The Victorian Era saw enormous changes in the physical and social fabric of the urban realm. London, in particular, developed during this time into a sprawling, cultured, “world city.” The Industrial Revolution and subsequent urban population influx was the key driving force behind this urban growth, and we can draw many parallels between the period’s impact on London and and on other metropolises. No city of the day, however, faced problems on the scale London did. Urban issues, including overcrowding, pollution, ineffective governance, prostitution, and disease, were an overwhelming presence in the lives of all Londoners, including its writers. As such, a large portion of Victorian literature set in the city paints an unflattering picture of the urban setting. By examining these depictions we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the particular issues that London faced, as well as the behaviors and trends they prompted.

Possibly the most obvious outcome of the Industrial Revolution in London was the resultant overcrowding. Rapid and relatively unplanned development led to swaths of tenements packed into irregular blocks, bounded by narrow streets covered with straw to dampen noise. There was also no spatial division between residential, commercial, and industrial structures. A housing development might bound a block of noisy, polluting factories or a prison. Even utilities were not relegated to the outskirts, as they are in today’s cities. Gasworks locations, which belched out smoke and foul odors, were scattered throughout the densely populated city center. Sewage systems did not exist for the first half of the era, and sewage dumped into the streets simply ran into the Thames. The creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 and Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers led to improvements in sanitation, but many areas still lacked proper sewage.

Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, noted the stench that originated from the St. Bride’s burial ground, where corpses were simply thrown into a pit after a token service. The pervasiveness of these noises and odors are evident even from brief literary descriptions, such as Tennyson’s reference to “The dust and din and steam of town” from In Memoriam 89. MacDonald describes settings in Phantastes (“A crowded street, where men and women went to and fro in multitudes”) that are evocative of London crowds. Traffic and traffic noise in the city were almost unbearable. Utility maintenance and livestock would frequently block streets, and tollbooths would cause bottlenecks. Larger avenues and arterial boulevards were eventually created, but at the expense of acres of residences.

More comprehensive urban portraits can be found in the portions of Dickens’ Great Expectations where Pip first sees London streets and markets. “The shameful place,” Pip says, describing Smithfield, “being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.” Smithfield, which housed one of London’s main meat markets, was a particularly gruesome locale. Cattle were herded into the market without regard for traffic or time of day, and killed on-site. Dickens’ juxtaposition of the sights and smells of the meat market and the nearby prison and gallows depicts the city as an entity which not only entraps and enslaves, but carnally devours flesh for the sake of pleasure and profit. After receiving numerous petitions from nearby residents and health experts, Parliament mandated that the market be shut down and moved to the outskirts of the city. The old site laid waste for almost a decade (Thornbury, 491). Other zoning, urban planning, and clean air ordinances and Acts of Parliament would later provide guidelines for spatial organization and pollution regulation, ameliorating many of the aforementioned problems. London during the ninteenth century, however, was not a clean or well-organized metropolis.

Urban problems were not limited to the built environment: many social ills plagued Victorian London as well. A characteristically urban phenomenon, one that some might call inevitable, is the dehumanization of city-dwellers. Anodos, in Phantastes, observes and pities the inhabitants of a fictional city whose individuality has been lost in the mass of humanity:

My floating chariot bore me over a great city. Its faint dull sound steamed up into the air - a sound - how composed? “How many hopeless cries,” thought I, “and how many mad shouts go to make up the tumult, here so faint where I float in eternal peace, knowing that they will one day be stilled in the surrounding calm, and that despair dies into infinite hope, and that the seeming impossible there, is the law here! But, O pale-faced women, and gloomy-browed men, and forgotten children, how I will wait on you, and minister to you, and, putting my arms about you in the dark, think hope unto your hearts, when you fancy no one is near!”

