Life in the 19th Century

By Tim Lambert

Society in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, life was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. At first, it caused many problems but in the late 19th century life became more comfortable for ordinary people. Meanwhile, Britain became the world’s first urban society. By 1851 more than half the population lived in towns. The population of Britain boomed during the 1800s. In 1801 it was about 9 million. By 1901 it had risen to about 41 million. This was although many people emigrated to North America and Australia to escape poverty. About 15 million people left Britain between 1815 and 1914.

However many people migrated to Britain in the 19th century. In the 1840s many people came from Ireland, fleeing a terrible potato famine. In the 1880s the Tsar began persecuting Russian Jews. Some fled to Britain and settled in the East End of London.

In the early 19th century Britain was ruled by an elite. Only a small minority of men were allowed to vote. The situation began to change in 1832 when the vote was given to more men. Constituencies were also redrawn and many industrial towns were represented for the first time. The franchise was extended again in 1867 and 1884. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced.

Once most men could vote movements began to get women the right to vote as well. In 1897 in Britain, local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

In 19th century Britain at least 80% of the population was working class. To be considered middle class, you had to have at least one servant. Most servants were female. Throughout the 19th century, ‘service’ was a major employer of women.

In the 19th century, families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

In the early 19th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were active in politics. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They gained their name because so many of them lived in Clapham.

Religion was much more important in the 19th century than it is today. Nevertheless, in 1851 a survey showed that only about 40% of the population were at church or chapel on a given Sunday. Even allowing for those who were ill or could not make it for some other reason meant that half the population did not go to church. Certainly many of the poor had little or no contact with the church. In 1881 a similar survey showed only about 1/3 of the population of England at church on a given Sunday. In the late 19th century religion was in decline in Britain.

Work in the 19th Century

During the 1800s the factory system gradually replaced the system of people working in their own homes or small workshops. In England, the textile industry was the first to be transformed. It employed many children. Unfortunately, when children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day.

In the early 19th century parliament passed laws to restrict child labor. However, they all proved to be unenforceable. The first effective law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore, nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours of education a day.

Conditions in coal mines were often terrible. Children as young as 5 worked underground. However, in 1842, a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working. Then in 1847, a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories. In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process). In 1878 a law banned women from working more than 56 hours a week in any factory.

In the 19th century, boys were made to climb up chimneys to clean them. This practice was ended by law in 1875.

In the 19th century being a domestic servant was a common job for women. Other women worked as charwomen or laundresses. Many women worked at home finishing shirts or shoes. Others made boxes or lace at home. In the Black Country in the West Midlands of England, some women made chains in forges by their homes. In the 19th century married working-class women often worked – they had to because many families were so poor they needed her earnings as well as her husbands.

In the 1850s and 1860s, skilled craftsmen formed national trade unions. However unskilled workers did not become organized until the late 1880s.

British Cities in the 19th Century

Living conditions in early 19th British century cities were often dreadful. However, there was one improvement. Gaslight was first used in 1807 in Pall Mall in London. Many cities introduced gas streetlights in the 1820s. However early 19th century cities were dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded. In them, the streets were very often unpaved and they were not cleaned. Rubbish was not collected and it was allowed to accumulate in piles in the streets. Since most of it was organic when it turned black and sticky it was used as fertilizer.

Furthermore, in the early 19th century poor people often had cesspits, which were not emptied very often. Later in the century, many people used earth closets. (A pail with a box containing granulated clay over it. When you pulled a lever clay covered the contents of the pail). In the early 19th century only wealthy people had flushing lavatories.

However, in the late 19th century they became common. In the early 19th century poor families often had to share toilets and on Sunday mornings queues formed.

Given these horrid conditions, it is not surprising that disease was common. Life expectancy in cities was low (significantly lower than in the countryside) and infant mortality was very high. British cities suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1831-32 and 1848-49.

Fortunately, the last outbreak finally spurred people into action. In the late 19th century most cities dug sewers and created piped water supplies, which made society much healthier. Meanwhile, in 1842 Joseph Whitworth invented the mechanical street sweeper.

Poverty in the 19th Century

At the end of the 19th century, more than 25% of the population of Britain was living at or below subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness).

