Go to London today and you can walk along the same streets and visit the same buildings as people in Victorian times. But life was very different back then. For most Londoners, it was difficult and painful, but also colourful and interesting. 

This is the basis of the book The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London by Judith Flanders. Flanders is a bestselling author and social historian who lives in London and specialises in the Victorian era, which is generally classified as 1820 to 1914, corresponding roughly with the reign of Queen Victoria.

dickensian london

In The Victorian City, Flanders explores London accompanied by the author Charles Dickens, who lived in the city from 1822 and captured its intricacies in his many famous novels. She takes the reader through the city, exposing its people and places, and the technology that by the end of the 19th century transformed it into the biggest city in the world, home to more than six million people. 

Flanders brings to life in vivid and sometimes shocking detail the people and places who occupied the city, and the mundanities of Victorian London; the impoverished and orphaned children, the unfortunate women who worked as prostitutes, and the vendors who sold everything that money could buy. Through Flanders’ storytelling, readers can visit the markets, theatres, slums and cemeteries to discover the routines of everyday life —everything from how people collected drinking water to what they ate for dinner— and the vibrancy and squalor that defined the Victorian capital. Speak Up met with Flanders to talk about her book. We began by asking what drew her to research and write about Victorian times in London.

Judith Flanders (American accent): In Britain, many people live in Victorian houses and therefore we think we know how they were used, how people lived, whereas actually of course, people lived very differently in the past. It occurred to me that people in Britain, particularly people in London, to narrow it down, walk through the same streets as their Victorian ancestors did, they see the same buildings, therefore we feel that we use the streets the same way. And I wanted to see if that was true or not, and of course I found out that it wasn’t because it’s always more complicated. So, I decided that I wanted to write a book about the Victorian city; if you were walking through London, what would you see, what would you smell, what would you hear, how was the city used?


Our perceptions around 19th-century London life are derived from novels, films and TV shows, but the reality was much more complex, says Flanders.

Judith Flanders: I think it’s always very important to think of the past. It’s very easy, particularly I think given television, movies, adaptations of Victorian novels on television, programmes like Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey... we are under the impression that these times were just like ours only people wore funny clothes and maybe didn’t have good dentists. But apart from that everything was exactly the same. And I think it’s very important to complicate the story, to explain in more detail what the living conditions were like, that it’s not just like now but with more servants, which is what television would lead you to believe. Part of the problem of television and movies is that they show what today we would call the one per cent, they show the ultra-super -wealthy and somehow allow us to believe not that we would be the street sweeper cleaning the street outside their houses but that we would be the ultra-super-wealthy. Of course, this isn’t the case: 99 per cent of the population did not live like that, just like today 99 per cent of the population does not spend their life cruising the Riviera in their super yachts.


And she went on to describe how precarious life was when it came to people’s health.

Judith Flanders: Hygiene and health, of course, was extremely disturbing from our point of view. Not merely [because of a] lack of running water, but lack of what we think of today as the basics; aspirin, for example, a most basic fever reducer and painkiller, was not synthesized ’til the 1890s. Mostly what people used for pain or illness was laudanum, which was an opium derivative. So basically you doped yourself up to the gills, because life was painful. But there were also enormous positives. Because of cars, basically, city streets have become places you pass through. They are places you use to get from point A to point B, whereas in the 19th century city streets were where life happened, and you had street sellers, you had entertainment, you had people singing, you had puppet shows, you had acrobats, you also had people selling you everything from fruit and vegetables to cheese to handkerchiefs to pocket knives to dog leashes ... Everything you can think of, you would have been able to buy on the street. So it was a constant sort of pageant of interest in a way we can’t imagine today.


So what would it be like to be a woman of the era? 

Judith Flanders: If I were a middle-aged woman, first of all in a great deal of the Victorian period I would have been wearing nearly fifteen kilos worth of clothes. I would have been wearing a corset. I would have been wearing three or four layers over that corset and one under it. I would have been wearing a bonnet, which would have blocked my vision. I would have been wearing gloves that constrain my hands. Every time I walked out on the street, when I came back, I would have to brush yards and yards and yards of fabric to take the dirt off. So no, being a woman in the 19th century was just physically exhausting, hauling all that weight about!


And, she said, the most insightful accounts of London life were written by strangers.

Judith Flanders: If you want to know what London was like, one of the best ways of discovering was [is] reading the memoirs of 19th-century non-Londoners, whether it was Americans visiting or French or Germans or Italians visiting. They then went home, they would write a memoir either of their travels, or they would write an autobiography in which their travels to London featured. And because they were visitors, because they were strangers, they would see and describe the city in a way that people who lived there never bothered to do because they thought it was normal.