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?

Get Ahead, Get A Hat

Following a request from my lovely blogging friend, Lara, I have been investigating the headgear worn in Victorian times.
You can read her blog here. https://laratracehentz.wordpress.com/

She was interested in the use of Beaver pelts in hat making, and their popularity in men’s hats. Only male headgear features in this post.

A Victorian Top Hat made from felted Beaver fur. (1880)

To save me typing out all the information, this short article is from Wikipedia.
As you can see, the popularity of hats made from Beaver fur goes back to the 14th century, perhaps even much earlier.

‘A beaver hat is a hat made from felted beaver fur. They were fashionable across much of Europe during the period 1550–1850 because the soft yet resilient material could be easily combed to make a variety of hat shapes (including the familiar top hat). Smaller hats made of beaver were sometimes called beaverkins, as in Thomas Carlyle’s description of his wife as a child.

Used winter coats worn by Native Americans were actually a prized commodity for hat making because their wear helped prepare the skins; separating out the coarser hairs from the pelts.
To make felt, the underhairs were shaved from the beaver pelt and mixed with a vibrating hatter’s bow. The matted fabric was pummeled and boiled repeatedly, resulting in a shrunken and thickened felt. Filled over a hat-form block, the felt was pressed and steamed into shape. The hat maker then brushed the outside surface to a sheen.
Evidence of felted beaver hats in western Europe can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century: “A Merchant was there with a forked beard / In motley, and high on his horse he sat, / Upon his head a Flandrish [Flemish] beaver hat.” Demand for beaver fur led to the near-extinction of the Eurasian beaver and the American beaver in succession. It seems likely that only a sudden change in style saved the beaver.

Beaver hats were made in various styles as a matter of civil status:

the Wellington (1820–40)
the Paris beau (1815)
the D’Orsay (1820)
the Regent (1825)
the clerical (18th century).
In addition, beaver hats were made in various styles as a matter of military status:

the continental cocked hat (1776)
Navy cocked hat (19th century)
the Army shako (1837).
The popularity of the beaver hat declined in the early/mid-19th century as silk hats became more fashionable across Europe.’

By the end of the 1800s, Beaver pelts were in short supply. European beavers had been almost wiped out, and the steady trade from North America had eliminated almost all of the beavers in America and Canada too. This had a significant impact on the economy of Native American tribes in those countries, who had been trading pelts with French and English dealers for centuries.

The hat makers turned to silk, for their well-to-do customers.

Despite the style of the top hat enduring well into the 20th century, other styles of headgear were also popular in Victorian times. As you can see from this contemporary illustration, two of these men are wearing ‘Bowler’ hats, and the third has on a straw ‘Boater’.

The Bowler hat was favoured by the middle classes, and is still worn today by some men.

During hot weather, many men wore straw hats, to be more comfortable.
The tall straw hat was favoured by many.

But the smaller, lightweight ‘Boater’ was perhaps the most popular hat during summertime.

The ‘Deerstalker’ hat originated from hunting deer. The front peak shielded the hunter’s eyes, and the matching back peak stopped rainwater going down his neck. The ear-flaps could be tied down to cover the ears and cheeks, in cold weather.
This style was popularised by Conan-Doyle, in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Working class people could rarely afford stylish hats, and tended to wear flat caps made from cheap materials.

Hat wearing continued well into the 1960s, with the Trilby hat most widely seen. Most men of my generation never wore hats of any kind, regarding them to be old-fashioned.

These days, more and more people of all ages and gender are wearing baseball caps, an import from the USA.

Going Shopping: The Victorian Experience

Some of you will recall that I recently posted a photo-series about the sort of shops that were around when I was very young. Some more research shows that around one hundred years earlier, during the Victorian Era, many of those same shops were already trading. It seems very little had changed between 1860, and 1958.

Sainsbury is one of the largest supermarket chains in Britain. British readers will know the name well, as there is hardly a town or city in the UK that does not have a branch nearby.

This is how they started out.

Much in the same way as so many Victorians liked to be photographed standing outside their beloved houses, the same applied to the shopkeepers of the time.

Long before local authorities banned excessive on-street displays for ‘health and safety’ concerns, it was usual for many goods to be stacked outside the shops. There was rarely enough room for everything inside, and all that stock had to be laboriously carried back in at closing time.

There were always lots of small shops selling household essentials.
This would have been the ‘Homebase’ of its time

An ‘Off-Licence’ (or License) is a shop that sells beers, wines, and spirits that have to be consumed ‘Off’ the premises. Unlike pubs, it was forbidden to open any bottles inside, or to drink them in there. Customers could take in their own pots and jugs though, to be filled from barrels of beer inside.
They continued until the supermarkets began to sell alcohol, and drove them out of business.
I actually operated one, with my mother, from 1976-1981.
Not this one though.
(The sign ‘Free House’ doesn’t mean that the drinks were free of charge. It means that the shop is not tied to one particular brewery, so ‘Free’ to sell all brands)

Sweets and chocolate were always very popular. Dedicated ‘sweet shops’ could be found everywhere, usually with small children inside, trying to decide which sweets to spend a very small amount of money on. They almost always sold cigarettes and tobacco too, and you can see that stated in small print over the entrance door.

