It is strange with how little notice, good, bad, or indifferent, a man may live and die in London. He awakens no sympathy in the breast of any single person; his existence is a matter of interest to no one save himself; he cannot be said to be forgotten when he dies, for no one remembered him when he was alive. There is a numerous class of people in this great metropolis who seem not to possess a single friend, and whom nobody appears to care for. Urged by imperative necessity in the first instance, they have resorted to London in search of employment, and the means of subsistence. It is hard, we know, to break the ties which bind us to our homes and friends, and harder still to efface the thousand recollections of happy days and old times, which have been slumbering in our bosoms for years, and only rush upon the mind, to bring before it associations connected with the friends we have left, the scenes we have beheld too probably for the last time, and the hopes we once cherished, but may entertain no more. These men, however, happily for themselves, have long forgotten such thoughts. Old country friends have died or emigrated; former correspondents have become lost, like themselves, in the crowd and turmoil of some busy city; and they have gradually settled down into mere passive creatures of habit and endurance. ---Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836


Prior to the industrial revolution, Britain had a very rigid social structure consisting of three distinct classes: The Church and aristocracy, the middle class, and the working poorer class.

The top class was known as the aristocracy. It included the Church and nobility and had great power and wealth. This class consisted of about two percent of the population, who were born into nobility and who owned the majority of the land. It included the royal family, lords spiritual and temporal, the clergy, great officers of state, and those above the degree of baronet. These people were privileged and avoided taxes.

The middle class consisted of the bourgeoisie - the middle working class. It was made up of factory owners, bankers, shopkeepers, merchants, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, traders, and other professionals. These people could be sometimes extremely rich, but in normal circumstances they were not privileged, and they especially resented this. There was a very large gap between the middle class and the lower class.

The British lower class was divided into two sections: "the working class" (labourers), and "the poor" (those who were not working, or not working regularly, and were receiving public charity). The lower class contained men, women, and children performing many types of labor, including factory work, seamstressing, chimney sweeping, mining, and other jobs. Both the poorer class and the middle class had to endure a large burden of tax. This third class consisted of about eighty-five percent of the population but owned less than fifty percent of the land.

The government consisted of a "constitutional monarchy" headed by Queen Victoria. Only the royalty could rule. Other politicians came from the aristocracy. The system was criticised by many as being in favour of the upper classes, and during the late eighteenth century philosophers and writers began to question the social status of the nobility.

There is no place where the isolation of individual man is more complete than in London: the great machine of society revolves, like the tread wheel, by the labours of individuals "Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine," who, while they walk, "their weary round," know only that they are putting in their time, but remain in ignorance whether the machine picks oakum, raises water, or grinds succory; who are unconscious, in a word, of the grand results of that machine revolving by their individually powerless, but united, all powerful exertion. In London, few know their next door neighbour; and still less do they reflect how much, without knowing him, they are obliged to their next door neighbour. Our neighbours in the world of London do the thousand little offices of kindness without interchanging a word with us - put money in our pockets without our knowing it, and enhance, strangers to us though they be, all the little pleasures of a highly civilized society. In London, every individual man revolves in two orbits: first, round his own axis in his individual sphere of action, be it little or great, narrow or widely extended; he revolves also with the huge mass of which he is but an atom, but which is, nevertheless, carried onwards in its course by the united exertion of aggregated atoms like himself. -----The World of London, by John Murray, in Blackwoods Magazine, April 1841

Industrialization and Engineering

Industrialisation changed the class structure dramatically in the late 19th century. Hostility was created between the upper and lower classes. As a result of industrialisation, there was a huge boost of the middle and working class. As the Industrial Revolution progressed there was further social division. Capitalists, for example, employed industrial workers, who were one component of the working classes (each class included a wide range of occupations of varying status and income; there was a large gap, for example, between skilled and unskilled labor), but beneath the industrial workers was a submerged "under class" sometimes referred to as the "sunken people," which lived in poverty. The under class were more susceptible to exploitation and were therefore exploited.

The industrial revolution completely changed the lifestyle of Victorian Britain. Suddenly, the focus wasn't on tilling the soil or land husbandry to make a living. Factories and commercial enterprise was the name of the game.

When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Britain had already started its transformation into a world power. Agriculture was slowly being pushed aside for manufacturing jobs. By the end of the 1800's, 80 percent of England's population lived in cities.

Steam-powered cotton factories enabled Victorian Britain to produce more than half the world's supply of cotton. Coal-mining around Newcastle also expanded rapidly to meet demand.

With the upsurge in railway construction, moving goods to shipping ports became easy, while ship-building itself went forward at a rapid pace. Bristol was home to "The Great Britain", a massive steam ship built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Lead by Brunel, engineering wonders were beginning to be common place during the Victorian period. Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge still stands as a testament to his expertise.

The Brunel Railway Bridge between The West Country and Plymouth is still used to this day.

Manchester and Liverpool took full advantage of the industrial revolution. Along with other cities in Victorian times, they enjoyed being part of the "workshop of the world".

Leisure Time

With industrialization, there was more leisure time to be enjoyed. When the railway line from London to Brighton was established, going on holiday began to be a regular part of Victorian life.

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Thanks to the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 and the ease of rail travel, seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Torquay began to enjoy great popularity.

There was time to read a novel during the Victorian period. Charles Dickens, Robert Lewis Stephenson, and H.G. Wells are just three of the authors who were popular.

Attending the theatre and appreciating the talents of Sarah Bernhard and Ellen Terry kept the evenings busy. Melodrama was in its hey-day while the music hall was always packed with people enjoying the variety of acts presented.


