Poor Families



Poor people in Victorian times lived in horrible cramped conditions in run-down houses, often with the whole family in one room.
Many people during the Victorian years moved into the cities and towns to find work in the factories. People crowded into already crowded houses. Rooms were rented to whole families or perhaps several families.
Most poor houses only had one or two rooms downstairs and one or two upstairs. Families would crowd into these rooms, with several in each room and some living in the cellars.

Picture by C. Lodge (d.1906), Public Domain,

Life in a Poor Family

Poorer families, if they owned a bath at all, put it in front of the kitchen range. This was the warmest place in the house and very close to hot water. The whole family would wash themselves one after the other, topping up with more water but, probably not emptying the bath until everyone had finished.
These houses would have used candles mainly for lighting. They had no running water or toilets. Each house would share an outside water pump. The water from the pump was frequently polluted. Some streets would have one or two outside toilets for the whole street to share!
Houses were built close together with narrow streets between them and open sewers running down the middle of the streets. Rubbish was tipped into the streets. It was no surprise that few children made it to adulthood.


A Hard Working Life

Life as a poor Victorian was hard.  The men would be up very early and, if they were lucky, working as a labourer all day.  Women too would be up early, tending to their domestic chores and getting children up and fed and perhaps working in the fields.  If they lived in a large town or city some poor women worked as domestic staff for rich families.  In many poor families children left school as soon as they could.  Children worked in all sorts of jobs.  If they lived near a coal mine then working down the pit was the only choice.  If they lived in a large town or city they could do laundry work, chimney sweeping, factory working, matchmaking or street selling.
For many poor families leisure time was unheard of and for these families their only respite from the constant toil of life was church on a Sunday.  Victorian people were generally very religious and many visited church or chapel on a Sunday.
The picture is a girl pulling a coal tub in mine. From official report of the parliamentary commission in the mid-19th century. 
Public Domain,



Middle-Class Richer Families

Victorian House.jpg


Houses for the middle and upper classes were much better than the houses of poor people. They were better built and were much larger. The houses had most of the new gadgets installed, such as flushing toilets, gas lighting, and inside bathrooms.
Wealthy Victorians decorated their homes in the latest styles. There would be heavy curtains, flowery wallpaper, carpets and rugs, ornaments, well made furniture, paintings and plants. The rooms were heated by open coal fires and lighting was provided by candles and oil or gas lamps. Later in the Victorian period, electricity became more widespread and so electric lights were used.


Domestic Life

For Rich Victorians, domestic life was quite easy. Most had servants and they would live in the same house. Servants slept on the top floor of the house or in the attic. The servant rooms were often cold in the winter and stuffy in the summer.

Girls as young as twelve might be emplyed as maids . They were clothed, fed, and given a roof over their heads in return for a wage – a maid would earn about £7 a year.  A governess might be employed to look after and educate the children. Employing a governess sent a signal that the lady of the house was too ‘genteel’ to teach her children herself. After the age of 8 most rich Victorian boys were sent away to school.

In this copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, dated 1896, there is everything that a modern Victorian mistress would need to run a home.  Apart from lots of recipes from all over the Empire, there are specific instructions on how to manage your domestic staff for both the master and the mistress of the house


Modern Fixtures and Fittings

Rich Victorians had water pumps in their kitchens and waste from their toilets was taken away down into underground sewers.  

Candles continued to be an important source of lighting. Paraffin lamps were introduced in the 1860s, and gas lighting became increasingly common as the century went on.

All Victorian homes had a Kitchen range, which came in many shapes and sizes, suitable for different sized rooms, different sized families and different types of cooking. In spite of their differences, though, all had 2 essential parts:  

The fire which was heated, probably, by coal and chimney to let out the fumes.

The cooking part comprising hotplates and oven.

Mrs Beeton gives lots of examples of kitchen ranges.  In this picture from her book the Wilson Range is very ‘eco-friendly’ for the time.  She describes it as being “designed to obviate waste in fuel and to reduce its consumption to a minimum”



Washing clothes was done mainly by women and was hard work requiring a lot of stamina


In Victorian days there was no running hot water and there were no detergents, washing machines, spin dryers, tumble dryers or rubber gloves. It was just hard physical grind.
Washday was once a week, always on a Monday, and it took the whole day, starting between five and six o'clock in the morning. There was no time for much else, particularly preparing meals. That was why washday was always on a Monday, because the meals could be cold leftovers from the Sunday roast.

If families were rich enough, hot water was got from the copper.  Before breakfast, the copper in the scullery was lit to heat water. Filling it took about six bucketfuls, all drawn from the single brass cold water tap over the sink, as there was no running hot water.

A washboard, like this one on the right, was used in a sink of hot soapy water or tin bath. Rubbing the washing up and down against the ridges forced out the dirt.  Alternatively or additionally the washing was poked and agitated around in the hot soapy water with a wooden contraption called a dolly. There were some quite sophisticated dollies with handles and 'stumpy legs'; but it was quite common just to use a wooden stick.

There would be separate washes for white and coloured clothing.



