Poverty In Victorian Times

When we talk about people being below the ‘Poverty Line’ in modern-day Britain, we are generally talking about people who struggle to live on State Benefits, or are unable to find regular work. We think of those who cannot afford to eat anything but the basic foods, and are unable to own any of the electronic devices we now consider ‘normal’ in our lives. Some of them are in crippling debt to high-interest loan companies, or worse still have cash debts to unscrupulous money lenders who exploit them by calling door-to-door.

But in the Victorian Era, when our Empire was flourishing and many people were becoming obscenely wealthy, genuine poverty existed alongside all the grandeur. No social services, few charitable organisations, and families living their lives on the streets, trying to get by on a daily basis.

Children chopping wood to sell as kindling.
They would have scavenged the wood from discarded boxes, or broken fencing.
The boy’s axe might well have been borrowed, as he was unlikely to be able to afford to buy one.

A young girl making a poor quality soup. She has no kitchen to prepare food in, so does it on the street.
It was unlikely she would get to eat much of it, as it was being prepared to sell to others.

Workhouses would take people in when they were destitute. In return for some work, and obeying strict rules, they would get bed and board.
This is the male dining room of Marylebone Workhouse in London, around 1880.
Families committing themselves to the workhouse were separated by gender.

An exhausted looking girl who has been collecting rags to sell.

This startling image is of a pregnant 11 year old girl.
By that age, she was already a well-known prostitute, and had a police record.
Child prostitution was very common in Victorian Britain, as was regular sexual abuse of very young children.

Homeless people might be offered a free bed for the night, in one of the shelters provided by charities.
Once again, the sexes were separated, and here we see men settling down into ‘Coffin Beds’.

People would do any job to get enough money to eat that day.
This is a ‘Night-Soil Man’ during the 1860s.
His job was to collect the human waste from houses which used chamber pots or communal ‘middens’ shared by all the residents.

At the same time in America, tenement living produced similar overcrowded and filthy conditions in major cities.
This is New York, around 1890.

This young Londoner is clutching a broken basket, his only possession.
He would use it to carry things around in that he was trying to sell.

In London, overcrowded slum living often preceded real poverty.
All these people lived in just two small 3-room houses.

I wonder what they would think of a modern-day situation where having no TV, no Internet access, or use of a mobile phone is on the list of what is considered to be poverty?

77 thoughts on “Poverty In Victorian Times

  1. Amazing pictures they speak volumes. The big leap forward for the working classes was the industrial revolution when working men began to form unions and press for more pay.
    It also made the rich western nations who ruled the world and exploited the poor nations who fell behind. There are about twenty million in India with no toilets and no hygiene , but the march of science follows the money and we are busy making mobile phones and going to Mars.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was studying History at school, we saw similar photos about the conditions of poor people during the ‘Industrial Revolution’. I sometimes wonder what is taught as ‘History’ in today’s schools.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The destitute In New York at the time. mostly immigrant families lived in dreadful conditions. Things did not begin to improve until Jacob Riis, a Dane, published his photo book – “How the Other Half Lives.” It was a sensation and moved a young Theodore Roosevelt to begin progressive era improvements. Riis began the era of photo journalism. A great beach park is named after him in Queens. Good topic for a future blog post. Regards

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a bit of a rough day healthwise yesterday Pete, so am a bit too late to this one. Unbelievably sad pictures though, especially those of the children. I’d like to think these times are far behind us now, but unfortunately we know that’s not the case in some countries. Maybe never even 😢

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Pete, sorry for the very late response. It’s been a really bad week for me😔 I hope to explain more in detail tomorrow, or on monday. But slowly getting back into things again as best I can. Thanks as always for your support and kind words 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Even now in our country, the disparity between wealth and poverty is so glaring. You would think our government officials would learn from it but almost all of them are so corrupt. Thank you for showing us the squalid life in Britain back then.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Did you see the faces of those men in the workhouse? All of them looked old, but I bet they weren’t what we would consider old today. Too old to work – usually men were lucky to grab a day’s work by turning up outside factories and docks. Bosses I suppose would pick the younger ones.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you are right to suggest that they were not as old as they looked. And yes, the younger strong men would have always been picked for one day’s work at the time. The pay was the same, whatever their age.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Times were definitely different. The definition of destitute does not compare across the eras. My genealogy work has revealed so many horrific conditions and situations it gives me a new outlook on our current living standards. Another great post, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Powerful photos, Pete…we are currently in the midst of a “tent city” crisis in Los Angeles: blocks of camping tents pitched on downtown sidewalks…a housing and mental health crisis getting worse by the day

