Today, I’m returning to one of my favourite Victorian periodicals: Cassell’s Family Magazine. This illustrated publication was firmly aimed at the middle classes and featured interesting articles on a plethora of subjects such as student life at Edinburgh University, the benefits of Turkish bathing and how to cook fish. A regular column was ‘Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent’ which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month.
In ‘What to Wear’ for May, the writer commented:
‘This is the month par excellence when wardrobes want fresh supplies, and half-worn costumes fresh trimmings. Neither in new materials nor in garnitures is there any lack this season. Checks, stripes, dots, figures, plain, shot, broché and chiné are all in vogue… Stripes are decidedly fashionable; they are worn in vivid contrasts, and this season they are not monotonous.
Victorian women did not throw out hardly-worn dresses each season unless they were extremely wealthy. Instead, they would use ribbons, lace and embroidery to give their outfits a new look, perhaps by changing the waistbands, sleeve trimmings or necklines, or by adding flowers to a bonnet or hat. This method of refreshing garments was particularly important to those women who had to economise and simply could not afford new dresses. That’s why the illustrations for the ‘Chit-Chat on Dress’ section were aspirational and for guidance only.
The correspondent wrote that ‘the new colour called ficelle is a most convenient one to adopt, for it can be brightened up with ribbons of almost every brilliant hue. It reigns supreme in silks, muslins, woollen stuffs, laces, millinery, embroidery, and the rest.’ This colour was called twine or string-colour, which sounds very like a neutral shade. Other fashionable colours included ‘porcelain-blue, clover, a terra-cotta which is red rather than terra-cotta, Havannah brown, and a Quakerish grey’ which were considered ‘the best and most artistic tones.’ Pinks and buttercup-colour, with eau de Nil, dark greens and dark browns were preferred for evening wear.
Then, as now, high fashion was only designed to fit slim people. Although paniers were a feature of the season’s costumes, the correspondent wrote that ‘slender figures may wear them full and bunchy if so inclined, but stout women (if they adopt them at all) should have them indicated by the merest folds. The new padded sleeves likewise require judgement in adopting them; otherwise they make their wearers look high instead of square-shouldered.’
Read any Victorian newspaper and you’ll come across regular reports of criminal trials that had taken place at the assizes, quarter sessions or petty sessions. The accused is named, the case is described and the verdict is given. Where someone was found guilty of an offence such as theft, the punishment was usually hard labour for a specified number of days or months, unless there was a previous conviction that had to be taken into account.
Take the case of William Anderson, a labourer from Lancashire born in 1837. He committed his first criminal offence in 1852 when he was aged just fifteen. With another boy, he was convicted at the Manchester Petty Sessions of stealing brass fittings from an empty house in Francis Street, Strangeways and was sentenced to three calendar months’ hard labour.
But what did ‘hard labour’ consist of, and what was in store for William at the New Bailey Prison in Salford where he would have served his sentence? (Strangeways Prison was not built until 1868).
Under prison regulations, if a male prisoner over the age of sixteen was sentenced to hard labour, this was to be of the first class ‘during the whole of his sentence, where it does not exceed three months, and during the first three months of his sentence where it exceeds three months’. He was to work for not more than ten or less than six hours (exclusive of meals), subject to the medical officer’s approval. After three months, the justices could prescribe second class labour, which was less severe than labour of the first class. By 1877, the maximum period in which a prisoner was to undertake first class hard labour was reduced from three months to one.
If the medical officer deemed any prisoner to be unfit for hard labour of the first class, he could order he be kept at hard labour of the second class. The surgeon could also certify that a prisoner was unfit to be kept at either class of labour. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour for periods not exceeding fourteen days could be kept in separate confinement at hard labour of the second class. Those who were not fit enough for hard labour of either class were to be employed in a trade. There was no hard labour on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday or on days appointed for public fasts or thanksgivings.