The wooden stick or dolly was to lift the washing out of the dirty water, although wooden tongs were also used for lifting. Then every item was put through the mangle to get rid of as much dirty water as possible. Mangling was hard work.  The mangle was a heavy mechanical contraption about four or five feet high with a handle that turned two rollers. Wet items were fed through the rollers which squeezed out the water into a large bowl or tin bath underneath.
There was a screw on top of the mangle to adjust the distance between the rollers according to the thickness of the fabric.
Then the washing had to be rinsed by letting it drop from the mangle into a tin bath of cold water. It had to be rinsed and mangled several times.
The women had to be strong to lift sheets and tablecloths in and out of the various baths because wet washing was much heavier than a dry load.
With no tumble driers and no radiators, the weekly wash was dried outside by the sun and wind wherever possible, but bad weather meant that it was not always possible.



To get messages to or talk to friends and family in Victorian days was very different to our modern communication devices


If you lived before the mid Victorian period and you wanted to communicate with a friend or relative in another part of the country, then the only option you had was to write a letter.  Writing and receiving letters was essential part of everyday urban life in Victorian times.  However, if you wanted to cantact someone in an emergency you had to wait a long time to get a letter sent by horse and carriage. 
Writing letters became a lot easier in Victorian Britain with world's first postage stamp in 1840, when the Penny Black stamp was released. Showing a profile of Queen Victoria's head it remained on all British stamps for the next 60 years. Soon all round the country red post boxes appeared.  Look for the V R on a Victorian post box, standing for Victoria Regina.



Alexander Graham Bell  the telephone in 1876 and over the next century it was developed to become one of the most useful and important inventions ever made. There were telephones fitted to private houses but it was only the very rich who could afford it. Bell demonstrated his telephone to Queen Victoria and in 1878 she ordered a line from Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight, to Buckingham Palace in London. The telephone became more widely used and in January 1880 the first phone book was released in the UK with 250 users.  In 1884 the first telephone boxes were built – originally called “silence cabinets”. 
Cragside House in Northumberland was the first house in the world to be lit by electricity and this was their telephone.



In the Victorian period, work inside and outside the home took up much more time than it does today and working people had far less leisure time. There was little money to spare and no radio, television, cinemas or sports centres. People found all sorts of ways of enjoying what free time they had.
The years between 1837 and 1901 saw the greatest development in leisure pursuits ever witnessed. The period gave a more structured approach to leisure, with the creation of parks, libraries, art galleries and museums. In most large towns there were theatres and music halls that were popular and cheap. Men played or went to watch rugby, football or cricket. Women entertained friends for tea, read books and did handicrafts such as sewing.  Technology changed as well, allowing the production of magazines, newspapers and musical instruments.
Cycling and walking became popular outdoor pastimes. Mountain climbing became popular too and the Alpine Club was the world’s first mountaineering club, founded in 1857.
Seaside holidays became very popular in Victorian days. From 1871 people had more leisure time with the introduction of bank holidays, and with the speed of railway transport it now meant that people could quickly travel to the seaside. Coastal towns like Blackpool, Scarborough, Llandudno and Brighton quickly grew into popular holiday resorts.
Poor people travelled to the seaside on day trips from the factory towns. Wealthier people often went for a week in the summer, staying in hotels or guest houses.
To attract visitors, lots of seaside towns built piers out into the sea. People enjoyed strolling along them to breathe in the fresh, healthy sea air. Many piers were large enough to provide music halls and holiday makers would go to watch variety acts as well as singers, dancers and comedians.
Other popular forms of entertainment included watching Punch and Judy puppet shows, eating an ice cream (sometimes called a hokey pokey), riding on donkeys, building sandcastles on the beach with a bucket and spade and of course eating fish and chips! 
Not many people could swim in the Victorian period – they could only paddle. Rich people paid to get changed in wooden huts called bathing machines which were then taken into the sea by a horse. A lot of people couldn't afford to buy their own costumes and had to hire them.
The picture above shows a group of school children in 1880 at the seaside.



Victorian Toys and Victorian Games were very expensive to buy in Victorian Times. Even wealthy children were allowed very few toys. Only the wealthiest could afford a Rocking horse like the one shown above. The cost of many toys at that time exceeded the average weekly pay that a father might earn. Educational toys were also very popular.
Victorian toys and Victorian games meant a lot more to Victorian children than they do in the modern era. There were no video games or computers to entertain children.  Sometimes a child’s imagination was his or her best friend. The poor Victorian children did not get new toys. Mothers would make dolls for the girls if they were lucky and toys were whittled out of wood for the boys. A tightly wadded piece of cloth could serve as a ball to kick around in the streets. Poor Victorian children would rarely have more than one toy and it was usually handmade or handed down through the generations. They would guard it with their lives…it was all they had!

Some popular Victorian toys are listed below:

Skipping Rope  This is a toy or exercise that is still popular today. Like today it was more popular with girls than boys. Rich Victorian families would buy Skipping ropes with fancy hand carved handles but the poor families could easily make their own.

Mechanical Toys were usually made of wood and had moving parts powered by a hand crank.  In a world without video games and the like, Victorian children would be fascinated for hours playing with this toy. It was mostly a toy for rich children but could be made by hand if the father of a poor family was good at working with wood.

Toy soldiers.  Today video games have taken the place of playing with Toy Soldiers. But a young man in the Victorian age loved playing with toy soldiers. A boy in the 1800’s would use his imagination to carry out the many battles that his Toy Soldiers might face on any given day.

Marbles are still played with today but are not very popular but in Victorian days marbles were a popular toy. You could play many games with marbles. Poor children usually had marbles made of clay while the rich children might have marbles made from real marble.

Tea set.  As with all children from all ages there is a great desire to copy their parents. That’s why the miniature toy Tea Set was so popular with young Victorian girls. They could gather their friends around a table and have a nice little tea party of their own, just like their mother.  Miniature Tea Sets were a toy that rich Victorian children played with for the most part.

Hoop and stick.  Although this toy/game looks very simple, it was very popular. The object of the game was to keep the hoop rolling as long as possible. Children played this game outside and many times it would be played as a competition between several children to see who could roll the hoop the farthest.

A more complex toy was the Kaleidoscope and definitely for rich children only. A child could look through one end and see a brightly colored design at the other end. As the child would twist or shake the Kaleidoscope and the psychedelic design would change into another design and the more it was repeated the more it would change. This was a fascinating toy for a child in those days. 

Dolls have been around for a long time and will be around for many years to come. Most little girls have the desire to copy their mother and care for a child or at least a good substitute for one, which a doll fills very well. China Dolls became popular during the Victorian age but because they were very expensive were exclusively for rich children.  Poor children would have had handmade dolls.

Yo-Yo’s did not become popular until the early 1900’S but they were used by many children in the Victorian Days. Yo-Yo’s are known to have existed as far back as 500B.C. They are still available today and there are professional Yo-Yo’ers who compete all over the world.

As theatres and music halls became popular with Victorian adults toy theatres were no exception. So while the parents were going to the theatre children were pretending with their toy theatres. Simple toy theatres used characters cut from card glued to sticks but sophisticated theatres used string puppets.

Football became a serious sport in Victorian days when the Football Association was formed in 1863.   Football was played on the lawns or in the streets by all classes of people. Rich children would be able to own a professionally made leather ball; poor children would make their own or use a pigs bladder, however they had an uneven bounce and a very unpredictable behaviour!

Books were a great source of enjoyment for Victorian Children, rich or poor. You might not consider a book to be a Victorian toy or a game but without telivision to entertain them children in the 1800’s loved them and they would read them over and over.



Christmas as we celebrate it today has its origins in Victorian Britain.
It's hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise.
The rapid adoption of Christmas as we know it was largely thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  In the newpapers of the day there were pictures of them decorating their home Christmas tree, a tradition that reminded Prince Albert of his childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree covered with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
Christmas cards soon became very popular and with the introduction of the halfpenny postage rate everyone started sending cards to their friends and family.  Gift giving had traditionally been at New Year but moved as Christmas became more important to the Victorians. Initially gifts were rather modest – fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade trinkets. These were usually hung on the Christmas tree. However, as gift giving became more central to the festival, and the gifts became bigger and shop-bought, they moved under the tree.
Another Victorian Christmas invention were Christmas crackers. Inspired by a trip to Paris where he saw sweets wrapped in twists of paper , Tom Smith came up with the idea of the Christmas cracker: a simple package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart. The sweets were replaced by small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period, and remain in this form as an essential part of a modern Christmas.
Decorating the home at Christmas also became a more elaborate affair. The medieval tradition of using evergreens continued but the old custom of simply covering walls and windows with sprigs and twigs was much elaborated by Victorians. Christmas carols and the roast turkey also appeared in the Victorian period.
Although Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his book A Christmas Carol is credited with helping to popularise and spread the traditions of the festival. Its themes of family, charity, goodwill, peace and happiness encapsulate the spirit of the Victorian Christmas, and are very much a part of the Christmas we celebrate today.



Like a lot of things in Victorian days transport transformed the lives of many Victorians



At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, horse-drawn carriages were the main mode of transportation. Country-dwellers relied on open vehicles, such as wagons and drays. These were larger and heavier than carriages, and thus slower. They were useful for moving goods. For longer trips through the country, one could purchase a ticket for a seat in a coach.


With the Industrial Revolution came the widespread use of the steam engine, which was used to drive trains, ships and buses. Railways provided an efficient means of traveling between urban and rural areas as well as transporting goods. Bus and tram routes were created to connect with the railways, creating an effective and extensive transportation system. Trains slowly replaced the system of canals which were the main means of moving goods.  In 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London.  By the 1880s, an extensive underground network allowed passengers to travel between parts of London and beyond.


Cars and Trams

Early motor cars were very slow thanks to the Red Flag Act of 1865 which prohibited vehicles from moving faster than a walking pace of four miles per hour. The Act also said that a person bearing a red flag must walk in front of the vehicle. This law remained in effect until 1896, at which time motor cars began establishing their place on British roadways.

The use of electricity to power vehicles also grew more sophisticated and useful during the Victorian era. By the early 1880s, some horse- drawn trams were replaced by trolleys powered by electricity through overhead cables.