Imagine this: You wake up in your little servants’ corner in 19th century England (because let’s face it, you definitely wouldn’t be royalty) and prepare to do your daily duties to serve your aristocrat masters. Also, you have no right to complain because it’s either this or working at the factory for a wage of a single penny per day. You aren’t exposed to any kinds of luxury and would be even luckier to merely be in the presence of a roasted chicken. But hey, at least Queen Victoria is thriving (or not).
In this period even making it to the age of 20 would be difficult for you. A small amount of kids survived past the age of 3, most dying early under bizarre circumstances, illnesses and due to overwork. Unless you were born in a wealthy family (I doubt it), you would be forced to work as a street sweeper or a miner as soon as you turned 4 years old. “The Factory Act” which was established in 1833 disallowed children under the age of 9 to work in factories but still allowed them to take other dangerous jobs like chimney sweeping. Often people who came from the middle class were deployed to act as servants for the rich which only consisted of royals. But the poor? Again, chimney sweepers. Did I mention how much ash they inhaled daily?
The wealthy kids didn’t need to worry about money but they didn’t lead extraordinary lives either. They could only speak to their parents at certain times in a day and their main source of education would be their nannies, who were always old and unmarried ladies. The nannies would teach etiquette and propriety, but girls weren’t allowed to learn about much else. After all, an educated Victorian lady was deemed unattractive and blasphemous for being interested in something other than her family role as a wife and mother. Feminist movements would bring awareness and protest the issue but wouldn’t be able to change how girls were educated until much later. Boys would be sent to school as soon as they reached the age of 11, but only if they were wealthy and able to pay the school’s entry fees.
This was the age of the industrial revolution and the factories were booming with business, so much so that a lot of lower class people worked there. If you worked at a factory your day would consist of roughly 15 hours of hard labor (at least you’re off on Sundays!) with 500 other workers, loud machines, low ventilated spaces and dim lighting so that your only source of light is a candle. Speaking of candles, you don’t realize that your sleeve had caught fire on the candle next to you and you burn to death with the materials you needed for work. Your co-workers are forced to work thrice as much so they can account for the losses. It’s another case of a bizarre Victorian death, but at least you didn’t get mauled to death by a pig like little Mullins in 1873.
Most Victorian deaths were anything but normal. Though the medical field was evolving at the time people still didn’t have a complete understanding of poisons. It was because of this that when the Emerald Green dye was invented people immediately thought: “Ooh! Pretty color!” and not: “Oh, this might give me arsenic poisoning”. People would eventually realize that the many deaths that happened at the time were caused by the large amounts of arsenic which was used in green colored wallpapers, carpets and accessories, but also certain candies, and they would also gain awareness of similar poisonings and avoid them but not before leaving casualties. Other bizarre deaths in the 19th century include (but are not limited to) being killed by a mouse, cat, frog or any other small animal you can think of; dying due to an alarm clock; laughing oneself to death and being crushed to death by a modified alarm clock.
Dying in this period was definitely traumatizing and weird, but at least you would feel comfortable knowing that there are people who are celebrating your death! That sounds weird, let me explain. The act of mourning and romanticising of death were popularized by Queen Victoria herself after her husband King Albert’s death in 1861. The Queen would make her household servants wear black for 3 years after King Albert’s death and continued to wear black until her own demise in 1901. She mourned him until she died and despite the initial concern for the Queen’s sanity people soon began to be influenced by her bereavement. The masses would host expensive funerals, wore mourning clothes, purchased mourning accessories, took photographs with the dead and created mourning rituals. Celebrations of death were common and not at all unusual at the time which is why nowadays we correlate the terms “Victorian” and “death” with each other.
It is not easy to explain the many quirks of the Victorian era in only a few pages. Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 until 1901 and it’s so interesting to see her influence on the folk at the time. I didn’t even have the opportunity to mention how detailed and extraordinary their mere everyday outfits were! That topic has to wait for another time, but I hope that I inspired you to look into the world of the 19th century. Seriously, research it, it’s great.
Gresham.ac.uk, The Victorians: Life and Death
BBC, 10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths
Victorianchildren.com, Victorian Schools Facts for Children
Victorianera.org, Victorian Era Poor Children: Life of Kids, Boys, Girls, Child Labor, Education
Medium, The Mystery Behind Poisonous Green Color During Victorian Era