In this case, the tumultuous crowd of individuals appears as a dull mass simply because Anodos views it at a distance. During the middle of the nineteenth century it was popular to take balloon flights over the city, as they afforded passengers the opportunity to remove themselves from the urban issues visible only from close range, and instead admire the scale and grandeur of the city from a distance. The mob again appears in Great Expectations. At Newgate, Pip finds a “quantity of people standing about smelling strongly of spirits and beer.” The mob treats court hearings as one would treat a theatrical performance. An inebriated minister offers Pip a prime seat in the courtroom with a view of the Chief Justice, who he mentions “like waxwork.” In this scene the mob is not simply a tumultuous mass as in Phantastes. Here, it takes on a more malevolent role, that of an audience deriving a perverse thrill from life-or-death situations. The judge becomes a ringmaster instead of a tool of justice, a Caesar ruling over the Coliseum, whose whim may determine whether a fallen gladiator shall live or die to satisfy the audience’s bloodlust. Although Dickens may have sensationalized this depiction for the sake of the story, Victorian London’s penal system had its crude points. Hangings were a show for all to see. Dickens wrote of an occasion during the famous public hanging of the Mannings when he and some friends rented out a rooftop with a good view of the gallows, and the drunken crowd engaged in “every variety of offensive and foul behavior...” (Tillotson). Public whipping of transgressors was not outlawed until the 1830s, and public hanging continued until 1867. Exile to Australia was another common Victorian punishment (Tambling, 196). The early Metropolitan Police Force was largely considered inept and ineffective. This can be seen in the 1888 Punch cartoon “Blind-Man’s Buff,” a play on the children’s game blind-man’s bluff, in which a blindfolded officer of the law clumsily stumbles through the streets attempting to catch criminals.

London’s social ills were by no means confined to the legal system. Thousands of London’s women served as prostitutes during the Victorian Era. “The world’s oldest profession” makes appearances in the work of Oscar Wilde, an important member of the Aesthetic Movement. Interestingly, while Aesthetes generally embraced the darker side of society, Wilde criticizes the prostitutes he portrays. In “Impression Du Matin,” he describes a prostitute still on the streets during dawn:

But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps' flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.

By depicting the woman’s presence on the street as unusual, and removing her capacity for emotion by describing her as stony-hearted, Wilde makes the prostitute appear alien and unnatural. She clearly does not belong in the otherwise serene, placid image of London dawn. “The Harlot’s House,” another Wilde work, simultaneously criticizes the patrons of a prostitute and dehumanizes them. They are described, at different points, as “automatons,” “skeletons,” and “puppets.” The speaker expresses surprise that, at one point, a patron emerges from the house and appears to be “like a live thing.” The latter half of the poem touches upon love and lust, indicating that Wilde believes the prostitute’s behavior stems from her own immorality. Most prostitutes, however, were likely motivated by poverty rather than deviance. The vast majority of prostitutes resided in Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Ratcliff, and other poor and deprived sections of the city. These women existed in a precarious and dangerous situation, as they could be abused by any drunk, abusive man from the neighborhood. The horrors they were subjected to did not end at abuse: while Jack the Ripper was one of the most notorious murderers of prostitutes, many went undetected before his time.

What made London prostitution so unusual compared to similar practices in other European cities was its lack of discretion. Prostitutes would be out in the open daylight like the woman from “Impression Du Matin,” patrolling high profile locations such as The Strand, Haymarket, or Hyde Park. Sociologist journalist Henry Mayhew spends a section of his survey London Labour and the London Poor detailing the state of prostitutes. “Park women,” he notes,

properly so called, are those degraded creatures, utterly lost to all sense of shame, who wander about the paths most frequented after nightfall in the Parks, and consent to any species of humiliation for the sake of acquiring a few shillings. You may meet them in Hyde Park, between the hours of five and ten (till the gates are closed) in the winter.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, in a visit to the city, noticed “mothers bringing their young daughters to do business. Little girls about 12 years old take you by the hand and invite you to follow them.” The few high-class prostitutes maintained a high profile as well. The famous Catherine “Skittles” Walter would ride into Hyde Park on horseback (preventing her from being stopped by the gate police), wearing a fortune in jewelry, and charge 25 for twenty minutes (Picard, 259). The practice began attracting the attention of many within literary circles, particularly Charles Dickens. He, together with bank fortune heiress and benefactress Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, created the Urania Cottage as a house for “fallen women.” Prostitution continued to be very visible part of London society, despite these and other efforts.

