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Victorian London

Queen Victoria reigned from 20th June 1837 to 22nd January 1901. Her long reign, of 63 years and 2 months, oversaw unprecedented change in Britain; the growth of the British Empire and trade, developments in technology, science, medicine and public health, architectural and art movements, as well as political change and great societal shifts. During the Victorian period towns and cities grew at an unparalleled rate across Britain. At the start of Victoria’s reign London, the capital of the British Empire, was already the largest city in the world with a population of around 2 million, but by the end of her reign the population in the capital would rise to over 6.5 million. 

London’s Infrastructure in the 19th century

The streets were bustling with people – and horses; it’s estimated that 500,000 of them were required to transport London’s citizens via carriages, carts, omnibuses, and trams. Earlier periods had seen public transport as a luxury only the wealthy could afford but the increasing number of operators and forms of transport drove down costs so that people were being carted around the city in numbers never seen before. The London and Greenwich Railway, the first passenger steam railway, was opened in 1838. The Victorian era also saw the building of Euston (1837), Paddington (1838), Waterloo (1848), King’s Cross (1850), and Victoria (1860) railway stations – they became gateways to the rest of the Kingdom, facilitating trade and the movement of people. in 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was created to administer the new infrastructure needed to accommodate the growing city, by clearing slums, creating new streets, and providing parks. London increasing growth of population led to severe overcrowding in the inner-city and it began to expand into surrounding towns and villages, which today make up Greater London. In 1863 London became home to the world’s first underground railway, providing residents with the opportunity to leave the busy inner-city and live in the suburbs; giving London a glimpse into the commuter lifestyle that characterises it today. The suburban dream was helped along in the latter end of the century by the Cheap Trains Act (1883), which made train travel cheaper. Nonetheless, the very poor were still confined to inner city slums, whilst the rising middle-class aspired to own their own homes in the suburbs. 

Figure 1 – Construction of the Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway near King’s Cross

Etching, showing a large, deep cutting taking up width of the road. The excavation is filled with scaffolding and the partially completed and covered-over tunnel is beyond

Source: The Illustrated London News, 2 February 1861, p. 99. Credit: Wikimedia.

“London is a modern Babylon”: Immigration to the capital

In 1851, over a third of all Londoners were born somewhere else. Many came from the British countryside but there were also large communities of refugees from Europe. Europe at the time was bursting with revolutions and political debate, bringing to England political refugees, including the likes of political heavy-weights like Karl Marx.  The Irish were the largest immigrant group as a result of the Irish Famine (1846-1849), and the London Jewish community expanded during the second half of the nineteenth century, fleeing wars, persecution and famine. Chinese, Indian, African, and Caribbean communities were also established by the London docks. The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli referred to London as “a modern Babylon” due to the myriad of cultures and languages forming in the capital.

Figure 2 – The market at Petticoat Lane where Jewish cloth-makers sold their wares (1887)

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Source: W. Thornbury, Old and New London, Vol.2 (London, 1887), p. 139. Credit:

London at Work

The Industrial Revolution (c.1760-c.1840) and the advent of steam ushered in the age of mass production, changing the market dramatically and aiding the expansion of a middling class of merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen. London was home to an abundance of trades, from cloth merchants to brewers. Among the important industries in London was furniture making, the chemical industry, the leather industry, and the clothing trade. Goods from all over the Empire were also bought to London via the docks, making it the centre of global trade. It has been established by historians that the alteration of demographic structures had a profound effect on consumption patterns, especially with a national and international market developing alongside transport improvements. London wholesalers and manufacturers could now transport their goods across the country a lot cheaper and quicker than previous eras. 

Life for the working class during the great manufacturing boom, however, was poor. Many of the factories were unventilated centres of disease, and the working day was long and strenuous. People tended to work on a casual basis, thus workers’ rights were meagre. Social reformers sought to improve working conditions. In 1847 The Factory Act was passed, also known as the Ten Hours Act, restricting the working hours of women and children in textile mills to 10 hours per day. A significant break-through for workers’ rights was the legalisation of trade unions in 1871. The last decades of the century saw the rise of organised labour movements and strikes. 

