Friday, 14 November 2014


Poverty was an growing epidemic in 19th century England. The Victorian landscape was undergoing expeditious changes in many areas, namely: housing, employment and social welfare. I will explore how various factors affected the Victorian population, specifically the urban conditions of the poor, who were in abundance due to the population explosion that happened around this time. People were beginning to live longer, mortality rates dropped and there was the introduction of immigrants from Ireland that escaped from the famine factories. I will use Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel ‘North and South’ to coincide with my discoveries.
The scene of an busy, newly industrialized London Bridge.
Overworking men were a feature of this time. Roles included work in mill, factories and mines.

Britain became home to churches, politicians
and philanthropists in the 1800's. They desired to
change the horrific circumstances of the urban poor.
One of the more significant governing factors we need to consider for the conditions of the urban poor is the industrial revolution. There were numerous cases of poverty before this however the industrial revolution caused poverty to increase almost tenfold. The propagation of industrialism in the U.K in fact made a lot of people wealthier than before including owners of land, small business and traders. Naturally towns and urban areas were not sufficiently prepared to deal with the movement of people from rural areas to the more populated places they inhabited. This influx caused, in theory a ‘middle class’. However the urban poor grew in numbers, further suffered, in the cusp of prosperity of others.

Children being lined up to work under noisy
sewing shops to pick up cotton bobbins.

Now we have identified the primary cause of poor’s quagmire we can key in into the different faculties of their lives. Employment was over saturated and competitive. If potential employees were not competing amongst each other then their spaces were being taken up by new machinery. The new bases of employment were found in the new industrialized regions (cities)so many moved from their rural roots in order to seek employment. As shown in the illustrations above, the workspace was extremely dense, labour tense, a sense of oppression is dispensed in the sense that they were overworked with no holiday not to mention all skill levels were paid subsistence level wages. It was not uncommon for children to be strung out of their houses at a young age to fend for themselves. Ala the notorious tale of Oliver Twist. The reality however, was by 1843 there were 25,000 (+) filthy, abandoned children in the streets. The children were used to sell matches, shine shoes, clean the narrow chimneys or fit in narrow gaps in the coal mines.

Illness and sanitation were main causes
and spread of diseases.
Places to live for many of the impoverished became few and far between and the ones that were available were overpriced. Owners of housing complex’ had the leisure of leasing their housing for as little as 2 days due to the demand of the growing industrialized areas. Due to this congested, unhygienic slums arose (especially in London) they later on to be known as ‘Rookeries.’ As the conditions of the poor continued to be ignored by the capitalizing upper class and by the established governing body of the Britain, health conditions grew worse. Disease was responsible for many deaths in the industrial cities, the victims being the unemployed and the oppressed. An combination of a chronic lack of hygiene, basic knowledge on healthcare and speculation on the causality, diseases spread rapidly. Namely: Cholera, typhus and typhoid.

A street view of the Rookeries
homeless, unemployed and
orphans can all be seen in the
overcrowded tenaments.
The spread stemmed from poor sanitation and cramped living conditions. The streets that surrounded the Rookeries had foul water ditches in which the water would then be emptied into the sewers and drains. Unfortunately for many of the destitute including abandoned orphans who didn't know any better; this was their only source of hydration. Water-born diseases such as Cholera, typhus and typhoid was spread in such a way. This was not strictly restricted to the poor however because their basic understanding of the medical world meant that cholera also spread to some rivers due to sewage water coming into contact with drinking water thus contaminating it. The disease was so prevalent it was dubbed “King Cholera” (ironically) and had several major outbreaks over the century. Other devastating diseases included Smallpox, which spread so effectively due to the architecture of the Rookeries. The over populated living conditions was the ideal conditions for it to be spread from person to person. As everybody was constantly in close proximity it was a perfect breeding ground. The greatest killer in the cities however was Tuberculosis (TB). Which essentially deteriorates the lungs, and the according immune response, tubercles (excessive phlegm) blocking the lungs and the whole breathing system. TB mostly affected those who were malnourished and starving as well as those whom lived in dirty damp housing. The overcrowded tenements meant it was spread airborne by merely breathing the same air as another person. Thus it became an epidemic, TB was responsible for one third of the deaths between 1800-1850.

