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What Was Victorian Family Life Really Like?

Updated on March 4, 2017
Nathanville profile image

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

Late Victorian Family
Late Victorian Family
Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England (Victorian Life and Times)
Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England (Victorian Life and Times)

Many of our modern-day marriage traditions come from the Victorian era such as the honeymoon and the white wedding dress; so this book should provide an enlightening look at our past and how it has influenced today's family life.

 

Victorian Humour Shining Through Hard Times With a Smile

At least for the more affluent sections of society, humour often played an important role in making light heart of harsh realities.

This article gives a glimpse of Victorian Family Life through the eyes of Victorians as published in a selection of Victorian newspaper articles collected by George Burgess (1829-1905) during his working life and saved in his Victorian Scrapbook. George Burgess lived in America for a number of years from about 1845 to 1857 so this article not only looks at family life in England but also has a brief peak at the American family life during the Victorian Era.

Further reading from the source material that this article is based on is freely available on my Nathanville genealogy website, the main url link is given near the bottom of this page. All material in this article is from family documents and artefacts passed down to me through the generations.

So Happy Reading; I look forward to your views on Victorian Family Life in the comments box at the end of this article...

Victorian Social Classes

Quality of life during the Victorian era was very much dependant on social class. Very much as in Britain today the four main classes were the:-

  • Upper class
  • Middle class
  • Working class, and
  • Poor

The upper class was royalty, the aristocracy, and the very wealthy often from inherited wealth.

The Middle classes were the professionals including mill owners, doctors, scientists and trades persons.

The working class, often working 16 hours a day with no holidays worked in the mills, maids, servants, governesses and men and women doing all the menial tasks for the middle classes.

The poor included the unemployed and homeless and orphans.

As in today’s society, although it wasn't easy, it wasn’t impossible to move from one class status to another. An orphan could do an apprentice and learn a trade in a middle class professional, or alternatively a wealthy family could fall on hard times and end up becoming unemployed and homeless.

My great-great grandfather, born in 1829 to a working class family went to school until the age of 14, which at that time was exceptional; especially for the working class. On leaving school he started an apprenticeship in stonemasonry, but during the course of his apprenticeship picked up the skills to become a phrenologist. In his profession, as a phrenologist, he became one of the middle classes, successfully running his business as a phrenologist for 40 years until his retirement in 1901.

Social Classes in Victorian England

Maud Elizabeth Baglin 1885 nee Baldwin
Maud Elizabeth Baglin 1885 nee Baldwin

Clovell, North Devon, England

A Living Victorian Village

Privately owned by the same family since 1738 and kept in the style of a mid-Victorian village. Clovelly is the only privately owned village in England and is a great tourist attraction because the owners have kept it in the style of a Victorian village; so its like stepping back in time. When holidaying in Devon and Cornwall we made a point of visiting Clovelly for a day trip; finishing off with a Devon Cream Tea (scone with jam and cream) in one of the restaurants on the quayside at the bottom of the village. Below is the video I made of our visit to Clovelly, a Victorian village.

Location of Clovelly, Devon, England

A markerClovelly -
Clovelly, Bideford, Devon EX39, UK
get directions

Makes a great day out, and a place to imagine what family life in Victorian Britain might have been like.

Humour Through the Trials of Marriage

The first thing that strikes me about Victorian Life is their strong sense of humour, even though for the ordinary Victorian family (and especially the lower classes) life could be harsh.

To quote an example from one of the Victorian newspaper articles:-

The following is a specimen of sharp shooting between a coquette and her lover: -

"You men are angels when you woo the maid. But devils when the marriage vow is paid."

The lover, not be out-done, replied nearly as follows: -

"The change, dear girl, is easily forgiven. We find ourselves in hell instead of heaven."

Victorian Marriage and Married Life

Women were treated with respect and generally had equal rights and opportunities, with some notable exceptions e.g. no right to vote, although on the whole they were expected to marry, have children and look after the family home.

Two articles below, 'I am a Lawyer's Daughter' and 'Whom to Marry', published in Victorian newspaper gives some insight into this.

Managing Housewife
Managing Housewife
I am a Lawyer's Daughter
I am a Lawyer's Daughter
Whom to Marry
Whom to Marry
Family Ties in Victorian England (Victorian Life and Times)
Family Ties in Victorian England (Victorian Life and Times)

Hardcover book which by studying the wealth of 19th century fiction and nonfiction shows how the Victorians saw themselves in both fictional family life and from their own real experiences of family life; revealing how those values and concepts continue into today's society.

 
Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott
Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott

Victorian Domesticity, based on the life of Louisa Alcott as seen through her eyes explores sentimentality in 19th Century America, how it coloured perception of family life including courtship and marriage, and the influence this had on Louisa when faced with reality.

