LIFE IN BRITAIN IN THE 19TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
Society in the 19th Century
During the 19th century life was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. At first it caused many problems but in the late 19th century life became more comfortable for ordinary people. Meanwhile Britain became the world's first urban society. By 1851 more than half the population lived in towns.
The population of Britain boomed during the 19th century. In 1801 it was about 9 million. By 1901 it had risen to about 41 million.
This was despite the fact that many people emigrated to North America and Australia to escape poverty. About 15 million people left Britain between 1815 and 1914.
However many people migrated to Britain in the 19th century. In the 1840s many people came from Ireland, fleeing a terrible potato famine. In the 1880s the Tsar began persecuting Russian Jews. Some fled to Britain and settled in the East End of London.
In the early 19th century Britain was ruled by an elite. Only a small minority of men (and no women) were allowed to vote. The situation began to change in 1832 when the vote was given to more men. Constituencies were also redrawn and many industrial towns were represented for the first time. The franchise was extended again in 1867 and 1884. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced.
However in the 19th century at least 80% of the population was working class. In order to be considered middle class you had to have at least one servant. Most servants were female. (Male servants were more expensive because men were paid higher wages). Throughout the 19th century 'service' was a major employer of women.
In the 19th century families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.
A history of The Family
In the early 19th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were active in politics. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They gained their name because so many of them lived in Clapham.
Organised religion was much more important in the 19th century than it is today. Nevertheless in 1851 a survey showed that only about 40% of the population were at church or chapel on a given Sunday. Even allowing for those who were ill or could not make it for some other reason it meant that half the population did not go to church. Certainly many of the poor had little or no contact with the church. In 1881 a similar survey showed only about 1/3 of the population at church on a given Sunday. In the late 19th century organised religion was in decline in Britain.
A history of Christianity in England
Women in the 19th Century
Women gradually gained more rights during the 19th century. In 1865 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) became the first British woman doctor. Elizabeth also became the first woman in Britain to become mayor of a town (Aldeburgh) in 1908. The first woman in Britain to qualify as a dentist was Lilian Lindsay in 1895. The first woman to qualify as an architect in Britain was Ethel Charles in 1898.
In 1869 John Stuart Mill published his book The Subjection of Women, which demanded equal rights for women.
At Oxford University from 1884 onward women were allowed to attend lectures and take university exams for the first time (although they were not actually awarded degrees till 1920). Halls were built for female students (later they became colleges). Elizabeth Wordsworth founded Lady Margaret Hall for women in 1878. Somerville College for women was founded in 1879. St Hilda’s College was founded in 1893 by Dorothea Beale.
A history of women's rights
Work in the 19th Century
During the 19th century the factory system gradually replaced the system of people working in their own homes or in small workshops. In England the textile industry was the first to be transformed. The changes caused a great deal of suffering to poor people.
The Industrial Revolution created a huge demand for female and child labour. Children had always done some work but at least before the 19th century they worked in their own homes with their parents or on land nearby. Children's work was largely seasonal so they usually did have some time to play. When children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day.
In the early 19th century parliament passed laws to curtail child labour. However they all proved to be unenforceable. The first effective law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours education a day.
Conditions in coalmines were often terrible. Children as young as 5 worked underground. In 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working. Then in 1847 a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories.
In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process).
In the 19th century boys were made to climb up chimneys to clean them. This barbaric practice was ended by law in 1875.
In the 1850s and 1860s skilled craftsmen formed national trade unions. In 1868 a group of them formed the TUC. However unskilled workers did not become organised until the late 1880s.
A history of work
British Cities in the 19th Century
Living conditions in early 19th British century cities were often dreadful. However there was one improvement. Gaslight was first used in 1807 in Pall Mall in London. Many cities introduced gas street light in the 1820s.
However early 19th century cities were dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded.
In the 18th century groups of men called Improvement Commissioners or Pavement Commissioners were formed. They had powers to pave, clean and sometimes to light streets (with oil lamps). However at that time England was divided into areas called parishes. Commissioners only had powers in certain parishes. As towns grew new houses were built in other parishes nearby. Unfortunately the commissioners had no authority in the new suburbs.
In them streets were very often unpaved and they were not cleaned. Rubbish was not collected and it was allowed to accumulate in piles in the streets. Since most of it was organic when it turned black and sticky it was used as fertiliser.
Furthermore in the early 19th century poor people often had cesspits, which were not emptied very often. Later in the century many people used earth closets. (A pail with a box containing granulated over it. When you pulled a lever clay covered the contents of the pail). In the early 19th century only wealthy people had flushing lavatories. However in the late 19th century they became common.
