Social Life in Victorian England

Image Source: Victoria and Albert Museum
Image Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Social Classes

The Victorian Era in Britain was dominated by the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Although it was a peaceful and prosperous time, there were still issues within the social structure. The social classes of this era included the Upper class, Middle class, and lower class. Those who were fortunate enough to be in the Upper class did not usually perform manual labor. Instead, they were landowners and hired lower class workers to work for them, or made investments to create a profit. This class was divided into three subcategories: Royal, those who came from a royal family, Middle Upper, important officers and lords, and Lower Upper, wealthy men and business owners (Victorian England Social Hierarchy).

The expansion of the Middle class during this time was due to the rapid growth of cities and the economy. It was

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external image blacksmith.jpg

also referred to as the Bourgeoisie, and consisted of those who had skilled jobs to support themselves and their families. Merchants and shopkeepers became popular occupations as trade, both domestic and overseas, flourished. The large scale of new industries such as railroads, banks, and government meant that more labor was needed to make sure the cities were able to function (Loftus). The white collar professions had the ability to move up in the corporate rankings and earn a higher salary. It was helpful to have connections to those in powerful positions as they were able to get jobs more easily. Moreover, the Middle class was also divided into two categories, higher level and lower level. People from the lower middle class typically worked for those in the Higher level (Victorian England Social Hierarchy).

The Working class consisted of unskilled laborers who worked in brutal and unsanitary conditions (Victorian England Social Hierarchy). They did not have access to clean water and food, education for their children, or proper clothing. Often, they lived on the streets and were far from the work they could get, so they would have to walk to where they needed to get to. Unfortunately, many workers resorted to the use of drugs like opium and alcohol to cope with their hardships (Thomas).

The Under class were those who were helpless and depended on the support of others. The poor and young orphans relied on donations to survive (Victorian England Social Hierarchy). Some women who were unskilled and could not get any jobs became prostitutes in order to make a living. As they were extremely controversial, Parliament voted to pass the “Contagious Diseases Act” (1864, 1866, 1869) which allowed prostitution in military towns, but meant the women had to be forcibly checked for diseases (Landow). The act was meant to protect the men from contracting diseases; not the women from being harmed. This mistreatment created a strong feminist movement among Victorian women who yearned for fair treatment. Finally in 1885, Parliament passed the “Criminal Law Amendment Act”, which raised the age of consent and prohibited the use of brothels (Landow).

Children-related Issues

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Child Labor

During the Victorian Age, there was an early baby boom, which led to not only an increase in population, but also an advancement of industrialization. The progression of England as a society led to a greater demand for labor from both adults and children. Children took on hard-working jobs as coal miners, chimney sweepers, farm workers and domestic servants. Some children were even forced to take on the role of a railroad worker due to the invention of The Railway brought by the Industrial Revolution (Find out more about industrialization in England at The Impact of the Railway on Victorian England).

Child labor became an overarching issue in the early 1800s due to a lack of effort to improve working conditions by the upper class. Because the government was influenced by the wealthy to invest in luxury rather than promote protection for laborers, many children suffered at work. The most brutal form of child labor took place in coal mines. Children were required to work 12 to 18 hours a day in mines that were infested with rats and disease, and had poor ventilation. Such harsh working conditions led to the development respiratory problems and an increase in mine disasters/casualties.

It was not until at least thirty years later when reformers began to take action against child labor. In 1875, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded as the first child protective agency in the world. This organization set the tone for social reform and ultimately, saved children from a life of cruelty and hardship.

Interested to read more information about The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and its impact on society today?

More Information about Child Labor:
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The term illegitimacy became popular in English society, as the population continued to expand. Many parents, especially those of the lower class, were unable to support and account for their children due to poverty and unstable marriages. It was also common for individuals to have children out of wedlock. A child was considered a “bastard” in a case where the male would leave all support and care of the child to the female. Bastardy became an issue for children-it led to an unstable home life and more importantly, limited an equal opportunity to education. As a result, the Bastardy Clause was enacted to issue “relief” for illegitimate children; however it enhanced the illegitimacy of children.

