Victorian Characters: 1880-1900

Photographers of the time were keen to record the various characters on the streets of London and other towns and cities. They also took a lot of interest in the Police Force, which had only come into being in 1829, and hade been modernised in the Victorian era.

A Young girl living on the streets and begging to make a living.

A proud publican outside his London pub.

A family photographed in the Spitalfields area of East London.

A toy seller outside Greenwich Park.

Two boys described as ‘Street urchins’ in East London.

Victorian policewomen in uniform.

A man with a very fashionable forked beard. Photographed in Sussex.

A newly-qualified policeman shows off his equipment.

A man described as a ‘criminal type’ in East London.

A blind street musician with his dog.

A policeman directing traffic.

Two policeman making an arrest of an ‘undesirable’.

Victorian Child Criminals: Mugshots

These colourised and enhanced photos paint a picture of how society treated children from poor backgrounds during the Victorian Era. For petty crimes such as stealing daily necessities such as food and clothing, they have faced hard labour and jail. And these haunting photographs show the stern and haggard faces of Victorian criminal children who were sentenced to tough punishments in the 1870s, with many looking remarkably older than their actual ages.

The children in the shots were all from poor backgrounds. The pictures show a range of children who were sentenced to punishments from ten days of hard labour, to five years in a reformatory prison. This shows the real people behind ‘official’ histories – people that are from the lowest levels of society, those really struggling to survive. The original black and white pictures were found when Newcastle jail in Carliol Square was demolished.

Henry Leonard Stephenson, aged 12. He went to prison for two months after breaking into a house.

Mary Catherine Docherty was 14 when she got seven days of hard labour for stealing an iron.

Michael Clement Fisher, who went to jail aged just 13 for breaking into a house.

Henry Miller was a convicted thief after he was caught stealing clothing, aged 14. He got 14 days of hard labour for his crime.

Aged just 12, Jane Farrell stole two boots and was sentenced to do 10 hard days labour at Newcastle City Gaol.

Mary Hinningan was 13 when she stole an iron and got seven days of hard labour.

Aged 13, James Scullion was sentenced to 14 days hard labour at Newcastle City Gaol for stealing clothes.

Aged 15, John Reed was handed 14 days hard labour and five years reformation for stealing money in 1873.

Rosana Watson, aged 13. She was also part of the girl gang that stole an iron and she also got hard labour.

Stephen Monaghan, 14. He was convicted of stealing money on 25 July 1873 and was sentenced to 10 days hard labour and three years in Market Weighton Reformatory.

Working Women In Victorian Britain

These photos are from a book by Michael Hiley. They show Victorian women in their working clothes. We owe many of these fascinating photos, sketches, and detailed descriptions of Victorian working women to Arthur Munby, who interviewed many, and collected their photographs as well as their stories.

Housemaids, early 1860’s. They are dressed in their best for the photographer, but look at their hands. From Victorian Working Women.

South Wales Mine Tip Girls, 1865. From Victorian Working Women.

London Milkwomen in 1864 and 1872. From Victorian Working Women.

Women mine workers in trousers at Wigan, 1860s. From Victorian Working Women.

Yorkshire girls collecting limpets and other fishbait; 1860. From Victorian Working Women. Their skirts and petticoats appear to be tucked up into their belts in back.

Arthur Munby standing beside Ellen Grounds, a “pit wench” at Wigan. 1866. Right, a photo of Ellen Grounds in her “Sunday best.” Munby stood next to Ellen in this photograph to show how tall she was.

A Strange Romance.

The story of Arthur Munby, barrister, Cambridge M.A., civil servant, diarist, poet, friend of many other writers and of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, popular in high society, and obsessed with Victorian working women, is almost incredible. Utterly middle-class, but not wealthy enough to cut loose from the conventions of society, Munby fell in love with a “maid of all work” — about the lowest form of domestic servant — named Hannah Cullwick. They were both in their twenties. After a chaste courtship of almost twenty years, they married in 1873, but — as much by her wish as by his — she continued to pretend to be his servant.
Hannah Cullwick, maid of all work; at right, Hannah “in her dirt.” from Victorian Working Women. She was strong enough to lift her husband off the ground and carry him around. He liked it.

Old England In Photos: 1895-1917

A random selection of photos from the end of Victoria’s reign, until WW1.

(Some photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

A shop in London selling caged birds, 1895. Singing birds like Canaries were very popular in Victorian households.

A group of skilled metalworkers, 1895.

These children are in a country lane in Oxfordshire, 1900.

Workers making wooden carts, 1900. The small boys are apprentices.

Diggers creating a ship canal, 1900.

A flooded street in Cambridgeshire, 1905.

Women making clothing in a factory, 1910.

Circus perfomers advertising the arrival of the circus in a village, 1910.

Farm workers in the countryside, 1912. The children were expected to help with the harvest.

Munitions workers in 1917, during WW1.

Images Of London In 1875

I found a nice group of photos taken in London during 1875. The photographers were not credited.

The Oxford Arms, in East London. There was a group trying to save this old coaching inn from demolition, and they employed a photographer to publicise their campaign. Sadly, they did not succeed.

Wych Street, WC2.

Old Palace Yard, Lambeth.

Old Aldgate. Rooms to let.

Fleet Street. This was once the home of every newspaper.

The Old Bell, Holborn.


High Holborn.

The White Hart Inn.

Borough High Street, South London.

Drury Lane.

A milkman delivering, Lambeth.

Victorian London In Photos: London’s Poor

Between 1860 and 1900, many photographers tried to capture the plight of the poor living in big cities. Despite the boom of the industrial revolution and the expansion of the empire, most ordinary people lived in awful conditions, facing financial poverty every day of their lives. They did what they could to make a living, and get through each day.

A street locksmith. People would bring old locks to be repaired, as they could not afford to replace them with new ones.

The second-hand clothes shop. The sale of dirty and unhygienic clothing contributed to the spread of disease, as well as passing on lice and fleas to the new owners.

An illiterate gypsy family living on marshland at Battersea. When they could no longer earn money in one area, they moved on in their horse-drawn caravan.

Unofficial dustmen. (Garbage collectors) They would travel around with their cart trying to get paid for taking away rubbish. Then they would dump that at the nearest available spot, instead of taking it to a refuse depot.

A Hansom Cab driver (in the bowler hat) talking to a horse-drawn bus driver. These men were self-employed, and had to stay out to all hours to cover their expenses before earning anything for their families.

Bargemen on the River Thames. They would be paid a daily rate to work for the barge owner.

Spitalfields was not only the haunt of Jack The Ripper, it was also one of the poorest districts in London. Known for crime and prostitution, the residents there lived in the worst possible conditions.

A young barefoot girl in Spitalfields, 1900. It is highly likely she was already working as a prostitute.

Homeless children living on the street in Spitalfields in 1900.

This small boy is already working full-time, pushing his cart around to carry goods for his employer in 1900.

Victorian Street-Traders: Greenwich,1880

In the year 1880, a leading South London churchman commissioned a photographer to take photographs of street traders in the district of Greenwich. He used the photos for lectures on the condition of the poor working classes in London at that time.

Weighing scales. This boy is having his weight measured. For a penny or two, he would be able to be weighed. Nobody had the money to buy personal scales, so this was the only way to know your weight.

A rabbit-seller. The man would have either bred rabbits to sell as meat, or trapped and shot them in the countryside before bringing them into London to sell them.

This glazier has no vehicle of any kind. So he carries glass panes on his back and walks around hoping to be hired to fix broken windows.

Victorian milkmen were categorised in three classes. This man is a ‘Third Class’ milkman, as he carries the milk cans around the streets using a yoke.

A ‘Second Class’ milkman. He has a handcart, so can do more deliveries.

The ‘First Class’ milkman has a horse and cart, so can cover a bigger delivery area.

