ON THE STREET
Do you enjoy walking down a busy street? There is usually something interesting to see. There are shop windows to look in, people to meet and traffic to watch out for. Streets can be places to live, places to work, places of entertainment or just places to pass the time with friends. Victorian streets were like this too. But the sights, sounds and smells were often different from today.
A London Street
See how many differences you can spot between a view of a London street in 1825, and a modern town-centre street. Notice the jumble of different types of buildings in the Victorian street, most of which have tall chimneys for coal fires. The surface of the road looks very rough. It must have been quiet with so little traffic. But the street is busy with people, selling things or buying from the many small shops.
A Village Street
Village streets were quieter still. The road made a good place for children to play. Neighbours often met for a chat at the front door or over the garden gate. But poor people were not supposed to speak to ‘their betters’ (richer people) unless they were spoken to first. You can tell what ‘class’ the people belonged to, chatting at the gate.
Many towns grew very rapidly during the nineteenth century. People could not find their way round all the new streets of similar houses. So IRON name plates were put at street corners, and houses were given numbers to help the postmen find where people lived. Victoria Road was a popular new street name in many towns.
As towns got bigger, people had to live further out from the centre. Sometimes they travelled long distances to work or to visit shops or friends. Only very rich people owned their own horses and carriages. Better-off people hired horse drawn taxis called hansom cabs, but most people travelled by horse-drawn omnibus. These were first introduced in 1829 and carried twelve people inside and ten people on top. The driver sat outside in all weathers. Like modern buses, the sides were covered with advertisements for groceries and household goods.
Victorian streets were filthy. They were covered with the droppings of many horses as well as rubbish that was often thrown into open drains in the road. The IRON wheels of carts, carriages and buses broke up the stone surface into tiny pieces. In summer, streets were sprayed with water to keep down the dust. In winter, they were often covered in deep mud. Better-off people paid a crossing sweeper to clear a path for them to cross the road.
By the 1890s, rich people could buy petrol-powered cars for pleasure motoring. But some people were scared of these new ‘monsters’ on the streets. The law said that a man must walk in front of every car, holding a red flag as a warning. In 1896, the red flag rule was dropped and the speed limit raised from 10 mph to 14 mph. The streets of Britain would never be the same again.
Nearly everybody in Britain today has mains water, drains, electricity and perhaps gas. Post is delivered to our doors regularly. If we are in trouble, we can telephone for help from doctors, police or fire services. Most people in the past were not so lucky. In Victorian times, services like these only slowly became available to more people.
Dark streets are often dangerous. The invention of gas lighting in 1791 made bright street lights possible. In the 1830s, more and more towns put up gas street lamps. Each lamp was lit separately every evening by a lamplighter. Next morning he turned them all off again. Sometimes people paid him to wake them up by tapping on their bedroom windows with his long pole. Gas lights were brighter and cleaner than candles or oil lamps. From 1880s, electric street lights began to replace gas ones in large towns.
In Britain today we have taps in our homes and a constant supply of clean water. In Victorian times, most people fetched water from rivers, wells or street pumps. Carrying water in jugs and buckets was a heavy job, especially for children. Clean water was precious so they were very careful not to waste the water by spilling it.
The Spread Of Disease
Victorian streets could be unhealthy places to live. Too many people were crowded together without proper drains or pure water. Diseases like cholera and typhoid spread rapidly in these conditions, so warnings on posters were put up for everyone to see. Until the 1880s, many towns had regular cholera epidemics which killed thousands of people.
Look carefully along your street, and you may find the covers of the drains which run underneath. These sewers may have been built in Victorian times. Most people thought that disease was carried in the air. But in 1853, during a cholera epidemic, a doctor, John Snow, proved that the illness was spread by dirty water. Wells were made dirty by sewage from nearby cesspits. River water was even worse. Drains emptying into rivers often made them stink with filth.
In 1865, London became one of the first cities to build proper sewers. Pipes were also laid on to supply pure water direct to people’s homes. Streets were at last becoming cleaner and healthier places to live.
Fire was another serious risk. Most people used open fires for heating and cooking. After dark they lit candles and oil or gas lamps. Fire could spread rapidly where houses were tightly packed together. From the 1860s, many towns bought steam-powered fire-engines.
Horses pulled the engine to the scene of the fire. There it was connected to a well or water pipe under the road. The steam pumps sprayed the burning building with water. They were much more efficient than the buckets or hand pumps that had been available before.
The Penny Post
Keeping in touch with family and friends in other places was not always easy. But in 1840, the Penny Post was started by Rowland Hill. Stamps were sold showing Queen Victoria’s head. But from 1852, cast IRON post-boxes were put on the streets. These were coloured green until 1874 when they were all painted bright red.
Some Victorian post-boxes are still in use. Look for the letters VR, which stands for Victoria Regina, on the front.
