Life in the Victorian era
What was life like in the Victorian era?
Living in the Victorian era was exciting because of all the new inventions, and steam trains and steam ships making travel a lot faster and easier. But, it was also a hard time to live in if you didn’t have much money. Even very young children had to work if their family needed them to.
However, life improved a lot for people by the end of the Victorian era. Laws were put in place that made working conditions a bit better in factories and mines, and that stopped young children from working by requiring them to go to school instead. More people were living in cities, but hygiene and sanitation was more important thanks to people like Florence Nightingale. Plus, the Victorians began all the Christmas traditions like sending cards and decorating trees that we know today!
Top 10 facts
- The inventions of machines in factories replaced jobs that people used to do, but people were needed to look after the machines and keep the factories clean.
- Factories were built in cities, so people ended up moving to the cities to get jobs. Half the population in Britain lived in cities by the end of the Victorian era.
- Cities became crowded, busy and dirty, but discoveries about hygiene and sanitation meant that diseases like cholera were easier to prevent.
- People in the Victorian era started to use electricity for the first time, and to listen to music by playing records on the gramophone.
- Steam trains made travel a lot easier, and rich people started to go on holidays to the seaside in places like Blackpool and Brighton.
- There was a big difference between rich and poor in Victorian times. Rich people could afford lots of treats like holidays, fancy clothes, and even telephones when they were invented.
- Poor people – even children – had to work hard in factories, mines or workhouses. They didn’t get paid very much money.
- By the end of the Victorian era, all children could go to school for free. Victorian schools were very strict – your teacher might even beat you if you didn’t obey the rules.
- The way we celebrate Christmas was begun in Victorian times – they sent the first Christmas cards and made Christmas crackers.
- Charles Dickens was a famous Victorian author who wrote A Christmas Carol, and other books about what life was like.
Did you know?
- Things we do at Christmas today began in Victorian times! They were even the first to send Christmas cards.
- At the start of the Victorian era in 1837, most people would have used candles and oil or gas lamps to light their homes and streets. By the end of the Victorian era in 1901, electricity was available and rich people could get it in their homes.
- Poor people could work in mines, in mills and factories, or in workhouses. Whole families would sometimes have to work so they’d all have enough money to buy food.
- Children in poor families would have jobs that were best done by people who weren’t very tall. They would have to crawl in small spaces in mines, or underneath machines in textile mills. It was very dangerous!
- Rich people didn’t have dangerous jobs like these. In fact, some didn’t even have to work! They could afford to buy the new inventions coming out like the telephone, the gramophone (for playing music) and electric light bulbs.
- Rich Victorians were the first to go on seaside holidays – some of the places they’d go are spots where we go on holiday too, like Blackpool, Brighton and Southend.
- Victorian children loved it when their mum and dad let them see a magic lantern show. This was a slideshow of pictures that told a story – the machine that showed the pictures was called a magic lantern.
- Almost all families in Victorian times – except for the very poor ones – would pay people to be servants who would do their household chores for them. This included cooking, cleaning, washing and even serving dinner. Women who were servants were called maids, and men were called footmen. The head servant would be a man called a butler.
- There was a rule for everything in Victorian times – even about the sorts of clothes you’d wear in the morning or evening, and when in the city or in the country!
- All men wore hats in Victorian times (rich men wore top hats, poor men wore caps). When a man wanted to say hello to a lady, it was good manners to tip the brim of their hat down, then push their hat back onto their head.
- It was bad manners if a man spoke to a woman he didn’t know without someone else introducing them first.
- Children always had to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to their family members every time the child came in or went out of a room. Try doing that for a day in your home!
- Children were not allowed to shout, complain, interrupt or disagree with anyone. They had to do as they were told, and be cheerful and quiet all the time.
Can you spot the following in the gallery below?
- A railway poster advertising Brighton and Volk’s Electric Railway
- A Victorian workhouse (in Nantwich)
- Women in a Victorian workhouse
- Clothes that a wealthy Victorian man would have worn
- Victorian dresses with bustles
- A Victorian hoop skirt
- How children dressed in the Victorian era
- A Victorian magic lantern
- A Victorian Christmas card
Inventions like the steam engine and steel-making led to machines being made that could produce lots of the same thing at once. Factories were filled with machines like these. While it used to be that one person would be a weaver and make cloth, machines could now do that job instead and make cloth that didn’t cost as much.
So, what did people do if machines did all the work? Well, the machines needed looking after, and factory owners wanted people who could do that as well as take care of other little jobs around the factory. Since factories were usually built in large towns and cities, and people needed new jobs, most people moved to where the factories were. By the end of the Victorian era, half of the people living in Britain lived in cities.
This meant that cities were crowded and dirty. If you were poor and couldn’t afford to live in a very nice place, it was easy to get sick. There was a large outbreak of cholera in London in 1853-1854 that killed 11,000 people. Most people thought that the disease was coming from areas that just smelled nasty and got passed around through scents in the air, but Dr. John Snow worked out that the disease was actually spreading because of a cesspit that was leaking into a water pump where people drank from. By the end of the Victorian era, London had a better sewage system and sanitation was a bigger concern – plus, people knew more about how diseases are passed from one person to another.
