Victorian Slum-House

In my ever increasing fervor for all things British, we started watching a new series called Victorian Slum House, set at the East End of 1860s London. Several families have been brought in to try to live as the Victorian era poor lived. The series just started so I don't have a firm feel of it yet, but it brought me to several conclusions that will impact this blog.

I was shocked at how little people in the slums of London had. Not surprised. Shocked. The whole family pitched in doing piece work, anything from making matchstick boxes to sewing. Some of the participants did well, others barely scraped by. One family, after only one week was already in debt and slipping further down the drain. It happened that fast.

It was hard for me to reconcile why anyone would choose to live in a big city where opportunity was so limited, but this isn't the US. I imagine the England of the 1860s was limited by territory. Poverty chained these souls to where they were born.

While the US had already expanded from one coast to the other during the 1860s, it still hadn't colonized vast wildernesses. It was still possible to homestead on free land IF you could make a go of it via the Homestead Act. The government gave away millions of acres. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to discover the government was giving away land as late as 1973. (We missed it by two years!) Alaska still allowed it until 1986.

Not everyone is suited to farming, or even the trades. From my vantage point, the Victorian poor were poor mostly due to lack of education or skills. They did grunt work, tedious, mind numbing jobs like gluing a thousand matchboxes a day, or selling batches of watercress. The heads of the households (men) had better paying jobs but often at the cost of their health.

I was rather impressed with one family who took old, soiled clothes and re-tailored them into usable apparel. The whole family got involved, often staying up until the wee hours of the morning working. In the end, they not only had their rent money but a little left over.

And I loved the spirit of a different family when the main bread winner became injured. The whole family did whatever it took to make enough to pay their rent and food. One little girl in particular impressed me with her positive attitude. Granddad was down for the count, but she was determined to pick up the slack. This, from a little kid. I couldn't have been more proud had she been my kid.

Another family, a mom and two kids, didn't plan as well. Their jobs were to make fancier boxes, but they obviously weren't cut out for the work and only managed to sell a few. She was already in the red for their meals, and didn't have enough for the rent. Had this been real life, the mother and her children would've been evicted or offered the 'doss' house, lodging so cheap, you slept sitting up, hanging your arms over a clothes line to keep you sitting up. I suppose at least that was shelter from the elements, but that's as grim as you can get in what was then civilized society.

As I watched these re-enactors count their pennies, it reminded me very much about how I grew up. We never lived in the poverty they did, for which I am truly grateful, but every penny counted.

When I was a kid, my dad used to bring home his wages and my mom would put them away in a little cigar box. Every week, we did the cuentas, Spanish for sums (in this particular sentence). My mom would put aside a certain amount for food and rent. Anything extra would go in a special box for emergencies. My job at the end of the month was to deliver the rent money to the landlord, who owned the grocery and butcher shop on the corner. I remember feeling very proud that I was trusted with so much money.

As a child, I had no say in how we lived, but as an adult, you better believe I made active and informed choices. I was well educated and relatively book-smart. My mother wanted me to be a teacher, (in her eyes, a high-status job for a woman) but I knew myself too well. I tolerate children only slightly less than I do adults.

Since I had creative talent, I focused on that, moving forward with each job jump into better pay. Greg's talents lay elsewhere, but he landed at a company that would keep him for 40+ years and paid him well for his loyalty. It wasn't dumb luck. We chose our routes deliberately.

Luckily for us, we live in a society that allowed us to choose, a huge difference from 1860s London or even 1860s New York. Under those circumstances and considering my ethnicity, I might've been a domestic, and Greg a laborer.

Had we lived 150 years ago, life would've been eminently harsher. I'd like to think I'd probably still hook up with Greg and talk him into moving to Texas. Who knows? Maybe this is the second time we've done this! 😉

It's true, we stand on the shoulders of giants. What we have now is the work of millions of nameless people who lived, worked, and died, but left us a legacy from which to build from. I'm not talking about all the famous people we read about in books, but those who scratched a living from the sweat of their brow and bore their children along the way. To me, those are the real heroes.

When you start with nothing, the only place to go is up. Whether your goal is a good job, retirement, or a better start for your kids, I will share the things we did to better our circumstances.