BUILDINGS ON THE STREET
Victorian streets often had many different types of buildings. Old ones were modernized in Victorian style. But it was a busy time for new building too. Was your house or school built in Victorian times? Look for dates on walls which tell how old buildings are. Most Victorian buildings are strong and have lasted well.
The Busy High Street
Compare a busy main street and the end of the century (1898) with the street in 1825. You will see that it looks much busier. The lampposts, telephone wires, large shop windows and advertisements make it much more like a modern street scene. By the end of the century, few people lived in the town centre. Most had moved out to suburbs on the edge of the town. Village streets were different. Village streets were different. They still had a mixture of houses and other types of buildings.
Homes For Poor People
There was always a shortage of houses, particularly for the poorest people. Sometimes several families shared one small house.
In the big cities, like London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, new blocks of flats were built. They may have looked a bit like prisons, but poor families were glad to have homes of their own.
Public buildings like churches, stations and town halls, were often build on a very grand scale. Tows competed with each other to have the biggest and best. These new buildings were often decorated with different coloured bricks, imitation stonework or even statues. Railway transport made it cheaper for builders to buy different materials and ready-made decorations.
Victorian Terraced Houses
New homes were often built in long terraces of identical houses with shops at street corners. These were cheap to build because their side walls were shared. The poorest were build ‘back to back’. In some of these, even back walls were shared, so there was no space for a yard. Most have now been pulled down as they are no longer thought fit to live in.
Better-quality terraces had front and back gardens and were strongly built. Victorian builders bought land on the edge of towns and built whole streets of terraced houses. As each one was completed it was sold or rented from a landlord.
Houses like Victorian slums [like the old inserts shown in the TV Coronation Street] were very common. You may know of some near you. A Victorian slum shows a house has a hall entrance, a back extension containing a scullery (for cleaning and washing) and a flush toilet. There is a front parlour (only used on special occasions) and three bedrooms but no bathroom. Houses like this cost £150 to build.
Cheaper types had just two rooms on each floor with the front door opening into the living room.
Until Victorian times, builders only used materials that were made or found locally. Every part of Britain had a different style of buildings. But from the 1850s, a wide range of new items could be ordered from catalogues and delivered by train. Slates from Wales, yellow bricks from East Anglia and door mouldings from factories in the Midlands could now be seen anywhere in Britain. Cast iron items from northern iron works, such as cast iron street fittings, became common on Victorian streets.
Big towns were often divided into areas lived in by different sorts of people. There were wide, leafy streets of detached houses for well-off middle-class people. Other areas had narrow streets of small houses with tiny yards and not a tree in sight. This is where poor factory workers lived. Country towns and villages were usually more mixed.
Living In The Countryside
Life in the countryside was quieter and cleaner than town life. Some people never left the village they were born in. They married people from the same street and knew their neighbours as well as they knew their own families. Life for poor country people was hard. Wages were so low that many men moved to towns to find better-paid work. Country cottages were small and dark. Street services like sewers, piped water and gas were not available.
A Town Family
The 1855 London family would sometimes arrive home from church.. In the middle-class family, ‘papa’ probably worked in a city office, to which he would travel by train or cab. ‘Mama’ spent her time reading, sewing or paying calls to friends. The housework was done for her by maids. She may have sometimes been bored and wished she had more freedom. The children would attend private schools to avoid mixing with ‘common’ children. Many of their friends came from much larger families. But at least their house was big enough for them all to have bedrooms of their own.
There were many houses like a detached villa of the 1890s in middle-class suburbs on the edge of towns. They gave well-off families spacious rooms, large gardens and privacy from the street.
A separate tradesman’s entrance round the back hid delivery men and servants from view. You can see the attic windows. Two or three live-in maids might have slept up there.
Maid Of All Work
This was a common sight in middle-class areas, a maid cleaning steps, 1870s. Most families earnings over £3 a week employed a young ‘maid of all work’. She did the family’s cleaning, cooking, washing and mending and nursed the children. She worked from 6 am to 10 pm with half a day off every week. It was often a lonely life. Well-off families sometimes had several servants including a cook and nanny. Only very rich people could afford the luxury of men servants such as a butler or footman.
Life for the poor was a constant struggle. Home was often a single room. Several children shared the bed, covering themselves with rags to keep warm. Their food was mainly bread and potatoes. When their parents were out of work the whole family often went hungry. The girl’s worked ‘in service’ with a middle-class family and the few shillings a week she earned helped to keep her family from starving.
In some old streets you can still find dark alleys (called wynds in Scotland) between the houses. In Victorian times these led to the courts of tiny, damp houses where the poorest people lived. They had no clean water or drains. Even the air they breathed was full of smoke from surrounding chimneys. A report on living conditions in 1842 found that 57 per cent of poor children in Manchester died before they were 5 years old. Conditions improved, but slowly. For many people the ‘good old days’ were not good at all!