London at Play

Leisure time became increasingly considered. The introduction of the railways opened up opportunities for travel across the country, giving rise to popular seaside resorts, race meetings and football matches. London itself became a destination for visitors with an expanding infrastructure of shops, theatres and music halls. Notably, over 6 million people visited the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park in 1851. It was the first exhibition of technology and culture in the world. In the aftermath of the Exhibition, public money helped to establish a hub of national museums in South Kensington, giving home to many of the objects that had been on display, and places for citizens to visit in their leisure time. The Great Exhibition has notoriously been defined as a turning point for Victorian Society. It certainly gave the average citizen a glimpse into a future filled with exciting commodities, and with an increase of 70 percent in real wages over the course of the century, broader members of society were able to afford the proliferation of goods on offer. 

Figure 3 – An interior view of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, 1851

The Great Exhibition: the transept

Source: Joseph Nash (1851). Credit: The Royal Collection Trust.

Shopping became a significant activity. Innovative retail practices arose in the period with the likes of elaborate window displays, sales pushes, fixed prices, and differing forms of advertising; as well as new forms of retail with the multi-national and department store. Window-shopping was a desirable pastime, with the likes of the Burlington and Piccadilly Arcades showing off luxury goods for the gentility. Merchants also began targeting middle-class women, who were now valuable consumers with buying power. Large department stores also kept on top of the latest technological innovations to promote their wares; In 1898 Harrods became home to England’s first escalator. 

A new visual age

The advertising industry boomed in the Victorian period. Technological advances in printing meant that it was cheaper to produce publications on a larger scale than ever before, particularly with developments like the introduction of the steam-roller press. Communication advances, with the railway and the electric telegraph, alongside the growth of national literacy opened up the world of print to a mass readership. In the Victorian era new Copyright Laws were passed, giving authors’ royalties for their penmanship. The novel became a popular art form with the genres of romanticism and science fiction gaining ascendency, in part influenced by idealised notions of the rural past and fears for the urban future respectively. 

Figure 4 – The famous Victorian actress Lillie Langtry on a Carte-de-Viste

Lillie Langtry, by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, 1880-1890 - NPG x197128 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Source: The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, 1880-1890. Credit: The National Portrait Gallery.

In this environment, celebrity culture flourished. In 1856 the National Portrait Gallery opened its doors providing visitors with a glimpse of the powerful and fashionable.  A new form of visual media arose in the 1860s with the introduction of mass-produced portraits called carte-de-viste. For the first time the public could own images of famous actors, actresses, literary figures, sportsmen, and the Royal Family at an affordable price. They were extremely popular collectors’ items, for example, an album of portraits of Victoria and Albert commissioned by the Queen in 1860 sold 60,000 copies in its first week on the market. 

Public Health

Whilst the Victorian era was a time of great economic boom and cultural progress it was also a time of great poverty. Social commentators like Charles Dickens and Edwin Chadwick bought to light the major downfalls of Victorian Society. For a time, Dickens lived a few doors away from the Cleveland Street Workhouse, which no doubt influenced his writings. Living conditions were poor and many lacked basic facilities, like clean water. Sewage was dumped into the Thames River causing a great deal of pollution. This led to the ‘Great Stink’ of the 1858 and three outbreaks of cholera. In the second half of the nineteenth century the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed a new sewage system for London to aid drainage, helping to save thousands of lives. His sewer system still operates today. 

Figure 5 – ‘Father Thames Introducing his Offspring to the Fair City of London’

Source: Punch, 3rd July 1858. Credit: The British Library.

