In Victorian society, rich and poor could find themselves living very close together, sometimes just streets apart. During the 19th century more people moved into the towns and cities to find work in factories. Cities filled to overflowing and London was particularly bad. At the start of the 19th century about 20% of Britain’s population lived there, but by 1851 half the population of the country had set up home in London.
London, like most cities, was not prepared for this great increase in people. People crowded into already crammed houses. Rooms were rented to whole families or perhaps several families. If there was no rooms to rent, people stayed in lodging houses.
But how different were the homes they lived in? Use this collection of sources to find out.
Land-owners or factory owners often built houses for their workers. Unfortunately, this did not reduce overcrowding or improve building standards. The houses were cheap, most had between two and four rooms – one or two rooms downstairs, and one or two rooms upstairs, but Victorian families were big with perhaps four or five children. There was no water, and no toilet. A whole street (sometimes more) would have to share a couple of toilets and a pump. The water from the pump was frequently polluted. It was no surprise that few children made it to adulthood.
Some of the worst houses were ‘back to backs’ or courts. The only windows were at the front. There were no backyards and a sewer ran down the middle of the street. Housing conditions like this were perfect breeding grounds for disease.
On the other hand, the homes for the middle classes and the upper classes were much better. They were better built, larger and had most of the new gadgets installed, such as flushing toilets, gas lighting, and inside bathrooms. These houses were also decorated in the latest styles. There would be heavy curtains, flowery wallpaper, carpets and rugs, ornaments, well made furniture, paintings and plants. The source picture at the top this webpage illustrates some of the typical furnishings for the homes of the wealthier classes.
Most rich people had servants and they would live in the same house, frequently sleeping on the top floor or the attic. The rich had water pumps in their kitchens or sculleries and their waste was taken away down into underground sewers.
Gradually, improvements for the poor were made. In 1848, Parliament passed laws that allowed city councils to clean up the streets. One of the first cities to become a healthier place was Birmingham. Proper sewers and drains were built. Land owners had to build houses to a set standard. Streets were paved and lighting was put up.
Over time, slums were knocked down and new houses built. However, these changes did not take place overnight. When slums were knocked down in 1875 the poor people had little choice but to move to another slum, making that one worse. Few could afford new housing.
In this lesson on Victorian homes students are gradually introduced to sources on Hackney, starting with a small map section, then photographic evidence, concluding with the census.
Teachers may wish to ease their pupils gently into working with the census returns. They can be asked to look first at column headings, then down the columns. The list of occupants is also worth discussion, as are terms such as ‘Nursing’ which have changed their meanings – to wet nursing in this case.
Although the tasks do not directly ask pupils to make comparisons, it is likely that they will do so anyway. The largest differences are between the photos.
The activity presented here can be extended with illustrations of the interiors of rich and poor housing.
Illustration : COPY 1/155 f.198
Source 1 : IR 121/17/17
Source 2 : P8629 (Image courtesy of London Borough of Hackney Archives)
Source 3 : RG 12/284
Source 4 : P76 (Image courtesy of London Borough of Hackney Archives)
Source 5 : RG 12/200
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