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World of the Play: 19th Century English Society

By Kamilah Bush, Literary Manager & Dramaturg


During the Victorian era, Britain and other nations around the world began to shift from agrarian societies to industrial ones. This shift was catalyzed by the innovations of water powered energies, the development of the steam engine, interchangeable parts, the invention of the Cotton Gin, and many other technological and scientific advancements. The steam engine allowed for factories to produce more products, more efficiently and, particularly in the textile and coal mining industries, mass production and big business grew exponentially. There were also innovations in the steel production industry allowing for engineers to fabricate more elaborate buildings and structures, such as bridges and tunnels that shifted the landscape of cities and towns. The industrialization of Britain saw an evolutionary, but marked, growth in the wealth of the nation. Job creation grew exponentially with over 3000 textile mills opening in the country and each employing anywhere from 85 to several hundred laborers. Increased factory jobs also buttressed the growth of railroad production, which in turn supported growth in the coal and steel industries and by 1850 Britain used over 70 million tons of coal a year. Job growth did not stop just in manufacturing and industrial jobs, nor did it completely wipe out the agrarian areas in some parts of the country - rather it made agriculture production more efficient (the potato famine in 1845 caused a decline, certainly). The service industries also saw great growth - increasing from 1.7 million workers to 6.2 million in a few decades. With a bustling economy, a monopoly on naval power and an increasing empirical hold on nearly every continent - Britain was holding its position as a global superpower. The British people, however, did not always benefit from this new and growing wealth.

Though wages were higher for most people (particularly middle class men), the workload was higher, the workday longer, the labor more dangerous, the living conditions worse and the infant mortality rate rose. In the cities, the infrastructure could not keep up with the exponential population growth and large homes were turned into tenements and flats, with overcrowded spaces and poor maintenance. The smoke and waste from factories caused health issues. The growing use of horse and buggy travel, lack of indoor plumbing and no useful sanitation system also created an atmosphere of filth and illness. In 1855 new government agencies, such as the Medical Officer of Health and Sanitary Inspectors and the Metropolitan Board of Works, were formed to deal with such conditions.

Women and children often worked outside the home, for low wages in sometimes dangerous and tedious positions. Women could find work in textile mills or as seamstresses or domestic workers- but often the working class woman's wages were so low that she was also forced into prostitution. The treatment of child laborers during this era is what brought about the necessity of Child Labor Laws, and many were passed over a series of decades to protect the young workers. Children worked in nearly every industry, including such jobs as coal mining, chimney sweeping, in textile and steel mills, laundry and domestic service, rat catchers and on shipyards

Class Structures

Victorian Society was clearly defined by social class and one's wealth status and caste was an integral part of one's every day life. It determined where and how you lived, your access to healthcare and education and even your leisure and recreational activities. The class system, distilled into its most simple form, was a three class system - working class citizens who gained its money from wages, the middle class which earned its living from salaries and profit and the upper class which incurred wealth from property, rent and interest.

Upper Class Life: Victorian families were patriarchal, with clear roles for women and children in the family and a strong religious foundation. Upper Class Victorians were expected to be active in civic life – the men taking positions in parliament, the judicial system or local governments, and the women engaging in charitable organizations and fundraising. The consumption of art, literature, drama and opera were common leisure activities for Victorian citizens. During the era, the novel and serial publications saw a marked rise in popularity. As more people became literate, and the access to periodicals (magazines and newspapers) became more widespread, the modern prose novel as a cultural icon took shape. Authors became famous - Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson - and even those who were illiterate could participate in the cultural phenomenon by attending readings and performances.

Middle Class Life: While those living in poverty had lives marked by high mortality rates, those in upper and middle classes saw not only a decrease in mortality rates, they also saw an increase in fertility rates. Several factors may have been at play: 1) the advances in the scientific and medical fields made it easier for women to get pregnant, give birth to healthier children and care for them better as they grew. 2) The marriage rates were higher. More people were getting married and more women were getting married younger - therefore increasing their active childbearing years. The emphasis on marriage may have been political and financial – prosperous families were more able to build households, to merge influential and wealthy families with other influential and wealthy families - but it may have also been the result of the focus on religious values and the presentation of a stricter morality. The middle class was a diverse group that included everyone between the working class and the elite class. The middle class included successful industrialists and wealthy bankers. It also included poor clerks that normally earned only half as much as skilled workers such as a printer or a railway engine driver, but a clerk would still be considered middle class, because income was not the defining factor of class, the source was.

