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)

Saturday 23 April 2016

London's Mush Fakers

"Thus he gradually obtains a stock of old umbrellas, and by taking the good bits from one old 'mushroom', and adding it to another, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham." (

While London's halfpenny ice men prayed for sunshine, its mush fakers looked forward to the rain.  A mush faker made, sold and repaired umbrellas.  "Mush" came from the word mushroom since an umbrella resembles one, and faker was an old cant term meaning to repair or mend.  A chaney faker was one who repaired broken china.

The mush faker would walk from house to house, crying "Umbrellas to mend!"  When he found an umbrella in need of repair, he would mend it right int he street for others to see his work, hopefully inviting more customers.  "Thus he gradually obtains a stock of old umbrellas, and by taking the good bits from one old 'mushroom', and adding it to another, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham."  In the evening, once the mush faker had collected and repaired several umbrellas, he would set up shop near a market or a bridge and sell his "brollies".

One son of a mush faker had much respect for the used umbrellas.  He explained:  "After protecting our heads for years from the pelting rain, the rattling hail, the driving sleet, or the drizzling mist, they are at last thrown into some dirty corner to moulder in unmerited oblivion." (  The mush faker, however, restored them to their true purpose.


Friday 22 April 2016

The Halfpenny Ice Man

"The men in varied and extraordinary deshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices." (

Swiss Italian Carlo Gatti started selling halfpenny ices in London, England in 1850.  Later, a "little Italy" developped in the Clerkenwell district of the city.  Halfpenny ices became a big industry in London, employing many Italian workers, many from Calabria.  A halfpenny ice man's day commenced at 4 am.  He picked up his ice in a barrow, which he mixed with sugar and flavouring (strawberry, lemon). Cream ices also contained milk.

The ice men would walk as much as 10 to 20 miles up and down the streets of London selling half penny ices.  John Thomson explains that "the Italian ice man sets an example of steady perserverance, economy and foresight".  There were the halfpenny ice men who looked dirty and rough around the edges.  These ice men would lay asphalt in the winter when the demand for ices was low.  With effort, however, the ice man could work his way up and trade in his barrow for a cart.  The most hard working ice men wintered in Italy, a luxury that most Londoners could ill afford.  

London lads looked forward to the arrival of the ice man's barrow like I waited for the Dicki Dee man's bicycle as a child.  Children would "buzz around the [ice men's] barrels like flies about a sugar barrel".  The treat was eaten by using both tongue and fingers, not on a cone like today's ice cream.

Entrepreneur Carlo Gatti's ices were such a success, that he branched out.  He started importing ice from Norway and then shipping it up the River Thames.  His business became London's biggest ice importer and made Gatti a millionaire by the time of his death in 1870. 

Thursday 21 April 2016

London's Flying Dustmen

"The dry dust would get into his throat, causing an abnormal thirst and choking sensation which could only be allayed by copious amounts of beer, or by a few pence to purchase the needful stimulant." 

"Flying dustman" is a Victorian misnomer.  Such a job did not entail flying, but referred instead to the dustmen's habit of hurrying off from district to district.   Nor did the occupation entail the collection of mere dust:  the flying dustman collected all household refuse.  The dustman, travelling by cart and horse, gathered up dust and refuse which he collected in his cart. 

Flying dustmen had a monumental task.  In 1877, the city of London contained about 20 parishes (  The parish of Lambeth alone, had 40,000 rateable houses.  Each house produced an average of three loads of dust per year, making for one gigantic dust mound.

Foremen were supposed to make sure that the flying dustmen did their jobs, to prevent dust mounds on every corner.  However, that wasn't always the case.  In other cases, the flying dustmen did their jobs, but expected a tip.

 "Under the old system, householders were constantly lodging complaints against the dustman who was seldom to be found when his services were needed.  [He] had his own way of letting it be known that his services were not gratuitous.  The dry dust would get into his throat, causing an abnormal thirst and choking sensation which could only be allayed by copious amounts of beer, or by a few pence to purchase the needful stimulant.  This sort of blackmail is still levied, although the authorities of the parish are making the most strenuous efforts to have it abolished, having inscribed on each cart a caution against the bestowal of gratuities." (

Far from being useless, the dust had many purposes in Victorian London.  "Not many years ago dust had a high value; it yielded the following among other marketable products: fine dust, used in making bricks and as manure; coarse dust or "breeze", used in burning bricks; rags, bones, fragments of tin and other metals, old boots and shoes, paper, etc."  I suspect, however, that with time, the city's uses for dust started to wane as was the case with horse manure.  What wasn't recycled was deposited into urban shoots or on to boats to be carried down the River Thames.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

London's Covent Gardens: A Vivid Canvas of Van Gogh

"The richness of heaped produce looks like a vivid canvas of Van Gogh."

London's Covent Gardens, once simply three acres of weeds, was developped by the Earl of Bedford, along with Inigo Jones, the Father of the English Renaissance.  The latter designed a quadrangle and a piazza, as well as two colonnades, to surround the garden on the grounds of the Earl's estate.  Covent Gardens became a social meeting place for gentlemen of fashion and their mistresses.

The Plague killed 100,000 Londoners followed by the Great Fire of 1666.  However, London rebuilt and recovered.  A century later, the Covent Gardens, and the surrounding area, fell into a state of disrepair.  The houses bordering the gardens, rented out for low rates, became bawdy houses, an irony for an area originally called "convent gardens".

Covent Gardens regained its respectability as it began to concentrate on its products:  fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Shropshire and Welsh women would trek the nine miles from Baling to London, laden with fresh fruits.  While neighbourhood residents saw the Gardens as a source of noise and dust, they started to attract a growing clientele.  

The opening of a theatre breathed new life into the Gardens, offering tragedies, comedies, operas and music.  The original Messiah, conducted by Handel himself, was staged at the Covent Gardens Theatre in 1741.  The Rules Restaurant, now London's oldest, was erected to serve the theatre actors in 1798.  Tragedy struck when the theatre burned in 1808 and again in 1856.  However, both times the structure was rebuilt.  

The Earls of Bedford sold their interest in the Gardens in 1918.  Today, both the theatre and restaurant remain in operation.  Covent Gardens is 40 acres of beauty:  "The richness of heaped produce looks like a vivid canvas of Van Gogh."

Tuesday 19 April 2016

300,000 Gallons of Ginger Beer

"According to a rough estimate, there must be about 300,000 gallons of ginger-beer sold per annum in the streets and immediate neighbourhood of London."
 (Street Life in London, John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877)

Ginger beer was the drink of choice for many Brits in the Victorian era.  "According to a rough estimate, there must be about 300,000 gallons of ginger-beer sold per annum in the streets and immediate neighbourhood of London."  It was a pleasant, non-alcoholic alternative to beer.  Becoming a ginger beer maker required little money and no skills.  Many Londoners took up the job.  An old fashioned ginger beer recipe called for ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and ginger beer plant (  Because of the fermentation process, the original ginger beer did contain a small, but insignificant amount of alcohol.  

Street ginger beer makers needed a nine gallon stew pan to brew their recipe.  However, if they could not afford the pot, they simply brewed the beer in their laundry tub, unbeknownst to their customers.  Then they poured the brew into glass bottles which their customers returned upon consuming the product.  Street ginger beer makers tended to charge more than the price at the pub.  

Commercial ginger beer makers used the proper equipment, therefore, eliminating the unhygienic practices of their street counterparts.  However, the factory ginger beer could be contaminated by led from the pots (  Even so, because the liquid was boiled, consumers were usually better off drinking the ginger beer rather than the tainted water from the River Thames.

While ginger beer was prevalent on London's streets it was also popular in Victorian London's open air resorts such as Clapham Common, Hampstead, Greenwich and Battersea Park.  ON a broiling summer's day, ginger beer was a welcome respite from a parched throat.  Gingerbeer's crowing moment was London's Great Exhibition of 1851 where 1,092,337 bottles of ginger beer was sipped in the Crystal Palace (

You may wonder what the difference is between ginger beer and ginger ale.  While ginger beer is brewed (fermented) and contains a small amount of alcohol, ginger ale is simply carbonated and contains no alcohol.  

Monday 18 April 2016

London's East End: An Immigrant Neighbourhood

"[The] invention about 1880 of the term 'East End' was rapidly taken up by the new halfpenny press, and in the pulpit and the music hall...A shabby man from Paddington, St. Marylebone or Battersea might pass muster as one of the respectable poor.  But the same man coming from Bethnal Green, Shadwell or Wapping was an 'east ender', the box of Keating's bug powder must be reached for, and the spoons locked up.  In the long run, this cruel stigma came to do good.  It was a final reminder to the poorest to get out of the East End at all costs..."(

The East End originally referred to the area of London east of the Roman and medieval walled city and north of the River Thames.  The East End was composed of the following hamlets or boroughs:

  • Tower Hamlets
  • Hackney
  • Bethnal Green
  • Hoxton
  • Spitalfields
  • Wapping
  • Whitechapel
  • Shoreditch
Since the 1600's, London's East End has been the centre for receiving new immigrants.  Immigrants to London were attracted to the East End due to its location close to the docks where they arrived, the abundance of unskilled labour jobs and the inexpensive housing.  In the 17th Century,   French Protestants who suffered religious persecution in France, fled to England and settled in London's East End.  They were followed by Irish weavers during the Potato Famine in the 1840's.  The Ashkenazi Jews took up residence in the East End and by 1800, they were 20,000 strong.  With the construction of the St. Katharine Docks and the clearance of slums within the walled city, came more displaced persons.  In the 20th Century Bengladeshi's arrived in the London neighbourhood.    

London's immigrants found work in several industries.  The single most popular industyr among the Huegenots was silk weaving.  The Irish immigrants took jobs as weavers.  The Ahskenazi Jews often worked as costermongers or street traders.  Many of the Bangladeshi immigrants worked at the market on Petticoat Lane.  

In the 1800's, the East End was also home to poor British families.  Most of the street children that Dr. Thomas Barnardo accepted in his shelter were of British background.  The label "East Ender? did not have a positive connotation.  

"[The] invention about 1880 of the term 'East End' was rapidly taken up by the new halfpenny press, and in the pulpit and the music hall...A shabby man from Paddington, St. Marylebone or Battersea might pass muster as one of the respectable poor.  But the same man coming from Bethnal Green, Shadwell or Wapping was an 'east ender', the box of Keating's bug powder must be reached for, and the spoons locked up.  In the long run, this cruel stigma came to do good.  It was a final reminder to the poorest to get out of the East End at all costs..."

Likely because of the adversity that East Enders experienced, they grew to be resilient people.  

For more information, read The People of the Abyss by Jack London.

Sunday 17 April 2016

No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission

"Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19)

NO DESTITUTE CHILD EVER REFUSED ADMISSION read the sign above the entrance to the Barnardo Home.  Started by the evangelical Christian Dr. Barnardo in 1866, Stepney House, located at 18 Stepney Causeway, provided shelter for London's poor and orphaned children.  The doctor, who hailed from Ireland, had worked in London's East End Hospital where he cared for cholera victims.  He had toured the rooftops of Whitechapel with orphan Jim Jarvis where he had seen street children living in filth.  The short figure had stood on a chair in the East End and ministered to the crowds about Jesus.  But when words failed to bring about change, he acted, opening Stepney House to shelter London's "waifs".


The Barnardo Home was leased for 99 years at 57 pounds per year.  It included five bedrooms which housed 60 boys.  In 1871, Stepney House was full and Dr. Barnardo was forced to turn away a red-haired boy, John Somers, nicknamed "Carrots".  Here is the doctor's account:

"When first I visited the Shades by midnight, or rather early morn, "Carrots" was there, and when by the offer of a halfpenny to each, I succeeded in counting out 73 destitute lads from the various shelters of old barrels, crates and packages in which they had been ensconced.  I thought I had seldom seen a more unpleasant specimen of boy life than he exhibited.  Having out of this number selected five poor lads to fill an equal number of beds in our Home, my memory vividly recalls the earnestness with which Carrots pleaded to be taken also, but alas, it could not be; we were already filled, and the five lads I then selected were as many as the funds in my hands warranted receiving.  A few mornings later, as some porters were moving a large sugar hogshead...they disturbed a sleeping boy...the porter took the form of the lad in his arms...only then did he perceive that "Carrots" was dead!" (


From then on, the evangelical vowed to never turn anyone else away.  The Home's slogan became "No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission".    In 1874, Dr. Barnardo opened 10 Stepney Causeway, the first open all hours shelter.  Two years later, Dr. Barnardo expanded the Home to include numbers 19 to 26.  By 1900, he added numbers 8 and 6.  By 1908, the Home offered a general education and trade training for the children.  The children who stayed in these Homes, were labelled Home Children.