The likes of cholera, typhoid, typhus, influenza, scarlet fever, and smallpox were the most common diseases, with epidemics wiping out significant numbers of the population. Some epidemics were so serious that they led to legislation being passed, for example, the Nuisances Removal Act (1855) was implemented in reaction to the cholera epidemic of 1853-1854. The State began to seek new ways to manage poverty and disease and put into action an array of public health measures, including the Compulsory Vaccination Act (1853), which made it compulsory for all children to be vaccinated against smallpox during the first three months of their life. Not everyone looked kindly upon the efforts of an increasingly interventionist state, and there was organised anti-vaccination movements throughout the country. The death rate from smallpox, however, fell rapidly as a result of the legislation. In 1848 the first Medical Officer for London was appointed, producing annual reports and statistics on the state of public health in London. For the first time the health of the population of London was systematically recorded. The Officer also had the authority to inspect factories, housing, foodstuffs. In 1889 the Notification of Diseases Act was passed, requiring that Medical Officers’ notify the centre of the outbreak of certain diseases. When a disease alert was in place the given locality would receive official advice, which was then disseminated out to the locals. By the end of the period better sanitation led to a steady decline in the mortality rate.

Figure 6 – Cholera Notice for the Limehouse District

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Source:  Printed Cholera Notice, 1866. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Library & Archives. Credit:

The nineteenth century saw significant medical breakthroughs with the likes of anaesthetic, antiseptic, and changes to hospital management. Notably, in the 1890s Robert Koch identified the micro-organisms that caused tuberculosis, which was widely lauded in the scientific and lay press. Many of these breakthroughs, however, took time to impact the day-to-day lives of the poor. 

Civic Pride and Welfare

A number of moneyed entrepreneurs used their wealth for the public good, seeking to address the discord between rising living standards and poverty. An example of this civic engagement can be seen from Thomas Barnado, an Irishman, who came to London during an outbreak of cholera in the 1866, which swept through the East End. As a result of the cholera outbreak many families were left destitute and children were orphaned. Barnardo set up the ‘Ragged School’, to provide poor children with an education, and in 1870 he opened his first home for boys in Stepney Causeway. The Peabody Trust was also formed in the 1860’s, by the American banker George Peabody. The trust provided purpose-built housing for the poor, with the first block opened in 1864 in Spitalfields, containing 57 dwellings. Numerous other charities were formed in the period, such as the Charity Organisation Society and the Salvation Army. 

Welfare was provided through voluntary and charitable organisations, whilst the State offered the destitute the Workhouse. The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) tried to reconcile economic astuteness with humanitarian aid, seeking to define the ‘deserving poor’ by creating a system that dissuaded people from seeking relief. There were a high number of workhouses in the capital, one of the largest was at St. Martin in the Fields in Westminster; In 1865 The Lancet, a medical journal, reported on the overcrowding and the neglect of paupers in their sick wards. The reports prompted discussion about failures of the workhouse system and helped lead to the passing of the Metropolitan Poor Act in 1867, which created the Metropolitan Asylum Board and provided a new system of care for the sick poor in the capital. 

Political and social ideologies

The extensive demographic, social, and economic changes since the beginning of the nineteenth century gave rise to new social theories and political movements. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Victorian thinkers used the theory of evolution for their own ends, applying it to ideas of race, class and British Imperialistic ‘progression’. As the urban environment had led to such an array of health problems concerns over ‘de-evolution’ or physical degeneration abounded. There was anxiety that civilisation had reached its peak and would revert to a more primitive state. These fears were relayed in popular literature of the period, with the likes of R. L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). 

Political movements like socialism and liberalism were prominent in the period. Chartism was a working-class movement in Victoria’s early reign that sought to give more men representation in the House of Commons through the vote. The 1832, 1867, and 1884–85 Reform Acts extended voting rights to broader members of the population, not just those in the upper-classes of society. The Labour movement also began in the nineteenth century, with reformers aiming to improve the socio-economic realities of the lower-classes. 

Figure 7 – Daguerreotype of a large crowd of supporters of the Chartist movement gathered together on Kennington Common, 1848.

The Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April 1848

Source: Prince Albert purchased two daguerreotypes of the meeting in 1848. Credit: Royal Collection Trust.