Have you watched Victorian Slum House? What did you think of it? How accurate do you think it was?

For more thoughts on Victorian Slum House check out my updated post.




I love the idea of you and Greg having moved to Texas before! You never know, right? :)
Susan Gourley said…
I don't watch any kind of reality or reenactment shows. I do read a lot of historical fiction and I'm always shocked at the utter poverty in London. No wonder people so eagerly came to the colonies when they could. And because of that, our ancestors were those willing to work and work hard to make it. Even today, I wonder about people who stay in the cities when there's so much work and oppportunity in places like where I live. Probably just the country girl in me not understand the attractions of the city.
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: LOL! Even when we started dating it felt like we had known each other before. We had never felt so in tuned to other people as we did to each other. We think we're soul mates that have traveled together before.
Maria Zannini said…
Susan: The poverty of the time was unreal. Had it been me, I would've found some way out of that abyss. There was no future there. And think of the children you'd be bringing into that world.

I've read that people at that time lived with acceptance. They felt they could not do any better and simply accepted their lot in life. Sadder still, there are people in this day and age who think that way now. It's ridiculous in almost any country run by an absolutist government.

Opportunity is out there, but you can't wait for someone to take you by the hand.
Jenny Schwartz said…
Practical Independence - great idea! It shocks me how often we (humans) accept things because we don't know any better. Knowing how to do stuff gives you the confidence to tackle other things. Knowing who you can ask for help - and there are so many groups, government and non-government who'll help - if you can find them.
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: You've hit it on the head. In this day and age, information is virtually at our fingertips. There's no excuse for accepting a bad situation.

Where people fail today is that they usually don't have the patience to see things through. We're used to instant gratification. We don't like to be told that success is predicated on hard work.

If something falls in your lap, consider yourself lucky, but the majority of us still have to do work.
lv2trnscrb said…
I look forward to your new series! I haven't watched that show, but it does sound interesting. I might have mentioned before, but hubby owns the remote here so I rarely get a chance to see what might be of interest to me (its okay, its a battle not worth fighting over). However, when he goes out of town here and there, then I get to watch things, so hopefully when he goes again soon, I'll be able to catch that show. Sounds like an interesting show indeed. Hubby and me were talking just a few short weeks ago about decisions we both made to get us where we are at right now financially (not the best, but certainly not the worst). It took hubby research to find a field that was in demand, then going back to school for four years, then working hard and moving often to continue to get the high paying positions. That's industrious like some of the people on the show. Others we know took a different route and found themselves struggling to make ends meet. Hubby certainly isn't in love with his career (his love would be music but unless you make it big it usually doesn't pay well, etc.,) but he found a career that could support a family and beyond. So its all in the way one decides and then puts themselves to work to achieve it.

Now me on the other hand thought I had a career for life; who knew 40 plus years ago what technology would be capable of doing.

Maria Zannini said…
Betty: I don't have control of the remote either. :) If it's something I want to watch, I'll stay, otherwise I'll find something else to do. If there's something I want to watch, but he doesn't I can always go into the bedroom and watch it there.

re: technology
Digital tech changed my job too. Things I had been doing by hand could now be done by computer faster. The writing was on the wall, so I jumped in and learned how to design on a computer. My tech skills are nowhere near as sophisticated as those of the kids coming out of school now, but I hope I bring an aesthetic they haven't acquired yet.

The show is on PBS on Tuesdays, I believe. At least, here. You can probably go to PBS online and watch it there too.
Angela Brown said…
I haven't seen the show but it sounds like it is enlightening to watch and learn a bit about the lives of those who lives such hard lives.

I can't help wondering if some of the difficulties and lack of abilities caged many of those in those alums as it seems happened during the waning hours of the factory areas or the coal mining areas? Even though other opportunities were elsewhere, the people still stay.