A literary work does not need to be set in the city for it to deal with urban issues. Jane Eyre takes place exclusively in the countryside but deals with disease, one of London’s most pressing problems. Jane mentions an outbreak of typhus during her stay at Lowood in chapter nine:

That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded schoolroom and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital.

Typhus, or the “Irish Fever,” as it was then known, most likely arrived in London with the stream of Irish immigrants in 1847. Tuberculosis, which kills Helen Burns in the same Spring as the typhus outbreak, was a particularly vicious killer due to its high contagiousness. Between ten and twenty thousand Londoners died from it every year. Smallpox epidemics recurred throughout the nineteenth century, even though legislative acts in 1853 and 1867 attempted to make vaccination mandatory (Picard, 191) Other diseases that can nowadays be easily treated, including diphtheria, measles, and whooping cough, were often fatal. The growth of the British Empire introduced foreign maladies to London. Cholera was endemic in India, and killed countless British troops stationed there. Rudyard Kipling, who spent his early life on the subcontinent, witnessed bouts of the disease ravage army barracks and wrote about the disease in the poem “Cholera Camp”:

We've got the cholerer in camp -- it's worse than forty fights;
We're dyin' in the wilderness the same as Isrulites;
It's before us, an' be'ind us, an' we cannot get away,
An' the doctor's just reported we've ten more to-day!

Because the disease was transmitted through contaminated water, and proper purification systems had yet to be developed, there was little the soldiers could do to protect themselves against the bacteria (“It’s before us, an’ be’ind us, an’ we cannot get away”). The disease finally arrived in London in 1832, killing 18,000. The medical establishment of the day was completely unequipped to handle the outbreak, primarily because the methods of disease transmission were not fully understood. The “miasma theory,” which stated that disease was transmitted through the air by foul odors, was held to be true. This led the government and healthcare establishments to focus on covering up bad smells and to overlook the real causes of epidemics: fecally contaminated water and person-to-person contact. Even the most educated health care reformers, such as Edwin Chadwick, believed in the miasma theory:

The sense of smell... which generally gives certain warning of the presence of... gases noxious to the health, appears often to be obliterated in the labourer by his employment... Primary and most important measures... are drainage, the removal of all refuse of habitations, streets and roads...

Surgeon and official royal anesthesiologist John Snow began to suspect that there was some other cause to the disease, and had the scientific foresight to suspect the water supply. Although he lacked the technology to actually isolate the bacteria from water samples, he noticed that the walls of a well in Soho (an area which had been ravaged by the disease) were allowing sewage runoff to seep into the water. Furthermore, the soiled diapers of babies which died from the disease were being dumped in a cesspit adjacent to the well. Such unhygienic practices, along with the sheer density of the city, made the spread of the disease inevitable.

The residents of early Victorian London lived in the unpleasant central city because there was no alternative. The majority of employment opportunities were located in the central business district and industrial centers, and the working class had no means of transportation apart from walking. Furthermore, although the city had a large population, it did not sprawl. Development was dense within a two to three mile radius around the city center but remarkably sparse outside of the circle. This began to change as transportation technology improved. 1829 saw the introduction of the Paddington-City horse-drawn omnibus line, and a number of new lines came into existence in the early 1830s.

In the 1850s commuter train lines were created, and Acts of Parliament were passed to guarantee discounted worker’s fares (Thompson). The middle-class worker could now commute into the city on a daily basis, allowing him to reside in a quiet locale free from the problems of downtown. The opportunity to enjoy a personal residential realm and separate one’s wife and children from the impurity of the central city appealed to the middle-class Victorian psyche. Suburban development exploded: the population of the London suburbs grew from 414,000 in 1861 to 2,045,000 in 1901 (Briggs, 324). The appeals of suburban life are illustrated in Great Expectations through the character Wemmick. He takes the suburban ideal of a man’s house as his castle to the extreme, turning his house into a mock fortress complete with flag, moat, and drawbridge. He lives a truly compartmentalized life, adopting a dull and professional persona while at work, then transforming into a more eccentric and animated character upon his return home. “When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me,” he says, “and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me.” This division of spheres allows an individual to bear city living. In many respects, Wemmick is like a modern suburban man, driven to the outskirts not only by squalid inner city conditions, but by fierce individualism and territorial instincts. Suburbanization may have been the most noticeable change in urban structure, but other noticeable transformations occurred concurrently. Many changes were a direct product of city-centric literature. Charles Dickens abhorred the state of the prison system, especially after experiencing the conditions his father endured during his stay at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. These feelings made their way into many of his stories, and helped publicize the need for reform. The Debtor’s Act of 1869 abolished the practice of debt imprisonment, and the conditions of government prisons were improved dramatically.