Queen Victoria: An Introduction


Victoria (1819-1901) was the daughter of Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III. In 1820, whilst she was still a baby, both her father and George III died. After the death of two of her uncles she became the sole heir to her Uncle, William IV, who had no children. Victoria was raised in Kensington Palace by her mother and had a controlled upbringing. At the age of 18 her Uncle, William IV passed away and Victoria succeeded the throne. Her official residence became Buckingham Palace.

Figure 8 – Queen Victoria as a young woman, by F.W. Wilkin

Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Coronation and early reign

400,000 spectators watched Victoria’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on 28th June 1838. She immediately turned away from her controlling mother and looked for other figures to provide support. Her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne became a friend and confidant. Victoria first met her future husband Albert in 1839 and they were married a year later. Over the course of the next sixteen years they would have nine children. Notably, Victoria was administered chloroform, an anaesthetic, for the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold. 

Civic Duty

Victoria and Albert undertook a significant number of civic duties, visiting hospitals, towns and supporting charities. Prince Albert developed a reputation for helping public causes, and in 1851 he was prominent in the organisation of the Great Exhibition. The Queen introduced the ‘Victoria Cross’ to honour soldiers’ bravery in the Crimean War, basing it on merit rather than rank. 62 men were presented with the medal in the 1857. 

Albert’s Death

In the Winter of 1861 Albert died from Typhoid. The Queen was devastated and wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life. It would be almost a decade before the Queen partook in public engagements. Victoria commissioned a large number of memorials for Prince Albert, including the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. 

Figure 9 – Queen Victoria and Princess Alice in mourning.

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Source: See,H. Rappaport, ‘A Fashion for Mourning’ Materials of Mourning <>

Victoria’s Empire and Legacy

Victoria reigned at a time when the British Government had an expansionist Foreign Policy, which led to a series of colonial conflicts and conquests. In 1876 Victoria gained the title Empress of India, which bolstered her popularity and feelings of patriotism. The image of Britannia became a potent image in popular culture and advertising.

Figure 10 – Queen Victoria as Empress of India, 1876.

Official portrait of Queen Victoria as Empress of India, showing her sitting on the Travancore ivory throne and wearing the sash of the Order of Neshan Aftab, presented to her by the Shah of Persia.

Source: W & D Downey Photographers. Credit: Royal Collection Trust.

During Victoria’s reign the monarchy became a highly visible institution, more so than previous periods in history, due to the arrival of photography and advances in print technology. The historian David Cannadine commented on the use of spectacle to legitimise the existence of the monarchy and the increased frequency of royal ceremonies in the Victorian era. Victoria’s long reign also helped to garner popularity. On 20th July 1887 Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was marked with celebrations across the Empire. Soldiers from these disparate nations marched through London and a feast was held for foreign envoys and representatives. Victoria’s image was disseminated on mass-produced commemorative items, from mugs to postcards. The commercial sector capitalised on the image of Victoria, appealing to patriotism to sell commodities. 

Figure 11 – Victoria’s image used to sell Golfer Oats

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Source: John Johnson Collection. Bodleian Library, Oxford

Figure 12 – World map of the Queen’s Dominions at the end of the nineteenth century from a McVitie’s advertisement (1898)

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Source: Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. Credit: Wikimedia


In her lifetime Victoria was known as “The Grandmother of Europe” as her large number of offspring were all married off into Royal Families of Europe, making her the literal grandmother of future rulers. When the Queen died she ruled over 400 million subjects, a quarter of the world’s population. She became the image of British Imperial power. Victoria passed away in January 1901, aged 81. The Queen’s funeral was an elaborate affair, attended by European Royalty and marked with pageantry. Victoria’s reign had coincided with the advent of photography, and had seen unparalleled transformations in the social, economic, political and technological make-up of society. Fittingly, her funeral was at that time the largest event ever caught on the new medium of film.

Film reel of Queen Victoria’s funeral:

Timeline of events during Queen Victoria’s reign: 1837 – 1901

1837 – William IV dies and Victoria is crowned Queen, aged 18. 