The Bastardy Clause, also known as the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, prohibited parishes from granting unwed mothers any relief. The law forced women and their children, without fathers, to enter workhouses that granted them a horrible reputation. However, there were some people who accepted the law as it would provide food and clothing for the poor, as well as schooling for children.

As the poor women could not afford to support their children, most chose to work as servants and lived in their employers’ homes without their children. Their wages would pay these other women, called Baby Farmers, to raise their children. The system functioned well until industrialization and urbanization led to a greater need for different kinds of paid fosterage. Mothers were determined to keep working in the city as wages were higher, but chose to keep their children in villages and towns with total strangers where conditions were safer. Unfortunately, this form of abandonment led to worsened treatment of children, and prolonged child labor.

Important Authors and Literature

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was not just one of the first great English novelists. By using his writings as a means to defend the vulnerable people of the Victorian Era and criticize the societal structure of the time, he was also a huge contributor to several important social reforms. The social conscious he developed in his adult years led to some of the most influential pieces of literature the Victorian Era had seen, such as Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and many more. Although he was not the first to use his skills in writing to address the issues in English society, he was by far the most successful. Dickens was able to bring to light a serious issue that England itself could not see, and with the spread and increased fame of his works people everywhere were beginning to see that something had to be done (Diniejko).

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy was one of the first “realist” novelists of the Victorian Era. His use of powerful emotions and pessimistic views was highly criticized because no one had ever read something like it before. Most novelists up to Hardy’s point were laid-back, accepting-natured optimists. Works such as The Return of The Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles introduced characters with such deep and intense emotion (whether it was slightly comedic or very tragic) that most writers before him failed to do. Hardy was also considered a social critic of sorts, identifying the low standards of living that the poor endured in the industrial cities. The mix of realism and social criticism in one style of writing was the reason why Thomas Hardy was one of the most influential and important authors of the Victorian Era (Allingham).

George Eliot

George Elliot was a third author who used literature not simply just to entertain, but also to inform people of the conditions of people in the society around her. Growing up in a hectic and interesting environment herself, Mary Ann Evans (who’s pen names was George Elliot) used her stories to study how environments, especially social environments, affect people and their character. Elliot, who was a fan of art and its origins, believed that any form of art should be based off of life rather than other pieces of art. For instance, The Mill on the Floss was taken and modeled from her real life experience of being rejected by her friends and family for her common-law marriage. Although she was also an influential author of the Victorian Era, she criticized authors like Dickens and Austen on their styles of writing (Allingham).


Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria reigned over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from May 24th, 1819 until her death on January 22nd. 1901. She came to represent femininity that was revolved around the family, motherhood, and respectability, the idea that the woman’s responsibilities were to love and respect her husband before anything, and perform all of the duties and chores for the household. Herself, her husband Albert, and their many children became an icon of late-19th-century middle class femininity and domesticity.

“Separate Spheres”

During this period, the roles of men and women became more sharply defined than they had ever been in history. Rather than women working alongside the men in family businesses, the 19th century saw an increase in men commuting away to their places of work, leaving the women home all day to oversee the household. This ideology of men and women occupying “Separate Spheres” was supported by the idea that there were “natural” characteristics of men and women that suited each for different roles. Women, considered physically weaker yet morally superior, best suiting them for the domestic sphere.

Marriage and Sexuality

Women could not seem too focused on finding a husband, lest it appeared they had a worrying amount of sexual desire. Women were meant to only desire marriage in that it allowed them to become mothers rather than for any sexual or emotional satisfaction. Women had no choice but to stay pure until marriage, usually not even being allowed to speak to a man unless there was a married woman chaperoning.

Girls typically married in their early to mid 20’s to a groom around 5 years older than them in order to reinforce the “natural” hierarchy between the sexes.

After a woman married, her rights and property ceased to remain her own. Everything that she owned now belonged to her husband, including her body, property, and money.

