Monday, 19 February 2018

Victorian servants

Women and work

Some of the standard images of Victorian women are the 'angel in the house' of Coventry Patmore's poem, the factory girl, and the domestic servant (and possibly Florence Nightingale's nurses). In fact, more women worked in the various dressmaking trades than in factories, and until the end of the nineteenth century the numbers of women in paid work was declining. Women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives subordinate to their husbands and rarely in paid employment. This owed a great deal to ideology but was also based in fact. With the advance of industrialisation and the shift to heavy industry, the incomes of most families were restricted to those of the male breadwinner - a circumstance that owes as much to trade union pressure as to middle-class ideology. A great deal of casual female labour went unrecorded in the censuses but even allowing for this, probably no more than ten per cent of married women were in paid employment. The great majority of women who worked full-time were young and/or single.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Victorians in love

The Victorians: prudes and hypocrites?

The Victorian period is often associated with doctrines of sexual self-restraint and an accompanying hypocrisy. It is often said that they were so prudish that they covered piano legs with pantaloons and spoke of white meat rather than chicken breast. In their hypocrisy they ignored the dark reality - the prevalence of prostitution was high and the practice of incest among the urban and rural poor

The late-Victorian and Edwardian periods saw attacks on Victorian hypocrisy and repression - for example in  Hardy’s Tess of the D'urbervilles and H. G. Wells’s daring Ann Veronica.

There is certainly considerable literary evidence for Victorian prudishness. In Our Mutual Friend Dickens mocked the figure of Mr Podsnap, who did not wish a book to contain anything that ‘might bring a blush to the cheek of a young person’. This suggests that novelists, perhaps Dickens in particular,  felt frustrated at the limitations imposed by the conventions of propriety.

The Victorian novel can leave key questions unanswered. Is the marriage of Dorothea and Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch consummated? Is Hardy's Tess raped or seduced? The reader is led to infer that Nancy in Oliver Twist is a prostitute, but it is not made explicit. No British novel of the period has the frankness of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856).

However, this prudishness can be exaggerated. If the Victorians put pantaloons on piano legs it was probably to protect the furniture! British Victorians mocked the prudery of  Americans because they talked of ‘dark’ and ‘white’ chicken and called cockerels roosters. Pruder and censoriousness was personified in the much-mocked person of ‘Mrs Grundy’ - seen below confronted by Oscar Wilde who is showing her his Picture of Dorian Gray. By the end of the century a reaction had set in against the sexual reticence of the high Victorian period. 

And even at the height of so-called Victorian prudery, marital sex was praised and the 'unnatural' celibacy of Roman Catholic and some Tractarian clergy was condemned.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Exploration and evolution: Darwin and Wallace

Here is the most fabulous site, with all Charles Darwin's works available online. There is no end to research on Darwin and a recent set of book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement give a clue to some of the latest thinking.

Darwin in 1854
Public domain

The context

Science is not value-free, and the language and concepts of Darwinism are those of the economic and social doctrines of the time. Darwin's Origin of Species was published at a particularly sensitive time, when scientists were making a bid for cultural supremacy.

The keystone of traditional naturalism was Archdeacon William Paley’s Natural Theology, which Darwin studied at Cambridge. The argument was simple and apparently convincing:
  • Life was good because through the kindness of God, all human beings were adapted to their surroundings;
  • Animals, including humans, are complex beings from the divine workshop, exquisitely fitted to their place in the world.
  • This proves there must be a designer.
Paley was writing during the wars with France, at a time of great social and political upheaval, his science legitimized the existing social order, and his conservative politics were unacceptable to radicals and to rationalist Unitarians such as Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. But Paley’s followers included not merely naturalists at the university, but also scores of vicar-naturalists working in their parishes.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Victorian architecture

I am indebted for this post to some excellent websites from the Victorian web and from Wikipedia. I have also used two books: Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Phoenix, 2004) and Roger Dixon and Stefan Muthesius, Victorian Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 1985).

Victorian architecture is all around us. After a post-war period in which Victorian buildings were deemed 'monstrosities' and many were demolished in favour of modernism, there is now a recognition of the inventiveness, dynamism, and aesthetic appeal of so many Victorian structures. A great deal has been lost, but much has now been lovingly restored.