Other famous Victorians who believed that proper hygiene and sanitation were needed to be healthy were Florence Nightingale and Dr. Joseph Lister. Dr. Lister was a surgeon who discovered that cleaning wounds and surgical instruments prevented infections.
Jobs that people had in Victorian times included usual ones like lawyers, doctors, teachers and vicars, but there were these too:
- Engineers were needed to build bridges, buildings and machines
- Miners to get coal, iron and tin
- Mill workers to keep machines running and produce textiles
- Farm workers to tend and harvest crops
- Railway porters to sort out passengers’ luggage
- Navvys who broke ground for railway tracks to be laid down
- Nightmen to clear out the sewers in crowded cities
- Maids, butlers, cooks and other servants in the home
Steam engines needed coal to run them, so mining coal was very important. Working in coal mines was hard, and sometimes entire families would do it just to earn enough money. There were also mines for iron and tin in different parts of Britain.
Only poor people would work in factories and mines, and both were pretty unhealthy places to be. The air would be thick with dust from the mines or from the cotton being spun for cloth, and working hours were long.
If someone didn’t have a home (or money to afford a place to live), they could go to a workhouse, which was a place that provided food and beds in exchange for doing work. While this sounds pretty handy, it wasn’t very nice. Men, women and children all had to live separately, so families couldn’t stay together. The food wasn’t very good, and children weren’t taught how to read and write. Everyone had to wear the same uniform, and breaking any rules would mean strict punishment.
If you were rich, then life was completely different! Rich Victorians lived in large houses that were well heated and clean. Children got a good education either by going away to school or having a governess who taught them at home (this is usually how girls were educated).
Wealthy people could also afford to buy beautiful clothes. All women in Victorian times wore dresses with long skirts, but rich women could get the latest fashions that needed special underclothes to wear properly. They wore dresses that needed hoop skirts underneath to make the dresses spread out in a dome shape around their legs. Or, they wore skirts that lay mostly flat but that poofed out a bit around their bottom – this was called a bustle.
All men, whether rich or poor, wore waistcoats. Rich men also wore top hats and carried walking sticks.
Names to know:
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) – Florence was the founder of modern nursing; she knew it was important to keep hospitals clean and well-run.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) – a famous Victorian author who wrote A Christmas Carol, and many other books about life in Victorian times
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) – a Victorian author from Scotland who wrote the famous children’s stories Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) – a popular Victorian poet; one of his poems was ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, which was about the Crimean War.
Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905) – founded children’s charity Barnardo’s in 1870 as a home for children who were orphaned or didn’t have a place to live, which meant they didn’t have to go to a workhouse
Mrs Isabella Beeton (1836-1865) – an author who wrote a famous book about cooking and housekeeping that many people in Victorian times used
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – a Victorian naturalist who wrote On the Origin of Species and came up with the theory of natural selection, which led to scientific research into evolution.
Joseph Lister (1827-1912) – Lister was a surgeon who introduced the idea of keeping surgical instruments free from germs, and disinfecting wounds.
Just for fun...
- See the difference in the sorts of clothes worn by women in Tudor and Victorian times.
- Design a Victorian garden.
- Design a Victorian-style room.
- Try writing like a Victorian by printing off this page and copying the phrase.
- Walk down a Victorian street
- Score points by choosing the correct Victorian etiquette for each social situation.
- Spot Victorian objects from Tiverton Museum
- See a map of the British Empire in Victorian times
- Explore a Victorian painting
- What can you learn about life in Victorian times from looking at the census?
- Identify famous Victorians
- Can you spot what differences there were between homes for rich people and homes for poor people?
- Find out about Washday Monday and domestic life in a 19th century weaver's cottage
- How to make Victorian Christmas crackers.
- How to make Victorian Christmas tree ornaments.
- Walk through a Victorian house
- Try your hand at Victorian cookery with step-by-step videos and recipes for beef stew with dumplings, roast goose and apple batter pudding
Find out more:
- Victorian Britain: toys and games
- The Victorian School (Information about the Victorian era)
- Make your own Victorian Christmas
- What kind of staff would a Victorian household have?
- Victorian etiquette
- Listen to short audio dramas about the lives of children in Victorian times on BBC Schools Radio
- Find out about Victorian buildings and houses in an architecture podcast from FunKids
- Read facts about health and food in Victorian times
- Read fiction books set in Victorian times
- Watch a video of a 'Victorian harvest festival'
- Discover life in a Victorian weaver's cottage the interactive way: listen to and watch the looms and imagine living without heating or electricity
- See a cartoon version of Victorian London in the animated life of Charles Dickens
See for yourself
Learn about coal mining in Victorian times at the National Coal Mining Museum for England.
Visit Tyntesfield, a Victorian stately home in Somerset.
See writer Thomas Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, decorated as it would have been in Victorian times.
Explore a Victorian workhouse, and learn about the people who would have lived and worked there.
Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see clothes that upper class Victorians would have worn.
Take a tour of the Charles Dickens museum, which is in a house where he used to live!
What it was like for children working in textile factories?
Find out what children in a workhouse would eat.
Find out what workhouses were like for children.
What it was like to work in coal mines?
Discover what Victorian schools were like.
More about Victorian schools.
Learn about health and medicine in Victorian times