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Just passing through Pete (two + years in Norfolk!). Inner cities are returning to the ones shown, only ‘condition’ is not physical but psychological and in their genes. I was born in Gorton, it was rough when I was young, prospered in the fifties via Beyer-Peacock locomotives then went into terminal decline. It’s now officially the worst place to live in the UK. It was home to the Moors murderers; I knew Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.They pulled down all the slum terraces in the sixties and built mindless council estates. It simply got worse year on year: crime, violence and guess what? The labour MP Gerald Kaufmann hardly ever visited – he had a solicitors practice offering legal aid to all the n’er do wells, made a lot of money.They have generations of families in the same council houses, all on benefits, all never worked – I knew a lot of these people; one family used a vintage hearse to drive around in, they were completely off the page and there were many, many family clans like them. The sum total of all of this is a modern day slum. Nothing will ever change – nothing has in sixty years, there is no will and there is no way – just the same as the victorian slums.

        Liked by 3 people

          1. Thanks – good to see your site is prospering, always thought it would. Things are going well, new kitchen, sorted out most of the ‘snags’, found some new hobbies etc.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. The girl in the first photo made me think of Charity in your serial. That’s my favorite photo here. Second favorite is the Night-Soil Man.
    I have to wonder who was taking these photographs, and for what purpose? Were the photographers journalists who wished to alert high society to human misery by publishing the photos in a newspaper along with an article? Were the camera-clickers documentarians?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I cannot say for all the images, David. But some photographers at the time were definitely trying to record the hardships faced by the poor. I doubt such photos would be salable, or feature in newspapers back then though.
      The young pregnant prostitute was something of a celebrity at the time, and did have an article written about her, by reformers trying to change the laws on the age of consent to sexual activity. When the photo was taken, 11 was under age, which was by then legally set at 13. This was widely ignored though, and rarely prosecuted. In 1885, the reformers managed to get the age raised to 16, which is still the same today.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. The photo from the USA is most likely the Danish news and police reporter Jacob Riis. He nearly died as a poor immigrant in New York. He became friends with TDR, and they toured around in the dark tenants of Mulberry Street and documented the slum. Finally this year a museum about him opened in Ribe, his hometown

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Maria, Riis’ photo book “How The Other Half Lives” was a sensation at the time and ushered in the period of progressive reform. He was the founder of modern photo journalism. There is a lovely beach/park named after him in Queens. Spent many a day there in my youth. Regards from Florida

          Liked by 3 people

  9. Charles Dickens gives a good idea of some of the living conditions of the era. He was a contemporary of the time, after all. He doesn’t go completely into the nitty gritty detail of some of your amazing photos, but he gives a good idea. I’m thinking Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and one of the best books ever written, David Copperfield.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. These pictures are heartbreaking. They show the desperation of abject poverty. I bristle against the pontificating of the righteousness of poverty, the misconception. My mother’s mother was very poor during the Great Depression, she did back breaking work to provide for her family, but at least she lived on a small “farm.” She had a house. Not much of a house, but it was shelter. She had access to soap and water and the ability to fashion clothes, sometimes out of flour sacks but clothes nontheless. But what if she had lived in one of the big cities without access to a vegetable garden and a few chickens? What then?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Pam.
      I always think how relatively ‘recent’ some of these photos are, in the context of history. I cannot imagine a life of ‘poverty’ today, with all the modern systems in place to try to help, let alone when no such system existed.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. My grandparents lived through the Depression too. Apparently my Nana made headcheese in the basement of an apartment house to help make money. The thought alone of headcheese is revolting but the thought of my sweet Nana as a child having to make it is worse. Her father had passed away unexpectedly leaving the family with next to nothing.

      Liked by 2 people

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