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The Victorian Workhouse

‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’ 

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

BathMap1902-2500

Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

 

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread.  So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Its response was the Poor Law of 1834 which set up local Poor Law Unions with a view to actively discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse – and workhouses were intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. They were often designed, like prisons of that time, in blocks which extended out like the spokes of a wheel from a central core (see illustrations of Bath Workhouse). Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children all sleeping in separate dormitories. During the day they all worked on breaking stones for roads, crushing bones for fertiliser, or picking oakum for packing the joints of timbers in ships. To pick oakum they used a large metal nail known as a “spike,” which may be how the workhouse earned its nickname of “The Spike“.

The City of Bath, though often associated with the wealth and elegance of the Georgian romantic novel, also had a workhouse. Bath Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the workhouse was  built between 1836 and 1838 (later to become St Martin’s Hospital). By the 1830s the city had a resident population of about 50,000, yet at times the population swelled by up to a further 20,000 itinerant people looking for work. In 1842, “The Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” cited Bath as an example to illustrate its thesis that a large part of the burden of Poor Relief was caused by the premature deaths of husbands leaving widows and orphans who struggled to survive.

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Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

In practice the Poor Law Unions sometimes came into conflict with local magistrates. Such was the case with Anne Perry in Bath. She was old and increasingly infirm, and a friend, Mary Price, applied for “out-relief” on her behalf, so that she could stay at home. She was offered only admission to the workhouse. On appealing, the Magistrates made an order for “out relief,” but the Commissioner from London supported the Board’s decision. The case rumbled on for 3 months, until Ann Perry was eventually awarded “out relief.” Sadly she died 3 weeks later.

In 1848 an attempt was made to limit those classified as “beggars and tramps” from entering the Bath Workhouse. Many of these so called “tramps” were labourers who had worked on building the railways. The fact that there was no work for them now, and no other form of assistance was largely ignored. Their exclusion from the workhouse prompted a riot and the smashing of windows. The Bath Chronicle responded with an appeal to the public not to give alms to beggars or tramps:-

“The Magistrates and Guardians are still determined to prevent such an abuse of the public funds, attended as it is by no real kindness, but offering a premium to pauperism and vice, and encouraging a highly dangerous set of persons to travel over the country, passing their nights at workhouses and their days in begging, stealing and drunkenness. There is, however, a duty which the inhabitants of Bath have to perform. It is for them to exercise discretion in the disposing of such sums as they devote to the purpose of benevolence. It is for them to remember that so long as such persons receive encouragement the evil will continue, and may again return, in all its force.”

In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

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Tracing Austen’s Footsteps

Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by Thomas Rowlandson

Formal Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath  – Painting by Thomas Rowlandson from  Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

In 1811 King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. Coincidentally, Jane Austen’s novels were all published during the Regency period, between 1811 and 1818 .

So popular and enduring is Austen as an author, and so frequently have her novels been adopted for the screen that the images she created have now come to define the Regency era. Yet there is a danger that we begin to accept fiction as fact, to confuse the lives of her heroines with her own life, to interpret the lives of the few, as being the same as the lives of the many. And in that process there is also the risk that we lose sight of her skill and imagination as a writer. She was without doubt a keen observer, but the settings and people she describes, come as much from her imagination as from what she saw or experienced.

Jane chose to set two of her novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in Bath. She lived in the city between 1801 and 1806 and it’s still possible to retrace her footsteps, to see some of what she saw. The pattern of roads is largely unchanged in the older part of the city. Many of the places she would have frequented are still there; The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. It is easy to imagine these places as she depicts them in her novels, yet it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, in “Northanger Abbey” we read;

 “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

Yet Jane also records in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on May 5th 1801, her own “first impression” of the city;

 “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Again in “Northanger Abbey” she describes a formal ball held in the Upper Assembly Rooms;

“The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégé, Mrs Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly.”

Yet her own experience was somewhat different, as she reports in letter to her sister on May 12th 1801;

“By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.”

They say you should write about what you know and Jane Austen certainly knew about people, but was her life really comparable to those of her heroines?  True, she attended dinner parties, suppers, formal balls and had some insight into high-society.  Yet that society was very stratified with rigid conventions and social etiquette. Those rules defined who was on a level with whom, and Jane was certainly not part of its upper echelons.  Though she was undoubtedly part of “Society” in truth she was fairly low down in the “pecking order.” Her Uncle and Aunt were wealthy and lived in the Paragon. They might have provided her with opportunities to glimpse their way of life, but they do not seem to have been over-generous to Jane or her family.

