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Home Englands Glory City of London East London About me

The Victorian era
The splendour and the squalor

The squalorPenal System

Victoria Regina - 64 Glorious years

Queen Victoria was to reign longer than any before her. This record lasted up until 2016 when at the age of 90, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed it, and is still on the throne as I attend to this update (2018).
Victoria reigned for sixty four years, from 1837 to 1901. During this time there were to be many changes made to the metropolis, with large buildings being erected everywhere. The Victorians would certainly leave their mark. Because of the invention of the travelling cranes in the 19th century, there would be major construction work carried out all over the City and surrounding areas. The people of the time, and especially the monarch herself, were reputed to be clean living and of a high moral standard. But were they? Were the Victorians really as good and moral as they made themselves out to be?

An escalating death toll

The bad winter of 1837, the year that the young Victoria ascended to the throne, had caused a major epidemic of influenza. The death toll had risen dramatically. Bodies were piling up awaiting burial. People would stand at the graveside waiting for the clergy to finish the funeral in front of theirs. Navvies had to be recruited to keep up with the demand for new graves and mourners were upset by the swearing and cursing of the men trying to force coffins into the hastily dug holes. One onlooker described the graveyards as looking like freshly ploughed fields. As well as the living being overcrowded in the city, now the dead were in need of more space.

Graveyard shortage

The expanding city

Five years before Victoria’s ascendance to the throne there had been another great increase in the number of deaths. This was due to an outbreak of cholera. At the time, the fatalities had caused existing graveyards to quickly fill up. The lack of space for burying the dead had been a major concern for the government, and burial sites were being created further out into the suburbs. Places like Tower Hamlets, Highgate, and Brompton were called upon to supply the land to house the dead. It is hard to determine the exact number of inhabitants of the rapidly expanding London at this time, but the estimated population was close to two million and constantly rising. This was not only due to the birth rate, but also the constant flow of immigrants hoping to find the streets paved with gold. Just like the present day!

The original “Square Mile” had always been, and still was, expanding outwards beyond the sites of the old walls from Middlesex into the surrounding counties of Kent, Essex, and Surrey. From the cities of London, Westminster, and the ancient borough of Southwark across the Thames, many new boroughs had been added to form as the Victorians would later refer to it “A town with the greatest population and number of houses, in the world”. The original area within the walls was still referred to as London, but when including the great expansion beyond the City, it was referred to as the “Metropolis”. During this period of death and overcrowding of the inhabitants, a young princess Victoria ascended to the throne on June 20th . Pollution and poverty were also at a disastrous level.

Behind the scenes

Morals

The rich Victorian gentlemen, for the most part, were indifferent to the suffering and poverty that remained hidden behind their large houses and places of business. The ones who were born into wealth didn’t want to know what went on in the slums and filthy tenements, and the the businessmen and industrialists cared even less. They were the ones who abused the poor they employed, causing much sickness and death amongst their workers in order to keep the money rolling in. On the other hand, there were also a few philanthropists like George Peabody around. They set up trust funds to pay for housing which are still in existence today.

Prostitution was a booming business, and just as today, the rich were the ones who kept it going while preaching its evils, and outwardly showing their high moral standards. Servant girls were dismissed and sent away into the worst conditions imaginable, because they happened to fall pregnant. In most cases it was a member of the employers family who had caused the condition in the first place. The high moral standards were a cover up for their undercover sexual exploits. The Victorian middle, and upper classes made a great show of the perfect, moral, family. Many had a hidden seedy side.

Disease and poverty

The penal system

Behind the squeaky-clean rows of terraced houses and grand fronted buildings, beginning in the back streets and alleys of the City, were the slums. The further from the old walls you travelled, towards the East End of London the worse the conditions became. “The filthiest place on earth”, as described by a well to do visitor. He was referring to Whitechapel. No form of sewage disposal whatsoever.  Filth in the streets. The parish of Bethnal Green had people crammed into dingy rooms, living in dirt and squalor. Ten people living in a bare attic.

The Victorian use of the existing prison system was harsh. Still clinging on to the methods of the past. Children were imprisoned for minor offences, as were many adults. The work they did while serving a sentence was hard, and non productive. They were made to do hard laborious tasks for long periods of time, simply to keep them busy. There were no manufactured goods or anything of use accomplished by most of these meaningless tasks, merely the wrecking of human bodies; and minds.

Communications and engineering

The Victorian era greatly contributed to the improvement of communication links. Stagecoaches, canals, steam ships and the railway system. They also created a modern postal system with the introduction of the pre-paid penny black stamp.
Photography became available during the Victorian era enabling better records of the way of life to be kept.
Feats of engineering became common. Just look at Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge, or my favourite Victorian structure, Tower Bridge. Unfortunately they also brutalised some historical buildings with their gaudy "improvements".

See Tower Bridge opening: Here >> and Here >>