Victorian SocietyFor family historians finding out the genealogical data is only part of the challenge. The real joy of learning about the history of your ancestors is in breathing life into their lives. Who were they living with? Where did they grow up? What was life really like? On this page we explore a few key elements of life in Victorian Britain.
Prior to 1870 there was no compulsory education in Britain and the standard of education was influenced largely by the wealth of a person’s background. During that period, the rich (who might be found wearing their dinner suits in plush casino hotels) would get a much better education than ordinary citizens. Roughly two-thirds of Britain’s working class children attended Sunday school which provided a basic foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as instructing children on religious morals. In 1870 the Education Act was introduced and the census’s confidentiality was broken when the government used the information to identify those who weren’t sending their children to school.
Income and The Classes
A quarter of the entire population of Victorian Britain was living in poverty. 40% of the country’s wealth was owned by 5% of the population.
During the Victorian era, the middle-class was growing and those who were better off could increasingly have at least one servant. This developing group included everyone from industrialists and bankers earning over £1,000 a year, to shop-keepers and clerks who would earn less than £50 a year.
The upper-middle classes were largely made up of financiers and merchants (mostly in the capital), whilst the lower-middle class comprised of small manufacturers, shopkeepers, clerks, teachers and managerial officials.
Middle-class occupations accounted for roughly 7% of the population in the period 1850-70. In 1851 around 1-2% of the population had an income of over £150 a year. This figure of £150 was roughly the annual cost of living for a senior clerk in the middle of the 19th century, including £25 on rent, £5 on taxes, £50 on food, and £30 on clothing and the cleaning thereof.
Income and class were not directly related and it was possible to have a middle-class clerk earning less than a working-class cotton spinner. The clerk’s social elevation was in his manners, his dress and his background, not in his wealth.
Common labourers would earn about 3s 9d a week, and those with any particular skill, such as brick-layers, could hope to receive double that.
Employment and Wages
Agricultural labour was the most common occupation in 1860, followed by domestic service.
Servants accounted for 4% of the entire population – about 1.2 million people. It was preferable for servants to enter employment a good distance from home, because employers feared gossipers with local friends, they did not want trouble from ladies’ suitors, and it prevented any easy opportunity for them to run home if working conditions weren’t always favourable.
Girls entered service at an extremely young age, sometimes as young as eight years old and in 1871 almost 20% of the “nurses” on the census were younger than 15 years old. Slightly more wealthy families tended to avoid servant girls from the workhouse or orphanage due to their ignorance of basic household matters.
Servants were expected to be still and quiet, and not speak unless spoken to, or offer an opinion. They were required to always make room when passing on the stairs, to walk beind a lady or gentleman, and they must never receive relatives or friends without consent.
Servant wages were very low, but they had food, clothes and lodging all provided for. With age came experience and value, and whilst the lowest-earners were on about £10 a year in the 1890s, those over the age of 20 could expect to earn £16 a year and at the age of 25-30 the average wage was £20. A Lady’s Maid was of higher skill than most, aged between 30-35 and reported to the mistress rather than the Housekeeper. The Cook or Housekeeper tended to be around 40 on average and earning upwards of £35, with some on as much as £52 a year.
Servants through the 19th century graduated from sleeping in kitchens or under the stairs to being allowed their own attic rooms. Their lives were very isolated and one full week’s holiday a year was not allowed until the 1890s. They were not allowed relationships either but many would sneak time to themselves, particularly in larger households, allowing themselves to fraternise and play games with each other.
Housing and Rent
The Victorian population was in constant motion. About half of all urban residents died or relocated to a different town during any ten year gap between censuses. Most housing was rented, with fewer than one in ten people owning their own home. For the working classes it was only possible to own a home if the area was prosperous and income was stable, and repayments towards ownership would be approximately 10s per month.
As the middle-classes became more wealthy, they moved out to the suburbs, freeing up dwellings which were reused by the lower class but in denser numbers. Purpose-built working-class housing was springing up in the heart of cities, further widening the rich-poor divide.
By the 1850s a new terraced house with four rooms, privy and running water would cost 5-7s per week, which exceeded most impoverished families’ income, forcing them into lodgings or slums. When examining the censuses it is a common occurrence to see a family member as a “lodger” or “boarder” (the latter meaning they also shared meals with the family). To rent a single room in a place such as Liverpool would cost 1s 6d a week, which was expensive for somewhere which was likely to be dark, dirty and have many others in the same building.
- The rent on a top-of-the-market house would cost £10 per year.
- A two-up, two-down with privies would cost £8 (and without was £6 or £7)
- A one-up, one-down back-to-back would be £2-4 a year.
- A bed in a common lodging house would be about £1 10s per year.
The population of England in 1851 was 16.8 million but by the end of the century it had nearly doubled. Whilst child mortality did not improve much during the Victorian era, adult mortality did. The life expectancy had been around 40 years and in 1871 the average woman was having 5.5 children.
Sadly, three out of every ten babies died before their first birthday, hence the large number of fleeting appearances of hitherto unheard offspring on the censuses.
Whilst it is commonly said that Christmas is a Victorian invention, the fact is that the December celebration was already dying out by the 1830s because of factory work and other restrictions. It was the popularisation of A Christmas Carol by Dickens and the Christmas card in the 1840s which brought about a revival which has never since left the British nation. The time of year became a time of charity and good-will and the modern idea of Christmas began.