silent wish that a crone or two climbs up the gibbet as well in quest of a gruesome but prized token – a hand from one of the victims. This ‘Hand of Glory’ gives the owner a certain amount of power and is always up for grabs (excuse the pun).
It is so crowded, smelly and noisy you will barely be able to hear yourself think.
The turn of the 18th century was a great period of urbanization when the poor of England flocked to London in search of streets paved with gold only to find that the streets were paved with mud and there was no work to be had. London’s population was around 600,000 and it was a grand, anonymous city. There were none of the social constraints of a village where everybody knew everybody’s business. And there were none of the financial safeguards either with a parish that would support its native poor or family and friends who might have looked after you at home. Instead, there was gin.
Alcoholic spirits were a pretty new commodity in 1800 society, though they had actually been around for a long time. They started as a chemical curiosity in about the 10th century and by the 1500s they were being consumed by the very rich for pleasure. Then in about 1700, they hit in a major way. The reasons are complicated and involve taxation of grain and the relation with the Dutch, but the important thing is that gin suddenly became widely available to Londoners.
It’s very hard to say which was bigger – the craze for drinking gin that swept the lower classes or the moral panic at the sight of so many gin drinkers wandering the city drinking away their sorrows. Often their clothes were readily exchanged for the spirit. In any case, the government decided to tax the living daylights out of it. Understandably, people simply couldn’t pay the tax, so enterprising men set themselves up as unlicensed gin-sellers. When the government heard about it, they decided to pay informants to hand in these unlicensed entrepreneurs. The attempt turned ugly as a number of mobs formed to attack even suspected informants, and several people were beaten to death. Not that the informants were necessarily nice. They could, and some did, run the whole things as a protection racket. But in any case, if you were well off, you kept well clear of it all and left it to your staff to procure it for you while you went about your business or holiday pursuits.
The Victorian era was a time of unparalleled growth where the population rose from 13.9 million in 1831 to 32.5 million in 1901 despite 15 million emigrants leaving the United Kingdom to settle in United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, looking to start a new and better life away from the poverty and starvation of home. But while the population in England and Wales had almost doubled from 16.8 million to 30.5 million and Scotland saw a rise from 2.8 million to 4.4 million, Ireland’s decreased rapidly to 4.5 million, less than half, mostly due to the Great Famine. This ticking time bomb had far-reaching consequences. The Irish blamed the British government for the famine since Britain was the only ones benefiting from any new policies while Ireland continued to suffer.
You could probably put the population increase down to the new sanitation reforms where thousands of miles of street sewers were built to try and clean up the dirty, overflowing gutters full of human feaces and waste. You didn’t have to nimbly sidestep slops being thrown out the windows anymore. Soap was also fast becoming a main product in the relatively new phenomenon of advertising. With the new sewage works in full swing, the quality of drinking water improved as well and in this healthier environment, diseases were less frequent and did not spread as easily as they once had. It was the first century when a major epidemic did not occur although a cholera outbreak did take place in London in 1848, killing 10,000 people. If you were a woman, it meant you were more likely to survive your childhood as nutrition standards increased, leaving you able to produce more children. Greater prosperity allowed people to finance a marriage, which in turn meant the birth rate increased.
An increase in prosperity meant longer working hours and lighting the streets for demanding businesses became imperative if you wanted to keep the lower class from waylaying you on your way home from work. Gas lighting became widespread in industry, homes and the streets and ensured your survival for another working day.
On weekends, you could watch your favourite sport. Cricket, croquet, roller-skating and horseback riding were becoming very popular and the modern game of tennis at Wimbledon was being played for the first time in London in 1877. You could even get swept up by football mania with the beginning of FA Cup fever.
If you were well-off and needed an operation, chloroform was now available and the use of anesthetic meant you did not have to be physically tied down to have a tooth removed anymore. More and more people were having teeth pulled and replaced with real human teeth set into hand-carved chunks of ivory from hippopotamus or walrus jaws. If you were one of the lucky ones, you could also obtain teeth from executed criminals, victims of battlefields or from grave robbers.
But with the increase of population came large numbers of skilled and unskilled people looking for work. This population increase kept wages down to a barely subsistence level. Housing was scarce and very expensive, resulting in overcrowding. Wealthy homeowners began turning their large houses into flats and tenements but landlords failed to maintain these dwellings resulting in slum housing. In this appalling environment, almost one child in five was dead by the age of five. Polluted water and damp housing were the main causes but tuberculosis remained unconquered, claiming between 60,000 and 70,000 lives. It’s easy to see how diseases of all sorts popped up.
Smallpox was one of London’s biggest killers and even those who were lucky enough to recover were often badly pock-marked, with patches of hair and eyelashes missing, and could also leave skin thickened as if by burns. Yet, domestic servants who had visible smallpox scars were often preferred to those with unmarked skin as this was proof that they wouldn’t be bringing the disease into their new household. Early inoculation was introduced from Turkey by smallpox survivor Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1720 before Edward Jenner introduced mass vaccination in 1796, using a less dangerous strain of cowpox.
Britain had not always enjoyed a rabies-free status and there were several outbreaks in London during the 1750s. Dogs were commonly used to protect property and also for fighting, so snapping, snarling canines were not an unusual sight on London’s streets. But between 1752 and 1759 Londoners were always on the alert for dogs (and people) with running eyes and salivating mouths. Rabies also affected London’s pigs, many of which were kept in backyards. The law stated that instant destruction of a rabid pig was necessary – a huge blow for a devoted pet owner or a poor family reliant on a single pig a year.