Medical advances were tremendous during Victorian times. Boiling and scrubbing medical instruments before and after use was found to greatly increase a patient's chance for survival. The identification of disease took a great leap forward.

Cholera was shown to be a product of sewage water. With the simple procedure of boiling drinking water and washing the hands, incidents of cholera dramatically drop.

Codeine and iodine made their appearance in Victorian life. Morphine helped to alleviate pain while the use of chloroform during childbirth was pioneered by Queen Victoria... and highly recommended.

Rural Life

Although much of Great Britain's population did leave the countryside to reap the benefits of industrialization, village life did not come to an end.


Farming was still very much a part of life in Victorian Britain. With the advent of steam-power, farm machinery was easier to use and made for a faster work day. Small gardens would supplement the family's food supply.

Some villages would specialize in an industry. Lace-making was popular. Craftsman (blacksmiths, tanners, carpenters) could always be found in a rural setting.

To maintain the huge country estates of the wealthy, local villagers would provide the servant power during the season. Some rural folk would live on the estate throughout the year, often in conditions which were cramped.

In their own homes, rural life in Victorian England was concerned with the basics - cooking meals, mending clothes, and seeing that children received the education which was mandatory by 1880.

Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilization which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others ... The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellent and ofference the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space ... The dissolution of mankind into monads of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried to its upmost extreme.
--Friedrich Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845

While life in Victorian England changed dramatically during the industrial revolution, the biggest social change was felt in the cities. Thousands of citizens left the rural life and came to the large metropolises for the guaranteed jobs which manufacturing offered.

London, Manchester, and Birmingham all felt the effects of the growing industrialization.

This influx of people into the city centers made for rapid growth and prosperity. However, there was also a very negative aspect as the crowds of workers had to be accommodated and cared for in a system which was not prepared to do so.

Victorian Housing

Tenement buildings were quickly built in Victorian London for factory workers and their families. Large houses were turned into flats. The cost of rent was extremely high, especially when a worker wanted to live within walking distance of his place of employment.

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Conditions were often cramped as many members of a single family would live in one room. Many landlords were indifferent to the appalling conditions their tenents were living in and with housing so difficult to find, few tenants made a fuss.

Running water, sanitation facilities, even cooking arrangements were rough-shod at best. With tenements consisting of many floors, Victorian Londoners lived cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors. Disputes were commonplace, and often caused by drunkenness.

Wealthier families were able to enjoy single homes which often featured bay windows, running water, and even electricity.


Jack the Ripper immediately comes to mind when crime is mentioned. However, he was more the exception than the rule.

Petty crimes, such as pick-pocketing and food-snatching, were a regular occurrence, but assault was not the norm. Violent crime (read that as crimes shedding a lot of blood) were very unusual.

Doing a person in by poison was popular. Dr. Hawley Crippen is perhaps the most famous user of poison, although Dr. Thomas Cream had his share of press.

When the Metropolitan Police was organized in 1829, 'bobbies' were a common sight on the city streets. The old palace which was used by the Scots, Scotland Yard, became their headquarters.

Public Buildings

With the increase of people in the city, Victorian London began to build public facilities. The ease of transportation was helped with the construction of "The Tube" in 1863. Tower Bridge became a reality in 1894.

Public squares were offered for pleasure, and for privacy to homeowners. The present Trafalgar Square was completed in 1845, after moving the royal stables elsewhere. Grosvenor Square, originally built to only be enjoyed by homeowners in the area, was improved and is now a public park.

The Royal Albert Hall began to offer music in 1871. Buckingham Palace became the monarch's main London residence while Victoria was on the throne.

To keep everyone on schedule, Big Ben, the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament was built in 1859.


In the early part of Victoria's reign, shopping (for the better off at least) was more a matter of getting into your carriage, arriving at the store front, and having the proprietor come to you. Along with him would come samples of what he had to sell, and transactions were done on the curb-side.

Victorian London food shopping was handled in the same fashion, although the baker or butcher would brings his food to the servants entrance of the home. From there, the housekeeper or cook would make the purchase.

By the mid 1800's, the idea of "Department Stores" took hold. Spending a day inside a shop, instead of outside on the curb, enabled a person to see more articles for sale. Wares were beginning to be displayed in shop windows, enticing the would-be purchaser to come through the front door.

The Great Exhibition of 1851

Under the auspices of Prince Albert, England hosted a grand 'world's fair'. Showcased were goods not only made in England, but from other parts of the globe.

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Housed in the Crystal Palace (which burned to the ground in 1936), over 13,000 exhibits were available for viewing - from an envelope machine to kitchen appliances. Visitors were able to enjoy flower shows, dog and cat shows, and even a motor car display.

With the profits the six month Great Exhibition produced, land was purchased in Kensington. The Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum owe their existence to Prince Albert's idea of showing the world what England could produce.

The General Atmosphere of Victorian London

With the combination of sewage, coal fires, and unwashed bodies, the odor of London was horrendous. Both the rich and the poor had to contend with the evil air around the city.

Even the Royal Family was not immune to the smells and at one time was forced to cancel a water excursion due to raw sewage being dumped into the Thames.

Joseph Bazalgette is to be thanked for building miles of piping to direct sewage away from Victorian London. However, London streets were still filled with manure from horses.

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Every surface was coated with soot from the use of coal. New buildings being constructed of Portland stone didn't stay pristine for long. The air people breathed was often foggy with the smoke from coal fires.

Adding to the confusion, until the mid 1800's, cattle were driven through the streets of Victorian London, to and from the slaughter-houses that could be found in Smithfield.

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