1837 – Lord Melbourne is Prime Minister – the first of ten Prime Ministers’ during Victoria’s reign.

1837 – Chartism begins, a working-class political movement seeking political reform.

1837 – Charles Dicken’s first novel Pickwick Papers is published as a book, after it first appeared serialised. 

1838 – The London and Greenwich Railway is opened, the first passenger steam railway in the capital.

1839 – The start of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

1839 – The First Opium War begins. 

1840 – Victoria marries Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the Chapel Royal in St. James’ Palace.

1840 – The Penny Post is introduced, revolutionising the postal system.

1841 – Robert Peel becomes Prime Minister.

1842 – End of the First Opium War. Hong Kong becomes a colony of the British Empire.

1842 – Edwin Chadwick publishes his Report into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, highlighting the great poverty of a significant number of the population.

1845 – 1849 Irish Potato Famine kills more than a million people.

1846 – The Corn Laws are repealed, lowering the cost of food. 

1848 – Major Chartist demonstration at Kennington Common in London. 

1848 – The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood is founded, an art-movement rejecting academic art.

1849 – There is an outbreak of cholera. 10,000 people die in London alone. 

1851 – The Great Exhibition is held in Hyde Park.

1853 – Smallpox Vaccination is made compulsory.

1853 – Victoria uses chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold.

1854 -1856 The Crimean War is fought by Britain and France against Russia. Florence Nightingale pioneers modern nursing. 

1854 – 10,000 people die of cholera from contaminated water in London. 

1856 – The Victoria Cross is introduced to honour military bravery.

1857 – The Indian Mutiny against British rule.

1858 – Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches The Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world. 

1858 – First transatlantic telegraph service.

1858 – The ‘Great Stink’ in London.

1859 – Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species is published.

1861 – Prince Albert dies of typhoid.

1863 – The underground railway is opened in London.

1863 – The Salvation Army is founded.

1863 – The Football Association is founded.

1865 – Slavery is ended in America with the conclusion of the American Civil War.

1867 – The Second Reform Bill doubles the number of males allowed to vote.

1868 – Gladstone becomes Prime Minister.

1870 – First Education Act. Education for children between 5 and 12 becomes compulsory.

1871 – Trade Union Act. Unions become legalised for the first time. 

1874 – Disraeli becomes Prime Minister.

1875 – The Public Health Act is passed, regulating lodging houses, creating sewers, and controlling water supplies.

1876 – Victoria becomes Empress of India.

1876 – Alexander Graham Bell demonstrates the telephone.

1878 – Second Anglo-Afghan War.

1879 – The Anglo-Zulu war. 

1880 – Gladstone succeeds Disraeli as Prime Minister.

1880-1881 – The First Boer War in South Africa.

1882 – The Anglo-Egyptian War.

1884 – The Third Reform Act is passed, giving all adult males the vote.

1884 – Greenwich Meridian and Mean Time adopted. Before this each town or city kept its own time, which became problematic with the growth of the railways.

1886 – First Irish Home Rule Bill fails.

1887 – Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. 

1891 – Free schooling is introduced.

1893 – Second Irish Home Rule Bill fails.

1896 – Marconi demonstrates wireless transmission to the Government.

1897 – Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

1889 – The London Dock Strike. 

1899-1902 – Second Boer War in South Africa.

1901 – Queen Victoria dies, aged 81, and Edward VII is crowned King. 

Further Reading

D. Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (Penguin Books, 2002)

D. R. Green, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870 (Farnham, 2010)

J. Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (London, 2007)

D. Hindley and G. Hindley, Advertising in Victorian England, 1837-1901 (London, 1972)

L. McCray Beier, For their own good: the transformation of English working-class health culture, 1880-1970 (Ohio, 2008)

J. Paxman, The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age (London, 2010)

R. Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (New York, 1998)

L.D. Schwarz, London in the Age of Industrialisation: Entrepreneurs, Labour Force and Living Conditions, 1700-1850, Part II (Cambridge, 1992)

T. Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England (London, 1990)

A. N. Wilson, The Victorians (London, 2002)

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