If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse. The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. However, during the late 19th century workhouses gradually became more humane.

Houses in the 19th Century

Well-off people lived in very comfortable houses in the 19th century. (Although their servants lived in cramped quarters, often in the attic). For the first time, furniture was mass-produced. That meant it was cheaper but unfortunately standards of design fell. To us, middle-class 19th-century homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments, and knick-knacks. However, only a small minority could afford this comfortable lifestyle.

In the early 19th century housing for the poor was often dreadful. Often they lived in ‘back-to-backs’. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one on top of the other. The houses were back-to-back. The back of one house joined with the back of another and they only had windows on one side. The bottom room was used as a living room and kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms.

The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds. However, housing conditions gradually improved. In the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back-to-backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced over the following decades.

In the early 19th century skilled workers usually lived in ‘through houses’ i.e. ones that were not joined to the backs of other houses. Usually, they had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for the best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room. As the 19th century passed more and more working-class people could afford this lifestyle.

In the late 19th century worker’s houses greatly improved. After 1875 most towns passed building regulations which stated that e.g. new houses must be a certain distance apart, rooms must be of a certain size and have windows of a certain size. By the 1880s most working-class people lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms. Most had a small garden. At the end of the 19th century, some houses for skilled workers were built with the latest luxury – an indoor toilet.

However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were still many families living in one room. Old houses were sometimes divided up into separate dwellings. Sometimes if windows were broken slum landlords could not or would not replace them. So they were ‘repaired’ with paper. Or rags were stuffed into holes in the glass.

In the late 19th century most homes also had a scullery. In it was a ‘copper’, a metal container for washing clothes. The copper was filled with water and soap powder was added. To wash the clothes they were turned with a wooden tool called a dolly. Or you used a metal plunger with holes in it to push clothes up and down. Wet clothes were wrung through a device called a wringer of mangle to dry them. The clothes wringer or mangle was invented by Robert Tasker in 1850. In 1875 a man named John B. Porter invented a portable ironing board. Sarah Boone patented an improved device in 1892.

At the beginning of the 19th century, people cooked over an open fire. This was very wasteful as most of the heat went up the chimney. In the 1820s an iron cooker called a range was introduced. It was a much more efficient way of cooking because most of the heat was contained within. By the mid-19th century, ranges were common. Most of them had a boiler behind the coal fire where water was heated.

Gaslight first became common in well-off people’s homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s, most working-class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s. In the last 2 decades of the 19th century, many British towns and cities installed electric street lights. However electric light was expensive and it took a long time to replace gas in people’s homes.

In the early 19th century only rich people had bathrooms. People did take baths but only a few people had actual rooms for washing. In the 1870s and 1880s, many middle-class people had bathrooms built. The water was heated by gas. Working-class people had a tin bath and washed in front of the kitchen range.

Food in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century most of the working class lived on plain food bread, butter, potatoes, and bacon. Butcher’s meat was a luxury. However, food greatly improved in the late 19th century. Railways and steamships made it possible to import cheap grain from North America so bread became cheaper. Refrigeration made it possible to import cheap meat from Argentina and Australia. Consumption of sugar also increased.

By the end of the 19th century, most people were eating better food. Furthermore, in the late 19th century canned food first became widely available. The rotary can opener was invented in 1870 by William Lyman. Furthermore, in the 1870s margarine, a cheap substitute for butter was invented. A man named Gail Borden patented condensed milk in 1856. John Meyenberg patented evaporated milk in 1884.

Meanwhile, several new biscuits were invented in the 19th century including the Garibaldi (1861), the cream cracker (1885), and the Digestive (1892). The first chocolate bar was made in 1847. Milk chocolate was invented in 1875. The first recipe for potato crisps appeared in a book by Dr William Kitchiner in 1817.

Education in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century the churches provided schools for poor children. From 1833 the government provided them with grants. There were also dame schools. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. However many dame schools were a childminding service.

In Britain, the state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children. If there were not enough places in existing schools then board schools were built. In 1880 school was made compulsory for 5 to 10-year-olds. However, the school was not free, except for the poorest children until 1891 when fees were abolished. In 1893 the minimum age for leaving school was raised to 11. From 1899 children were required to go to school until they were 12.