When Jane’s family moved to Bath they leased a house at 4, Sydney Place (now luxury apartments). It was a fine house in a good area, near the popular Sydney Gardens, but it was not a prestigious address in comparison with other parts of the city. And when the lease ended they moved to a house in Green Park Buildings. This was an area the family had dismissed when they first moved to the city and it’s easy to see why from Jane’s description;

“Our views on G. P. (Green Park) Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week, with reports of discontented families and putrid fevers, has given the coup de grace. We have now nothing in view. When you arrive, we will at least have the pleasure of examining some of these putrefying houses again; they are so very desirable in size and situation, that there is some satisfaction in spending ten minutes within them.”

Before leaving Bath the Austen family also lived for a while in 25, Gay Street. (The Jane Austen Centre is nearby at 40 Gay Street). It was a “good address” but by then, after the death of Jane’s father, they were reduced to “taking rooms” as boarders, rather than occupying a house as owners or tenants. But by then the family were largely dependent on the charity of relatives.

It’s obvious too that Jane was well aware of the plight of the genteel poor. In “Persuasion” Sir Walter Elliot refers to Westgate Buildings as,

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations.”

Westgate Buildings was by no means the worst of streets but it was situated on the border of the Avon Street slum area.  My own novel Avon Street  has an opening scene in Westgate Buildings and explores the darker aspects of the City.

Opinion is divided on whether or not Jane Austen actually liked Bath, but she certainly knew how to use it as a setting. Jane Austen created an image of Regency life which still survives today. That is a testament to her imagination and skill as a writer.  She chose to depict a way of life in her novels that did not always reflect her own everyday experience. Indeed it was not representative of the lives of most, yet it pleased her readers then, and still pleases many more readers today.

Bath is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the places Jane Austen visited are still there and remain largely unchanged – The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. And it is still possible to retrace her footsteps and imagine the City she depicts in her novels. But it’s also worth imagining what life was really like for a country girl of limited means in a bustling city, where appearance was everything.

Much of this piece was first hosted at the “Jane Austen’s World” Website on September 8th 2012.

Up until the Victorian era the population of Britain was widely spread throughout the country. Most people lived in rural settlements or small towns and villages. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or if they were wealthy by their domestic staff. The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold. Richer households had their own ovens, while poorer people would pay a small sum to use the ovens of the local baker.

Yet as the Industrial Revolution took hold, so the population in towns and cities grew. Britain became more dependent on imported foods. People were also acquiring expensive tastes for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. To make them more affordable the “adulteration” of food and drink (additives) became increasingly commonplace. This “adulteration” might be to improve appearance or improve taste, but it’s usual aim was to decrease costs and increase profits. It became so common that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris in flour. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

 “In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

The wealthier residents of towns and cities could of course afford a “better” diet, but there was no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene.  Meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerable disease – Meat that should never have been allowed to enter the food-chain. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

If food was dangerous for the wealthy, it was positively deadly for the poor.  They bought mainly from itinerant  “costermongers” selling from barrows, and their reputation depended more on cheapness than it did on quality. Most of the poor lived in rented rooms, often shared and usually without access to cooking facilities. Any hot food they consumed was street-food, like baked potatoes or pies. Most though subsisted on a diet largely consisting of bread. They lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.”  Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities. Bread itself could be bought as “quarter” or “half” loaves, but even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Producers, importers, merchants and sellers all began adding more and more ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance or reduce costs. Of course none of them knew what had been added by the others in the chain, so they each had a cumulative effect. in the end, by the time products were bought, no one really knew what was in them. Milk was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%, and so too was beer. Indeed, the making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process.  As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, “Avon Street”:-

 “Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Indian Berry, Henbane, Nux Vomica and Opium were used to increase the intoxicating proper­ties of the watered down beer. Foxglove, Jalap and Potash were used to keep the bitter taste and to stop it from turning sour. Most of these ingredients were of course poisonous and carried severe side-effects.

In 1851 “The Lancet,” (medical journal) commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods in Britain. The study revealed that:-

Rat and mice droppings, insects and faecal contamination were found in many foods. Tea imported from China contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel, sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Even after the study by “The Lancet” was published, the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. Thankfully though, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. Finally, in 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed, and though it was largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food “magically” began to  improve.