While Stepney Causeway housed primarily boys, a second Home was opened for girls in Barkingside, outside of London, in 1876.  More Homes would follow but Dr. Barnardo could not keep up with the influx of destitute children.  For the next sixty years, 100,000 British home children, including my great-grandma, would immigrate to Canada as child labour.  The slogan at 18 Stepney Causeway, however, remained in practice.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Lord Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer

"After Lord Shaftesbury discovered a boy chimney sweep living behind his house on Brock Street, he rescued him and sent him to the 'Union School at Norwood Hill, where, under God's blessing and special merciful grace, he will be trained in the knowledge and love and faith of our common Saviour.'" (,_7th_Earl_of_Shaftesbury)

In 1833, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, attended the funeral at Westminster Abbey of William Wilberforce, a reformer who had campaigned tirelessly to abolish slavery in Britain.  Lord Shaftesbury, a Christian evangelical, believed in putting his faith into action.  "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all those who are destitute." (

Neglected and bullied by his father, the young Anthony was not the type you would think would go on to be a leader in social reform.  However, a kind maid named Maria Millis introduced him to the Gospel and changed his life forever.  Not unfamiliar with emotional pain, he devoted his life to helping others.

Elected as an MP in the 1820's, Lord Shaftesbury looked at reforming the lunacy laws as well as the labour laws.  "After Lord Shaftesbury discovered a boy chimney sweep living behind his house on Brock Street, he rescued him and sent him to the 'Union School at Norwood Hill, where, under God's blessing and special merciful grace, he will be trained in the knowledge and love and faith of our common.  Chimney sweeping was a dangerous occupation; exposure to hot soot caused scorched skin, eyes, throat, scrotal cancer and even suffocation.  In 1840, Shaftesbury pushed for legislation outlawing the employment of children as chimney sweeps, but many companies ignored the ban.  

Twelve year old George Brewster was forced by his master to clean the chimney at Fulbourn Hospital resulting in his death.  In 1875, the Chimney Sweepers Act was passed as a direct result of George Brewster's tragedy which enforced the original 1840 Act.  

Lord Shaftesbury remained humble to the end.  Offered a Westminster Abbey funeral in 1885, he declined.  The state occasion was attended by an unusual crowd:  costermongers, flower girls, boot-blacks, crossing sweepers, factory hands and, yes, chimney sweeps.  Shaftesbury, a constant advocate for the destitute, would go down in history as the "Poor Man's Earl".

For more information, read Shaftesbury:  The Great Reformer by Richard Turnbull.

Friday 15 April 2016

London Labour and the London Poor

"Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour.  I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very soar work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinking about 25 or 30 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom.  I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs." 
(Isabella Read, 12, coal-bearer)

Child labour was the norm in Victorian era Britain.  British children worked long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages.  Families were large, parents often died young and children were expected to help with the family income.  Rather than attending school (only 20% in 1840) the majority went out to work (

Jobs taken by British children, which often involved entering tight spaces where adults couldn't fit, included:

  • coal miners
  • cotton bobbins
  • chimney sweeps
  • mudlarks
  • ratcatchers
  • costermongers
  • errand boys
  • crossing sweeps
  • shoe blacks
  • flower girls
  • matchmakers
  • prostitutes (majority were 15 to 22 years of age)
  • builders
  • cotton mill workers
  • hatmakers
  • domestic servants (over 120,000 in London in 1850)
Working hours were stretched to the limit:  builders worked 64 hours per week in summer and 52 in winter; domestic servants worked 80 hours per week.  Many children worked 16 hour days.  A Royal Commission in 1831 recommended that children 11 to 18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, those 9 to 11 should work eight hour days and under 9 should not work.  However, this commission just oversaw the textile industry.  An 1847 act limited child labour to ten hours per day, but many employers still ignored the new law. 

Working conditions were atrocious:  lack of light caused a constant strain on coal miners' eyes.  Coal dust settled into their lungs resulting in respiratory diseases.  Coal miners, who started working as young as five, usually died by the age of 25 (

Chimney sweeps defied the Mary Poppins' image.  Starting as young as 3, they climbed up and down chimneys where their arms and legs received constant scrapes.  After washing their wounds in salt water, the boss would send them down another chimney.  The danger of falling was ever present; a few sweeps who fell were forgotten and died in the chimney.  Chimney sweeps were sometimes underfed so that they would still fit in the tight spaces.  Even though children grew too big for the job by about 10, the soot damage to their lungs was already evident.

Children worked in textile mills for a fraction of the price of adults.  Girls worked for even less than boys.  Some factories employed more children than adults.  The dirtiest jobs wee given to the children.  Sometimes they were ordered to clean under machines that were still running.  Few safety measures existed in Victorian times and many injuries or deaths resulted.  Employers beat or fined children for making a mistake, falling asleep or arriving late.  

Child labour remained the rule in Victorian era Britain.  For more information, read Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution by Professor Jane Humphries

Thursday 14 April 2016

Joseph Bazalgette's Foresight Saved London

"Bazalgette's capacity for hard work was remarkable; every connection to the sewerage system by the various vestry councils had to be checked and Bazalgette did this himself and the records contain thousands of linen tracings with handwritten comments in Indian ink on them 'approved JWB'.

London was in desperate straits in 1858, the year of The Great Stink when its cesspools overflowed into the Thames, the city's main water source.  Fish or wildlife no longer lived in the river.  Pedestrians covered their noses with handkerchiefs as they crossed the Thames.  The London Parliament Buildings' curtains were soaked in lime to block out the stench.  Thousands died from cholera, a water borne disease, as a result of drinking from it.  Something had to be done (

Enter Joseph Bazalgette, the grandson of a French Protestant immigrant.  Bazalgette's work ethic and foresight would save the city of London.  The civil engineer planned the city's sewer system meticulously which would include 82 miles of underground brick main sewers and 1100 miles of street sewers serving to intercept the sewage before it landed in the River Thames.

But Bazalgette did not stop there.  Knowing that London's size was increasing dramatically (it doubled from 1800 to 1850) he announced:  "Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen."  Bazalgette took the most densely populated area of London, gave each citizen the most generous allowance of sewage production and calculated the appropriate diameter of pipe required.  Then he doubled it.  As a result, London's sewer system, which would have overflowed in the 1960's, remains adequate for the city.

Bazalgette's system was officially opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1865.  The effects were almost immediate.  The stench disappeared.  The rate of cholera and typhus dropped.  And fish returned to the Thames; flounders were caught at Westminster (

It would take a full ten years for the London sewer system to be completed, with Bazalgette overseeing every detail. "Bazalgette's capacity for hard work was remarkable; every connection to the sewerage system by the various vestry councils had to be checked and Bazalgette did this himself and the records contain thousands of linen tracings with handwritten comments in Indian ink on them 'approved JWB'.  It would be Bazalgette's greatest feat.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

A London Particular

"It is something like being embedded in a dilation of pea's pudding, just thick enough to get through it without being wholly choked or completely suffocated." (

A London particular, or pea souper, refers to the thick green, yellow or black fog filled with soot particulates and sulfur dioxide.  London has been cursed with thick fogs for centuries.  King Edward I tried to ban coal fires in London as far back as the 13th century (  London's air pollution problem persisted in the 17th Century due to the burning of cheap sea coal.  By the 19th Century, the dilemma was exacerbated by chimneys which emitted coal from burning stoves and mixed with the fogs of the Thames Valley.  Even the precipitation was black at times:  London had an early introduction to acid rain.  Buildings such as St. Paul's Cathedral, a pale stone structure, turned black as coal during Queen Victoria's reign.

Just as chimneys were a huge source of pollution so too was the River Thames.  While fog often lingered above the river's surface, beneath the surface lay London's waste, filling the air with a foul odour.  French artist Claude Monet made trips to London between 1899 and 1901 where he captured a stereotypical pea-souper.  From his vantage point on the second floor of St. Thomas' hospital, Monet painted London's Parliament Buildings.  Although Monet complained about the elusive Victorian sun, he did manage to capture it reflecting off of the River Thames.  Ironically, the London fog, rather than decreasing with the rising of the sun, often increased.  "The browned and yellowed skies provide snapshots that are 'a proxy indicator for the Victorian smogs and atmospheric states they predict.'" (

Gas lamplights, first introduced on London streets in the early 1800's, could be dangerous to the health.  "The image of a Victorian lady fainting is as likely to be due to lack of oxygen caused by gas lighting as an overly tight corset." (  The gas, as well as giving off noxious fumes, blackened walls and ceilings.

Gustave Dore's engraving of East End London courtesy 

London's industry of the 1800's contributed greatly to the foul air.  The city, attracting country residents to new jobs, was growing at a rapid rate.  These newcomers, however, lived right beneath the London smokestacks.  "Did the workers lose more in ill health than they made in higher wages?"

While people choked on the London fog, they also lost their way.  Omnibuses ran right off the road, drunken youths fell into the River Thames and a coal barge ran into Vauxhall Bridge and sank.

London's fog problem came to a head in the winter of 1952 when The Great Smog hit  The air pollution problem was not resolved until legislation was enacted in 1956.