A Muffin Man. Muffins were a very popular snack, and even gave rise to a childrens’song, in 1820. (These are bread muffins, not the cakes called Muffins by Americans.)
Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane?

Yes I know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Yes, I know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane.

A family of ice-cream sellers. Ice cream had been brought to England by Italian immigrants, and soon became popular with Victorians.

Selling bricks from a cart. There were no DIY shops then of course, so if you needed to make repairs on your house, you had to buy from street traders.

A Kentish herb-seller. This lady would travel from her home in Kent by train, to sell home-grown herbs.

This lady is selling ‘Sherbet’ drinks. This was a sweet fizzy yellow powder that was added to water to make a refreshing drink. Every customer would use the same glasses!

A Pie-Man. The pies would be made in his shop, then he would also walk around selling them from his basket to increase trade.

Shrimp-Sellers. These men would buy shrimps from Billingsate Fish Market in London, then sell them cooked on the streets as a snack.

A child road-sweeper. Children were expected to work from as young as the age of 5 or 6. This boy is about 11 years old, and had a full-time job sweeping the streets of Greenwich.

This woman is selling toys from her cart. With few specialist toy-shops at the time, working people would buy toys from street traders.

A chair-mender. With people unable to afford to replace broken furniture, he would travel around hoping to find work repairing chairs.

This man is selling refurbished top hats that he has cleaned and repaired. He is carrying all his available stock.

Charles Dickens: Geographical Connections

Regular readers will know that I am a great fan of the writing of Charles Dickens. The Victorian author was a master at portraying characters, and telling the stories of the unfortunates of the era. This article gives an insight into his own background and personal life, up until the time of his death. It connects him and his writing to sites in and around London too, some of which can still be seen today.

9 Sites on the River Thames That Tell the Story of Charles Dickens

Just Been Watching… (114)

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

I watched this film on the BBC, and it is also available on Amazon.

***No spoilers***

Adapted from the novel by Peter Ackroyd, this film is set in Victorian London, in the 1880s. Think of those films about the real ‘Jack The Ripper’ murders you might have seen, and you get the idea. However, Ackroyd is a distinguished and wonderful writer, and he brings that era to the screen in fascinating detail, with convincing performances from a dedicated cast.

With a series of brutal and unconnected murders causing uproar in one of London’s poorest districts, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) is brought in to take over the case. He is not expected to be able to cope, and is merely a scapegoat for Scotland Yard to blame when he fails. He soon discovers a connection with a woman on trial for poisoning her husband, (Olivia Cooke) and with the assistance of Constable Flood (Daniel Mays) he starts to look closely at all the suspects for the heinous crimes.

Where this story scored for me was in the introduction of real people into the fictional killings. The famous Music Hall entertainer, Dan Leno, once the highest paid person in Britain, features heavily throughout. He is played by Douglas Booth, with real flair. Other suspects include Karl Marx, the writer of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. He was actually living in London at the time, and is woven into the story.

The tale unfolds in a series of flashbacks and ‘fantasy’ sequences, as we see inside the mind of the troubled detective. We also follow the life of the poisoning suspect, Lizzie Cree, and her unfaithful husband, John. Most of the film is set in a Music Hall, where many of the characters work. This allows for a very interesting insight into the entertainment of the time, along with the way that social classes mixed in such establishments. With no spoilers, I cannot go into detail. But this film had me gripped, and wanting to know the identity of the murderer.

That is revealed right at the end, in a wonderful twist that I didn’t suspect. And I love twists!

I should add a warning that the murders are shown in some graphic detail, with lots of blood. There are some sexual references, and minor nudity, but nothing unsuitable for TV viewing in the 21st century. If you like your murder mysteries set in the past, and enjoy films with an old-fashioned feel, then this is one for you.

It has had mixed reviews, but I would suggest ignoring those. This film brings a cast of mostly British character actors all at the top of their game. In addition to those mentioned, there is the reliable Eddie Marsan as the theatre manager, and Henry Goodman as Karl Marx.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere, and the performances.
This trailer gives a good feel of the film.

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?