Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Victorian Poor (especially in London)

Are you writing a novel set in Victorian times?  Do you like to dress in Steampunk clothing and pretend to own an Aether Flyer?  Are you writing a steampunk novel?  The internet certainly has a great deal of material for both the serious Victorian researcher and the steampunk enthusiast.

While most Steampunk cosplayers are playing people of means, often owning or crewing Aether Flyers and owning mechanicals of great complexity (some of which they have built themselves), they are hardly the norm in the Victorian society on which Steampunk is loosely based.  Many people may be familiar with the period because of reading novels depicting Georgian, Regency, or Victorian characters--most of which are set in High Society.

Jane Austen's Georgian novels describe life in relatively well-to-do but not noble families.  Many a Regency romance follows the young woman forced by circumstances to become a governess, but by far the most details are those of the well-to-do.  None of these novels delve very far into the lives of the poor.

Perhaps the best-known Victorian novels, those written by Charles Dickens, describe a great deal of the lives of the poor and criminal element.  You can get modern ebooks, as pdfs, of 54 of Dickens' works at, or scans of illustrated 1910 editions of his books:
v. 1. David Copperfield
v. 2. Martin Chuzzlewit
v. 3. A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, American Notes
v. 4. Great Expectations
v. 5. Oliver Twist
v. 6. A Tale of Two Cities
v. 7. The Pickwick Papers
v. 8. Edwin Drood, The Old Curiosity Shop
v. 9. Nicholas Nickleby
v. 10. Little Dorrit; parts one and two
v. 11. Sketches by Boz
v. 12. Hard Times for These Times, Pictures from Italy, Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings, Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy
v. 13. Bleak House
v. 14. Dombey and Son (for some reason I couldn't find this edition on
v. 15. A Child's History of England
v. 16. The Uncommercial Traveller, The Haunted House
v. 17. Barnaby Rudge, Master Humphrey's Clock, Mugby Junction
v. 18. Our Mutual Friend
v. 19. Christmas Stories and Other Stories
v. 20. The life of Charles Dickens and favorite storie

But I've managed to distract myself from what I want to list here, which is period nonfiction books about the poor people who crowded the streets of London in Victorian times.  The population of London grew from 1 million at the beginning of the 19th century to 6.7 million at the end of the century, and all those people had to live somewhere.  Many were immigrants--from the English countryside, Ireland, Europe and even Asia.  Some came for reasons like the potato famine in Ireland, others to work in the factories that were being built. The squalor and over-crowding created by so many people in a limited area became the focus of many charitable and social movements run by people who wanted to better the lives of the very poorest.

There are many interesting websites about the poor of Victorian London, including a discussion of slums (and slumming) and site about poverty and families in Victorian London.  But as I said in the first article in this series, modern books and websites are a good place to start research, but I want to go to works published during the era I am learning about.

London Labour and the London Poor

The best books I've found, which are referenced by many other people in the Victorian era and since, are the four-volume set London Labour and the London Poor (The subtitle is "A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work") by Henry Mayhew.  When I first began writing pseudo-Victorian fiction, these were only available as rather badly-proofread scans on a website.  But now, pdf versions of scans of the actual books are available online.

In the mid 1800s Henry Mayhew interviewed people all over London's streets, and recorded their conversations in their own idiom.  Of course we can't be certain he didn't add, subtract and/or change some of this information, but reading these interviews can be very interesting.  He also liked to collect data and make charts.  Unless I really need some of that information, I usually skip those parts.

Volume 1: The London Street-Folk (1861)

Discusses street sellers of all kind.  As Mr. Mayhew says in his preface, "The history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves--giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own "unvarnished" language; and to pourtray [sic] the conditions of their homes and their families by personal observation of the places, and direct communion with the individuals."

"My earnest hope is that the book may serve to give the rich a more intimate knowledge of the sufferings, and the frequent heroism under those sufferings, of the poor. . . ."

The street folk described in this volume are Wandering Tribes in General, Wandering Tribes in the Country, the London Street-Folk, Costermongers, Street Sellers of Fish, Street Sellers of Fruit and Vegetables, Stationary Street Sellers of Fish, Fruit, and Vegetables, The Street Irish, Street Sellers of Game, Poultry, Rabbits, Butter, Cheese, and Eggs, Street Sellers of Trees, Shrubs, Flowers, Roots, Seeds, and Branches, Street Sellers of Green Stuff, Street Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables, Street Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts, Street Sellers of Manufactured Articles, The Women Street Sellers, and the Children Street Sellers.

Nearly 500 pages of small print, but full of fascinating details.  The links below are to pages at Google Books or where the books can be read or downloaded.  The file size is for the pdf version.