 

Children in the Victorian Family

Generally, children were considered 'Little Adults', who were given respect and who needed to be guided through lives perils by example and good sound advice. They were recognised as a future resource that required a lot of dedicated time and attention to help ensure their safe passage to adulthood. The above photo is of my grandmother with her siblings and parents; although my grandmother was born at the end of the Victorian era, the above photo (where she is the eldest child) was taken in the Edwardian period.

In Georgian times, and the early Victorian era, children from the working class families in particular, when old enough, were generally sent out to work e.g. in the coalmines and as chimney- sweeps, often as young as six, to bring much needed income into the family. However, with the dawning of the Victorian era came a recognition that children needed to be bought up in a safe family environment until they reached adulthood. Hence the birth of childhood as we know it today and the decline in child labour. Although for the poorer Victorian families who couldn't afford the cost of bringing up their children this enlightenment took many decades; so much so that even in the late Victorian period child chimney-sweeps and children working on the streets with their brushes as little sweepers earning tips from pedestrians for whom they cleared the paths; as depicted in the touching story 'Mother's Last Words' by Mary Sewell, born 1797.

My great-great grandfather (George Burgess), although born into Georgian society in 1829, eight years before the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, was privileged. In spite of his father being a labourer, the family owned two properties (adjoining each other) in Staple Hill, Bristol, and George Burgess attended school until he was 14 year old; which was exceptional for those days; so I guess the family had inherited wealth.

Quoting from a couple of Victorian newspaper articles:-

Victorian Childhood
Victorian Childhood
Victorian Children
Victorian Children

A Selection of Victorian Newspapers on Family Life

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Humorous early American 19th century newspaper article; Border farmer marries woman with wooden leg.Wit between coquette and her loverA Happy WomanA new reason for matrimonyA wife and something to bootA word of wisdom for single menSigns of a husbands 'love spat' with his wife.Br Frank and Determined.Humorous Victorian newspaper article on how to get a free meal.
Humorous early American 19th century newspaper article; Border farmer marries woman with wooden leg.
Humorous early American 19th century newspaper article; Border farmer marries woman with wooden leg.
Wit between coquette and her lover
Wit between coquette and her lover
A Happy Woman
A Happy Woman
A new reason for matrimony
A new reason for matrimony
A wife and something to boot
A wife and something to boot
A word of wisdom for single men
A word of wisdom for single men
Signs of a husbands 'love spat' with his wife.
Signs of a husbands 'love spat' with his wife.
Br Frank and Determined.
Br Frank and Determined.
Humorous Victorian newspaper article on how to get a free meal.
Humorous Victorian newspaper article on how to get a free meal.

For Further Reading

Free to View Online

Follow the link below to the source articles; published online for free viewing.

Home Life in Victorian Britain

Do you think Family Life has changed much since Victorian times?

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Your Views on Victorian Life - Victorian Family Life

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    • Nathanville profile image
      Author

      Arthur Russ 6 months ago from England

      Thanks for all your feedback, and thanks Colin for the info about 'Middlemarch' by George Eliot; I think I would love reading through that, and no doubt I could learn a lot more about Victorian life from it.

    • profile image

      Colin323 4 years ago

      'Middlemarch' by George Eliot gives an excellent glimpse of family life in mid 19th century England. The family tensions within the novel would certainly be recognisable today. It was a good idea, to emphasise your points, to mix newspaper reports of the period with your own summaries.

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 4 years ago from Australia

      I do enjoy your Victorian writings and particularly enjoyed the photograph of your grandmother and her family.

    • profile image

      ChristyZ 4 years ago

      I think that being a wealthy Victorian would have been wonderful. I would love the chance to go back in time for one day just to try it out. :)

    • Sky Breeze profile image

      May Matthew 4 years ago

      A very interesting lens. I especially enjoyed the newspaper articles. Thank you!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I love watching movies of this era but am glad I was born when I was. That time was a little too proper for my taste.

    • vineliner57 profile image

      Hal Gall 5 years ago from Bloomington, IN

      Love the clothing and artwork from the era, but prefer today's lifestyle.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      As an interesting read, I recommend it to my lenses.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      '' Whom to Marry '' is really good and mostely true. Fantastic lens.

    • chas65 profile image

      chas65 5 years ago

      Being an antique dealer and frequent traveler to England, I love the Victorian times. Those wonderful little English villages bring back memories of the time. Thanks for the peek back in time.

    • msalada lm profile image

      msalada lm 5 years ago

      Nice Lens! But I am glad I live now and not then.

    • writerkath profile image

      writerkath 5 years ago

      I loved the clippings that you added to this lens! This was a lot of fun to read! Squid Angel Blessed!

    • blue autumn profile image

      blue autumn 5 years ago

      I am a huge fan of history in general and you have so many great lenses to choose from! At least I know I have something to go look at everyday.

    • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image

      June Parker 6 years ago from New York

      I love this lens. Reading about Victorian family life in the newspaper articles was like being back in a Charles Dickens book. Wonderful and informative. Blessed

    • SiochainGraSonas profile image

      SiochainGraSonas 6 years ago

      Very informative lens. Thank you for sharing!