Bath – Behind the Facade

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci - Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci – Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Beau Nash made the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.

Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.

The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country. The City also had a fine theatre and there were regular costume balls in the Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall. Visitors “took the waters” in the spa baths and the social elite met daily in The Pump Rooms.

By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter. Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population became increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying,

“The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the bad drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in another letter to her sister,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

By the time “Persuasion” was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the servants and the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid – and the poor did not fit neatly into the City’s image.

The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population though the City and its visitors did their best to ignore the area.

In “Persuasion” Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings, despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness –

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.”

In my novel, “Avon Street,” I set out to explore the two very different aspects of the City of Bath that co-existed uneasilly in the Victorian era. Since Westgate Buildings is on the border of the Avon Street area it seemed only fitting that I set the first chapter of my book in the same location where Austen hinted at the dual nature of the city.

Much of this piece was originally hosted on the Jane Austen’s World Blog on June 10, 2012.

Jane Austen's Aunt - Jane Perrot

Jane Austen’s Aunt – Jane Perrot

On the 8th August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a millinery shop in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots, a wealthy couple, were Jane Austen’s mother’s brother and sister-in-law (Jane’s Uncle and Aunt). The white lace valued at £1 was found in Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s possession together with a card of black lace that she had bought and paid for from the same shop. Mrs Leigh-Perrot denied stealing the lace, saying that the sales clerk must have given it her by mistake when he handed over her purchase.

There was no organised police force in 18th Century England, apart from the Bow Street Runners in London . The capture and prosecution of criminals was largely left to their victims to deal with. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, but they were unpaid volunteers working only in their spare time. And a victim of crime who wanted a constable to track down and arrest the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of their doing so.

Sometimes victims of crime hired a thief-taker to pursue the wrong-doer. Again, they were private individuals working much like latter day bounty hunters. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. Many though were corrupt, actually initiating and organising the original theft in order to claim the reward for the return of goods, or extorting protection money from the criminals they were supposed to catch.

For the most part, unless a criminal was “caught in the act” (usually by their intended victim) it was unlikely they would be brought to justice. In the absence of a police force, the maintenance of “Law and Order” therefore came to depend more on deterrence rather than apprehension. The harshest penalty of all was brought in to cover more and more crimes in what came to be known as the “Bloody Code.”  In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book that carried the death sentence. By 1776 the number had quadrupled, and reached 220 by the end of the century, including the crime of “Grand Larceny,” or the theft of items with a monetary value that exceeded one shilling (later increased to five shillings).

In practice, some judges, advocates and juries often recognised the barbarity of the punishment in relation to the crime. Advocates would sometimes plead for mercy. Juries might determine that goods were over-priced and bring their value down below the five shilling threshold. Defendants might claim “benefit of clergy” which by virtue of stating religious belief and reading out an oath allowed the judge to exercise leniency. In other cases the Government could review the sentence by appeal, and often did.

Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were actually carried out. The alternatives, however, included branding or transportation to the Australian Colonies with the prospect of forced labour for 14 years. One-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867, it is estimated, were transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Others were “allowed” to join the army as an alternative to transportation, many fighting in the Napoleonic wars.

Although Mrs Leigh-Perrot (Jane Austen’s aunt) denied stealing the lace in August 1799 she was nevertheless arrested on a charge of “grand theft.” The lace, to the value of £1, she was said to have stolen was worth four times the five shillings that carried the death sentence.

In practice it was unlikely (given her standing) that if she had been found guilty she would have been sentenced to death. Jane Leigh-Perrot was though refused bail and committed to prison on the sworn depositions of the shopkeeper. Due to her wealth, social standing and age she was allowed to stay in the house of the prison keeper, Mr Scadding, at the Somerset County Gaol in Ilchester, rather than being kept in a cell. Mrs Leigh-Perrot still wrote though that she suffered ‘Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night’. James Leigh-Perrot insisted on remaining with her in prison.

During her trial Jane Leigh-Perrot spoke eloquently for herself.  Several testimonials as to her character were also read out to the court. At the conclusion of the trial the jury took only 10 minutes to find her “Not Guilty.” It does, however, make you wonder how someone less well refined, less well-connected,  less eloquent, less educated, less wealthy might have fared. The evidence of her guilt, might have been quite sufficient to send someone else to the gallows, or transported, or branded with a hot iron. She was after all caught in possession of the item and identified by the shop-keeper. In “Persuasion” Captain Harville asks Anne Elliot, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ Anne replies, ‘We never shall.

