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City scenes from London in 1903, just after the end of the Victorian Era. Neo-Gothic architectural touches are telltale signs of the Victorian Era.

History of Pre-Victorian London ⇢

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Political Factors

Five years before the Victorian Era began, significant changes were made to Britain’s political system. In 1832, The House of Commons was reformed, with two specific changes occurring. The first change dealt with the number of seats available, and qualifications necessary to hold a seat. After the reform, only representatives from large cities could hold a seat. The second major change increased the number of electorate and popular votes. The most important aspect of these changes was the increase of middle class citizens who received the right to vote. With the new reform in place, London experienced a fairly stable political atmosphere for the remainder of the Victorian Era.

In the late 1850’s the political system saw its two parties, the Whigs and the Torys, become more clearly defined. At this period in time the Whigs took a strong liberal view, which gave them more power than the Torys. The Whigs increased power was primarily due to the many social movements that were occurring at the time. While political parties were experiencing change, so were the boundaries of the Britain’s Empire. In 1858 Queen Victoria’s Empire expanded and took direct rule over India. The expansion was the result of ending the “Indian Mutiny,” which was a lingering rebellion against the British East India Company.

In 1882, Great Britain deployed troops to Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. By securing this priceless trade route, the British ensured the constant flow of resources into London and the rest of the empire. These supplies were especially important with respect to London’s efforts to resolving the overpopulation/poverty issues. These efforts however did not suffice the needs of London’s unemployed, and on November 13, 1887, tens of thousands protested at Trafalgar Square. The demonstration against the government resulted in a riot and the army was forced to resolve the situation. Two people died and hundreds were hurt. The event is now known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Aside from the few events outlined above, the political atmosphere in London during the Victorian era was calm. During this time the British Empire contained more than 25% of the worlds population, and stretched further than any other period of British rule, all being controlled from its origin in London.

Urban Architecture

The architecture of Victorian London could best be understood as being symbolic of the values of the people of that time. Differentiation – social and functional – was of great importance to the Victorians, as was specialization of all kinds. Sections of the city were kept separate from others, being divided by their purposes or class designation. The classes were often kept somewhat separate, though it was often more divided by street rather than by neighborhood. Also, in general, certain types of architecture were considered acceptable only for certain purposes; the level of attention to design would be specific to the type of building, to the type of room in the building, to even what is placed in a specific room.

 A significant architectural development of the time, then, was the development of the “purpose-built” building; that is, buildings were designed for a specific purpose and met that purpose alone. Prior to this development, most buildings were much the same, varying only in size, and could be easily adapted to fulfill a number of purposes; for example, a house could be converted into a hotel with the addition of a sign, an office building with a change of furniture, or a shop with the addition of a display in the window.

Victorian London is perhaps known best for its production of seemingly useless, and sometimes even ugly, structures, such as the Crystal Palace, a cast-iron and glass building where the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held. While much of the architectural developments of the period were “useless” and meant only for entertainment, it is worthwhile to note that there is now a lasting diversification and variety of building types in London, and elsewhere. The legacy of Victorian Era architecture can be seen in several still surviving buildings, such as Westminster Palace or the Clock Tower.

Planning Factors

The census of 1851 showed that about half of the population of Britain lived in towns – the first society in human history to do so. While population levels were growing in Britain, cities and large towns seemed extremely unhealthy, as cholera and typhoid were carried by polluted water, typhus was spread by lice and diarrhea was caused by swarms of flies feeding on waste.  Too little was invested in the urban environment, the sewage system, street paving and cleansing, pure water and decent housing.

Many of these towns were governed by municipal corporations, or self-governing “closed” bodies, with little sense of civic responsibility. The response to urban growth was weak, and even though parliament reformed city governments in 1835, it barely helped. People were narrow-minded and interested in owning small amounts of property for themselves. Soon, the General Board of Health created by the Public Health Act of 1848 was abolished, and the general public started to become convinced by political candidates that being filthy did not make sense in cities anymore.

One of the main renovations to the city of London came after the “Great Stink” in 1858. There was an overpowering sewage smell coming from the River Thames, that it was said the “Commons were soaked in a chloride of lime in a vain attempt to protect the sensitivities” of the wealthy. A bill was rushed through Parliament in 18 days to construct a massive new sewer scheme for London and to build the Embankment along the river to improve water flow and traffic.

These types of conditions continued to cause alarm to society’s affluent, and many in London began to establish police and sanitary inspections for the city streets. Ventilation came through the form of parks to act as the “lungs” of the city, and as a general cleansing process. Slums soon became demolished by driving railways to new stations to allow the passage of traffic. At the end of the 19th century, local authorities started to build council housing as well, which offered a new solution to the housing problem for the poor.

The 1870s brought the construction of new, healthier housing. The Public Health Act of 1875 required local building authorities to implement building regulations or by-laws, saying that each house must be self-contained with its own sanitation and water. In combination with the rise of working-class income, huge numbers of new by-law houses were built in the city, with long terraced housing in grids of streets that were easy to be cleaned and inspected.

Poverty map of 1889

Poverty map of 1889

Slums in London

Slums in London


Economic Factors

The Victorian Era in London was a period of prosperity for the citizens of London and the country in general because of England’s industrial dominance at the time. Also, because a middle class arose due to profits gained from overseas and industrial improvements at home.

However, the country also experienced a tremendous increase in population and urbanization due to the Industrial Revolution that “ironically” led to a rise in poverty. At the start of the 19th Century about 1/5 of Britain’s population lived in London, but by 1851 half the population of the country had set up home there. Because large numbers of skilled and unskilled people moved into the city looking for work, wages dropped significantly.

Many thousands of women throughout rural Britain saw their jobs become redundant and disappearing into the factories, so they moved to cities such as London. The city offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment.

Child labor also arose due to the economic hardship of poor families. Children were expected to help towards the family budget by working long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages. They often worked in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. Child labor played an important role in the Industrial Revolution as well.

Since housing was limited and expensive most people lived in overcrowded large houses that were turned into flats and tenements. Slum housing developed as landlords failed to maintain these dwellings. “Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the metropolis… In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room - Kellow Chesney 

The developments that transformed London in the Victorian Era from a largely rural population making a living almost entirely from agriculture to a city-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture.

“The Industrial Revolution gathered steam, and accelerated the migration of the population from country to city. The result of this movement was the development of horrifying slums and cramped row housing in the overcrowded cities.” 

This is a drawing from The Illustrated London News October 19, 1878. This illustration represents the social culture of London during the Victorian Era. Shown is a man dealing cards; representing the increased interest in gambling and casinos, a brass band; representing the culture’s love for the Bandstand and brass band music, and an artist; representing London’s ever important love for the arts.

This is a drawing from The Illustrated London News October 19, 1878. This illustration represents the social culture of London during the Victorian Era. Shown is a man dealing cards; representing the increased interest in gambling and casinos, a brass band; representing the culture’s love for the Bandstand and brass band music, and an artist; representing London’s ever important love for the arts.