Roles of Upper Class Women

The responsibilities of upper-class and aristocratic women were limited because of the common opinion that they were weak. These women had a range of servants to perform the domestic chores for them, so they usually just had to oversee them. An everyday task of upper-class women was accepting and paying visits, as well as organizing dinner parties for their friends and family. These were occasions where women could prove their homemaking skills and good taste, and to serve as symbols to others about their social status.

Roles of Working/Lower Class Women

These women were distinguished from the upper class by having less education and fewer opportunities. Most women worked in domestic service, either as a cook, maid, or laundress to a wealthier woman. Other women were employed as barmaids, waitresses, chambermaids, and washerwomen. To be able to go to work, mothers would often pay other women, usually very elderly or very young, to watch their children.Working women could not afford to pay for servants, so besides their actual jobs they had to do all of the household chores themselves. This was used as evidence to support that women should not belong in the workplace, because their families were not being properly taken care of.


Image Source: British Library Board

By the start of the Victorian Era, it had become clear that the prevalence of crime in England was an issue that needed to be addressed. “The industrial revolution put new pressures on society, leading to violence. Collective living led to collective organization, which helped to create social disorder on a larger scale” (Bloy). However, while the need for a police force was evident, it wasn’t until 1829, when Robert Peele sponsored the Metropolitan Police Act, that the beginnings of a resolution were reached.

The result of the Act was the Metropolitan Police, headquartered at Scotland Yard. One of the earliest uniformed police forces, they replaced military troops and militia as the peacekeeping force in the London metropolitan area (although they had no jurisdiction in the City of London, itself). In early years, the police had minimal authority, but their jurisdiction grew during the following forty years. For example, they were given the authority to arrest nuisance boys and street musicians (British Library Board), board vessels, enter gaming establishments, patrol fairs, and perform search and seizures (National Archives).

Such authority was needed, as crime rates were high. Evidence of the pervasiveness of criminal activity is found in The Night Side of London (1858), written by J. Ewing Richie. Ritchie provides the following statistics for 1856: “it appears that in all 73,240 persons were taken into custody, of whom 45,941 were males, and 27,209 were females; 18,000 of the apprehensions were on account of drunkenness, 8160 for unlawful possession of goods, 7021 for simple larceny, 6763 for common assaults, 2194 for assaults on the police; 4303 women were taken into custody as prostitutes” (Banerjee). Even these high numbers might be an underestimate as the poor often failed to report crimes due to a lack of faith in the police force (Emsley).

This distinction between the wealthy and the poor with respect to law enforcement stemmed in part from the new concept of a ‘criminal class.’ In the minds of the upper classes, the members of this underworld lived in the filth of the East End and consisted of the poorest members of society. They “lived entirely on the proceeds of crime and preyed upon the respectable people of the West End of London” (Beaven & Pulham). This idea was popularized by authors such as Charles Dickens, and is best evidenced in Oliver Twist, where the likes of Fagin and his boys live in squalor and spend their time robbing wealthy gentlemen.

After the formation and growth of the police force, crime began to decline. The penalties inflicted seemed to be a sufficient deterrent to criminal behavior. Punishments ranged from imprisonment or flogging to capital punishment, and the introduction of psychiatry to the judicial system led to experimental treatments such as is
olation, bible study, and forced silence (Emsley). Others, such as Abel Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations, were transported to Australia to serve their prison sentence.

Although crime rates were decreasing, several crime sprees occurred in the late 1800s that w

Image Source: Kleing

ere highly publicized and caused social unrest. For example, in the 1850s and 60s, multiple robberies accompanied by garroting took place. These violent events caused many, particularly those in the upper classes, to panic. Garroting became a common point of conversation, poems were written from the perspective of the garroter, and spiked collars were designed and marketed to protect the wearer (Dictionary of Victorian London).

Newspapers sensationalized the violence, particularly if there was a sexual component to the crime, and people became obsessed with criminals such as Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper gained his infamy by murdering at least five prostitutes, four of whom he brutally mutilated, in the fall of 1888. The murderer was suspected of leaving chalk messages and sending letters, and while these actions were never confirmed, they made for dramatic reading.

Follow the link below to watch a short video that shows how Victorian newspapers reported death penalties and sensationalized crimes.

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