A history of toilets
In the early 19th century poor families often had to share toilets and on Sunday mornings queues formed.
Given these horrid conditions it is not surprising that disease was common. Life expectancy in cities was low (significantly lower than in the countryside) and infant mortality was very high. British cities suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1831-32 and in 1848-49. Fortunately the last outbreak finally spurred people into action.
In the late 19th century most cities dug sewers and created piped water supplies, which made society much healthier. Meanwhile in 1842 Joseph Whitworth invented the mechanical street sweeper.
Poverty in 19th Century Britain
We know more about poverty in the 19th century than in previous ages because, for the first time, people did accurate surveys and they made detailed descriptions of the lives of the poor. We also have photographs and they tell a harrowing story.
At the end of the 19th century more than 25% of the population was living at or below subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even basic necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness).
If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse. The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. However during the late 19th century workhouses gradually became more humane.
The history of poverty
Homes in the 19th Century
Well off people lived in very comfortable houses in the 19th century. (Although their servants lived in cramped quarters, often in the attic). For the first time furniture was mass-produced. That meant it was cheaper but unfortunately standards of design fell. To us middle class 19th century homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments and nick-knacks. However only a small minority could afford this comfortable lifestyle.
In the early 19th century housing for the poor was often dreadful. Often they lived in 'back-to-backs'. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one of top of the other. The houses were literally back-to-back. The back of one house joined onto the back of another and they only had windows on one side.
The bottom room was used as a living room cum kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms. The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds.
However housing conditions gradually improved. In the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back to backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced over the following decades.
In the early 19th century skilled workers usually lived in 'through houses' i.e. ones that were not joined to the backs of other houses. Usually they had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of the their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room. As the 19th century passed more and more working class people could afford this lifestyle.
Meanwhile the carpet sweeper was invented in 1876 by Melville Bissell.
In the late 19th century workers houses greatly improved. After 1875 most towns passed building regulations which stated that e.g. new houses must be a certain distance apart, rooms must be of a certain size and have windows of a certain size.
By the 1880s most working class people lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms. Most had a small garden.
At the end of the 19th century some houses for skilled workers were built with the latest luxury - an indoor toilet.
In the late 19th century most homes also had a scullery. In it was a 'copper', a metal container for washing clothes. The copper was filled with water and soap powder was added. To wash the clothes they were turned with a wooden tool called a dolly. Or you used a metal plunger with holes in it to push clothes up and down. Wet clothes were wrung through a device called a wringer of mangle to dry them. The clothes wringer or mangle was invented by Robert Tasker in 1850. In 1875 a man named John B. Porter invented a portable ironing board. Sarah Boone patented an improved device in 1892.
At the beginning of the 19th century people cooked over an open fire. This was very wasteful as most of the heat went up the chimney. In the 1820s an iron cooker called a range was introduced. It was a much more efficient way of cooking because most of the heat was contained within. By the mid-19th century ranges were common. Most of them had a boiler behind the coal fire where water was heated.
However even at the end of the 19th century there were still many families living in one room. Old houses were sometimes divided up into separate dwellings. Sometimes if windows were broken slum landlords could not or would not replace them. So they were 'repaired' with paper. Or rags were stuffed into holes in the glass.
Gaslight first became common in well off people's homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s most working class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s.
Joseph Swan invented the electric light bulb in 1878. (Thomas Edison invented an improved version in 1879). In the last 2 decades of the 19th century many British towns and cities installed electric street lights. However electric light was expensive and it took a long time to replace gas in people's homes.
In the early 19th century only rich people had bathrooms. People did take baths but only a few people had actual rooms for washing. In the 1870s and 1880s many middle class people had bathrooms built. The water was heated by gas. Working class people had a tin bath and washed in front of the kitchen range.
A history of washing
In the 1890s, for the well to do, a new style or art and decoration appeared called Art Nouveau. It involved swirling and flowing lines and stylised plant forms.
A history of homes
Food in the 19th Century
In the early 19th century most of the working class lived on plain food bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher's meat was a luxury. However food greatly improved in the late 19th century. Railways and steamships made it possible to import cheap grain from North America so bread became cheaper. Refrigeration made it possible to import cheap meat from Argentina and Australia. Consumption of sugar also increased. By the end of the 19th century most people were eating better food.
In the late 19th century canned food first became widely available. The rotary can opener was invented in 1870 by William Lyman. Furthermore in the 1870s margarine, a cheap substitute for butter, was invented.
Several new biscuits were invented in the 19th century including the Garibaldi (1861), the cream cracker (1885) and the Digestive (1892). The first chocolate bar was made in 1847. Milk chocolate was invented in 1875.