Meanwhile, girls from upper-class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eton. Middle-class boys went to grammar schools. Middle-class girls went to private schools where they were taught ‘accomplishments’ such as music and sewing.

Games and Leisure in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century working people had very little leisure time. However, things improved by the end of the century. In 1871 the Bank Holiday Act gave workers a few paid holidays each year. Also in the 1870s some clerks and skilled workers began to have one week paid annual holiday. However, even at the end of the 19th century, most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays.

In the early 19th century everyone had Sunday off. In the 1870s some skilled workers began to have Saturday afternoons off. In the 1890s most workers gained a half-day holiday on Saturday and the weekend was born. By the end of the 19th century, most people had more leisure time.

Meanwhile, during the 19th century, sports became organized. The first written rules for rugby were drawn up in 1845. The London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international match was held between England and Scotland in 1872. In 1867 John Graham Chambers drew up a list of boxing rules. They were called the Queensberry Rules after the Marquis of Queensberry. The Amateur Athletics Association was founded in 1880. Polo was first played in Britain in 1869.

Several new sports and games were invented during the 19th century. Although a form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Snooker was invented in India in 1875. Volleyball was invented in 1895.

At the end of the 19th century, bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle was invented in 1885 and 1892 John Boyd Dunlop invented pneumatic tyres (much more comfortable than solid rubber ones!) Bicycling clubs became common in late 19th century Britain.

Ludo was originally an Indian game. It was introduced into Britain c. 1880.

Reading was also popular in the 19th century. In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe published the first detective story. The first Sherlock Holmes story n was published in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle. Many middle-class people also enjoyed musical evenings when they gathered around a piano and sang. Middle-class people were very fond of the theatre. In the late 19th century there were also music halls where a variety of acts were performed.

In the 19th century going to the seaside was very popular with those who could afford it. The first pleasure pier was built at Brighton in 1823 and soon they appeared at seaside resorts across Britain.

The steam-driven printing press was invented in 1814 allowing newspapers to become more common. Stamp duty on newspapers was abolished in 1855, which made them cheaper. However, newspapers did not become common until the end of the 19th century. In 1896 the Daily Mail appeared. It was written in a deliberately sensational style to attract readers with little education.

One new hobby in the 19th century was photography. Henry Fox Talbot took the first photograph in 1835. However, photography was more than just a pastime. In 1871 a writer said that one of the great comforts for the working class was having a photo of a family member who was working a long way off. They could be reminded of what their loved ones looked like. The first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterward, photography became a popular hobby.

In the late 19th century town councils laid out public parks for recreation. The first children’s playground was built in a park in Manchester in 1859.

In the 19th century, the modern Christmas evolved. Before then Christmas wasn’t especially important. It was one of only many festivals celebrated during the year. However, the Victorians invented the Christmas card and the Christmas cracker. The Christmas tree was known in England before the 19th century but it was made popular when the royal family was shown in a magazine illustration with one. Father Christmas or Santa Claus became the figure we know today in the 19th century.

Transport and Communications in the 19th Century

Transport greatly improved during the 19th century. In the mid-19th century travel was revolutionized by railways. They made travel much faster. (They also removed the danger of highwaymen). The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825. However, the first major railway was from Liverpool to Manchester. It opened in 1830. In the 1840s there was a huge boom in building railways and most towns in Britain were connected. In the late 19th century many branch lines were built connecting many villages.

The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. Steam locomotives pulled the carriages. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890.

From 1829 horse-drawn omnibuses began running in London. They soon followed in other towns. In the 1860s and 1870s, horse-drawn trams began running in many towns. Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made the first cars in 1885 and 1886. The motorbike was patented in 1885. Also in the 1880s, the safety bicycle was invented and cycling soon became a popular hobby.

Meanwhile, sea travel was revolutionized by the steamship. By 1815 steamships were crossing the English Channel. Furthermore, it used to take several weeks to cross the Atlantic. Then in 1838, a steamship called the Sirius made the journey in 19 days. However steam did not completely replace sail until the end of the 19th century when the steam turbine was used on ships. By the mid-19th century, lifeboats were commonly carried on ships.

