Saturday, 30 April 2016

Victorian Tea Time

Anna, Duchess of Bedford, used to get lethargic late in the afternoon between breakfast and supper.  She would have her servants sneak her a pot of tea and some breadstuffs.  However, later it developped into a social ritual where she invited friends over and the drank tea and munch on dainty sandwiches, sweets and pastries.  Soon, other upper class families were following in the duchesses' footsteps.  Tea was usually taken in the gardens, dining room or parlour.  The household's finest china was brought out for the occasion.  

As the tea time tradition spread from the upper to the lower classes.  The tea was taken at the same time of day; however, there were no sweets served but rather bread, butter, pickles and cheese.  The Victorian elite, in the meantime changed their tea time to high tea.  It was a combination of afternoon tea and evening supper.  The term "high tea" comes from the fact that it was taken at the high time of the day, between 4 and 5 pm.  It was sipped at high stools in tea shops, a buffet table or a counter.  

Friday, 29 April 2016

Victorian Fashion: Nonchalantes, Berthas & Jackboots

Here are some Victorian clothing terms.  See if you can get the right answer to each question.

1.  An aiguillette is:

a.  a braided cord, often with metal ends, used as part of a military uniform since the 1700's
b.  a group of people inhabiting the Pyrenees of France and Spain
c.  a tight fitting corset like underbodice of heavy material worn in the 16th Century

2.  Berthas were:

a.  an undergarment like a bib shaped to cover the breasts
b.  bell sleeves, narrow at the armhole and wide at the elbows
c.  a decorative piece added to a low necked bodice covering and wrapping the bosom and shoulders

3.  Bretelles were:

a.  any type of riding pants, often worn with braces or belt
b.  a pair of ornamental suspender like shoulder straps which first came into use in 1850
c.  quilted pads or pillows worn with a waist strap

4.   A bustle was:

a.  quilted pads or pillows worn with a waist strap
b.  tight fitting collarless knit wool shirts
c.  suits of light half armour

5.  Nonchalantes were:

a.  the first smoking jackets worn at home in the billiard or smoking room
b.  the first tailored coats made to fit neatly over an outfit
c.  the first elasticized corsets marketed around 1850 as travelling corsets

6.  Cravats were:

a.  strips of cloth gathered around the edge of a garment as trimming
b.  long strips of cloth (silk, cotton, linen) wrapped around the neck
c.  tight fitting dress shirts

7.  A fishu was:

a.  a gauzy frilly type of large collar or small shawl from the 18th Century
b.  a long loose robe later used as a military tunic
c.  any form of ornamental shoulder piece

8.  Jackboots were:

a.  calvary boots reinforced with metal sewn between the leather and linings to protect officers from sabre cuts and bayonet thrusts
b.  knee high leather boots for riding and fox hunts in the 19th Century
c.  upper mid calf leather boots with galloon trim and tassle decorations used during Napoleonic Wars

9.  A jumper was:

a.  a loose, originally sleeveless, cloak or cape
b.  loose fitting short trousers gathered at the knee
c.  a rough cotton smock worn by labourers, maids & sailors evolving from the French word "jupe"

10.  Epaulettes were:

a.  an ornamental shoulder piece with tassles
b.  field boots worn by agricultural labourers
c.  lace undersleeves



1.  a
2.  c
3.  b
4.  a
5.  c
6.  b
7.  a
8.  a
9.  c
10.  a

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Domestic Servants: Victorian Women's Most Common Occupation

"Wanted:  In a Gentleman's Family, a short distance from Hastings, a good PARLOUR MAID.  She must be accustomed to the care of plate, glass and waiting a table.  There are four sitting rooms to keep with stoves.  A thoroughly respectable, steady young woman, of religious character desired." (

Domestic servants comprised the largest occupation among women in Victorian Britain.  In 1850, the city of London already employed over 120,000 domestic servants.  The wealthiest families hired butlers, footmen, governesses, skilled cooks, housekeepers, senior parlour maids, head housemaids and lady's maids.  Less well to do families hired kitchen maids, scullery maids, laundresses, nursemaids, housemaids and stable boys.  

When a family's income reached 150 p.a., it hired a young teenager as a general servant.  She was expected to work 14 to 16 hour days at tasks such as washing up, cleaning out grates, sweeping and scrubbing floors, carrying buckets of coal up and down stairs, cans of hot water and breakfasts. Houses often included several stories, keeping the servant hopping.

My great-great grandmother was a laundress in Victorian London.  In an era when families were large and technology was limited, washing clothes was a monumental task:

"The washing machine itself didn't become available until the 1880's -- and it was a far cry from today's modern electric marvel.  It took a woman with some arm muscles to work that thing all day long!  Many women forewent the machine until the 20th Century because it had a tendency to tear clothes or leave rust marks.  And the washing machine was only the beginning.  The clothes had to be soaked, rinsed several times, boiled, starched, blued or bleached, wrung, hung up to dry and ironed."

In comparison, the cook's job might be light work next to that of the laundress.

Domestic servants, whose numbers peaked in 1900, all but disappeared by the middle of the 20th Century.  According to one blogger, the two main reasons for the decline have been social and technological.  The upper classes no longer entertain at home but go to restaurants, bars or cafes. Machines (hot water heaters, dishwashers, washers, dryers, vacuums) have replaced a lot of the work that domestic servants used to do (

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Jack Black: Queen Victoria's Rat Catcher

"The rat who inhabited the sewers and basements of Victorian London was bigger, meaner and generally better adapted to urban life than his predecessor [the black rat]." 

In the 18th Century, Britain was invaded by gray rats, a much larger species than black rats.  The creatures, the size of small cats, would "gnaw the hands and feet of little children".  London was full of gray rats which later inhabited the sewer system and found their way into people's houses.

Professional rat catchers, hired to kill the beasts, used trained ferrets and hounds to kill them.  Another way to catch the rats was to lure them with "toasted cheese or bacon or fried liver or tallow or oatmeal" laced with arsenic (

Jack Black, the rat catcher for Queen Victoria, would trap rather than kill the rats.  He would sell the rats to gamblers who put on rat fighting exhibitions, a popular sport at the time.  Rat fighting was a misnomer:  it was really rat chasing.  The rats were released to awaiting dogs to determine which hound could kill the most rodents.  Some dogs could kill a rat every 2.7 seconds (

While the pay for catching rats was decent compared to that of other lower class jobs, the hazards were great:  rat catchers were bitten frequently.  Rats were notorious carriers of disease including the Black Plague.  Despite the hazards, rat catchers persevered.

Rat catching was not just reserved for the Victorian era.  I googled rat catchers and discovered that it is an ongoing profession, only they are now called "pest control technicians.  Rat infestations still exist in year 2016.  The rodents multiply at a rapid rate:  two rats can become 1,000 in the short space of a year

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Shoe Black Brigades

With Victorian London's streets full of horse manure, pedestrians shoes became very dirty fast.  With the support of the Ragged Schools, a shoe black brigade was formed in 1851.  Organizers thought that shoe shining was a relatively safe way (compared to chimney sweeping) to earn money.  Their savings could later be used to immigrate to America. Shoe blacks, situated on the Strand, Piccadilly, Regent Street and Holborn, could earn 8s 6d per week.

In 1851, the London Shoe Black Brigade was formed.  A licence cost 5 shillings per year.  With The Great Exhibition fast approaching, organizers saw it as a chance for shoe blacks to shine -- literally -- the shoes of foreign visitors.  During the six month exhibition, 25 shoe blacks shined 101,000 pairs of shoes for a total of 500 pounds.  Five of the boys used their money to immigrate to America.  At its peak, a dozen brigades were operating, each with its own distinct uniform.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Gentlemen Behaving Badly

"Clubs and gaming houses were patronised by the social elite, politicians and royalty." 

Bath to London was like Atlantic City to New York City.  Both cities, located two hours away, were vacation resorts which offered gambling.  Both locations used to attract an elite crowd.

Gambling dates back a full millenium according to one blogger.  Early gamblers used to use sheep knuckle bones as dice.  Gambling was taken to the next level in Britain when the country's elite began to see it as a sport.  "Clubs and gaming houses were patronised by the social elite, politicians and royalty."  British royalty was in the habit of visiting spas for health reasons.  With an extravagant amount of money, they looked for ways to spend it.  Gambling was one such pastime.  Casinos opened in resorts such as Bath, Cheltenham, Leamington, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton.  

Antigambling laws in 1739 and 1745 tried to curb the gentlemen's activities.  A 20 pound fine was implemented for illegal gambling activities, which was to be donated to the local hospital in Bath.  However, the British gentlemen argued that they were in a private club and that public laws should not affect them.

Because Britain's lower classes were banned from the casinos, they found a venue for gambling in the London coffeehouses.  "Like Noah's ark, every kind of creature from every walk of life [frequented coffeehouses]." Thanks to British puritanism, intoxicants were forbidden at coffeehouses.  Conversation was encouraged and anyone could participate, regardless of their social status. Coffee house rules "forbade games of chance, such as cards and dice".   However, in reality, gambling did take place.  

Painting "Four Times of the Day" in front of Tom King's Coffee House courtesy

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Commodity Culture of Victorian London

"The street-seller cries his goods at the head of a barrow; the enterprising tradesman distributes his goods at the door of his shop."  (Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor)

Imagine a newsboy hawking papers:  "Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!"  That was how goods were sold in Victorian times, in the streets.  Street sellers would appeal to sound rather than sight.  Their targetted audience was London's working class.  Street-sellers appeared in the form of barkers, bill deliverers, bill stickers, sandwich board men and advertising van men.  

While the street sellers focussed on the working class, the shop owners set their sights on the middle class.  While most of the working class could not read, the middle class could.  Advertisers appealed to their sense of sight.  Street ads appeared on walls and in newspapers.  Early ads, in black in white, focussed on text.  In the later Victorian period, the ads contained colourful pictures.  

The Great Exhibition, the launching pad for many new products, set the tone for London advertising in the second half of the Victorian era.  On the pretty walkways of Hyde Park, visitors could gaze at pretty displays.  No longer was did entrepreneurs just focus on the product, but also on its presentation.  "The Great Exhibition represented the material world as an unchanging configuration of consumable objects." (Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England)  Organizers of the event even printed a catalogue for the six month exhibition.

Note:  For more information, read The World for a Shilling;  How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation by Michael Leapman at

Advertisement for Calvert's carbolic soap, a mild disinfectant soap used for household cleaning, 1899 (COPY 1/146 f.634)