Syphilis had become easily curable by penicillin in Victorian times and Britain had lost the fear of it that our Georgian ancestors endured. Besides abstinence, sheep-gut condoms were the only form of protection against the disease although abstinence was still more reliable. However, the confusion of syphilis with less serious infections, coupled with the fear of syphilis’ deformities and madness, meant it played a more prominent role in the public imagination than the rate of other infections merited.
Throughout the 18th century it was widely believed that one woman in five was involved in London’s sex trade. London was an expanding place filled with merchants, property speculators and traders of all rank and description. Many of these people made their fortunes off the back of investment in the sex trade, a sector that was growing as rapidly as the urban population was increasing. The demand for entertainment and pleasure saw the creation of numerous brothels and taverns, while many of the newly built neighborhoods, such as Marylebone and Bloomsbury, found their spacious townhouses filling with those who made livings as prostitutes, pimps and bawds (the women in charge of brothels).
If you were a girl and you couldn’t find work as a servant, prostitution was for you and many girls between the ages of 14 and 22 had no other choice. A census in 1851 showed that the population of Great Britain was roughly 18 million and roughly 750,000 women would remain unmarried simply because there were not enough men. It was a time when men like Dickens portrayed prostitutes as commodities used and then thrown away. It was a time of venereal disease and it was the time of Jack the Ripper who stalked the streets of Whitechapel searching for prostitutes he could violently murder and disembowel.
There were exceptional profits to be made on the flesh market. Highly paid courtesans such as Lavinia Fenton, Kitty Fisher and Mrs Abington abounded, as well as ‘bawds’ such as Charlotte Hayes who was allegedly worth £20,000 at the time of her ‘retirement’ and Moll King, who went on to become a property owner in Hampstead.
But if the sex trade was out of the question for you, you had to scrimp to make ends meet. With work hard to find, children were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for extremely low wages. Young boys were employed as chimney sweeps and small children were used to scramble under machinery to retrieve cotton bobbins. They also had their use in coalmines, crawling through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. Children as young as four were put to work in the mines and generally died before the age of twenty-five after working sixteen-hour days for most of their lives. They could also sell flowers, matches, and work as shoe shiners and apprentices to respectable traders. Working hours were long: sixty-four hours a week in summer and fifty-two in winter while domestic servants worked eighty hours a week no matter what time of year.
Many could not afford to have children at school so most could not read or write unless the parents taught them in their spare time, if any was available. A breakfast of porridge was at five in the morning and most parents could only spare a slice of cake for the child to eat during the day, although no rest time was allotted. It was only in 1833 that a Royal Commission recommended that children aged between 11 and 18 should only work a maximum of twelve hours a day and children aged between 9 and 11, a maximum of eight hours. This act, however, only applied to the textile trade, not mining.
If you were a young male and unemployed, it was certainly not in your best interest to hang around London’s docks. But if you needed work, your choices were limited so ‘press-ganging’ seemed your best option. Being ‘pressed’ into service could work out pretty well if you took to life on the waves, but it was a poor start to a naval career. However, as the poorest Londoners still sold themselves as indentured servants, the view was that press-ganging was a way of neatening up the streets and filling a gap in the labour market.
Despite all of this, Britain was feeling pretty confident compared to the state of other countries in Europe. As he’d promised, William IV had stubbornly hung on to life until his niece, Victoria, turned 18 years old on 24th May 1837 but then had promptly waved his white flag at 71 years of age and left her to it, with only one scant month up his sleeve. On that day, an emotional, obstinate, straight-talking, and rather spoilt, young woman became the Queen of United Kingdom.
Despite the shaky beginning, Victoria learned on the job and in the end, she triumphed. An entire era in human history has taken its name from her. That, among many other things, is what she accomplished.
I wonder if she had any idea of the legacy she would leave the world as she first sat on the throne beneath the soaring arches of Westminster Abbey under the gaze of thousands of people. It seemed most of London had thronged the streets well before sunrise on her coronation day hoping to catch a glimpse of their new queen, just eighteen years old and less than five feet tall.
As the tiny teenager sat on the throne, her feet not even touching the floor, she would have looked around her and seen the immense abbey filled with aristocrats, their clothing heavy with diamonds. She would have noticed the gold drapes and the exotic carpets and her neck would have been aching under the heavy crown perched on her head.
The day of her coronation did not go off without incident. Her archbishop jumbled his lines, one of her lords tumbled down the steps when he approached to kiss her hand and she would have noticed her prime minister, half-stoned on opium and drunk on brandy, watching the ceremony in a fog. The ruby coronation ring had even been jammed on the wrong finger and her hand would have been throbbing. Later on, the ring would have to be removed with ice.
Around her she would have noticed her many advisors and none of them would have appeared confident that she could rule a nation as strong and powerful as England. But her composure was impeccable nonetheless. Her voice steady and controlled, and if the thought of becoming a queen terrified her, she gave no sign of it. She never once let on that she was aware of the enormity of the task of becoming Queen at a time when her family had been incredibly unpopular for decades and Britain was still very far from being a democracy.