In the early 19th century the recipient of a letter had to pay the postage, not the sender. Then in 1840, Rowland Hill invented the Penny Post. From then on the sender of the letter paid. Cheap mail made it much easier for people to keep in touch with loved ones who lived a long way off. The telegraph was invented in 1837. A cable was laid across the Channel in 1850 and after 1866 it was possible to send messages across the Atlantic. A Scot, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. The first telephone exchange in Britain opened in 1879.

Clothes in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, apart from cotton shirts, men’s clothes consisted of three parts. In the 18th century, they wore knee-length breeches but in the 19th century, men wore trousers. They also wore waistcoats and coats.

In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In the late 1860s, women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s. In the 19th century, women wore corsets.

Meanwhile, about 1800 women started wearing knickers. At first, they were called drawers. Originally women wore a pair of drawers i.e. they were two garments, one for each leg, tied together at the top. In the late 19th century in Britain women’s drawers were called knickerbockers then just knickers.

Before the 19th century, children were always dressed like little adults. In that century the first clothes made especially for children appeared such as sailor suits. Several inventions to do with clothing were made in the 19th century. Thomas Hancock invented elastic in 1820. The safety pin was invented in 1849 by Walter Hunt. The electric iron was invented by Henry Seely in 1882 but it did not become common until the 1930s. The zip fastener was invented in 1893. In 1863 Butterick made the first paper dress pattern.

Health and Medicine in the 19th-century

Medicine and surgery made great advances in the 19th century. Louis Pasteur 1822-1895 proved that disease was caused by microscopic organisms. He also invented a way of sterilizing liquids by heating them (called pasteurization). He also invented vaccination for anthrax (which killed many domestic animals) and for rabies. Immunization against diphtheria was invented in 1890. A vaccine for typhoid was invented in 1897.

Surgery was greatly improved by the discovery of anesthetics. James Simpson began using chloroform for operations in 1847. In 1865 Joseph Lister discovered antiseptic surgery, which enabled surgeons to perform many more complicated operations. Rubber gloves were first used in surgery in 1890. Then in 1895 x-rays were discovered.

Warfare in the 19th century

The Industrial Revolution transformed warfare. Railways meant armies could be transported much faster than before. The telegraph meant that messages could also be transmitted much faster.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) developed the Congreve rocket. These rockets were used at Copenhagen in 1807 and they set most of the town on fire. However, rockets lacked both range and accuracy and after the Napoleonic Wars, they fell from favor.

Meanwhile, in 1807 a Scot named Alexander Forsyth patented the percussion cap. When a trigger was pulled a hammer hit a container of fulminate of mercury, which exploded and ignited the charge of gunpowder. The percussion cap replaced the flintlock. Furthermore, breech-loading guns greatly increased the rate of fire. The British army began using breech-loading guns in 1865. The range of guns was improved by rifling. Some guns had been rifled for centuries but it only became commonplace in the 19th century. In the late 19th century rifles were improved further by the introduction of magazines, which greatly increased the rate of fire.

Meanwhile, in 1836 Samuel Colt began making revolvers. Traditionally the cavalry fought with pistols and swords but the revolver made swords obsolete. In the 19th century, many people experimented with machine guns. In 1862 Richard Gatling invented the Gatling gun. However, the first successful machine gun was the Maxim gun, invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884. It was adopted by the British army in 1889.

War at sea was changed by exploding shells, by steam engines, and by iron ships. In 1858 the French launched La Gloire. It was made with plates of iron fixed onto timber. However, in 1860, Britain launched HMS Warrior. This ship was made with an iron hull instead of a wooden hull with iron plates fixed on it. Soon the traditional gun deck on warships was replaced by turret guns on the top deck. Then in the 1860s, Robert Whitehead developed the modern torpedo. The British navy began making torpedoes in 1871.

In the 19th century, new explosives were invented to replace gunpowder. TNT was invented in 1863 and dynamite followed in 1867. Cordite was invented in 1889. Meanwhile, conditions in the services greatly improved. Uniforms were introduced for sailors in 1857. Flogging in the army and navy was abolished in 1881.

Last revised 2024