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 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.
LEARN ABOUT LIFE BELOW STAIRS AT AUDLEY END
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.
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, designed to make gentlemen out of boys from the new middle classes.
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 to be 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.
More about Victorian England
The architectural profession is largely a Victorian creation. From the 1820s, architects began to experiment with a profusion of styles.
Victorians: Power and Politics
Although England in the late 1830s was still ruled by a propertied upper class, there had long been a degree of social mobility.
Victorians: Daily Life
Although the Victorian era was a period of extreme social inequality, industrialisation brought about rapid changes in everyday life.
Overseas trade and an extensive commercial infrastructure made Britain in the 19th century the most powerful trading nation in the world.
Victorians: Food and Health
In the Victorian period the growth of the railways made it possible to transport food to markets much more easily. But there was still no cure for most diseases and life expectancy remained low.
Victorians: Parks and Gardens
An extraordinary number of innovations in the study and cultivation of plants were made during the Victorian period. Meanwhile, gardening became a national obsession.
Victorian Britain was both the greatest power in the world and the least militarised. Its military shortcomings were starkly revealed by the disastrous Crimean and Boer Wars.
The Victorian era saw the Church of England become increasingly only one part of a vibrant and often competitive religious culture.
Below Stairs at Audley End
What were Victorian servants’ lives like? Discover the stories of the men, women and children who worked at Audley End House, Essex, in the 1880s.
How Dracula Came to Whitby
How Bram Stoker’s visit to the town of Whitby provided him with atmospheric locations for a Gothic novel – and a name for his famous vampire.
Birthdays at Osborne
Find out how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrated their birthdays, and what the gifts they exchanged tell us about their private lives.
The ‘Osborne Style’: From Naples to Melbourne
How Osborne House’s Italianate design – the inspiration of Prince Albert – came to be imitated in public buildings throughout the British Empire.
The Darwin Family at Down House
How Charles and Emma Darwin’s children were both seen and heard during their surprisingly boisterous childhood at Down House in Kent.
Child Labour in the Lake District
Stott Park Bobbin Mill is located in an idyllic spot, but life was far from ideal for the ‘bobbin boys’ who worked there in the 19th century.
The Dilessi Massacre and a Gothic Revival Masterpiece
How the death of a young English aristocrat taken hostage in Greece inspired the building of St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal.