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What was Victorian London like? - A Survival Guide with Author Matt Wainwright

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

With Christmas fast approaching, we've been thinking about the Victorians. After all, many of the festive traditions we are about to enjoy were started during the Victorian era, in the city of London (check out our latest history guide, Very Victorian Christmas Traditions – A Fun Guide for more information!) And, when we were thinking about the Victorians, we got to pondering, what would it be like to live in London at this time? Just how in the hecky heck would you (or me for that matter, I'm very delicate) survive in Victorian London?

Author Matt Wainwright

To answer this question, we turned to Author Matt Wainwright. As the writer of the fabulous Young Adult Victorian flavoured historical adventure 'Out of the Smoke', surely Matt would have all the top tips for surviving in Victorian London?

As you're about to find out in our handy survival guide, Matt absolutely did not disappoint!

So, Victorian London, I’m wandering down the street, taking in the sights, just chilling out, what kind of people would I see?

All kinds of people! London has always been a very cosmopolitan city, going right back to Roman times. Its position on the Thames has made it a natural port and the first stop for many travellers arriving in Britain from all around the known world. You would have seen people from Africa, the Americas, Europe, China, and the Middle East – as well as the traditional English ladies and gentlemen in top hats and crinoline, of course!

Be sure to keep a peeper or two peeled for pick pockets if you are the owner of this fancy watch-chain. Chapter Illustration courtesy of Jaime Dill.

The people you might not have seen (until it was too late) were the street urchins: gangs of children as young as six or seven, darting between the crowds and picking pockets. Cheeky chappies these were not – just as London has a huge gang problem today, so it was in Victorian times, and then, as now, the older preyed on the younger, recruiting them into well-organised streets gangs of various sizes and setting them to work robbing and stealing whatever they could lay their hands on. You’d be well advised to keep a tight hold of your pocket-book, and check your handkerchiefs and watch-chain regularly: these were all favourite targets for the light-fingered.

And what different events or situations could be taking place around me?

It would have depended on where you were walking, of course. Stroll down to Piccadilly Circus and your main impression would have been of busyness: throngs of people streaming back and forth, mingling with horse-drawn hansom cabs and even trams. Advertisements would have been absolutely everywhere, declaring the health benefits of various tonics and powders, entreating you to buy particular brands of sausages or bread, or touting the latest bloodthirsty melodrama showing at a nearby theatre. We think we have plenty of advertising around us now, but the Victorians practically invented it. You can still see remnants of Victorian adverts in faded lettering on the bare brick of shops and houses, if you know where to look.

Could this be the wrong street? Chapter Illustration courtesy of Jaime Dill.

Turn off any of the main thoroughfares and you would be plunged into dark and twisting alleyways where the desperate and destitute lived. Most ‘respectable’ people didn’t dare to venture down to the crossroads at Seven Dials, and walking along the wrong street in Lambeth could see you end up on the business end of a knife!

Here you would see the tenement houses, crowded apartment buildings that were basically high-rise slums, where whole families lived in a single room and vermin and disease were rife.

Victorian London was a place of stark contrasts: towering feats of architecture and engineering (such as the Victoria Embankment or Tower Bridge) jostling with scenes of grinding poverty and crime.

Where should I visit in Victorian London? And where should I definitely avoid?

If you happened to be in London in 1851 there was only one place to visit: the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, housed in the awe-inspiring glass-and-steel structure called the Crystal Palace, originally situated in Hyde Park. It was a stunning display of the very latest in technology and engineering, celebrating Britain’s role as a world leader in these pursuits. Among the 13,000 exhibits were: full-grown trees; an enormous telescope; the first modern pay toilets (which cost one penny to use, hence the term ‘spend a penny’); an early fax machine; an envelope machine; looms; hydraulic presses; and even houses! You would have joined nearly six million people who streamed through the doors over the six months the Exhibition was open, and you would not have been disappointed.

If that didn’t take your fancy there was always Madame Tussauds (still open today), the waxwork museum where you could view startlingly realistic wax sculptures of famous figures such as Lord Nelson and Henry VIII, as well as a rogues gallery of murderers and other criminals. Another popular attraction might have been to go and hear the great Charles Dickens himself delivering a dramatic reading of a portion of one of his books. Or you could have taken a walk along the world-famous Thames Tunnel, which connected Rotherhithe with Wapping and was by all accounts a bright and airy place to take a stroll, lined with shops and stalls (although it had its fair share of thieves and other undesirables).

Places to definitely avoid were the slums of Lambeth and Soho, where you were more than likely to be accosted by street urchins or worse. An interesting fact about Lord Shaftesbury is that he was one of the few influential people of his day who would actually visit these places to see and talk to the people who lived there, finding out about their lives and problems and asking how he could help them. He was so popular amongst the lowest classes that he became known as ‘the Poor Man’s Earl’, and when, on the occasion of one visit, his precious pocket-watch was stolen (a gift from an old friend), the thief was found tied to a lamp-post not long after with the watch pinned to his chest!

What are the main dangers to be aware of when visiting Victorian London?

Keep a look out for people waving one of these bad boys. Chapter illustration courtesy of Jaime Dill.

Street crime was rife: robbers, pick-pockets, murderers, and conmen all rubbed shoulders, and you would be advised to keep a close eye on your belongings at all times. Road accidents were also common - horses were still the main mode of transport, drawing hansom-cabs, wagons, and trams, and the roads were crowded with vehicles. Horses were known to bolt, taking their passengers with them, and anyone in their path had better get quickly out of the way!

If you were a child living in Victorian London, your options were limited and your life was more likely than not to be dangerous in some way. Children were seen as cheap and expendable labour, forced to work sweeping chimneys, hauling coal, and any other jobs that adults couldn't or wouldn't do. Match girls made and sold matches, and the phosphorus they worked with was highly toxic. There was little in the way of health and safety laws.

If you did get into trouble, good luck calling the police - the Metropolitan police force was still finding its feet after being founded in 1829, and it was engaged in a constant struggle against a tide of crime.

What are your top tips to survive in Victorian London?

My top tips would be:

  1. Make good friends. The more people you know, the less chance you have of getting sucked into a gang, or becoming the victim of scams or cons.

  2. Know the neighbourhood. Often, incredibly wealthy streets would back on to areas of extreme poverty (and crime!). It would have been a bit early to use one of Charles Booth's poverty maps, but they would have been very useful.

  3. Get a good job. Most jobs involved long hours or backbreaking labour (or both), but you could find some that weren't too bad. Clerking in an office (basically doing all the things that computers do for us now) could be a good profession, or shop work. The good news was, before the laws passed by people like Lord Shaftesbury you could start work at any age!

  4. Watch your back. Victorian London was a fast-paced place, and it was the unwary who ended up in trouble. Keep your eyes peeled, and think about who's around you.

Finally, could you tell us a little about your ace book, ‘Out of the Smoke’?

I like the sound of ‘ace’! It’s a historical adventure novel for readers aged 10+, inspired by the work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Lord Shaftesbury was a politician and philanthropist who campaigned for children’s rights in the Victorian era. The book is about Billy, a chimney sweep who escapes a life of drudgery only to end up pitched into the underworld of Victorian London where he must fight to survive. It’s a story about friendships and choices, and learning who we can rely on when we’re at our lowest. There are daring escapes, night-time break-ins, pitched street battles, and heart-wrenching betrayals. All the things you need in a good book!

A huge thank you to Matt for answering all our questions so awesomely!

Click here to visit Matt's website and treat yourself to a copy of his thrilling historical adventure, 'Out of the Smoke'.


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