What Was Victorian London Like?

DATED: 16.11.20

The 19th century saw London become the largest city in the world from around 1825, but as new buildings were erected and further prosperous advancements had been made there were still large areas that did not see the same economic upturn. Overcrowding was a major issue, resulting in slums outside of the capital’s thriving areas with millions of people living in terrible conditions.

Overcrowding was inevitable, with London’s population growing from one million at the beginning of the 1800s to around six million by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901. Quite simply, Victorian London did not have the infrastructure required for the massive surge in population – especially after the 1848 Potato Famine in Ireland was the reason behind some 100,000 Irish upping sticks and settling in to a new life in the city.

At one point the Irish made up to 20% of London’s population, but they were by no means the only migrants settling in the capital as the overall foreign-born population of the country grew from 0.6% in 1851 to 1.5% in 1901. While many of these people came from Eastern Europe, others from outside of the continent also began coming to the country, arriving from British colonies.

London was well on its way to becoming the multicultural hub it is today.

What Was London Like in Victorian Times?

Famous infrastructure began to pop up, such as the railway stations (including King’s Cross in 1850), Trafalgar Square, the clock tower which houses Big Ben next to the Houses of Parliament (which themselves were rebuilt in Victorian times after the original building was burned down in 1834). All while this was taking place, there was a putrid smell in the capital, largely due to raw sewage being emptied into the River Thames.

That would be an issue that wouldn’t be solved until Sir Joseph Bazalgette built London’s first sewer network – which is still used to this day – with almost 1,200 miles of tunnels and pipes installed underground to divert sewage out of the city. Although the network was opened in 1865 by Edward VII, Prince of Wales, it would not be fully completed until 1875.

Before Bazalgette’s sewer network was operational, disease such as cholera was rampant in the city due to the pollution in the water system. Other illnesses that were common in Victorian London, largely due to poor hygiene and sanitation, included typhoid, smallpox, scarlet fever, and other diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.

The Class Divide in Victorian London

The division between the upper/middle-class and working-class population was stark in Victorian London, with children from poorer backgrounds often denied an education because families needed them to enter the workplace to make ends meet. In contrast, those from privileged families were often taught at home by a private tutors, while middle-class children would attend grammar schools or private academies.

What this meant for working-class families is that their opportunities were limited as they lacked basic skills such as reading and writing. Poorly-paid manual labour was the best that they could hope for, seeing much resort to petty crime to try and make ends meet which, along with the exponential growth of the population, saw the need for the expansion of the prison system [link to What Was Life in Prison Like in Victorian London].

Working-class children would commonly be seen wearing scraggy, patched-up clothing that had either been bought second-hand or passed down from other members of the family. As boots and shoes were the most expensive items of clothing, children would often go walking around barefoot, even during the cold winter months. It was also common for Sunday-best clothes to be pawned on a Monday to help make ends meet before collecting them back from the pawnbrokers the following Saturday, which was payday.

The workings of a middle-class family were extremely different, with the father likely to be the only one who would go out to work in non-manual occupations such as a lawyer, banker or teacher etc. Children would spend the majority of their time with a nanny. The mother, who may have attended school as her child, would be expected to run the home which would mostly involve giving orders to the family’s servants. Even the poorer, middle-class families would have a servant working for them.

As travel connections improved towards the end of the Victorian-era, middle-class families – particularly those at the richer end of the spectrum – would take annual holidays abroad, while those who were comfortable would take a domestic holiday in places such as Scarborough and Ramsgate. While working-class families would live in cramped homes in boroughs, middle-class families were more likely to live in the outskirts of the city, commuting to work in London.

Victorian London Crime

The rate of crime throughout the 19th-century increased along with the expanding population, from around 5,000 cases in 1800 to 20,000 just 40 years later. About 75% of all recorded crime in Victorian London was petty theft owing to the poor conditions that working-class families were living in, while 10% was a violent crime.

Murders were extremely rare and, thus, the prospect of a serial killer was largely unheard of. That could explain why Jack the Ripper was able to remain anonymous because the police force were simply inexperienced and unprepared for an investigation like the Whitechapel Murders.

This, along with the poorly illuminated streets of London in Victorian times, would make committing murder (and getting away with it) quite simple. With little danger of witnesses on the dim streets of the capital and forensics not yet being utilised for criminal investigations, almost anyone could have committed the atrocities that resulted in the deaths of Mary Ann NicholsAnnie ChapmanElizabeth StrideCatherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly (and possibly more).

Take the Jack the Ripper Walking Tour

Our world-famous Ripper-Vision will transport you back to Victorian London, showing you what life was really like in 1888 at the time Jack the Ripper was running rampant around the streets of Whitechapel. Our expert tour guides will trace the steps of the killer, taking you to each of the murder scenes and other places of interest, filling you in with all the gory details and more interesting facts that just may shed new light on the case that has gripped the nation for more than a century.

To secure your place, head over to our booking page to purchase a ticket for any of our daily tours.


Tours

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AT 2:30PM & 7:30PM

Tour Duration

1 hr 45 mins

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The Jack the Ripper Casebook