Your series sounds very helpful. I haven't been very mindful and will find the series intriguing.
Mike Keyton said…
Strictly speaking, my dad was a Victorian born in 1900. This doesn't make me extraordinarily old. He married late in life, and because I married relatively late in life, our children can boast they had a Victorian grandfather. But I digress. To the point in question. My dad's grandfather worked himself up from a day labourer to a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Rifles. That's the good news. The bad news is that he was killed in the Boer war one week before it ended and he never ever saw my dad. My grandmother though was by all accounts indomitable. Bringing up two children in early Edwardian Liverpool as a single mother was no easy task. No benefits in those days. She brought up two children, paid rent and provided food and clothes by taking in washing and whatever jobs she could find. And - unbelievably - haunted auction rooms and picked up some really nice stuff which me and brother came to share. 'Family heirlooms' if you wish. I think the auction room adventures probably began when my dad and his sister were old enough to work and life became a little 'easier.'
As you suggest, we don't appreciate how lucky we are. Poverty is relative.
Maria Zannini said…
Angela: I'm hoping it's historically accurate. It seems so from what I've read, but since no one from that era is still alive we must rely on historians.

re: coal mines and factories
In this country, the industrial age trapped many unskilled laborers to dangerous jobs. Even the most dire poverty was nothing compared to the poverty of Victorian England where you were lucky to have the clothes on your back. It's no wonder people stole. I can't blame them. You have to live somehow.
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: That makes me sad that your granddad never made it home to see his son.
My grandparents were born in the late 1800s and early 1900 so I know a little bit about that era, but only its fringes.

re: military
I would think the military is a good way to elevate your station. At least you'd get fed regularly.

I would've loved to have met your grandmother. Anyone who can bring up two children all on a woman's wage has to be the most exceptional of women. That's inspiring!

And how cool is it that you've inherited the treasures she found back in the day. We should do a blog post about the vintage pieces in our homes. You'd win hands down, I'm sure.
Lynn said…
You can watch at least one episode online at the Victorian Slum House website:

I'm all for practical independence. I was raised to run a household on very limited income, and the lessons I learned from my grandmother and mother have kept us basically debt-free for the last 25 years. Things like cooking at home instead of dining out are not only frugal but fun. I like making things instead of buying them, or recycling things to get extra use out of them. If you think creatively saving money and living simply doesn't have to be a grind.

There are also skills people can learn that help avoid costly repairs. I still perform basic maintenance on my car, for example, because when I first started driving my dad taught me how to change the oil, the tires, and check my fluids. I've always changed my own flats, and I know how to test the battery, add fluids to the appropriate places, check hoses, etc.

I think this will be a great blog feature, Maria. Can't wait to learn something new. :)
Maria Zannini said…
Lynn: I was reading an article only this morning about a 30 year old spends $1100 a month on meals. He makes a great income. Not only does he blow it all, he's in debt for $100,000. I don't understand how people can reach that point.

re: car maintenance
I credit Greg for teaching me about cars. I was his grease monkey even before we got married. I think I learned it all by osmosis. :)

re: mothers
Mothers are something. When it comes to keeping body and soul together, they will move heaven and earth to keep their kids safe and fed.
Lynn said…
My guy is always teaching me to do new mechanical stuff, too. I can fix our temperamental washing machine by myself, thanks to him.

This man spends eleven hundred DOLLARS a month eating out? Holy cow. For just himself? That's a house payment. I spend less than half that on groceries to cook at home for three people -- and we don't live on mac and cheese.

I'm now feeling very grateful for my mother and grandmother. :)
LD Masterson said…
I haven't seen that show but I know my grandfather immigrated to the States from England because where they lived there, most young men went into the coal mines and he didn't want that for his sons. He came over alone and when he had raised enough money to provide for them, he sent for his wife and three sons. My dad was the youngest. I'd say he made his own independence.

I look forward to seeing where you go with the new series.
Maria Zannini said…
Lynn: I've known people who eat out for every meal. They never use their kitchens, but it still seems inconceivable to me.

re:washing machine:
We have one of those too. We Googled for answers because it was electronic. Sure enough, someone had a fix for it. It's annoying because we have to do it any time we change the settings to anything but normal, but at least we can use it. With my luck, I'll probably be stuck with that machine the rest of my life. :(
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: Happy birthday (again)!

My dad did the same thing. He was deported the first time (having come over illegally), but once he married he wanted to be sure he and my mother would be safe so got his work visa. He was here until he died. My mom ended up becoming a US citizen.

We do a lot more for our families than they probably never realized.