The urban developments of the Victorian Era had a profound effect on metropolitan growth that occurred later, both in England and the rest of the world. The success of suburbanization in London caused a burst of suburban development in Manchester and Liverpool, and eventually many cities in the United States. While it allowed countless families to lead quieter, more secluded lives away from the bustle of the city, the lack of regulation led to immense land waste and destruction of valuable parkland and scenery. Today’s New Urbanism movement actually promotes de-suburbanization, and the creation of denser, smaller, mixed-use neighborhoods instead of the swaths of acre-plot, terraced single-family houses that are a staple of American suburbia. In general, however, the reforms that came out of Victorian London are considered improvements. The transition from the archaic county and borough-based governments to metropolitan councils, such as Victorian London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, allowed cities to play a larger role in development planning. London’s government came up with new and innovative ways to handle pollution and traffic problems. The first traffic signal, for example, was erected at the intersection of Bridge and George Streets in 1868. Along with changes in urban design came changes in urban literature.

Dickens’ work popularized the inclusion of relevant urban facts, especially gruesome facts, into works of fiction. Other novelists of the time, including George Gissing, began writing material that was intricately linked to urban settings. Henry Mayhew’s groundbreaking observations and surveys of London’s geography and sociology helped to advance urban journalism. Papers of the past had relied solely on dry facts and figures, and failed to gain a large audience. Mayhew introduced touching stories of the urban poor to better illustrate specific scenarios, which had the added effect of increasing his work’s public appeal. His accounts of boys “about 13 years of age, in rags and tatters,” who slept “for three solid months on Billingsgate stones” were more effective in galvanizing interest in urban reform than any table or chart. These and other changes borne of Victorian-Era London have helped guide the development of the urban sphere through today, and will continue to impact city design, policy, and literature in the future.

Related Materials

Works cited

Baron, Xavier. London 1066-1914. Robertsbridge, East Sussex, 1997.

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities. Watford: Odhams Limited, 1963

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, An Autobiography. London: Service & Paton, 1897. Project Gutenburg. 29 Apr. 2007. 14 May 2010.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1867. Project Gutenburg. Web. 20 Aug. 2008. 14 May 2010.

Kipling, Rudyard. “Cholera Camp.” Works of Rudyard Kipling. n.d.

Landow, George P. “The Pervasion of Prostitution.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 2 Aug. 2009.

MacDonald, George. Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. The Victorian Web. Web. 17 May 2010. .

Mayhew, Henry. "Letter IV." The Morning Chronicle Survey of Labour and the Poor (Oct. 1849).

Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Tale of a City, 1840-1870. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005.

Schwarzbach, F S. Dickens and the City. London: The Athlone Press, 1979.

Sicher, Ephraim. Rereading the City, Rereading Dickens. New York City: AMS Press, Inc., 2003.

Smith, Karl Ashley. Dickens and the Unreal City. Basingstoke: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Tambling, Jeremy. Going Astray: Dickens and London. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2009.

Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 14 Feb. 2010. 17 May 2010.

Thompson, F M L. The Rise of Suburbia. N.p.: Leicester University Press, 1982.

Thornbury, Walter (1878). "The Metropolitan Meat-Market". Old and New London: Volume 2. pp. 491496.

Wilde, Oscar. “Impression du Matin.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 28 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Harlot’s House.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 27 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.


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Last modified 17 May 2010