    Through my research process and through reading key extracts on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, I have come to the conclusion that the in the influx of churches, politicians seeking to better the standards of the urban poor, that philanthropists come in the form of authors and painters alike. While politicians versed to change laws, and churches united in directly helping afflicted individuals, authors wrote novels with an critical eye of the socio-economic situation around them. Painters similarly, representing the world around them in a certain way in order for people to perceive. These literary philanthropists perhaps put these in their arts in an way to raise awareness of the social problems that plagued them at the time. In a attempt at stirring an unity consciousness in the people. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South we see the character Mrs Hale finding herself conflicted. It was well known that admirable, desired woman in the Victorian times dressed well as well as lived well. They took much pride in their appearance as well as their social etiquette. Mrs Hale longed to uphold her image as an desirable Victorian lady to her friends and to the general public, however she was an poor wife with a poor husband and went home to a poor life. I believe Gaskell included Mrs Hale’s predicament to highlight the ostentatious nature of the Victorian upper class, while they ignored the fact that their city was mostly disharmonious, with the poverty and disease in abundance they would prefer to keep up appearances and indulge in trivial things. As a critical essay said quite perfectly: 

“ Gaskell shows the two sides of the coin; the conditions of the
working-class people and capital holders. In order to do so, she points out
the huge difference between the houses of the working class and the capital

Gaskell's oxymoronic title 'North and South' is testament to my thesis.

Additionally exploring the London a Pilgrimage paintings by Gustave Dor brought a fresh perspective on the Victorian as a collective. While expectedly literal, art is subjective, I found there to be antithetic qualities about Dor’s work. From the explicit Rookeries where you can see congested streets, bodies lying limply on the sides of the road, homeless children mourning or scattering around. You could almost sense the oppression taking place, the dynamic devastation of disease dwelling upon destitutes. Then in another painting he would paint a relatively deadpan upper class person in an orchard or such. Both the drastically opposite photos would have the same art style however. Vast dark greys, etched with hopeless blacks. I think Dor’s artistic style was purposefully chosen to convey the bleakness of the 18th century despite the two different lives the poor and the rich lived. Interpreting these two main sources as well as background reading into the conditions of the urban poor had given me empirical evidence (in the mortality count, number of homeless orphans and unemployment rates) as well as awareness (from named philanthropists who chose to resonate movement through their talents) that the conditions of the urban poor was a significant problem in the Victorian era, and were conscious motions being made to change this.

Illustrations by Gustave Dor." The British Library. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. North and South. Auckland, N.Z.: Floating, 2008. Print.

Kalpakli, Fatima. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. 


  1. This is really interesting Lara!

  2. It is shocking to know that children were thrown out at such a young age and used as cotton pin scavengers, child welfare has come along way since then. Im glad you touched on that.

  3. Which artist did you get your illustrations from by the way?

    1. Thank you. You are correct to pick up on that, the 1800's was a time of much change, welfare rules and decrees were implemented because they were beginning to see the bad state that people were living in. Especially the poor, social reform was inevitable as more people became aware, moreover acted for change. Also the artist is Gustave Dor. Looking forward to reading yours!

  4. Great blog post, some very interesting things mentioned. I liked the point you made about how industrialisation was one of the main factors why the poor people were living in such horrific conditions. Made me realise the price the poor people paid for the wealth and fortune of the upper class. Nice pictures used too very powerful images which symbolise the pain and struggle the poor people went through.

    1. Much appreciated! Before doing this blog post I was unaware of the specificities of industrialisation. Researching into it has given me invaluable insight of how changes back then shaped how we live today. I also, personally, found the migration of workers and prevalent diseases in the 1800's most intriguing to read into. Exactly my thoughts! The consistency of the black and white throughout the artists illustrations really does strike sentiments of oppression to us looking back at Victorian England.