Tobacconists usually sold newspapers and magazines too, as well as offering some sweets or confectionery to tempt customers.

At the same time in America, shops were getting grander and grander. This is a Philadelphia drug store, in 1880.
The interior is magnificent.

After trudging around doing all that shopping, the Victorian consumer usually liked to stop off for a cup of tea, and perhaps a bite to eat.
Popular ‘Tea Rooms’ offered genteel surroundings, and fair prices.
You would be served by very smart waitresses too.
Still prefer Starbucks?

I think it is a great shame that these character-filled small shops with their dedicated and knowledgeable owners have all but disappeared.

Like many good things of the past, they have been consigned to History.

Looking Good In Victorian Times

During the Victorian Era of 1837-1901 going out badly dressed was never an option for all but the poorest in society. In the 1860s, high fashion demanded the wearing of very wide, ‘crinoline’ dresses. There were supported by a hooped affair that the unfortunate lady had to wear strapped around her middle. Then yards of heavy material in the form of an underskirt and overskirt would be worn underneath, and fastened around the hoops, After all that, the final dress would be put on by a helpful relative, or a ladies’ maid, often having to be sewn into position at the last minute.

No wonder houses had bigger entrance doors at the time!

The demand for ever smaller waists in female fashions led to some drastic measures. Corsets stiffened with whalebone (yes, from real whales) would be tightly laced around the middle, from under the breasts, to the swell of the hips. This was done with such force, it was almost impossible for the poor woman to consider doing it without help.

Not only did they have to suffer the corsets, but also smart ‘corset covers’ that were applied over them. This on an undergarment that nobody could even see!
Many versions were widely available.

The resulting tiny waist has to be seen to be believed. Small wonder that women dressed like this could not eat, found it almost impossible to go to the toilet, and often fainted as a consequence of their internal organs being compressed unnaturally.

A snazzy striped dress was the height of fashion too. This lady was very much ‘on trend’, in around 1880.
Her waist reminds me of a wasp!

This is what passed for mainstream ‘glamour’ photography at the time. 🙂
Although tame by modern standards, it serves to illustrate just how much underwear was worn under everyday clothes.

Men had to look good too of course. Though they might have escaped the rigours of corsets and crinolines, they were expected to wear three-piece suits in all temperatures, along with hard collars, and ties of course. And not forgetting trying to keep a heavy top hat on their head.
As well as the clothes, facial hair was the ‘mark of a man’!

This smart chap obviously loves himself.
He has included the cane in his photo, showing him ‘getting his swag on’!

So the next time you are slipping on a barely-there pair of thong panties, a baggy T-shirt, some black leggings, and flip-flops on your feet, just be grateful that you were born after 1920.

Wish You Were Here?: Holiday Postcards

Are you old enough to remember when we sent picture postcards from our holidays? Nice scenes of the place where we were staying, photos of sunny beaches, or the traditional British ‘saucy joke’ cards?

The modern advance of phone cameras, Facebook, Instagram, and many other social media platforms has more or less killed off the hand-written postcard. That along with the cost of postage, and the chore of buying them, writing them, and buying stamps to post them. I remember them with great fondness though, and I was still sending them regularly, as recently as 1990.

The first picture postcard officially recognised as such was sent in 1840, in London. The Victorian era in Britain saw the practice quickly taken up by holidaymakers though, as rail travel broadened the horizons of ordinary people, and they were keen to tell their friends, family, or work colleagues just what a great time they were having, by sending them a suitable drawing of the resort.

These ‘cute’ cards continued to be popular until the 1930s.

In Britain after WW2, family holidays became more commonplace. But the postcards they sent from their destinations began to change. This was the advent of the ‘saucy’ card, which usually had nothing to do with the resort, or even being on holiday.

Some of these became so rude, they were actually banned at the time!
Like this one.

Once the ‘swinging sixties’ arrived, sauciness was on the way out, unable to compete with what could be seen every day in the streets, at the cinema, or on TV. But they kept going with the saucy cards, all the same.

When organised holiday camps became popular here, people would send back postcards showing the camps themselves.
You have to remember that this was what was perceived as ‘luxury’ for working class people in 1960s Britain.

Once I started to travel, I was always keen to get the cards bought, written, and sent home as early as possible.
It was not unknown for us to return from our trip many days before the cards arrived.

I was lucky enough to go to places thought to be ‘exotic’ at the time.
Tunisia was considered to be an unusual destination then.

And very few British people travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
So I was sure to get cards sent back from Leningrad.