Working Class Life: At the beginning of the 19th century poverty was regarded as the natural condition of the laboring poor - those who worked with their hands. The fluctuations of harvests, the disruptions of war and the fine line between subsistence and penury were seen as inevitable and difficult to change. Those living in poverty had lives marked by high mortality rates, due to their limited access to healthcare, living in unsanitary conditions and working in

dangerous and toxic environments. Members of the working class are not very visible in most Victorian fiction or in popular conceptions of Victorian life, but ironically, three out of four people did manual labor. The majority of these workers were agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and factory hands. The remaining percentage of people had jobs in mining, fishing, transporting, building, the garment industry, and other manual trades.


According to the March 1851 census, 7 million British citizens, nearly 40% of the population, went to church. The Church of England was still the predominant religious organization but there were growing numbers of Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists and Catholics. Where laws had once prevented those denominations from existing in England, those regulations began to loosen with time. During the 19th century, many vocal atheists began to produce literature. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and challenged creationism.

Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto called religion “the opiate of the masses”. David Strauss’ 1835 Das Leben Jesu denied the miracles of Jesus. Despite growing dissention, religion in Britain was an important part of most people’s lives. Most of their social activities centered on attending church. Employers insisted that their employees go to church, until 1829 anyone holding public office had to make a public oath denying Catholic doctrines and most people socialized at church services, choirs and Sunday

School outings. Religious groups all upheld personal morality standards such as temperance, charity, sexual "purity" and family values and church attendance. This was in direct opposition to the evidence presented by the market of prostitution, brothels and pubs, but especially to the upper class Victorians, the appearance of religious fervor was crucial.


Below is an article written by Kathryn Hughes for the British Library titled “Gender Roles in the 19th Century”

From marriage and sexuality to education and rights, Professor Kathryn Hughes looks at attitudes towards gender in 19th-century Britain.

During the Victorian period men and women’s roles became more sharply defined than at any time in history. In earlier centuries it had been usual for women to work alongside husbands and brothers in the family business. Living ‘over the shop’ made it easy for women to help out by serving customers or keeping accounts while also attending to their domestic duties. As the 19th century progressed men increasingly commuted to their place of work – the factory, shop or office. Wives, daughters and sisters were left at home all day to oversee the domestic duties that were increasingly carried out by servants. From the 1830s, women started to adopt the crinoline, a huge bell-shaped skirt that made it virtually impossible to clean a grate or sweep the stairs without tumbling over.

‘Separate spheres’
The two sexes now inhabited what Victorians thought of as ‘separate spheres’, only coming together at breakfast and again at dinner. The ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and men. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life. The fact that women had such great influence at home was used as an argument against giving them the vote. 

Educating women
Women did, though, require a new kind of education to prepare them for this role of ‘Angel in the House’. Rather than attracting a husband through their domestic abilities, middle-class girls were coached in what were known as ‘accomplishments’. These would be learned either at boarding school or from a resident governess. In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice the snobbish Caroline Bingley lists the skills required by any young lady who considers herself accomplished:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages … ; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions … (ch. 8)

As Miss Bingley emphasizes, it was important for a well-educated girl to soften her erudition with a graceful and feminine manner. No-one wanted to be called a ‘blue-stocking’, the name given to women who had devoted themselves too enthusiastically to intellectual pursuits. Blue-stockings were considered unfeminine and off-putting in the way that they attempted to usurp men’s ‘natural’ intellectual superiority. Some doctors reported that too much study actually had a damaging effect on the ovaries, turning attractive young women into dried-up prunes. Later in the century, when Oxford and Cambridge opened their doors to women, many families refused to let their clever daughters attend for fear that they would make themselves unmarriageable.

Marriage and sexuality
At the same time, a young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband. Being ‘forward’ in the company of men suggested a worrying sexual appetite. Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction. One doctor, William Acton, famously declared that ‘The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’.

Girls usually married in their early to mid-20s. Typically, the groom would be five years older. Not only did this reinforce the ‘natural’ hierarchy between the sexes, but it also made sound financial sense. A young man needed to be able to show that he earned enough money to support a wife and any future children before the girl’s father would give his permission. Some unfortunate couples were obliged to endure an engagement lasting decades before they could afford to marry.