THE STREET – AT WORK
Do many people earn their living on your street? Some may work at home. Others work in shops and offices, schools or factories, or on the street itself. Victorian streets were like this too. They were often full of people working hard to earn enough to support their families.
The Butcher’s Shop
Most Victorian shops were small. Their owners often lived over the shop. The butcher did the ironing-out with a knife. His son would hold a customer’s pony and trap. There were no supermarkets in Victorian times. Most groceries were sold loose – they were cut up and weighed for each customer. Better-off people usually had their shopping delivered in carts.
In early Victorian times, IRON items were often handmade by local blacksmiths. Later on, most things were mass produced in factories. Rail transport made it possible to buy goods cheaply from every part of Britain or even abroad. Skilled smiths and farriers were still needed. They made shoes and harnesses for all the horses working in the streets and on farms. Nearly every village had a ‘smithy’.
Working In The Street
Shops were set up on the pavement and the man cleaned shoes for a living. Other people worked at home. They made things like shirts, shoes, straw hats and lace cloths for shop and factories. Many young children also worked at home. But in 1874, a new law made it illegal for young children to work full time. After 1880, all children under 10 had to attend school.
The Market Place
The street really came alive on market day! Brightly-coloured stalls were set up and the streets were full of shoppers hunting for bargains. Country people brought their carts loaded with fresh vegetables, eggs and cheese, live rabbits and hens. Fishermen sold oysters and mussles, sea fish or eels still wriggling in bowls of water. Travelling tradesmen sold fabrics, books, china and glass. Each shouted out that his wares were the best in town. Often the streets were full of animals too. Sheep and cows, pigs and poultry were herded along the roads to the livestock market.
[Insert picture: Match seller, 1892] This man probably look much older than he was. His hat and coat were someone else’s cast-offs and did not fit him well. His trousers were patched and his shoes full of holes. He had no socks. Perhaps kind people took pity on him and bought his match to help him. There were 30,000 men, women and children like him selling things on the streets of London in 1851. It was a very hard way to earn a living.
Just like today, Victorian people could often buy hot food on the street. Many poor people had no ovens, so anything baked was a treat. The baked potato seller’s oven is mounted on a cart. He wheeled it from street to street selling hot potatoes for 1 d (half pence ) each. They made a filling lunch during a break from work.
Is your favourite street a lively place? Victorian streets were often busy, noisy and full of activity all day long. The street was still a safe place for children to play, and there was usually plenty of entertainment for them to enjoy.
Children stopped on their way home from school to listen to the organ grinder. The organ was slung from his neck. When he turned the handle on the side, it played well-known tunes. The organ grinder’s pet monkey danced in time with the music. Then it held out a hat to beg from passers-by who had stopped to watch. Today, buskers still occasionally play music in the street. But we would be very surprised to see a monkey!
The Muffin Man
Every day the muffin man brought freshly-baked muffins for breakfast or tea. He carried them in a tray on his head, covered with a cloth to keep them warm. People listened out for his bell and his call of ‘muffins, fresh muffins’.
All the street traders had different cries. Children imitated them, calling ‘ropes of onions, ropes of onions’, ‘rags and bones’, ‘buy a dish of eels’, ‘oranges fresh and fair’, ‘sweep sweep, chimney sweep’, or ‘knives to grind’. They especially liked to watch the shower of sparks from the knife-grinder’s wheel.
In some towns, almost every street had at least one public house. On sunny days people sat outside on benches and drank frothy beer from pint mugs. Most of the customers were men. They met their friends here after work to drink, play cards or perhaps have a game of skittles or bowls.
The Pie Shop
This shop sold hot eel or meat pies for 1d (half penny) or 2d (1p). For these children, even this seemed a lot of money. Some days they went hungry, or had to beg for food. During Queen Victoria’s reign, conditions for the poorest people slowly improved. But even at the end of her reign, some children still walked the streets in bare feet and dressed in rags. A survey of York in 1899 found that a quarter of all families lived in poverty.
[insert picture: ‘London police arrest a thief, 1869’] Perhaps this little boy stole some food or tried to pick someone’s pocket. Street crime was a serious problem in the early nineteenth century. Some hungry people were forced to steal to keep their families from starving. Others took advantage of dimly-lit streets to help themselves to other people’s property.
Britain’s first paid police force was set up in London by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. ‘Bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ wore blue coats and hard top hats and were soon a common sight on the streets.
Crime rates fell. Soon other towns started police forces of their own. In 1856, the Police Act said that all areas should have paid police. By 1901, there were 45,000 policemen on the streets of Britain.
In 1897, Queen Victoria had been on the throne for sixty years. Britain was then the richest country in the world. Most people’s lives were more comfortable than ever before. The streets were cleaner and safer, and fewer people died of preventable diseases. To celebrate the sixtieth year of Victoria’s reign, street parties were organized. Flags flew, bands played, food was served and drink flowed. All over the country, millions of people lined the streets and cheered, ‘God save the Queen’.
(c)Richard Wood Esq, 1975.