As the system of justice developed, the “Bloody Code” came under increasing challenge from advocates like William Garrow (as dramatised in the BBC series “Garrow’s Law“). In 1823 the “Judgement of Death Act” made the mandatory death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually the emphasis changed from deterrence by penalty, to deterrence by likelihood of capture. The first organised police forces were gradually established in major cities with the dual objectives of preventing crime and apprehending criminals.

This is an update of a post hosted on the Jane Austen’s World website on 24th July 2012. An extract of it (“Law and Order in the Georgian Era”)  was included on The Jane Austen Forum on 9th August 2012. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and similarities to modern life, and to take the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

Workhouse Gate in Ireland in 1846

The Irish Famine began in 1845 and did not end until 1852.  In less than ten years, Ireland lost approximately one quarter of its population. One million people died of malnutrition and disease, and a further one million emigrated. It is hard to imagine the scale of the suffering involved, yet “emigration” seems such an inadequate word to use in relation to those who left their country, family and friends, and journeyed across the world. True they were leaving by choice, but it was for most, a choice between life and death. Like other emigrants they were also in search of a better life, but “better” meant any improvement in the daily battle to stay alive and feed their families. The migrants all had dreams and hopes for the future, but they also had fears, and few can have really known what lay ahead of them.

Exactly where the migrants travelled to and in what numbers is difficult to determine precisely as many made their own arrangements rather than using government channels. It is known that in the three years 1847-49, at least 182,000 people emigrated to Canada, and 550,000 to the United States. Despite the availability of assisted passages fewer went to Australia as prospects appeared more limited and there was a fear of being treated as indentured servants, in the same way as convict labour. The journey by ship to Australia was also much longer and sea-travel was dangerous particularly for passengers in “steerage” class. For many these were “coffin ships.”

The passengers to North America and Canada paid between £5 and £6 for their passage, a huge amount of money for someone who earned on average, around £20 to £30 per year. The payment included a daily ration of bread and water for the journey, which took anything between 6 and 12 weeks. Bedding, cooking utensils, and any other food they had to provide themselves, and few had little more than the set of clothes they wore. Their accommodation was dark, damp, dirty and over-crowded. Already weakened by malnutrition and fleeing from Dublin where Typhus was endemic, many fell prey to disease.  The Quebec “Morning Chronicle” reported on July 24th 1847 that of the 57,000 emigrants that had set off for Canada since May 8th,  7,000 had died of typhus,

2,200 had died at sea,

1,000 after arrival but before landing,

and 3,800 since leaving the ship.

They had brought typhus with them and fever was already raging in some Canadian cities. It’s hardly possible to imagine the “welcome” they must have received.

Many of the migrants though, could not afford the long sea journey to America and the colonies, and settled in England, mainly in the larger cities where there was at least a prospect of finding work. In Manchester, most of the migrants ended up in “Angel Meadows.” These 33 acres close to the city centre housed between 20,000 and 30,000 people in “purpose-built” housing.  The dark streets, passageways and alleys that linked the housing, were dangerous places frequented by gangs known as ‘scuttlers.’  A London journalist, Angus Reach, visited “Angel Meadows” in 1849 and reported:-

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches the ‘low Irish.”

The back-to-back terraces had one room in the cellar, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The cellar rooms, accessed via a dark passageway below street level, were the cheapest, the first floor rooms the most expensive. Each room housed an individual, or more likely, a family, or group of people.  Outside privies (toilets) were provided at the rate of 1 per 100 inhabitants. The journalist, Reach, visited one basement room and wrote this:-

“The place was dark, except for the glare of a small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women and children on stools, or squatted on the stone floor, round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive… the inmates slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place.”

The Angel Meadows area of Manchester was eventually demolished and paved-over, together with the former burial ground of St Michael’s Church, which contained the mass graves of 40,000 paupers. In fact, most of the rookeries and slum areas that fed the Industrial Revolution in Britain have been demolished and built-over, including the “Avon Street” area of Bath. It’s a good thing. Slums should be demolished. But we should remember the struggle of generation after generation for decent housing, sanitation, health-care, education and democracy.

The people who lived in Angel Meadows andAvon Street deserve to be remembered. If nothing else they are part of what made us who we are. They  help us to understand and empathise with those who are going through the same thing now, no matter which part of the world they live in, or come from. They also show what people are capable of, given the opportunity, and help us value what we have now, thanks to their sacrifices and struggles in the past. It’s easy to think of the Irish migrants as the “lucky” ones, the ones who escaped. After all, the descendants of those who survived are now respected members of their communities. Yet for many, it was no easy escape, but one that often took generations to achieve.

For those who want to read more about Coffin Ships, the “Great Hunger” and Irish Migration to Canada, there is an excellent piece with several good illustrations on J.G. Burdette’s Blog – “Setting Sail : Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine.”

Like our own era, the Victorian age was a time of great change. For some it was an age of  prosperity, for others it was an age of desperation. This was the first age of consumerism and the Industrial Revolution was in many ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. Mass production and increased international trade made more and more products available and affordable for those who could pay.  And with the growth in industry and trade, the middle classes grew in number and wealth, and wanted to buy as much as possible of what was on offer.

These first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens are certainly amongst the best openings to a novel ever written. But not only do they set the tone and atmosphere of the book and give a flavour of what is to come, they also capture a taste of the challenges and uncertainties of the Victorian era.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

While the Wealthy and the new Middle Classes prospered in the Victorian era, the Working Class did not.  Work, whether in factories, sweat-shops and mines was invariably dirty and dangerous; hours were long and poorly paid. Children had to work, in order for families to survive, and working conditions were often worse for children than they were for their parents. Towns and cities grew quickly to house the workers, but much of the housing was poor quality and overcrowded. Vast slum areas sprung up, putting pressures on water supplies and the disposal of waste. Coal fires and factories filled the air with smoke and other pollutants. The reaction to living conditions and the gap between the haves and have-nots generated rebellion  in many parts of Europe, as people fought for basic human rights in bloody revolutions. In Britain any signs of revolution were ruthlessly suppressed.

Drunkenness was common amongst the working poor, as alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes from hard lives. It was seen by the better off as a reason for poverty, rather than a symptom. Meanwhile opium and a range of other drugs were used by brewers to strengthen beer while keeping down costs. Drugs were also readily available in Victorian times for the better-off. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine when there are no stimulating cases to occupy his mind, much to the disapproval of Dr Watson. Opium dens also feature in Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Yet the real drugs “problem” in Victorian times was not with the illicit drugs that were largely frowned upon, but the propriety medicines that were consumed in great quantities, but little spoken of. Numerous popular household remedies and tonics contained substantial amounts of opium and yet could be bought over the counter. These included “Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” a general nerve tonic, “Dover’s Powder” used to treat a wide variety of common complaints and “Godfrey’s Cordial” which was commonly given to children and infants to “help” them sleep – and of course the ever popular, “laudanum.”

Nowhere were these contradictions in Society more obvious than in the Morality of the Victorians. They say the Victorians invented Childhood, treating the child as someone who needed to be protected and nurtured, and yet children as young as five were working in mines and factories, quite legally, during much of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Women too, in the middle-class household were regarded almost as saints, “protected” from anything that might offend or morally corrupt. Yet they were often little more than prisoners in their own homes with few freedoms in terms of what they could own, or how they could behave; while  outside the home, prostitution and pornography were rife.

Great play is made of the philanthropy of the Victorians and the fine public buildings often financed from private fortunes; and indeed there were many genuine philanthropists. Yet this philanthropy also masks in some ways the incredible wealth-divide between the haves and have-nots and the terrible working and living conditions of the vast majority of the population. Yet gradually awareness of the plight of the poor spread. Not least of the factors in this growing awareness was the writing of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor and proclaiming their humanity. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future.

Over the course of Victoria’s reign Britain changed; the right to vote was extended and with greater democracy came improvements in working conditions, housing and education. Yet it leaves me wondering how much of this was down to “Victorian Values” as opposed to the long and sometimes bloody struggle for the basic human rights, that we now sometimes take for granted. We are now in the midst of a Technological Revolution, a new age of consumerism. the world is shrinking again as communication and transport get ever faster. And yet looking around that shrinking world it’s obvious that many millions are going through the worst ravages of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. The opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” remains as relevant now as it was when it was written.

Much of this post was hosted on the FLY HIGH website on 26th June 2012, but I thought I’d post it here too. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and its similarities to modern life. “Avon Street” takes the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.