Victorians: Daily Life

Although the Victorian era was a period of extreme social inequality, industrialisation brought about rapid changes in everyday life that affected all classes. Family life, epitomised by the young Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children, was enthusiastically idealised.

The billiard room at Down House, Kent, the home of Charles Darwin

The billiard room at Down House, Kent, the home of Charles Darwin

MIDDLE CLASSES

The tremendous expansion of the middle classes, in both numbers and wealth, created a huge demand for goods and services. The pound was strong and labour was cheap.

Keen to display their affluence, and with the leisure to enjoy it, the newly rich required a never-ending supply of novelties from the country’s factories and workshops: new colours for ladies’ clothes (such as mauve), new toys for their children, fine cutlery from Sheffield, silverware from factories like JW Evans in Birmingham, dinner and tea services from the Staffordshire Potteries, and plate glass from Liverpool.

What in the 18th century would have been available only to aristocrats was now on show in every smart middle-class home.

The middle classes needed servants too, and in 1900 almost a third of British women aged between 15 and 20 were in service. Domestic servants represented the largest class of workers in the country, and country houses like Audley End, Essex, had large service wings to accommodate them.

One of the maids’ bedrooms at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. Domestic service was one of the largest employers in Victorian England; Brodsworth had about 15 indoor domestic servants.

One of the maids’ bedrooms at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. Domestic service was one of the largest employers in Victorian England; Brodsworth had about 15 indoor domestic servants.

POVERTY

Luxuries were not available to the millions of working poor, who toiled for long hours in mills (like Stott Park Bobbin Mill, Cumbria), mines, factories and docks. The dreadful working and living conditions of the early 19th century persisted in many areas until the end of the Victorian age. The dark shadow of the workhouse loomed over the unemployed and destitute.

By the 1880s and 1890s, however, most people were benefiting from cheaper imported food and other goods. New terraces of houses for the more prosperous working classes were increasingly connected to clean water, drains and even gas.

A series of Factory Acts from the 1830s onwards progressively limited the number of hours that women and children could be expected to work. Any attempts to organise labour, however, were banned by law until late in the century.

Photograph of one of the many rows (very narrow streets) in Great Yarmouth, in the 1860s.

One of the many rows in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, photographed in the 1860s. The town developed into a popular seaside resort in the 19th century, but most of its inhabitants continued to work in the town’s prosperous herring industry into the 20th century.
© Historic England Archive

DIVERSIONS FOR ALL

By 1900 there were many diversions and entertainments for rich and poor alike.

Theatres, music halls, libraries, museums and art galleries were built in every major town and many minor ones, often founded by a new breed of philanthropist. Seaside towns were no longer the preserve of the rich, and places like Great Yarmouth and Blackpool developed as popular resorts for the working classes.

There were many new sports, such as lawn tennis and croquet, and old sports with newly defined rules, such as rugby, football and cricket. Games were an essential ingredient of the education provided by the public schools that multiplied during this period, to make gentlemen out of the new middle classes.

This 19th-century door panel on display in Row 111 House, Great Yarmouth, depicts children at play.

This 19th-century door panel on display in Row 111 House, Great Yarmouth, depicts children at play. Such idyllic images of childhood were common in Victorian art, but did not reflect the lives of working-class, often impoverished children growing up in the Victorian era.

EDUCATION AND CHILDHOOD

Education came to be regarded as a universal need, and eventually a universal right. It was made compulsory (up to the age of ten) in 1880. To achieve education for all, many new state or ‘board’ schools were established, together with church schools. By 1900 there was near-universal literacy, a colossal achievement considering how appalling the situation of poor children had been in the 1830s.

The Victorian age was the first in which childhood was recognised as a distinct and precious phase in life. Family life, embodied by the young queen, her beloved Albert and their nine children, was idealised.

As in so much else, the Victorians proved richly imaginative when it came to entertaining children. The moral tales of the start of the period were supplemented by animal stories (such as Black Beauty), stirring adventures (like Treasure Island), and the eccentric brilliance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, all of which would inspire children’s literature in the 20th century.

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