I understand why picture postcards have lost their appeal. And I can see why new generations of holidaymakers would find it crazy to buy a photo and send it home with something written on the back, when they can share a picture of themselves by the pool within seconds of arriving.

But I would still love to receive a holiday postcard from someone.

We all have a book in us

How many times has this been heard over the years? Approaching Retirement, I was often told, ‘now is the time to write that book’. After all, I had led a comparatively exciting working life. Over 20 years in a front line ambulance, followed by more than 10 years behind the scenes working for the Metropolitan Police. I had attended bombings, and major disasters. I had delivered babies, cared for victims of terrible burns and injuries, and ended my working life deploying firearms officers in Central London. There was also the possibility to inject humour, with unusual tales of quirky events, mistakes and errors made, and the strange characters that I had dealt with, or worked alongside. I had travelled a fair bit. What about experiences behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Soviet Russia, or visiting East Germany many years before the wall came down?
If this did not provide fertile enough ground for that book, there were always my personal interests. History, Civil Wars, Cameras and Photography, Dickensian London, and the development of weapons through the ages. Maybe I could use my experiences with the Police, to write about modern crime-fighting in the Metropolis? There was always the possibility that my new life in Norfolk would yield great material for a book about the transition from London to the countryside. I would definitely look into it. After all, didn’t my life deserve a printed legacy, or to be available as an electronic download? Surely I too deserved to be in the remainder bins at half price, or in the window of Waterstones as the cheapest of the ‘buy 3 get 1 free offer? Failing all that, I could adapt these experiences and interests, to write a work of fiction, loosely based on something I knew a bit about.

I considered all the options, starting with the obvious. My Life in the Ambulance Service. An interesting read, with a few chuckles, and lots of gasps. From the end of the 1970’s, to the start of the 21st century. Strikes, civil disorder, changes in the NHS, advancements in care, yet the job was essentially the same. There have been a few written already. They didn’t sell well. There was one exception to this, the marvellous ‘Bringing out the dead’, the only work to ever get inside the darker aspects of the job of a Paramedic. Generally though, people don’t want to read the truth about injury and illness. It just isn’t entertaining or informative.
What about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War? I have always been interested in that period. I am a member of the Cromwell Association, and I live in East Anglia, so research should be easy. I was forgetting Antonia Fraser. Her definitive biography of the man and his times, as thick as a telephone directory, immaculately researched, and a great read for anyone interested in the subject. No point trying to better that.
Perhaps a crime thriller, drawing on my Police contacts? I remembered the novel ‘By Reason of Insanity’. Probably the best book about a serial killer, and those hunting him, ever written. Then there were the books about forensic detectives, pathologists, or those with a gritty, authentic feel, like the ‘Rebus’ series. Could I do better than all these?

I doubt it.
How about a non-fiction work of importance, say the history of a great city like London? Oops, Peter Ackroyd beat me to that one.
This leaves the fish- out- of- water transition to a strange land, as my best bet. Hang on, am I forgetting Bill Bryson, or ‘A Year in Provence’? My feeble musings on a life in Norfolk are never going to hold a candle to these best sellers.
So, it had to be a well-researched, thought-provoking work about the unhappy lot of the working class in Victorian London. I would start right away. I had the credentials, as I came from the poorest district in South London, Rotherhithe. Nuzzling the south bank of the Thames, this was a place that had changed beyond recognition, from unspeakable slum, it had become a fashionable, dockside development. The docks had closed, and the inhabitants mostly moved away. There had to be some mileage in that surely? No. I had forgotten Charles Dickens, not to mention Mr Ackroyd (again).

My conclusion is that we do not all have a book ‘in us’. Writers and authors have books in them. They get up early, write long and hard. They research, they study, they read other books, and they strive for excellence. They are their own harshest critics, and they give their lives to their work. Families are shunned, homes re-mortgaged, lovers abandoned, luxuries are foregone. They also have good ideas, and act upon them.

The recent meteoric success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and its sequels, fuelled by social media sites on the Internet, is a good example. Written by a lady who waited until she had seen her family grow, and her career aspirations satisfied, she embarked on her trilogy of lust, bondage and dark love. It has probably made her a fortune, and she has the film rights to come as well.
I could have had that idea. I could imagine sex and bondage, vulnerable females, and a dark central character. It can’t be that difficult can it? But I didn’t have the idea, and if I had, I wouldn’t have acted on it. E. L James had the idea, and she did the work necessary to get it into print. She reaps a just reward, good luck to her. That is the difference between writers and readers. If you want to be a writer, you have to act on those ideas, and be prepared to work hard to make them appear on a page. They don’t always have to be new, but they must catch a mood, and be of their time. Just because you did something interesting, doesn’t necessarily make that thing, or you, interesting as well, when translated to the written page.

Keep reading, and enjoy those books. I choose to stop believing that I have a book ‘in me’. I don’t.