Living in the 19th century

Standard of Living

The period from the late 18th century to the mid-Victorian years witnessed a major shake up and change in both the economy and society. This was seen in the organisation and finance of industry and commerce, the skills and work practices of production and technology, massive population growth and the development and disciplining of labour. Some regions, notably coalfield areas, rapidly industrialised. Others saw revolutionary change focused around the development of trade and ship building in port cities.

At least for a few decades, most mass manufactured items were produced more efficiently and competitively in Britain and the country had the commercial, financial and political power to edge out rivals. In some industries, most notably textiles, massive changes took place in technology and in the organisation of production causing dramatic productivity growth. This in turn brought a steep decline in prices. In many other sectors more modest organisational improvements coupled with greater specialisation and the employment of cheap labour brought similar, though less dramatic, results. An unprecedented range and variety of products thus came within the grasp of a new mass market both within Britain and overseas.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked the peak of British economic dominance. A huge range of British products were displayed for foreign and domestic visitors in the monumental visionary architectural achievement of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. There was also increasing domestic demand both as a result of rising incomes for the middle classes and for workers with particular skills, and a population that increased from nine million in 1801 to thirty-six million in 1911. This helped to provide a secure bedrock for mid-Victorian prosperity.

Increased wage earning opportunities for women and juveniles boosted family spending, notably in textile districts and in the towns. More people were buying a greater variety of textiles, clothing, shoes, household and domestic items – on their list was china, cutlery, mirrors, books, clocks, furniture, curtains and bedding, as well as a variety of small wares, such as buckles, ribbons, buttons, snuff boxes and other fancy goods. More beer, butter, bread, milk, meat, vegetables, fruit, fish and all other foodstuffs were now being bought rather than made or grown at home.

It has been argued that this ‘consumer revolution’ from the later eighteenth century and into the Victorian period was also driven by social emulation. Ever-changing fashions and designs also stimulated demand whilst new forms of marketing and retailing made products more easily available to the consumer. This was manifest in the growth of urban and village shops, the use of shop window displays, the development of city department stores (from the 1880s), and the extension of newspaper and billboard advertising.

Working life was becoming increasingly regulated, and the working week was reorganised to promote ever-greater efficiency. A new division between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ emerged, and this new block of weekend leisure time coincided with the development of spectator sports like cricket and football, and the rise of music hall entertainment for the new working classes. The new railway network also made leisure travel and seaside holidays a possibility for many.


In 1800, Richard Trevithick, a Cornishman who, as the manager of a copper mine, near Penzance, was familiar with the use of steam power to pump water from the workings, devised a steam-driven road carriage. Three years later he and his cousin drove another steam carriage up Tottenham Court Road in London, breaking down a garden fence at the end of the run. These were the first high pressure steam locomotives.

In 1825, the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened but in its early months used horse drawn carriages which ran on their rails. In 1828, their superintendent engineer, Timothy Hackworth, launched the Royal George which conveyed 22,422 tonnes of coal over twenty miles at a cost of £466, as opposed to £998 by horse power.

In 1829, to determine whether locomotive traction traction was best for the carriage of passengers and freight on their line, the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway offered a prize of £500 to the designers of a locomotive which did not exceed six tons in weight, but was able to pull a load of at least three times that, at a minimum of ten miles an hour. At the Rainhill Trials in 1829, Robert Stephenson’s Rocket reached thirty miles an hour, completely outclassing the competition and marking the beginning of the Steam Age.

The building of railway lines proceeded apace in the 1830s. The line between Lancashire and London, via Birmingham, the country’s most important artery was completed to Birmingham in 1837 and from there to London the following year. The fine Doric arch erected outside the London terminal at Euston at a cost of £35,000 emphasised the importance of the line. In 1839 and 1840 it was linked by other lines to Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds, Chester and York. From London trunk lines began to radiate outwards, reaching Southampton in 1840, Bristol in 1841, Dover and Exeter via Bristol in 1844 and Yarmouth via Norwich in 1845. Railways timetables began to be issued by George Bradshaw at the end of the 1830s and the first W. H. Smith’s bookstall appeared in 1848.

Between 1845 and 1849 3411 miles of track were constructed. At its peak in 1847, about 250,000 men were employed in railway building but by 1850, for the first time, the numbers employed in running the railways exceed the numbers building them. In the second half of the nineteenth century the many speculative companies which had built the railway network were amalgamated to emerge as four large groupings. The London and North Western, formed in 1846 from the London and Birmingham, Grand Junction and others; The Great Western built between Bristol, Bath and London; the North Eastern and the London and South Western which began as the London to Southampton route.

At the end of the nineteenth century experiments were beginning with motor power. At the Paris Exposition of 1867 a gold medal was awarded to the German firm of Otto and Langer for an internal combustion engine. By the Locomotive Act of 1865, early motor vehicles on the roads of Britain were limited to a speed of four miles an hour and had to be preceded by a man with a red flag to warn pedestrians of their approach.


The first two shilling piece or florin was issued in 1849 and the double-florin in 1887.