39.3 M, Google
51.5 M, Google
54.7 M,

Volume 2: The Street-Folk, Part 2

This volume covers The Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles, Live Animals, Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities; The Street-Buyers, The Street-Jews, Street Finders or Collectors, The Streets of London, Chimney-Sweepers, and Crossing-Sweepers.

36.7 M, Google
58.7 M,

Volume 3: The Street-Folk, Part 3

Includes The Destroyers of Vermin, Street-Exhibitors, Street-Musicians, Street-Vocalists, Exhibitors of Trained Animals, Skilled and Unskilled Labor, Garret-Masters, The Coal-Heavers, Ballast-Men, Lumpers, The Dock-Labourers, Cheap Lodging-Houses, The Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis, London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men, London Omnibus-Drivers and Conductors, London Cab-Drivers, London Cabmen and Porters, London Vagrants and Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men.

39.8 M, Google
57.0 M,

Volume 4: Those That Will Not Work

Comprising Prostitutes, Thieves, Swindlers, and Beggars.  A great deal of interesting information on how criminals from pickpockets to burglars operated.

66.4 M,

If you don't want to read four large books (however interesting they may be), there is Mayhew's London; Being Selections From 'London Labour and the London Poor' (which was first published in 1851) ( This book condenses Mayhew's large volumes, leaving out the tables and lists of data.

Another book, not specifically part of this four-volume set, but continuing it, is The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life, by Henry Mayhew and John Binny (1862).  As well as the the charts and data beloved of Mayhew, there are also fascinating woodcuts, diagrams, and descriptions of prison life.

32.7 M,

Life and Labour of the People in London

Another similar group of books, with data compiled later in the nineteenth century, is Life and Labour of the People, edited by Charles Booth.  (The title is changed in later volumes to Life and Labour of the People in London).  A two-volume set was published in 1889, followed by a 9-volume set published in 1892-1897, and finally a 17-volume set in 1902-3.

Charles Booth Online Archive

Go to this site to view the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9, which go with the later volumes described here.  There are also scans of the original police notebooks from which Booth compiled much of his information, and an especially interesting section of "Snapshots of Victorian London from the police notebooks," where tidbits from the police reports are excerpted.  (Note: most of these are handwritten and may be rather difficult to decipher.  I was interested to note some typewritten notes, however.)

The volumes are discussed at, where it is noted that "Booth included in the published volumes only information that could be quantified, and which would not identify or embarrass any individual interviewee. For these reasons much of the vivid detail can only be traced through use of the original notebooks."  In this case, scans of original documents can be read to gain a true first-hand account of life in London in the late 19th century.

1889 edition (two volumes)

Vol. 1 covers part of the East End of London.  It begins with part of a census taken by the school board of school-age children, street by street, with notes about parents' occupations (or lack thereof).  Like Mayhew, Booth likes data and tables.  The discussion of social clubs that comes next is quite informative (at least for me, considering its usefulness in the novel I'm writing).  The larger part of the book discusses trades: The Docks, Tailoring, Boot-Making, The Furniture Trade, Tobacco Workers, Silk Manufacture, and Women's Work.

Vol. 2 - London, continued
This volume discusses first Central London, contrasts the data with that from the east side, and has interesting data about Covent Garden, Homeless Men, and Common Lodging Houses.  It then moves on to South and Outlying London, and concludes with London Children.

(scanned two pages at a time, as many of the tables span two pages)

Check for volumes of the 9-and 17-volume sets.

Some stand-alone volumes about the poor of London in the 19th century

Street Life in London by John Thomson (1877)

Photographer John Thomson took pictures of various scenes of London street life, which were described by journalist Adolphe Smith in this volume.  These pictures are often used to illustrate web pages on Victorian London; it's nice to have the book from which they came, and the full descriptions.  The pdf version of the book is available at

London Street Arabs by Mrs. H. M. Stanley (Dorothy Tennant) (1890)

This is a book of drawings of children--some street children, others not.  They were gathered from various periodicals which Dorothy Tennant illustrated.  The author begins by telling why she liked to draw street children, and how she got her models.  The rest of the book is her illustrations.  I wish she had included some description of these illustrations; they are interesting, but would be so much more useful if there was some provenance provided with them!
Google Books:

Once you as a researcher, whether building a steampunk 'persona' or writing historical or fantasy novels, have even skimmed these books, you should feel much more at home with the seamier side of the streets of Victorian London.


Julia H. West has published stories in Realms of Fantasy, Spider, and various anthologies including several volumes of Sword and Sorceress.  Most of these stories are now available as ebooks from Callihoo Publishing.

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