For more information, read London Fog:  A Biography by Christine Corton at

Tuesday 12 April 2016

The Grisly Secrets of Victorian London's Cemeteries

"I have seen them play at what is called skittles; put up bones and take skulls and knock them down; stick up bones in the ground and throw a skull at them and as you would a skittle-ball."

While London secrets were full of horse manure during the 1800's, London cemeteries were full of rotting corpses.  With cholera epidemics in 1832, 1854 and 1866, Londoners were dying at a rapid rate, but the graveyards did not have the capacity to bury them all.  Coffins were stacked one on top of the other, sometimes as many as 10, in 20 foot deep shafts, leaving mere inches between the top corpse and the graveyard surface.  As the bodies decomposed, they let off a putrid scent which, some believe, made people sick, a problem called "miasma".  

The graveyards, not under any restrictions, were a free-for-all for gravediggers.  Corpses were disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for new ones.  Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered among the tombstones.  Smashed coffins were sold to London's poor for firewood.  Mr. Jones at New Bunhill Cemetery was caught taking down tombstones and monuments and "selling them for whatever he could get".  One Londoner explained the macabre scene he witnessed:

"I saw them chopping the head of his coffin away; I should not have known it if I had not seen the head with the teeth; I knew him by his teeth; one tooth was knocked out and the other splintered; I knew it was my father's head, and I told them to stop, and they laughed..."

London's poor were at the mercy of the gravediggers.  For the middle and upper class, however, the solution came with garden cemeteries built outside the city limits.  The following cemeteries were built to alleviate the overcrowding problem:  Kensall Green (1832), West Norwood (1836), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840), and Tower Hamlets (1841).

Cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London, 1866.

Note:  For more information read Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson.

Monday 11 April 2016

Royal Albert Hall Legacy of the Great Exhibition

"This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry for all nations in fulfillment with the intention of Prince Albert Consort." (

First performance at the Royal Albert Hall circa 1871 courtesy

The Great Exhibition, or Crystal Palace Exhibition, of 1851 was such a success that Prince Albert proposed "Albertopolis", the construction of a series of buildings in Hyde Park to promote the advancement of the arts and sciences.  Queen Victoria laid the granite foundation stone in 1867 in front of a crowd of over 7,000 spectators.  "Invocation to Harmony", a composition by Prince Albert, was played followed by a 21 gun salute in Hyde Park.

A glazed iron dome, the world's largest unsupported dome at the time at 135 feet, covered the Royal Albert Hall. Inside were over 5000 seats facing a large stage in the middle.  A pipe organ, consisting of thousands of pipes, was built in the space of 14 months for the price of 8,000 pounds.

During the First World War, the dome was used as a point of reference for pilots flying over London. During the Second World War, the dome was painted black to block out the light when a performance was going on.

Sir Winston Churchill speaks about Lincoln at Royal Albert Hall circa 1944 courtesy

The first performance, Sullivan's On Shore and Sea cantata, was performed on May 1, 1871.  Since then Royal Albert Hall has attracted the finest musicians, scientists, athletes and politicians.  Richard Wagner played there.  Sir Winston Churchill delivered speeches.  Albert Einstein shared his scientific theories.  Alfred Hitchcock directed his movie The Man Who Knew Too Much at the Hall.  Luciano Pavarotti sang there.

Surprisingly, the Hall did not have the best reputation for acoustics.  It was said that it was "the only place that a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice".  In the late 1960's, fibreglass "mushrooms" were suspended from the Hall's ceiling as acoustic diffusers, a move that seemed to make a difference.

Today, the Hall hosts up to 350 events a year.  The former conservatory is now the location of the Queen Jubilee steps.

Royal Albert Hall, London - Nov 2012.jpg

Sunday 10 April 2016

What is a True Cockney?

"While all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders." (

Map of areas within earshot of the Bows Bells.  Green area represents 1850 while the blue area represents 2012.  Capacity to hear the bells diminished as ambient sound increased courtesy

A true Cockney is someone born within earshot of London's Bows Bells which peal from St. Mary Le Bow Church in the city's centre.  In 1850, anyone living six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south and four miles to the west of the Bows Bells was considered a Cockney.  My great-grandma, Daisy Blay, who was born in St. Pancras about two and a half miles from St. Mary le Bow Church, was a true Cockney.

Cockney, meaning "cock's egg", was originally a pejorative term to refer to any working class Londoner."Those who could claw their way above the poverty line soon moved out -- aided by the arrival of the railways -- leaving behind the highest concentration of the poor and underprivileged anywhere in London." (

Crime, drunkenness, immorality and violence were common in Cockney London, culminating with the grisly murders committed by Jack the Ripper in 1888 in Whitechapel.  Despite the hardships, Cockneys developped the reputation of possessing an indomitable spirit and a good sense of humour. 

Cockneys created their own rhyming slang, originating with the costermongers, or street traders, in the 1840's.  "Telling porkies" referred to pork pies which rhymed with lies = telling lies.  "Have a butcher's" referred to a butcher's hook which rhymed with look = "Have a look."  

"It's that Cockney  humour -- a sense that goes all the way back.  People have just been bombed out in the Blitz, but they put on a smile, they get down to the pub.  It's the heritage of the East End." (

Cockneys reasoned that if they could survive the poverty, survive Jack the Ripper, survive the Blitz, they could survive anything.  My grandma had that indomitable spirit inside of her.  The daughter of a woman who was so poor, she sold all of their furniture save one broken chair, my great-grandma was quite familiar with poverty.  Yet she was rich in spirit; she had so much love to share.  Sadly, the one thing she did lose was her cockney accent, so that Canadians wouldn't know she was a home child.  But she remained a true Cockney.

St. Mary le Bow church bells were damaged during the London Blitz, but were repaired, courtesy

Saturday 9 April 2016

The Tube Defined London

"It's crowded, uncomfortable and expensive -- but it defined London.  And it's ours."  (

Charles Pearson first conceived the idea of "trains in drains" in 1845.  Victorian London was growing at such a rapidk rate it needed a travel system to transport its citizens around the city.  Excavation for the Tube or Underground began in 1860.  Within three years, the Tube was ready for business, the world's first subway system.  The train was a series of gas lit wooden cars pulled by a steam locomotive.  The track spanned only 6 kilometres.  Thirty eight thousand Londoners rode the line on the first day.  By year's end, 9.5 million passengers had ridden the Tube.  

The beauty of the Underground was that it was used by all classes.  Author Henry Mayhew interviewed poor labourers who were relieved to be spared the 6 mile walk to and from work. Furthermore, they could live in two-room flats in the "suburbs" as opposed to one-room flats in the industrial centre. (

The Underground's foul, smoke filled atmosphere was an issue for some passengers  John Fowler created a steamless locomotive, Fowler's Ghost, to reduce the amount of steam and smoke underground, an invention which did not take off.  Smoking was banned on the carriages until an MP complained and each locomotive was assigned a smoking carriage.  The London Tube owners allowed train drivers to grow beards in an effort to filter out the worst of the fumes.

In 1869, workers dug into the London clay under the river Thames to expand the Tube line from Great Tower Hill to Pickle Herring Stairs.  This was followed by the Circle Line, Hammersmith & City, City & South Line, the Northern Line, Waterloo & City, Central, Bakerloo, Piccadilly & Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead, all before 1907.

During the Second World War the London Underground housed an estimated 170,000 Londoners seeking refuge from Hitler's bombs.  In fact, Time magazine claimed that "The Tube saved London during the Blitz." (

The London Tube saved the city during the Blitz circa 1940 courtesy 

 Today, the Undergvround tracks stretch 253 miles.  At peak times, there are more than 538 trains circling the city.  Four million passengers ride the Underground daily, the population of London at the turn of the last century.  "[The London Tube] -- like Big Ben, , Tower Bridge and other landmarks -- has shaped non-Britons ideas of what London is." (

Friday 8 April 2016

The Crystal Palace Exhibition

"Enormous excursion trains daily poured their thousands into the city...Throughout the was like...a giant picnic...large numbers of work people received holidays for the purpose.  Eight hundred agricultural labourers in their peasants attire from Surrey and Sussex conducted by their clergy at a cost of two and twopence each person -- numerous firms in the north sent their people who must have been gratified by the sight of their own handiwork..." (

Over six million people, a third of Britain's population, flocked to The Great Exhibition or The Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851.  It was the first time so many nations had gathered, other than on the battlefield.  The original entrance cost was 3 pounds for gentlemen and 2 pounds for ladies.  However, the fee was later dropped to 1 shilling for the masses.  

Grandiose describes the exhibition that was set up in London's Hyde Park from April to May.  The Crystal Palace, a glass building measuring 1851 feet long and 128 feet high, dominated the landscape.  The invention of the cast plate glass method allowed for the construction of the palace using large, inexpensive sheets of glass.  A 27 foot tall crystal fountain acted as the centre piece of the building.  Full size elm trees from within Hyde Park stood near the fountain.  There was no need for artificial light during the day thanks to the fact that the glass walls let in the natural light.  The palace featured the first public toilets, "lavatories" for the men and "restrooms" for the women.

The Crystal Palace Exhibition was the first to feature manufactured goods. Guests were dazzled by 100,000 objects displayed by over 15,000 contributors.  While Britain occupied half of the space, France was the largest foreign contributor.  Items were divided into four different categories:  Raw Materials, Machinery, Manufacturers and Fine Arts.  The Koh-i-Noor Diamond and Sevres porcelain were two of the more popular items featured.

The legacy of the Great Exhibition is the Crystal Palace. The building was dismantled and reassembled on Sydenham Hill in 1852 where it was host to several new exhibits including:  Egyptian, Alhambra, Roman, Renaissance, Pompeian and Grecian.  In 1861, the palace hosted the first aeronautical exhibit Lord Baden Powell noticed the interest of girls in scouting while hosting the Boy Scouts.  In 1909, the Festival of Empire was held to mark the coronation of George V.  During the First World War, the site was used as a naval training facility.  Towards the end of the Great War, the Crystal Palace reopened as the Imperial War museum.  In 1936, the building caught fire and burned to the ground, the red flames being seen in eight counties.  The Crystal Palace has been duplicated elsewhere in the world, including a building in Dallas, Texas as well as a restaurant in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom.

Thursday 7 April 2016

The Ghost Map: How It Changed The Face of Cholera

"On August 28, 1854, working class Londoner Sarah Lewis tossed a bucket of soiled water into a cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history." (

London was hit by a major cholera epidemic in 1832.  At first Londoners thought that the deadly disease, which originated in India in 1817, was spread by "bad air", the miasma theory.  However, in 1849, Dr. John Snow declared that cholera was a water borne disease, revolutionary thinking at the time.  The city government wasn't prepared to accept his findings and continued to function as before.  London was ripe for another epidemic.

The disease struck for the second time in 1854.  This time Dr. John Snow had a ringside seat to observe the disease and record his findings.  The city was the perfect breeding ground for disease:  two and a half million people lived in a 30 mile circumference.  The ever increasing problem remained:  What to do with the waste that all of these Londoners produced?  Many cellars had cesspools under their floorboards where human feces and urine were dumped.  However, these cesspools were overflowing.  Rather than finding a proper outlet for the waste, the British government, looking for a quick fix, ruled to dump the extra waste in the River Thames, London's water source.

"On August 28, 1854, working class Londoner Sarah Lewis tossed a bucket of soiled water into a cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history."  One hundred and twenty seven people died in the next three days.  By September 10, the death toll soared to 500.

Dr. John Snow was ready with paper and pencil to observe the cholera outbreak and record his findings.  He sketched out a map of London, highlighting the areas most affected by the disease.  He came to the conclusion that the source of the outbreak was the Broad Street pump.  Interestingly enough, his theory rang true when it was discovered that employees at the Broad Street Brewery, who drank beer rather than the water at this time, did not succumb to cholera.  The fermentation process would kill any bacteria in the beer.  Although the Broad Street pump handle was later removed, Dr. Snow's theory was not readily embraced.  It was easier for the British government to sweep the problem under the rug, at least for the time being.

Cholera is the best of all sanitary reformers, wrote The Times in 1848. Ten years later, the comment was proven correct when pedestrians walking over the London Bridge covered their noses with handkerchiefs to ward off the foul odour emanating from the River Thames.  Parliament's curtains had to be soaked in lime.  Still, dignitaries sitting in Parliament could stand the stench no longer and proposed legislation to fix the problem.

Enter Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer who would design London's sewer system.  Author Steven Johnson likens Bazalgette's sewers to the Eiffel Tower or the Brooklyn Bridge -- a massive project which made its mark on the city.  The first section of the system opened in 1865, but it was too late for London's East End, which did not yet have sewers.

In 1866, the last cholera epidemic hit the city.  The disease inspired investigations into living conditions in London, particularly the slums.  Evangelist Thomas Barnardo, training to be a medical doctor in a London hospital, and intending on working as a missionary in China, was moved by the suffering he saw in the East End and decided to stay.  Dr. Barnardo would go on to open a series of homes for destitute children, one of Britain's great social reformers.

Dr. Snow's ghost map of cholera would be considered the founding event of the discipline of epidemiology.

Note:  For more information, read The Ghost Map:  The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson.