Monday, May 04, 2015

Victorian Vision, London and Manchester at the End of the Era

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, who can decide the value of a moving picture?  In this blog, I want to look at some moving images from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Some of these are definitely Victorian (in the sense that they were made before the death of the Queen), while others are a few years later.  But, even those made before and immediately after the Great War are images of a long gone time and there is little to differentiate those that are truly Victorian from those that are Edwardian.

The first piece of film consists of street scenes recorded around 1903. Most of it is simply traffic, but as one watches a second or third time, there are things, too easily missed, that warrant thought.  Consider , for example, the horse-drawn omnibuses. Just the number of them is overwhelming.  And, in the Victorian Era they often drove without due care, even, from time to time, racing through the London streets.  In 1853, the driver of the Chelsea and Islington Omnibus, driving too quickly and trying to overtake another bus from the inside, killed an elderly oyster-stall owner in Mortimer Street. The driver was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months confinement.

Another interesting thing to look out for is the advertising on the horse-drawn vehicles, particularly the omnibuses.  Many of the names are still very familiar more than a hundred years later.  There are Liptons, Pears, Nestles, Bovril, and even American products like Kodak and Quaker Oats.

Watch, too, for the faces of people staring at the camera, sometimes with interest and occasionally with suspicion or hostility.

Click here to see the film.

Manchester in the nineteenth century was the key part of the industrial heartland of Great Britain.  At the beginning of the century it had a population of 89,000, a nine-fold increase over what it had been at the beginning of the eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century the population had increased to 400,000 and at the end of that century, Britain's second city had a population of 700,000.

William Wylde, Manchester from Kersal Moor (1857)
Manchester's growth relied on cotton.  The great factories and mills stood in the foreground of this rapidly expanding city, so dependent on that fibre that it was sometimes referred to as "Cottonopolis.".

By the end of the nineteenth century, the city had a vibrant cultural life and the newly created Manchester Ship Canal made Salford, a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, the third busiest port in Britain.

Click here to see life in the centre of Manchester in the year of Queen Victoria's death.

 The following piece of film is a general compilation of late Victorian and early Edwardian footage. It is interesting because of the quality which is unusually good.  The film includes images of an automobile leaving a garage and scenes of mills and factories. I found the faces of the people quite fascinating with expressions ranging from joy to boredom and distress. It is worth looking at the clothing of the time.  Seeing it on people leading their lives gives a much better sense of it than seeing it in museums on dummies or in still images.

Click here to see the footage.

The final footage in this blog is a compilation. Much of the film is drawn from the other pieces to which this blog has linked.  The strength of this particular video is that many of the scenes are juxtaposed with modern scenes of the same locations.  There are also maps which indicate where in London the filming took place.  While you may find the sound intrusive, it is worth listening to it if only to hear the first recording ever made of Big Ben from 16 July 1890.

Click here for the more detailed film.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Faster, Lower, Deeper - The First Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route

On the 16th of August, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a telegram to the President of the United States, James Buchanan.  For more than a week the telegraphic cable across the Atlantic had been undergoing tests but this was the first official message.  Prior to the laying of the cable, messages from the United Kingdom to the United States were limited by the speed at which a ship could cross the ocean. This would routinely take ten days (presuming a clear run in good weather), but now the speed with which a message could be sent was reduced to minutes -- or was it?

There had, of course, been earlier attempts to lay a trans-Atlantic cable. The first cable was laid across the floor of the Atlantic from Telegraph Field, Foilhommerum Bay, Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland. But the laying of the cable met with problem after problem.  On the American side, an attempt to lay cable across the Cabot Strait in 1855 failed when a gale forced the cutting of the cable to avoid the sinking of the boat laying it. In the following year, in better weather, a steamboat completed the link from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.

Finally though, by August of 1858, everything was in place.

The first official message (from Queen Victoria) read,


The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest.

The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.

The Queen has much pleasure in thus communicating with the President, and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.

The message was, of course, sent in Morse code, but because of the primitive nature of the cable, lacking, as it did, repeaters to strengthen the signal, reception was bad and it could take as much as two minutes to transmit a single character. This equates to one word every ten minutes! The Queen's entire message took over 16 hours to transmit and, even as late as 1866 with a new cable laid in that year, transmission speed was only eight words per minute - 80 times faster than Victoria's message, but still painfully slow by today's standards; even at the higher speed it would have taken more than ten minutes to convey the Queen’s message.

Responding to QueenVictoria, President Buchanan declared the cable “a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle.” He then went on to invoke “Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” 
In this view will not all nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration that it shall be for ever neutral, and that its communications shall be held sacred in passing to the places of their destination, even in the midst of hostilities.
Clearly, news of the success of the cable and the exchange of messages between the Queen and the President seemed to offer hope of a bright future.  A week after the messages were exchanged The Times waxed rhapsodic (or at least as rhapsodic as the staid old Thunderer could wax). "We fully believe" it pronounced in an editorial,
that the effect of bringing the three Kingdoms and the United States into instantaneous communication with each other will be to render hostilities between the two nations almost impossible for the future.
"The two great Anglo-Saxon States," it went on, "remain firmly united--fused together ..."

Speed, that's what it was about.  Speed and more speed.  How fast could one get from A to B by train, how fast could a letter be sent and now, how fast could a message be sent across the Atlantic Ocean.  It was the era of steam and the Great Clipper ships were reaching the end of their days.  Now the question became not "if" a message could be transmitted by telegraph over the Atlantic, but "how quickly."

The New York Tribune exultantly proclaimed, in mid-1855, "there can ... be no difficulty in sending electricity across the Atlantic." Two years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, John Watkins Brett was telling the Royal Institute,

The ultimate union of America with Europe by electricity may now be considered a certainty. Providence has placed this object within our reach; there are no practical impossibilities in the way of its accomplishment; and those united with us in the undertaking do not regard the means required in comparison to the good to be accomplished.

Such optimism was misplaced. The first successful telegraph cable, despite the Queen's optimism, survived for a period of only three weeks.  In the following nine years, five separate attempts were made to establish a telegraphic link between Great Britain and the United States but it was not until 1866 that telegraphic communication between the two countries was established on a reliable basis.

The Great Eastern

 Even the achievement of laying a successful cable started with less than propitious omens.  The Great Eastern, the largest ship ever built, a record she was to hold until 1899, was chartered to lay the new cable in 1865.  Because of its great size and speed, it was planned that only the one ship would be used.  This would solve the problem of two ships meeting at sea, splicing the cable, and then dropping it into the depths of the Atlantic. Once again the project met with failure when the cable snapped after 1,200 miles had been laid. 

Interior of The Great Eastern with Cable

But with bulldog tenacity, the project went ahead.   In 1866 The Great Eastern succeeded, not only in laying a new cable across the Atlantic Ocean, but in repairing the snapped cable from the previous year.  Two working cables now spanned the Atlantic Ocean.

And what an amazing advance it was. Barely more than a quarter of a century had elapsed since the first working telegraph had been introduced and only ten years since the first attempt to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable had been undertaken. But the telegraph system, in its earliest years was far too expensive for anything other than commercial and governmental use.  In 1866 it would have cost ten dollars a word or $US 100 to send the minimum of ten words.  In today’s terms, this would be about US$1,340.

By the death of Queen Victoria, there were more than half-a-dozen cables linking the old world and the new. Progress continued with the establishment in 1955/56, ninety years after the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph lines, of a telephone cable from Scotland to Newfoundland. Today's trans-Atlantic cables use fibre optic transmission. Because of their low cost, high capacity and speed they have increasingly replaced satellite communication and with the use of modern technology it is now possible to place calls around the world for a few cents a minute and even, from computer to computer, free of charge.
A free copy of W. H. Russell, The Atlantic Telegraph  (1865) is available via Amazon Kindle (without illustrations) or with black and white illustrations for $.99. A free copy with illustrations can be found here

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The "Sewer" or the early days of the London Underground

     To understand the development of the London Underground, or “Tube,” one has to look at both the growth and sprawl of the metropolis and the existing modes of transport in the middle years of the nineteenth century. As the population of London expanded from one million in 1800 to more than 2,350,000 by mid-century modes of transport became increasingly mechanised and the movement of the population from the country to the city accelerated.
London Traffic 1871
     With the expansion of the Great Metropolis, both in the number of its residents and the extension of its boundaries, many areas which had been outlying rural districts became part of the growing suburbs of the city. “There was,” as Eric Lampard opined, “a certain myopic quality to the later Victorian belief in the Suburbs.” In addition, I think that for many of the “movers and shakers” of London, their sense of the continuing progress, at least for their class, reinforced their belief in infinite progress.

     But progress always comes at a price and in the second half of the nineteenth century that price, among others, meant creating the means for a mobile workforce, a workforce that could be easily and speedily conveyed from their places of habitation to their places of employment. Attempts to expedite this process had been made through the century. The horse-drawn cabs were far too expensive for the working class and the horse-drawn omnibuses, an early attempt at mass transit were first seen on London streets in 1829. The earliest of these was the Paddington to the City omnibuses established by George Shillibeer; by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, there were almost 1,500 omnibuses covering 150 routes. Even so, the cost to passengers was comparatively high and, as a result, the omnibuses were used largely by the middle classes. Nor were the omnibuses able to move the large numbers of passengers. The earliest fares were from sixpence to a shilling, but by the latter years of the century these had fallen to three halfpence in order to compete with the Underground. Forty years later, there were, according to W. J. Gordon, in The Horse World of London, “ten thousand horses working a thousand omnibuses, travelling twenty million miles in a year, and carrying one hundred and ten million passengers.”

A London Omnibus 1860s
     Despite their growth, their increasing affordability and being “the most characteristic feature of London, the omnibuses were not up to the task of moving the vast hordes of the labouring classes to, from and through the Great Wen.
     By the middle of the century, the city was reachable, at least to its outskirts, by rail-lines. Once, however, the passengers alighted, whether at Paddington, Waterloo, Victoria or one of the other terminuses, a trip into the City itself or to the West End, became dependent on other means of transport. The traveller was thrown back on the hackney cab, the omnibus or shanks’s pony.

     Mary Higgs, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in Glimpses into the Abyss commented, “the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil.” It was “the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows.” It is this, she describes as “the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!”

     Ironically, the growth of the suburbs with the need for increased transportation options contributed to the congestion of already overcrowded London. For example, when horse drawn trams, on steel tracks, were introduced in the 1860s, they were opposed, not surprisingly, by omnibus operators, but also by inner-London on the grounds they would increase rather than reduce traffic congestion.

     The idea of an underground system linking the termini and offering safe and speedy means of getting around London had first been mooted in the 1830s, but for a variety of reasons, including the expense of such construction, lack of interest from the established railways and the Crimean War, it was not until the mid-1850s that permission was granted for the Metropolitan Railway to begin construction of the first line at a cost of one million pounds. Construction began in 1860 and was completed three years later. The line was built using the “cut and cover” method. Aside from the great disruption this caused to those whose properties were demolished and the effect it had on trade in the immediate vicinity, it allowed construction close to the surface and this, in turn, helped mitigate some of the unpleasantness of travelling underground.
Cut-and-cover caused massive disruption
     In May of 1862 the directors and engineers of the project inspected the line from Paddington to the City. Among the passengers travelling in open carts was the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. 
Inspecting the Line in May 1862
     When the line was finally completed all of the stakeholders joined in celebration. On January 9, 1863, a party of 600 Parliamentarians, railway officials and executives as well as the rich, famous and important of London progressed by train from Paddington to a banquet at the Farringdon Street Station. There were speeches made and music provided by the Metropolitan Police Band.
Farringdon Street Station Banquet

     The line officially opened the next day. Steam locomotives pulled gas-lit carriages through the dark tunnels from Paddington to the City over a distance of six kilometres. 
The Original Metropolitan Underground Line
    On the first day of operation the line carried 38,000 passengers and in the first week, 225,000. By the end of its first year of operation there had been more than nine million riders.

     Although the horse-drawn omnibuses and trams were to survive into the twentieth century only to be replaced by more modern above-ground modes of transport, the underground railway had clearly arrived. Within days, the newspapers were reporting that passenger numbers were down for omnibuses and fares had been reduced from Paddington to Whitechapel Church as well as from Paddington to London Bridge or the Bank. Less than a fortnight after the line opened, the following description of a trip appeared in “London Letter,” in the John o’ Groat Journal for 22 January:
Taking out a first-class ticket, we enter the large and spacious carriages, and observe at once that, different from any other railway, the carriages are lighted with gas. The line, being of the broad gauge, admits of large and handsome carriages, most comfortably and elegantly seated for five on each side, and fitted up with cozy cushions and elbows. The gas is contained in a vessel attached to the roof of each carriage, holding a sufficient quantity to last a journey. The introduction of this system of lighting enables one to read his novel or newspaper with perfect ease, and, indeed, combined with the smooth travelling on the broad gage [sic], almost makes one forget that he is in a train, and not in a drawing-room. A certain closeness of atmosphere can scarcely be avoided, but owing to the peculiar construction of the engines by which they consume their own smoke, no sulphurous fumes are added, and the travelling, if properly managed, must be perfectly safe.
     This view was certainly shared by Sir William Hardman who, with his wife, made a trip down the “drain” on the 26th of January. Their first-class trip from Edgeware Road to King’s Cross cost them 6d each and they rode in a ten-person carriage with divided seats. First class carriages were lit by two gas lights and were high enough that “a six footer may stand erect with his hat on.”

     Not everyone was thrilled with the new underground railway, especially those who were forced to ride in third class. Only one day after the “London Letter” appeared, The Morning Post was objecting to the foul smelling, mephitic odour which pervaded the stations in the form of “a misty vapour irresistibly combining the idea of a laundry and a limekiln.” It was, according to The Post, “enough to produce a headache in five minutes, and five minutes more would be sufficient for the heaviest of colds.”
Workmen waiting for the 3rd Class Train, 1872
But by the end of the month in which the Metropolitan Railway opened for business, The Times could say, in judgement,
It has worked with success and found unexpected favour.  The threats of steam and smoke, of chokedamp and sewerage, of rats and banditti, with which it has been hailed in some quarters, have been dispelled by the result.
     If Sir William Hardman is to be trusted, the Underground was used by the highest as well as the lowest of the land, including the Prince of Wales.
The other day, just before his marriage [10 March 1863] he was smoking in a first-class railway carriage (ordinary train) and the porter, not recognising him, asked him to show his ticket. A lady residing at Windsor told a friend of ours she was sure the Prince was a person of no mind at all, as he had gone up to the bookstall and bought a copy of Punch and actually paid for it himself. Perhaps you will agree with us that an unaffected young fellow who hates nonsensical dignity, smokes in the railway, and reads Punch, may turn out not so badly after all.
And while there may be much debate as to whether or not the Prince of Wales actually turned out “not so badly,” there is no question that the London Underground, the Tube, which grew out of the Metropolitan Underground Railway did turn out well indeed.

Today, the London Tube carries over a billion and a quarter passengers per year over 402  kilometers of track at an average speed of thirty-three kilometers an hour.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"March came in like a Lion," The Great Blizzard of 1891

If you had read the Meteorological Office's summary of observations for February 1891, you could hardly be blamed for assuming that spring would be sunny and delightful.  The weather in February had been exceptionally dry, although there was a more than usual amount of fog, particularly towards the latter part of the month. There was surprisingly little rain;  according to the Met, less than one-tenth of an inch over the whole of England. There was, however, enough bright sunshine to suggest that fine weather was on its way.
The amount of bright sunshine was upon the whole very large, especially over England where the per-centage of the possible quantity was in some places nearly twice as much as the average.
March, however, was to prove a different matter.  The first few days of the month were chilly, with none of the badly needed rain which farmers must have hoped would follow such a temperate February. During the first week of the new month, the weather turned colder but, on the whole, remained fair.  In fact, the forecast for Southwest England and Wales, for 9 March, issued at 8:30 the previous evening, called for "North-easterly winds, moderate; fair generally." 

Plymouth, Devonport and Storehouse saw sporadic snowfall in the late morning of Monday the 9th along with a rising wind.  By six in the evening,
in the three towns some four or five inches of snow lay upon the ground, and the wind had increased to a hurricane. Slates began to start from the roofs of houses, and chimneys to fall, and in a very short time the streets assumed a deserted appearance, and all vehicular traffic was stopped. Advertisement hoardings were hurled from their positions with some terrible crashes.
Tuesday was "an indescribably wretched day," while Thursday saw more snow and squalls. In Bristol, in the early hours of the storm, tramway cars were  unable to function and had to be withdrawn from service.  On at least one line an attempt was made to keep it functioning using five horses instead of the usual two.  Even with the additional pulling power, the results were unsatisfactory.  At Tiverton, the weather on market day was so severe that the event was suspended for the first time in its history. 

On the 10th of the month, The Times published a report from a correspondent in Dover:  
One of the most awful nights ever known here is being experienced in the Channel tonight.  The gale of this afternoon has increased into a hurricane, accompanied by a blizzard. The sea in the harbour is so rough that the waves are washing over the quays, and great excitement prevails, the greatest difficulty being experienced in holding the vessels to their moorings.
But the Met remained phlegmatic. Their forecast for the 10th, issued at 8:30 pm on the previous day, merely suggested that in the South-west and in South Wales  there would be "wind backing northwards and moderating; very cold, some snow."

Despite the forecast from the Met, on Monday the 9th, the South of England was devastated by a storm of such magnitude as had not been witnessed in living memory.  The storm continued unabated for days.  According to the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, Devon and Cornwall were practically isolated by the storm in which 200 people died. Trees were uprooted, trains were snowbound and snow piled in drifts up to 15 feet high. One train was only discovered after 36 hours when a farmer looking for lost sheep was hailed by the passengers. All that time it had been only 250 yards from the farmhouse!  

Trapped in the Snow
The train line between Newton Abbott and Plymouth was completely blocked, but the full extent of the situation was unknown since telegraph lines had come down as a result of the storm. Between Bridestow and Okehampton a passenger train with more than 100 on board was snowed in for twenty hours.

Travellers were completely unprepared for the problems they faced. And without heat and food, often for several days, it was a miracle that no train passengers died.  The Illustrated London News, commented that “no such privations have ever been experienced in railway travel in this country within living memory.”

If those on trains were inconvenienced and uncomfortable those aboard ships were faced with fearful conditions.  All along the Channel and beyond, ships were blown aground.  Perhaps the most dramatic was the wreck of the Bay of Panama making for Dundee with a load of Jute taken on at Calcutta.  She was 111 days out when she was driven onto the rocks at Penare Point about 25 miles south of Falmouth. A four masted steel ship, she was eight years old and a beautiful vessel, but in the worst storm to hit the Southwest in well over a century, she proved no match for the weather.  The captain, DavidWright, of Liverpool, his wife, all but one of the six officers, four apprentices, and six of the crew, were either frozen to death in the rigging or drowned.This made a loss of eighteen lives out of a company of about forty all told. While it was the most dramatic wreck of the storm, it was only one of many.
The Wreck of the Bay of Panama
From Falmouth the news was telegraphed to The Times of a number of other wrecks.  A steamer went ashore at Portloe with the loss of one life.  Nearby, a German steamer was driven ashore.  Even those ships that managed to survive the storm often did so with loss of life and extensive damage. 
The survivors, numbering seven, of the steamer Neptune, of Newcastle, on being landed at Weymouth ... reported the loss of their captain and first mate ... washed overboard. ... The steamer left Guernsey on Monday, and, after being at sea a few hours, met the full force of the blizzard in the English Channel.  Sea after sea swept her decks, partially dismantling her.  The fires were extinguished, and, when the vessel was on the point of foundering, the steamer Headworth fell in with her, and towed her to Portland.
Other crews were luckier and despite considerable risk and difficulties managed to survive the storm.  The schooner Alice Brookall, with a cargo of coals from Swansea to Jersey ran aground; the crew of five dropped from the bowsprit to the rocks where they passed the night "exposed to the fury of the storm." In the morning the climbed the cliffs and reached a farmhouse where they were able to shelter.

Although the brunt of the storm was felt in the south of England, London did not escape lightly.  There was a great deal of damage to houses; so much so that The Times  reported
In the south-east and south-west districts of London employment in abundance for slaters, carpenters, glaziers, and gardeners, and even brick-layers, will be one result of the storm. Roofs have been partially stripped of slates and tiles, the framework and glass of conservatories injured beyond repair, and flower-beds and shrubberies destroyed, even gate-pillars being dismantled and small boundary brick walls thrown down.  Some fine trees in Dulwich have been uprooted, and in Brixton the windows in some private houses have been blown in.  
Among the greatest risks for those on land as well as those on sea was that of fire.  The cold weather meant that many households had recourse to the fireplace for heat, but the high winds placed chimneys at risk and even when the chimney survived, the wind blew smoke and snow back down into the fireplace. 

Despite the terrible effects of the storm, Mr Punch could not resist a poke at the traditional afternoon "At Home," suggesting that even that had been suspended due to the weather!

(10 to 1 Nobody turns up.)
In all, the week beginning March 9th was a memorable one.  The storm which lasted for several days finally departed, almost at its leisure leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. For many, particularly those living in the Southwest of England, it would be the worst storm in their lifetime. In the ferocious blizzard, more than 200 people and 6,000 animals died. Twenty-eight ships were sunk and the cost to shipping, businesses and individuals was incalculable.

To download or read on-line an 1891 account of The Blizzard in the West, click here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Income vs Expenditure in Working-Class Victorian England

East Enders
Every school student must be aware of the financial advice that Charles Dickens has Mr Micawber offer the eponymous hero of his novel, David Copperfield. In fact, Micawber offers this guidance twice within a dozen pages.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds aught and six, result misery.  The blossom is blighted, the leaf withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and --and in short you are for ever floored.
Published in 1850, it leaves the question as to the actual value of twenty pounds unclear.  What is clear, of course, is that Micawber is one who invariably spends more than he has and lives in the expectation that something will turn up.

For those who lived in poverty in the East End in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was all too little hope that something would, in reality, "turn up."  We have seen the fearful conditions under which the Matchwomen laboured and the niggardly pay they received for long hours and the risk of disease that constantly haunted their lives. But what about other workers?  What did they earn and what were their expenses like?

One problem faced by students of the Victorian Era is the relationship between income and expenditure.  A common mistake, of course, is to equate these with present-day figures.  To do so fails, particularly in the area of expenditure, to recognize changes in the inherent value of goods.  For example, if a product is new on the market, the cost will probably be higher than the price of the same product several years later, when competition may have increased and production methods improved. Other factors which may effect costs (as well as rate and volume of production) may be as diverse as advertising and the weather. Income may also be effected by the provision (or lack) of benefits as well as the influence of the seasons on employment. A servant might earn as little as  £10 per annum, but would have all of his or her living expenses covered and would be employed for the entire year whereas an agricultural labourer was at the mercy of the seasons and of the weather. For these, as well as other reasons, probably the best approach in trying to determine what is, essentially, standard of living is to use a "slice of life."  So, for our purposes, we might look at some incomes of the working class in London and some of their expenses in the middle years of the ninth decade of the nineteenth century.


A Matchwoman in the East End of London, in the 1880's would, as we have seen, be likely to have earned from 6-12 shillings a week.  Even were one of these women fortunate enough to be employed throughout the year, her annual income, at best, would be around £30.  A bank clerk, a shopkeeper or a street-seller would be doing well to bring home a pound a week. Some indication of the level of wages in the latter years of Victoria's reign can be garnered from A. L. Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century (1900).

It might be worth digressing here for just a moment.  Although the UK today uses decimal currency, this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Until February of 1971, the currency was based on pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d).  Beyond this there were farthings (¼d) and half-pennies as well as other coins of varying values which are recognizable by their names (three-penny bit, sixpence). To further confuse, there are sovereigns and crowns, half-crowns and florins and most confusing of all the guinea.  The last of these has not been minted for almost 200 years but is still used to quote prices, especially when one is seeking to add a bit of an aristocratic tone.

Back to basics, however.  In the old coinage it was twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound and to help understand prices 21 shillings or one pound and 1 shilling to the guinea. Money figures were usually written in the format £/s/d so a figure of 36 pounds, 7 shillings and five pence would appear as £36/7/5.

The Farthing, 1/4 Pence

So, how much did various tradesmen and unskilled labourers earn in the '80s and '90s?  According to Bowley, a bricklayer might earn just slightly less than two pounds a week in the summer but only 36 shillings in the winter while a bricklayers labourer would, on average earn about 12 shillings less than the bricklayer. Farm labourers in the '80s would have taken home around 15 shillings a week, but work was seasonal and many weeks might have seen no income, or a much lower income. A Mason might earn 29 shillings a week and a carpenter twenty-five.Overall, in the middle years of the 1880s, the average annual wage for workers in England,   £46/12/- was greater than the average wage in Scotland or Ireland.  In the latter, it was only £23/6/-.  For the United Kingdom overall, the adult male average wage was £56 while the average wage for all workers was £42/14/-.


While grappling with the actual amounts of earnings can prove difficult, even limiting expenditure to the working class includes a wide range of employments and incomes.   Situations might differ dramatically depending upon what an individual did and his family circumstances. Fortunately, we can gain some idea of what individual items cost from newspapers, catalogues and  personal papers.  But even this does not allow us, in most instances to determine what basic expenditures might be.

An article, "Life on a Guinea a Week," which appeared in The Nineteenth Century in March of 1888, offers some insight into what a clerk, earning 50 guineas (i.e. £52/10/- might have in the way of expenditure.  The figures given are for a single male who, because of his employment, is faced with the "imperative demand for respectability." The author of the article makes the point that " ... a guinea a week can be squeezed when necessity compels" and goes on to further point out

...That there are large numbers of young and middle-aged men in London absolutely dependent upon twenty-one shillings per week is a proposition which admits of no question.

It is clear from the text that the author believes that a working man could live on much less.  But this is based on the assumption that the working man is single, has no familial responsibility and is in regular employment. Keeping these caveats in mind, how does our author suggest that his aspiring clerk can survive and even prosper on a guinea a week?

First, there is the question of clothing.  Our young friend expends, on average, a sum of £7/18/7 per year.  Since this includes such items as a silk hat, a suit of Sunday clothes and an overcoat which is to be replaced at two-yearly intervals, it is unlikely that a labourer would be subjected to such expenses. Indeed, the author of the article points out that 
a mechanic or artisan, ...preferably selects the coarsest and most wearable material as clothing.  Even this is protected whilst the man is at work by a rough apron.
As for a hat, or head-covering, "a three-and-sixpenny felt hat" will do and will last for several years for everyday wear when it is no longer appropriate for Sunday wear.

Nonetheless, the weekly expenditure for our clerk, based on the figures presented, comes to a penny over three shillings. For his weekly expenses he presents the following table:

..........  6 0
..........  1 8
..........  5 0
..........  1 0
..........  0 3
Coals and wood
..........  1 0
..........  0 9
Tobacco, etc.
..........  0 6

When all of the calculations are complete, we find that the total comes to 19s 3d.  Our self-righteous author preaches abstinence from alcohol and dining frequently at vegetarian restaurants in order to save money.  While this may be good advice for the clerks he writes about, for a labourer with a family to support, even when his wife and children work to contribute, it is unlikely to offer a realistic budget.

Buying from the street stalls in the East End

To download Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century, click here.
To translate the figures presented here to current purchasing power go to