A history of food
Education in 19th Century Britain
In the early 19th century the churches provided schools for poor children. From 1833 the government provided them with grants. There were also dame schools. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing and arithmetic. However many dame schools were really a child minding service.
The state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children. If there were not enough places in existing schools then board schools were built. In 1880 school was made compulsory for 5 to 10 year olds. However school was not free, except for the poorest children until 1891 when fees were abolished. From 1899 children were required to go to school until they were 12.
Girls from upper class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eaton.
Middle class boys went to grammar schools. Middle class girls went to private schools were they were taught 'accomplishments' such as music and sewing.
Games and leisure in the 19th Century
In the early 19th century working people had very little leisure time. However things improved by the end of the century. In 1871 the Bank Holiday Act gave workers a few paid holidays each year. Also in the 1870s some clerks and skilled workers began to have a weeks paid annual holiday. However even at the end of the 19th century most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays.
In the early 19th century everyone had Sunday off. In the 1870s some skilled workers began to have Saturday afternoon off. In the 1890s most workers gained a half day holiday on Saturday and the weekend was born. By the end of the 19th century most people had more leisure time.
Meanwhile during the 19th century sports became organised. The first written rules for rugby were drawn up in 1845. The London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international match was held between England and Scotland in 1872. In 1867 John Graham Chambers drew up a list of rules for boxing. They were called the Queensberry Rules after the Marquis of Queensberry. The Amateur Athletics Association was founded in 1880.
Polo was first played in Britain in 1869.
Several new sports and games were invented during the 19th century. Although a form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Snooker was invented in India in 1875. Volleyball was invented in 1895.
At the end of the 19th century bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle was invented in 1885 and in 1892 John Boyd Dunlop invented pneumatic tyres (much more comfortable than solid rubber ones!) Bicycling clubs became common.
Ludo was originally an Indian game. It was introduced into Britain c. 1880.
Reading was also popular in the 19th century. In 1841 Edgar Allen Poe published the first detective story The Murders In The Rue Morgue. The first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Many middle class people enjoyed musical evenings when they gathered around a piano and sang.
Middle class people were very fond of the theatre. In the late 19th century there were also music halls where a variety of acts were performed.
In the 19th century going to the seaside was very popular with those who could afford it. The first pleasure pier was built at Brighton in 1823 and soon they appeared at seaside resorts across Britain.
The steam driven printing press was invented in 1814 allowing newspapers to become more common. Stamp duty on newspapers was abolished in 1855, which made them cheaper. However newspapers did not become really common until the end of the 19th century. In 1896 the Daily Mail appeared. It was written in a deliberately sensational style to attract readers with little education.
One new hobby in the 19th century was photography. Henry Fox Talbot took the first photograph in 1835. However photography was more than just a pastime. In 1871 a writer said that one of the great comforts for the working class was having a photo of a family member who was working a long way off. They could be reminded what their loved one looked like.
The first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterwards photography became a popular hobby.
In the late 19th century town councils laid out public parks for recreation. The first children's playground was built in a park in Manchester in 1859.
The history of sport
In the 19th century the 'modern' Christmas evolved. Before then Christmas wasn't especially important. It was one of only many festivals celebrated during the year. However the Victorians invented the Christmas card and the Christmas cracker. The Christmas tree was known in England before the 19th century but it was really made popular when the royal were shown in a magazine illustration with one. Father Christmas or Santa Claus became the figure we know today in the 19th century.
Transport and Communications in the 19th Century
These greatly improved during the 19th century. In the mid 19th century travel was revolutionised by railways. They made travel much faster. (They also removed the danger of highwaymen). The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825. However the first major railway was from Liverpool to Manchester. It opened in 1830. In the 1840s there was a huge boom in building railways and most towns in Britain were connected. In the late 19th century many branch lines were built connecting many villages.
The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. Steam locomotives pulled the carriages. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890.
From 1829 horse drawn omnibuses began running in London. They soon followed in other towns. In the 1860s and 1870s horse drawn trams began running in many towns.
Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made the first cars in 1885 and 1886. The motorbike was patented in 1885. Also in the 1880s the safety bicycle was invented and cycling soon became a popular hobby.
Meanwhile at sea travel was revolutionised by the steam ship. By 1815 steamships were crossing the English Channel. Furthermore it used to take several weeks to cross the Atlantic. Then in 1838 a steam ship called the Sirius made the journey in 19 days. However steam did not completely replace sail until 1897 when Charles Parsons invented the steam turbine.
Meanwhile a man named Lionel Lukin invented life boat in Britain in 1785. By the mid 19th century life boats were commonly carried on ships.
