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The Victorian City

Everyday Life in Dickens' London

by Judith Flanders

Hardcover, 520 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $27.99 |


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The Victorian City
Everyday Life in Dickens' London
Judith Flanders

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NPR Summary

A portrait of everyday life in Dickensian London evaluates the Victorian era as a time of unprecedented transformation marked by rapid construction, railways, street lighting, and population booms at every economic level.

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Excerpt: The Victorian City



It is 2.30 in the morning. It is still night, but it is also 'tomorrow'. By this hour at Covent Garden market, in the centre of London, the streets are alive. Long lines of carts and vans and costermongers' barrows are forming in the surrounding streets. Lights are being lit 'in the upper windows of public houses – not the inhabitants retiring to rest, but of active proprietors preparing ... for the new day ... The roadway is already blocked up, and the by-streets are rapidly filling.'

By dawn, the streets leading into London were regularly filled with carriages, with carts laden with goods, and with long lines of men and women (mostly women), plodding down Piccadilly, along Green Park, on their way to Covent Garden, carrying heavy baskets of fruit on their heads as they walked from the market gardens in Fulham several miles away. More approached Covent Garden from the south, from the market gardens that lined the south-west side of the river.

Interspersed with these suppliers and produce sellers were many more who made their living around and in the markets. The coffee-stall keepers appeared carrying cans of coffee from yokes on their shoulders, the little smudge-pot charcoal fires already lit underneath, winking in the diminishing darkness. Then 'a butcher's light chaise-cart rattled past ... with the men huddled in the bottom of the vehicle, behind the driver ... dozing as they drove along', followed by 'some tall and stalwart brewer's drayman ... (for these men are among the first in the streets), in his dirty, drab, flushing jacket, red night-cap, and leathern leggings'.

These early risers had woken long before daybreak with the aide of various stratagems. Alarm clocks had not yet been invented (wind-up alarm clocks did not appear until 1876), and even clocks were beyond the reach of most workers.* In the first three decades of the century, the watch patrolled the streets nightly, dressed in long, drab greatcoats and slouch hats, carrying rattles and calling out the half-hours. For a small fee, these men stopped at houses along their routes, to waken anyone who needed to be up at a specific time. Later this job of knocking up, as it became known, was taken on by the police – a useful way to earn a little extra cash, as well as an aid to good community relations. As the constables walked their beats, they tapped on the window with a long stick, or banged the knocker as they passed, waiting for an 'All right!' to be shouted from indoors in acknowledgement. The very poor, who could not afford the requisite penny or two a week, paid a halfpenny or so to an equally poor fellow worker who woke his friends on his way home from nightwork.

Among the first people out on the street each morning were the coffee-stall keepers. Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. Water was a rare and precious commodity in working-class housing, which did not begin to see piped water (usually just to the basement kitchens) until late in the century. The nearest running water might be a street pump, which functioned for just a few hours a week. Several factors – the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities – meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual. Workers therefore expected to purchase their breakfast on their way to work.

After getting up in the dark and the cold, wrote Thomas Wright, an ex-labouring man,* 'the gleam from the hot-coffee stall comes like a guiding star ... Here you get warmth to your hands on the outside of the cup, and for the inner man from the liquid, which you get piping hot, for the proprietors of the stalls are aware that that quality is regarded by their morning customers before strength or sweetness.' These stalls mostly appeared at the edges of the city and in the centre, with fewer in the suburbs: in Camberwell, in the late 1850s, one memoirist says that there were 'street refreshment stalls at night in some localities, but I never saw one'. On the major routes, however, these stalls were everywhere, ranging from the simplest makeshifts to elaborate structures. Some consisted of a board laid over a pair of sawhorses, a can of coffee kept hot by a charcoal burner, and a few plates of bread and butter; if the owner could manage a blanket over a clothes horse to protect a bench from the wind, all the better. Others were more robust. The journalist George Augustus Sala described one Covent Garden stall as 'something between a gipsy's tent and a watchman's box'.* At Islington, a regular coffee stall by a pub was erected nightly: out of a hand-barrow came benches, a table and 'a great bright tin boiler with a brass tap', heated by a coke fire, and all enclosed in a cosy canvas tent. A lamp was lit, the table was covered with a cloth and laid with cups, saucers, a loaf and a cake, and in fifteen minutes a snug little booth was ready for customers.

Who the customers were, and which the busy times, varied by location and cost. A cup of coffee and 'two thin' – two thin pieces of bread and butter – was a penny in the West End and City; around the docks, where the customers were entirely working class, it was half that. Street sellers of food, walking to the markets to get their supplies for the day from about 3 a.m., were early visitors; later the night-workers heading home crossed with the day-workers, and at working-class stalls there was generally 'some thinly clad, delicate-looking factory boy or girl' standing by hopefully. The 'popular belief among working men', said Wright, is that 'a fellow is never any poorer' for buying something hot for those even worse off than themselves.