As well as domestic housing - some modest, some grand - the period saw an enormous expansion in public and commercial buildings: town halls,  churches, railway stations, hospitals, museums, banks and hotels.  


Many of the new building projects were open to competition and this provided an unprecedented opportunity for a young architect who wished to make his way in his profession. In 1836, for example, Charles Barry won the competition for the new houses of Parliament. Architecture was a subject of great public interest and the most esteemed architects, such as Barry, received knighthoods.

There were also many private commissions created by the patronage of wealthy individuals who worked alongside architects to produce noteworthy. Thomas Cubitt was granted commissions by the duke of Bedford and the marquess of Westminster.  In 1845 he was authorised by Prince Albert to proceed with a new residence at Osborne. 

From 1866 William Burges transformed Cardiff Castle for the 3rd Marquess of Bute and in 1875 he began work on Castle Coch.

Castle Coch, a rich man's Gothic fantasy
The career of Joseph Paxton shows both trends. He made his name by designing the glasshouse at Chatsworth for the duke of Devonshire, but won the competition for the Crystal Palace. 

The architect was now a recognised professional working alongside a quantity surveyor. In 1834 the Institute of British Architects had been founded, given a royal charter in 1837. But there were few architectural schools and the majority of architects learned their trade through apprenticeships. Architectural practice was spread through journals.

The Gothic

The favoured style of most architects was the Gothic, popularised by A. W. N. Puginwhose idealisation of the Middle Ages was profoundly influential. 

Pugin's Contrasts (1836)
The modern workhouse compared with medieval charity.
Public domain

The Gothic revival was heavily influenced by two works by John RuskinThe Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3). In the second edition of The Seven Lamps, he set out his position clearly.
I have now no doubt that the only style proper for modern northern work, is the Northern Gothic of the thirteenth century, as exemplified, in England, pre-eminently by the cathedrals of Lincoln and Wells, and, in France, by those of Paris, Amiens, Chartres, Rheims, and Bourges, and by the transepts of that of Rouen.
What he loved about the Gothic was its expression of individuality, and even imperfection, compared with what he saw as the sterile formalism and uniformity of the classical style.
It is perhaps the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they … receive the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.
This idealisation of the Gothic was not a purely British development. In France, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was also extolling the Gothic and restoring buildings in the Gothic style.

The style came to be particularly associated with Sir George Gilbert ScottHe was the son of a clergyman and he specialised in ecclesiastical buildings, though he also designed the Albert Memorial and the St Pancras Station hotel.  However he produced classical designs for the Foreign Office. 

The High-Church Gothic architect, William Butterfielddesigned two Tractarian buildings All Saints Margaret Street in London and Keble College, Oxford.

Butterfield's Keble College chapel, opened 1876

The dominant architect of the mid-Victorian period was Alfred WaterhouseHe was born in Liverpool but some of his most notable work took place in Manchester, where his Gothic designs won the competitions for the assize courts and the town hallHe did not confine himself to the Gothic and constructed the Natural History Museum  along the lines of a Romanesque church.

The most advanced architect of the late Victorian period was Richard Norman ShawHe designed Gothic buildings but he also took architecture beyond the Gothic. His concern was to evolve a style of architecture based on the English vernacular. One of his most spectacular buildings was Cragside in Northumberland.

Cragside: beyond the Gothic

New materials

Because of the nineteenth-century transport revolution builders were not confined to local materials.  The repeal of the brick tax in 1850 meant that St Pancras station and its hotel could be built in the 1860s of Nottingham red brick, brought south by the Midland Railway. Westminster Cathedral was built with brick from Peterborough. The terracotta tiles that face the Natural History Museum came from Tamworth. Polychrome brickwork became a characteristic of Victorian architecture.

Below are a few from the very many examples of the varied ways in which the Victorians applied the architectural language of previous centuries to contemporary conditions.

Station architecture

The London to Birmingham Railway, engineered by Robert Stephenson was opened in 1837.  Its London terminus was designed by Philip Hardwick and his son P. C. Hardwick. The station was approached through the 'Euston Arch', in reality a Doric propylaeum or gateway. It cost about £30,000 but the company thought it a good investment as people flocked to see it when it was built.

The Italianate Newcastle station was opened in 1850 by the Queen. The train shed used curved wrought-iron ribs to support an arched roof, the first of its kind in the world.

After 1851 stations drew on the experience of building the Crystal Palace. King's Cross station was built in 1851-2 to a design by Lewis Cubitt. The train sheds copy the techniques of the transepts of the Crystal Palace. The façade consists of a screen of yellow stock brick pierced by two arched windows, with an Italianate clock tower in between.

King's Cross station at its opening in 1852.

St Pancras station, opened in 1868 was the London terminus of the Midland Railway. It was intended as a structure that would eclipse in size all the previous London stations. 

Museum architecture

The British Museum was designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the style of the Greek revival. But in the Victorian period a second wave of construction took place under the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. By the early 1850s he conceived the idea of constructing a round room in the empty central courtyard of the Museum building. With a design by Smirke work on the reading room began in 1854 and was completed three years later. With a diameter of 140 feet, the room was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. It was constructed by segments on a cast iron framework. The papier mâché ceiling is suspended on cast iron struts hanging down from the frame. The room was opened on 2 May 1857. It was opened for public viewing between 8 and 16 May and over 62,000 visitors came to see it.

The British Museum reading room
Wikimedia Creative Commons

The British Museum was stylistically conservative - classical rather than Gothic - as were the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. However, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington was stylistically much more innovative innovative.

It was the brainchild of the palaeontologist Richard Owen, who was appointed superintendent of the British Museum Natural History departments in 1856. He saw that the collections needed more space and because the British Museum site was limited, he planned a new site in South Kensington. In 1866 the commission was granted to Alfred Waterhouse. Work began in 1873 and the museum was finally completed in 1881 at a cost of £395,000.

The Natural History Museum, designed by
Waterhouse as a temple of science modelled on a
Romanesque cathedral

Waterhouse's design was influenced by his frequent visits to the Continent. The style is an idiosyncratic version of Romanesque. The façade to the Cromwell Road is 675 feet long and is punctuated by central towers which rise to 192 feet. It is faced with terracotta tiles manufactured by the Tamworth-based company of Gibbs and Canning Ltd. The tiles and bricks feature relief sculptures of flora and fauna, with living and extinct species in different wings, the living in the west and the extinct in the east. This may have been Owen's rebuke to Darwin. Between the central towers is a great arched portico, which leads to a hall giving access to the galleries.

Manchester: flagship city

In keeping with its self-confidence as 'Cottonopolis', Manchester saw the building of grand warehouses based on the style of the Italian Renaissance. The J. Brown and Son Warehouse (1851) was one of the most impressive

Possibly the largest is the sandstone Watt's Warehouse, a six-storey palazzo (now the Britannia Hotel), built in 1856 by Travis and Magnell at a cost of £100,000.  It is designed in the form of a Venetian palazzo, and has five floors each built in a different architectural style. The four roof towers break up the horizontal cornice at regular intervals.

In the 1860s a campaign was underway to build a magnificent town hall that would celebrate Manchester's cultural and economic dominance.  The competition was won by Alfred Waterhouse. His problem was how to create an impressive building on an awkward site in Albert Square and he created a Gothic style that owed much to Venetian architecture. The Town Hall opened in 1878.

Manchester Town Hall - a palace for King Cotton
Public domain
The Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall


  1. The Victorian period, a time of rapid population growth, increased prosperity, and technological innovation, saw an unprecedented demand for new buildings, both public and private.
  2. Architects tended to favour the Gothic, though some looked back to the classical period, while others merged the Gothic with Italianate or English vernacular styles. 
  3. The new buildings were a reflection of opulence, self-confidence and stylistic and technical innovation.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

An age of faith? An age of doubt?

'The Doubt: Can These Dry Bones Live"'
Henry Alexander Bowler (1855)
Tate Britain. Image released under Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

‘Contemporaries agonized over those who did not float upon the flood of faith. We marvel at the number who did.’ Theodore Hoppen, The Mid Victorian Generation (Oxford, 1998), p. 425.
See here for a very comprehensive site.

A crisis of faith?

The Victorian period saw some well-publicised crises of faith, often caused by the new scientific discoveries. Two of the most prominent intellectuals to lose their Christian faith were Charles Darwin and George Eliot. In 1869 Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term 'agnostic'. 

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Carbon print by Julia Margaret Cameron
The Art Institute of Chicago
Public domain

Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam arose out of his grief at the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, but also engaged with the problem of the cruelty of nature. It was inspired by Robert Chambers' Vestiges of Creation (1844) and is the first poem in English to mention the dinosaurs. Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach lamented the decline of Christianity.

Modern scholarship, however, is more inclined to stress the strength and resilience of Victorian religion. The nineteenth century was an age of doubt but it was also an age of faith, with a high level of biblical literacy. Preachers like the Baptist, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the American evangelists, Moody and Sankey, drew large crowds. It was the age of hymn-writing, church-building and overseas missions, and the well-publicised doubts of the intellectuals were not typical of the mass of the population. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Victorian prostitution and the fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts

'Found', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Delaware Art Museum
Public domain

The Acts

Victorian prostitutes mainly served working-class men in squalid conditions, and their typical clients were soldiers and sailors, who tended to be single because of their conditions of service. Their middle-class clients were mainly young single men (rather than married men). At Oxford in the 1840s the proctors’ records suggest a figure of between 300 and 400 prostitutes in a city of 25,000 people of whom 1,500 were students.  

Prostitution was a widely-recognised social problem that occupied many philanthropists, such as the wealthy heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who founded a home for young women, Urania Cottage. See here for Dickens's involvement with the scheme. There are interesting discussions here and here.

The three euphemistically titled Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, 1869) were an attempt by the British government to regulate prostitution in the manner of other European countries such as France in order to reduce the sexually transmitted diseases that plagued the British army and navy. The acts applied to specifically named ports and garrison towns, although the ultimate intention was to include all of Britain.   

The first Act stipulated that within a radius of eleven army camps and naval ports, a woman suspected of prostitution had to register with the police and receive a compulsory medical examination. If the examination revealed disease, she would be confined to a ‘lock’ hospital for a period of up to three months.

The Act of 1864 was replaced by a new Act in 1866, which added Chatham and Windsor to the number of subjected towns and introduced the enforcement of fortnightly examinations of prostitutes. The third Act of 1869 extended the provisions of the second Act to cover a total of eighteen towns in the British Isles. The maximum period of detention for a diseased prostitute was extended to nine months. 

The CD Acts were administered by units of plainclothes policemen seconded from the Metropolitan Police. They were given sweeping powers to determine who was a prostitute. No warrant or probable cause was needed. The victims were not merely prostitutes but working-class women in general, many of them illiterate, who were locked up without any regard for their legal rights. If a girl signed papers agreeing to an examination, her agreement was a de facto acknowledgement of prostitution. She was then required to be re-examined regularly. If she refused to sign the papers, she could be held in prison for months. 

The examinations were often brutal. Typically, the woman's legs were clamped open and her ankles tied down. Surgical instruments - sometimes not cleaned from prior inspections - were inserted so inexpertly that some women miscarried. Others passed out from the pain or from embarrassment. Some women with harmless conditions were misdiagnosed and locked in hospitals without recourse. 

Because men were not included within the provisions, the Acts embodied the double standards of sexual morality in which prostitution was seen as an unavoidable, and perhaps necessary, evil.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Victorian values: the Angel in the House and the Fallen Woman

The ideology of domesticity

As a reaction to the rackety private lives of some of their predecessors, the queen and Prince Albert set out to create a monarchy rooted in the idea of a happy marriage and domestic values that would give an example to the rest of the country. Walter Bagehot wrote ‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life’.

Victoria and Albert's
Christmas tree
Wikimedia Commons

The ideology of domesticity was set out in the novels and paintings of the period. Home was regarded as a place of calm happiness away from the turmoil of the world of work, and the wife was the guardian of the home. Although women were denied a say in politics, they were nevertheless thought to play a vital part in the ordering of society. It is often said that the Victorian period saw a rigid ideology of separate spheres: the man’s role was public and outward-looking, the woman’s was private and domestic. Women were denied a direct political role, but because the home was a site of national importance, their domestic role was seen as politically important. If a woman went wrong, therefore, this prefigured national disaster.