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Living conditions in 1800s Britain became the world's first industrial society. It also became the first urban society. By 1851 more than half the population lived in towns. The population grew dramatically despite the fact that many people emigrated to North America and Australia to escape poverty. About 15 million people left Britain between 1815 and 1914.

The industrial revolution created a huge demand for female and child labour. Children's work was largely seasonal so they did have some time to play but when children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day. In 1842 a law banned children under 10 and all females from working underground. Then in 1847 a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories.

In the early 19th century, families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

In a family the father was head of the family. The wife and children respected him and obeyed him. Until 1882 all of a woman's property, even the money she earned, belonged to her husband. Divorce was made legal in 1857 but it was very rare in the 19th century. Most of the working class lived on a dreary diet of bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher's meat was a luxury. Housing for the poor was often dreadful. Often they lived in 'back-to-backs'. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one of top of the other. The houses were literally back-to-back. The back of one house joined onto the back of another and they only had windows on one side. Poor families often had to share toilets and on Sunday mornings queues formed.

In this century, most of England was very unhealthy. There was piped water and there were no sanitation installations. Refuse was thrown out of cottage doors and left to rot. Towns were dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded. Streets were very often unpaved and they were not cleaned. Rubbish was not collected and it was allowed to accumulate in piles in the streets. Since most of it was organic when it turned black and sticky it was used as fertilizer. It is no wonder that people became ill and died young. Disease was common. Life expectancy in towns was low and infant mortality was very high. British towns and cities suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1831-32 and in 1848-49.

The worst thing about poverty was the attitude of many Victorians. Many of them believed in 'self-help'. They thought everyone should be self-reliant and not look to other people for help. They also believed that anyone could become successful through sheer hard work and thrift. Logically that meant that if you were poor it was your fault. Many Victorians felt that the poor were to blame for their poverty.

By Lorena Moral and RocĂ­o Castillo


Living conditions  

Students writing about living conditions in Britain in 1800

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