The journalist James Greenwood spent a night with a coffee-stall holder in Islington, watching the customers come and go.† The stall was set up at 11.30, just as the tavern near by was closing. In the first hour there were only two paying customers, a night cabman and 'an unfortnight' (unfortunate – the standard polite term for a prostitute), plus a beggar. Then came a blind boy who sang in pubs and his father, four street-sweepers and three 'tipsy gents'. From 1.30 to 2.30 a.m., a number of men dropped by to sober up; then the 'very worst sort of customers' appeared: those who had nowhere to sleep, and eked out halfpenny cups of coffee by the charcoal fire for as long as they could; others did not even have the halfpence, but were allowed by the soft-hearted stall-keeper to sit by the fire all the same. Between 2.30 and 3.30, three more unfortunates stopped by, and two labourers asking the way to the Uxbridge road: they had, they said, been three days searching for work, and were returning home, having had no luck. One of the unfortunates made the offer: 'pitch into the bread and butter and coffee; I'll pay,' and, the stall-keeper reported, 'I'm proud to say that they used her like honest chaps, eating a tidy lot, certainly, but not half, no, nor a quarter as much' as they obviously wanted to, after which they thanked her politely and refused the 6d she tried to give them. They were followed by a cabman with a drunken passenger. By 3.30 the cattle-drovers began to arrive, filling the space with their dogs, 'which makes it uncomfortable', said the stall-keeper, but he knew that if he remonstrated they would upend his trestle-boards and destroy his livelihood: 'I'm thankful I only have their company two mornings in the week.' From then it was more prostitutes until around five, when the daily workers arrived. From this the stallholder earned around £30 a year for an eight- or nine-hour workday, six days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year: about average for a street seller.

* * *

An hour or so after the workmen set out in the morning, it was the turn of the office workers. Every morning it was the same, a thick black line, stretching from the suburbs into the heart of the City; every evening the black line reversed, dispersing back to its myriad points of origin, as hundreds of thousands of men tramped steadily to and from work, the 'clerk population of Somers and Camden towns, Islington, and Pentonville ... pouring into the city, or directing their steps towards Chancery-lane and the Inns of Court. Middle-aged men ... plod steadily along ... knowing by sight almost everybody they meet or overtake, for they have seen them every morning (Sunday excepted) during the last twenty years, but speaking to no one.' Thus wrote the young journalist Charles Dickens.

These middle-aged clerks were sober in white neckcloths and black coats, although their neckcloths were often yellow with age, while the black dye of their coats had turned rusty brown. The secret ambition of the clerk Reginald Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend was to be able to afford an entirely new suit of clothes all at once. There were also younger, unmarried clerks, 'dashing young parties who purchase the pea-green, the orange, and the rose-pink gloves; the crimson braces, the kaleidoscopic shirt-studs, the shirts embroidered with dahlias, deaths' heads, racehorses, sun-flowers, and ballet-girls ... the shiniest of hats, the knobbiest of sticks'. In Bleak House, when Mr Guppy proposes to Esther, he puts on a new suit, 'a shining hat, lilac-kid gloves, a neckerchief of a variety of colours, a large hot-house flower in his button-hole, and a thick gold ring on his little finger'.

Of whatever type, 'each separate street, pours out its tide of young men into the City. From the east and the west, the north and the south, on it comes ... clerks of all ages, clerks of all sizes, clerks from all quarters, walking slowly, walking fast, trotting, running, hurrying'. This implies variety, but in reality these commuters moved in an extraordinarily regimented way. In an age when traffic was not constrained by any regulations – with no rules about which side of the street to drive on; no one-way streets – walking was, by contrast, 'reduced to a system', with everyone walking on the right. One worker living south of the river bought the Morning Star every day at a tavern near his house, and 'So orderly was the traffic throughout that route that I could, by keeping to the right, read my paper the whole way' as he walked the three miles to the City.

The scale made it a sight, but walking was the most common form of locomotion throughout the nineteenth century. By mid-century it was estimated that 200,000 people walked daily to the City; by 1866 that figure had increased to nearly three-quarters of a million. These were numbers worth catering to. By seven, or even six o'clock, depending on the trade, many shops had taken down their shutters. Bakers were among the first to open, supplying servants and children sent to fetch breakfast bread and rolls, as well as the passing lines of walkers, serving them with breakfast on the hoof, just as earlier the labourers had bought theirs from the coffee stalls. The poet Robert Southey early in the century asked a pastry-cook-shop owner why all their windows were kept open, even in the rain. 'She told me, that were she to close it, her receipts would be lessened [by] forty or fifty shillings a day' as commuters reached in to buy a loaf or a bun as they passed – 40s equating to 480 penny loaves, or around 500 customers buying a daily walking breakfast from that one shop alone.