If a young man was particularly pious he might manage to stay chaste until he married. Many respectable young men, however, resorted to using prostitutes. All the major cities had red light districts where it was easy to find a woman whom you could pay for sex. Out-of-towners could consult such volumes as Roger Funnyman’s The Swell’s Night Guide through the Metropolis. Unfortunately syphilis and other sexual diseases were rife, and many young men unwittingly passed on the infection to their wives. For those unlucky enough to develop full-blown tertiary syphilis, the result was a painful and lingering death, usually in the mid-40s.

Young and not-so-young women had no choice but to stay chaste until marriage. They were not even allowed to speak to men unless there was a married woman present as a chaperone. Higher education or professional work was also out of the question. These emotional frustrations could lead to all sorts of covert rebellion. Young Florence Nightingale longed to be able to do something useful in the world, but was expected to stay with her mother and sister, helping supervise the servants. She suffered from hysterical outbursts as a teenager, and could not bear to eat with the rest of the family. Elizabeth Barrett, meanwhile, used illness as an excuse to retreat to a room at the top of her father’s house and write poetry. In 1847 Charlotte Brontë put strong feelings about women’s limited role into the mouth of her heroine Jane Eyre:

“women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” (ch. 12)

This passage was considered so shocking that conservative commentators such as Lady (Elizabeth) Eastlake in a famously scathing review of Jane Eyre likened its tone to Chartism, the popular labour movement that advocated universal suffrage.

In her review – which also covered William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – Lady Eastlake took a strong dislike to the sexual ambition of Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp, both of whom end up marrying into the households by which they are employed. The figure of the governess was unsettling, especially in literature, because it drew attention to the fact that not all Victorian women were as sexless as Dr. Acton had suggested.

The prostitute was the shadow that haunted the well-run middle-class home. She serviced the needs of the men of the house, not just before marriage but sometimes during it too. Just like the men she slept with, but unlike their wives, the prostitute was a worker in the economic market place, exchanging services for cash. Doctors such as Acton were extremely worried by the ‘problem’ the prostitute presented, in particular the way she spread sexual disease amongst the male population. For this reason the Contagious Diseases Act was instituted from 1860 which allowed, in certain towns, for the forced medical examination of any woman who was suspected of being a sex worker. If she was found to be infected she was placed in a ‘Lock Hospital’ until she was cured. A reform movement led by Josephine Butler vigorously campaigned for a repeal of the acts, arguing that it was male clients, as much as the prostitutes, who were responsible for the ‘problems’ associated with prostitution.

Many charities were instituted to help reform prostitutes. Charles Dickens even collaborated with the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts to set up a ‘Magdalen House’ which would prepare girls for a new life in Australia. Despite these efforts, prostitution continued to flourish for as long as there were bachelors who were prevented by the economy from marrying until their late 20s, and working-class women who desperately needed to make money to raise their own children.

Written by Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Lifewriting and Convenor of the MA in Lifewriting at the University of East Anglia. Her first book The Victorian Governess was based on her PhD in Victorian History. Kathryn is also editor of George Eliot: A Family History and has won many national prizes for her journalism and historical writing. She is a contributing editor to Prospect magazine as well as a book reviewer and commentator for the Guardian and BBC Radio.

Asylums & Mental Illness

The first known asylum in the UK was at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London in 1407. While this asylum opened well before the Victorian era, the 19th century saw an explosion of patients and hospitals. The County Asylum/Lunacy Act which was passed in 1845 required counties to provide treatment for people with mental deficiencies. In the next 45 years, over sixty asylums were opened. Asylum numbers reached their peak in the 1950s with over 100 hospitals and approximately 150,000 patients in England and Wales.

In 1853, the Lunatic Asylums Act was passed and required patients admitted to asylums have a certificate signed by a doctor or an apothecary who had examined the patient within the previous seven days. An order for a justice, clergyman, overseer or law enforcement officer was also required. Wealthy citizens could admit family members in private hospitals and often stowed away unwanted wives and children there. Poor people could be admitted just by law enforcement or medical professionals. Reasons for admission were highly subjective and were often biased against women.

Portland Center Stage is committed to identifying & interrupting instances of racism & all forms of oppression, through the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, & accessibility (IDEA).

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