By the end of the century there were three times more people living in Great Britain than at the beginning. Families were getting larger, children began to survive infancy better and immigration, particularly from Ireland swelled the inner cities.
In the cities, jobs were scarce. Large numbers of both skilled and unskilled people were looking for work, so wages were low, barely above subsistence level. If work dried up, or was seasonal, men were laid off, and because they had hardly enough to live on when they were in work, they had no savings to fall back on.
‘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.’
As the century progressed the middle and wealthy classes, through a mixture of fear of the underclass (sounds familiar today) and genuine compassion founded numerous societies to give aid and help, particularly to the ‘deserving poor’. A popular hymn still showed the distance to be travelled though:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And order’d their estate *
*[This is the third verse of the hymn All things bright and beautiful, which was first published in 1848 in Hymns for little children, by CFH (Cecil Frances Humphreys), (London: Joseph Masters, 1848). In modern versions of this hymn this verse is omitted.]
Typically in earlier periods, Victorian artists had portrayed the poor of the countryside (where in reality starvation was a shadow that stalked many rural workers, hence the flight to the cities) in rather a jolly way.
But at least the subject was being discussed and portrayed and a few artists like Luke Fildes went as far as they dared.
And through the reforming journal The Graphic (edited by the social reformer, William Luson Thomas) believed strongly that art could bring about social reform. John Millais recommended him to Dicken’s who used him to illustrate Edwin Drood.
“A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air. Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods, and fields - or, rather, from the one great garden of the whole cultivated island in its yielding time - penetrate into the Cathedral, subdue its earthy odour, and preach the Resurrection and the Life. The cold stone tombs of centuries ago grow warm; and flecks of brightness dart into the sternest marble corners of the building, fluttering there like wings.”
And William Powell Frith in 1888 portrayed what is almost a photograph of a typical London street, where the rich and poor did intermingle freely.
While Herbert von Herkomer (born in Bavaria but settled in Bushey, Hertfordshire where he built Lululaund – named after his third wife – that was important in the British film industry) captured the real rural poor.
Though in the later Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union (1878) the finished picture was carefully ‘polished’ to show the old age paupers happily drinking tea and content.
A governess was in an awkward position in the Victorian household, neither quite a servant nor a member of the family. As a sign of this social limbo, she often ate in isolation. She had a middle class background and education, but she was paid and not really part of the family. Being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways an unmarried middle class woman could support herself in that society. Her position was often depicted as one to be pitied.
Bordering constantly on poverty (and by popular repute prostitution), the over worked seamstresses who were the next level down if education did not allow a Governess position. After several reports distressed seamstress became something of a cause celebre. The public was barraged with newspaper articles, pamphlets, novels, short stories, poetry (the most famous of which is Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt" - 1843)
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the "Song of the Shirt."
[Song of the Shirt – Anna Blunden 1854]
Popular literature was full of stories of a happy, healthy and virtuous young woman leaveing her home in the countryside to become a seamstress in the big city where she encounters an evil employer and/or seducer, and begins an irreversible decline leading to death and/or prostitution.
This brings me to the last and perhaps the best of the great Victorian painters who dealt with the final end of such women. (Charles Dickens wrote The Chimes to highlight the issues.)
This was by no means uncommon. Newspapers listed drowning’s from London bridges each morning.
And I could go on, the Past and Present triptych of Augustus Egg and the
importance of photography in documenting what is to us now a vanished world.
For anyone wanting the feel of the poor of London just read Dickens or Henry
Mayhew’s (the founder of Punch) London Labour and the London Poor.