It was not only the working classes and the clerks who travelled on foot, however. In our time of public and private mass transport, the walkability of London has almost been forgotten. But in the nineteenth century, Londoners walked, without much differentiation between economic groups. In 1833, the children of a middle-class musician living in Kensington walked home from a concert in the City. Two decades later, Leonard Wyon, a prosperous civil servant, and his wife shopped in Regent Street, then walked home to Little Venice. In 1856, the wealthy Maria Cust returned from her honeymoon, walking with her husband from Paddington to Eaton Square. And according to Dickens (in a letter he may have coloured somewhat for comic effect), a child who got lost at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was found by the police in Hammersmith, 'going round and round the Turnpikes – which he still supposed to be a part of the Exhibition'. All except the first journey are, to the modern eye, surprisingly short, less than three miles. Even the longest, to Kensington from St Paul's, is only four and a half miles.

Put in this context, the amount of walking done by the characters in Dickens' novels is not as unusual as it appears today. In Bleak House, Peepy, a small child living in Thavies Inn, near Gray's Inn Road, is 'lost for an hour and a half, and brought home from Newgate market', a mile away, having most likely walked through the slum of Saffron Hill. The more prosperous characters in the novel also walk across London, the women alone at night sometimes taking hackneys, but not always even then. The Jarndyce cousins go to the theatre by fly (rented coach) when they are staying in lodgings in Oxford Street, but in the daytime they walk to Holborn, to Westminster Hall and, on 'a sombre day', with 'drops of chilly rain', to Chancery Lane. Mr Tulkinghorn walks from the Dedlocks' house, probably in Mayfair (this is the one place in the novel not given a specific location), to his own chambers in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and even Lady Dedlock follows him there and back on foot. Even at 4 a.m., Esther and Mr Bucket walk from Cursitor Street to Drury Lane, which probably takes them less than a quarter of an hour, but much of their route is through Clare market and Drury Lane slums. The lower-middle-class or working-class characters walk even further afield. Prince Turveydrop, a dancing master, walks from Soho to Kensington; Mr George from Mount Pleasant, in Clerkenwell, over Waterloo Bridge, then to the Westminster Bridge Road; he returns, again on foot, to Leicester Square. What is today even more unexpected is the number of middle-class women walking alone in Dickens' novels. In Our Mutual Friend, Bella Wilfer walks from Holloway to Cavendish Square without comment; people look at her only when she reaches the City, where few women were to be seen on the streets. In Little Dorrit, Amy Dorrit, at this point in the novel wealthy, walks from the Marshalsea prison, south of the river, to Brook Street in the West End. None of these walks is commented on as unusual – there is no mention that the women concerned tried and failed to find a coach, or that a carriage was not available. Walking was the norm.

Many of those walking long distances then worked twelve-, fourteen- or sixteen-hour days, at the end of which they then walked home again. The great journalist of working-class London, Henry Mayhew, noted in passing what he considered 'the ordinary hours' of employment: from six to six.* At Murdstone and Grinby's wine warehouse, the eight-year-old David Copperfield works until 8 p.m., walking to and from his lodgings in Camden Town. Many people worked much longer hours. Shifts for drivers of hackney cabs were always long: the shorter shifts lasted eleven or twelve hours, the long shifts from fourteen to sixteen hours, sometimes more. (The horses could work nothing like these hours: two or three horses were needed for a twelve-hour shift.) Even worse were the hours of many omnibus employees: frequently drivers and conductors (known as 'cads', probably from 'cadet', that is, the junior partner of the team) worked twenty hours at a stretch, beginning at 4 a.m. and ending at midnight, with an hour and a half off during that time. The industry average, however, was fifteen hours: 7 a.m. to midnight, with seven minutes for dinner, and ten minutes between journeys at the termini.

Shop assistants worked equally long hours. One linen draper told his fellows at the Metropolitan Drapers' Association that he had started to close his shop at 7 p.m. instead of 10 – thus working an eleven-hour day – and had found it saved money: 'so cheerful and assiduous' were the staff made by these short hours that he could manage with fewer employees. Henry Vizetelly, later a publisher, worked his apprenticeship as a wood-engraver, walking ten miles daily from Brixton to Judd Street in Bloomsbury and back, leaving his lodgings at about six and arriving home again around ten. And, he pointed out in his memoirs, he was lucky: City hours were longer. The description of the Cheeryble brothers' City firm in Nicholas Nickleby accords with his recollection. Their manager opens up the office six days a week at 9 a.m. and locks up again after the last employee goes home at 10.30 p.m., 'except on Foreign Post nights', when the letters abroad go late, to catch the last post; then the office closes at 12.20 a.m.* The Cheeryble employees thus work an eighty-five-hour week. Yet their business is presented to the reader as the epitome of benevolence and good employment practices.

Copyright © 2012 by Judith Flanders