In the early 19th century the recipient of a letter had to pay the postage, not the sender. Then in 1840 Rowland Hill invented the Penny Post. From then on the sender of a letter paid. Cheap mail made it much easier for people to keep in touch with loved ones who lived a long way off.
The telegraph was invented in 1837. A cable was laid across the Channel in 1850 and after 1866 it was possible to send messages across the Atlantic.
A Scot, Alexander Graham Bell, invented the telephone in 1876. The first telephone exchange in Britain opened in 1879.
The history of transport
Clothes in the 19th Century
In the 19th century, apart from cotton shirts, men's clothes consisted of three parts. In the 18th century they wore knee length breeches but in the 19th century men wore trousers. They also wore waistcoats and coats.
In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In the late 1860s women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s.
From the 1840s onwards it was fashionable for women to have very small waists so they wore corsets.
About 1800 women started wearing knickers. At first they were called drawers. Originally women wore a pair of drawers i.e. they were actually two garments, one for each leg, tied together at the top. In the late 19th century women's drawers were called knickerbockers then just knickers.
In the 19th century people of all classes wore hats. Wealthy men wore top hats. Middle class men wore bowler hats and working men wore cloth caps.
Before the 19th century children were always dressed like little adults. In that century the first clothes made especially for children appeared such as sailor suits.
A number of inventions to do with clothing were made in the 19th century. The safety pin was invented in 1849. The electric iron was invented by Henry Seely in 1882 but it did not become common until the 1930s. Dry cleaning was invented in 1855. The zip fastener was invented in 1893.
In 1863 Butterick made the first paper dress pattern.
The history of clothes
Health and Medicine in the 19th century
Medicine and surgery made great advances in the 19th century. Louis Pasteur 1822-1895 proved that disease was caused by microscopic organisms. He also invented a way of sterilising liquids by heating them (called pasteurisation). He also invented vaccination for anthrax (which killed many domestic animals) and for rabies.
Immunization against diphtheria was invented in 1890. A vaccine for typhoid was invented in 1897.
Surgery was greatly improved by the discovery of anesthetics. James Simpson began using chloroform for operations in 1847. In 1865 Joseph Lister discovered antiseptic surgery, which enabled surgeons to perform many more complicated operations. Rubber gloves were first used in surgery in 1890. Then in 1895 x-rays were discovered.
Nursing was greatly improved by two nurses, Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 and Mary Seacole 1805-1881 who both nursed soldiers during the Crimean War 1854-56.
However the terrible disease tuberculosis (also called consumption) was very common in the 19th century. Fortunately tuberculosis declined after 1850.
The history of Surgery
Warfare in the 19th century
The industrial revolution transformed warfare. Railways meant armies could be transported much faster than before. The telegraph meant that messages could also be transmitted much faster.
At the beginning of the 19th century Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) developed the Congreve rocket. These rockets were used at Copenhagen in 1807 and they set most of the town on fire. However rockets lacked both range and accuracy and after the Napoleonic Wars they fell from favour.
Meanwhile in 1807 a Scot named Alexander Forsyth patented the percussion cap. When a trigger was pulled a hammer hit a container of fulminate of mercury, which exploded and ignited the charge of gunpowder. The percussion cap replaced the flint lock.
Breech loading guns greatly increased the rate of fire. The British army began using breech loading guns in 1865. The range of guns was improved by rifling. Some guns had been rifled for centuries but it only became commonplace in the 19th century. In the late 19th century rifles were improved further by the introduction of magazines, which greatly increased the rate of fire.
Meanwhile in 1836 Samuel Colt began making revolvers. Traditionally the cavalry fought with pistols and swords but the revolver made swords obsolete.
In the 19th century many people experimented with machine guns. In 1862 Richard Gatling invented the Gatling gun. However the first really successful machine gun was the maxim gun, invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884. It was adopted by the British army in 1889.
War at sea was changed by exploding shells, by steam engines and by iron ships. In 1858 the French launched La Gloire. It was made with plates of iron fixed onto timber. However in 1860 Britain launched HMS warrior. This ship was made with an iron hull instead of a wooden hull with iron plates fixed on. Soon the traditional gun deck on warships was replaced by turret guns on the top deck. Then in the 1860s Robert Whitehead developed the modern torpedo. The British navy began making torpedoes in 1871.
In the 19th century new explosives were invented to replace gunpowder. TNT was invented in 1863 and dynamite followed in 1867. Cordite was invented in 1889.
Meanwhile conditions in the services greatly improved. Uniforms were introduced for sailors in 1857. Flogging in the army and navy was abolished in 1881.
Life in 19th Century America
Everyday life in Britain in the 18th Century
Everyday life in Britain in the 20th Century
Women in the 19th century
Everyday life in England in the 17th Century
Last revised 2014