Under the Prisons Act of 1865, prisons were to be a deterrent providing ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’. It was decreed that ‘the treadwheel, crank, capstan, shot-drill and stone-breaking were listed as acceptable types of first class hard labour, and such others as the justices wished to provide had to be approved by the Secretary of State’. However, before 1877, local prisons like the New Bailey were run by county justices and they all had a different interpretation of hard labour. As late as 1879, it was discovered that ‘mat-making, coir-plaiting, oakum-picking, weaving, rope beating, net-making, twine-spinning, sugar chopping and blacksmithing were all variously used and represented as first class labour’.
The treadwheel was undisputably the most feared and hated of all hard labour. Invented by William Cubitt in 1818, there was no ambiguity about whether or not it was appropriate for hard labour of the first class. When working the treadwheel, the prisoner had to lift ‘his body up three feet at each step’. Until 1880, the task was not standardised and the height the prisoners were required to climb varied from prison to prison. The Prison Discipline Society advised that each male individual should complete ‘12,000 feet of ascent per diem’ which was akin to climbing the Matterhorn. However, at York prisoners climbed 6,000 feet, at Stafford it was 16,630 feet while at Salford’s New Bailey where William Anderson served his sentence, it was 19,400 in summer and 14,450 in winter. Treadwheels were usually unproductive and part of the Victorian prison’s aim to deter criminals, rather than rehabilitate them.
The intense physical effort required by prisoners working the treadwheel raised concerns about their state of health and whether the quantity of diet allowed to them was sufficient. In June 1868 at Worcester Prison, it was recommended by the medical officer George Edwin Hyde that ‘no prisoner be worked on the treadwheel before breakfast, and that a corresponding period of hard labour in the cell be substituted…’ By June 1872, he recommended that the class 1 prisoners working on the treadwheel ‘be allowed one pint of gruel for breakfast and supper daily, in addition to the ordinary diet of that class’.
Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that:
‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.
Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that: ‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.
Working the treadwheel could be extremely dangerous for those new to the task, or those who were simply exhausted. At Stafford, ‘one man fell off the wheel from sheer exhaustion. The cry “a man down” was soon raised, and the mill at once stopped, but not until he had been terribly crushed by it…one of his legs was broken’.
By 1880, a standardised six hour treadwheel task was introduced which prisoners worked in two equal shifts. Prisoners were allowed five minutes’ rest between each fifteen minute session on the wheel and the speed of the wheel was regulated to allow an ascent of thirty-two feet a minute. However, the high cost of replacing treadwheels with standardised versions meant that many prisons used the crank, capstan and stone-breaking instead. By 1890, there were still cranks connected to pumps, mills operated by prisoners in separate compartments, water-pumping capstans and unproductive fixed-resistance cranks in cells. The treadwheel was finally abolished in 1895.
If you ever get the opportunity, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. It still has an original treadwheel, which is believed to be the last one in Britain. Unusually, it was productive and was designed so that water could be pumped to the roof tanks, and from there to the cells.
William Anderson appears to be have been undeterred by the years of hard labour he undertook as part of his numerous prison sentences, including five separate periods of penal servitude in convict prisons. His criminal career spanned over fifty years and he used multiple aliases including Thomas Johnson, James McGuinness, William Pearson, William Edwards, William Robson and William Evans. His offences ranged from stealing clothing and umbrellas through to attempted theft and receiving stolen property. Old hands like William clearly got used to the work and the routine in prisons, and appreciated the guarantee of three meals a day.
I really enjoyed the first episode of the BBC’s new series of A House Through Time, presented by historian David Olusoga. Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle is a beautiful Georgian house and the researchers and producers have done an amazing job in uncovering the stories of the people who lived there. I was particularly interested in the surgeon/doctor Nicholas Hardcastle, who was also the medical officer at Newcastle Union Workhouse. His competence was called into question several times; the first complaint about the non-treatment of children with ‘the itch’ (scabies) was made not long after his appointment in 1854. A more serious charge was made against him in 1887 when his treatment of scarlet fever patients was criticised; this led to Nicholas’s resignation as the workhouse medical officer but did not adversely affect his career in private practice or his other role as gaol surgeon.
Applicants for the post of workhouse medical officer and district medical officer needed a diploma or degree as a surgeon from a Royal College or University in England, Scotland or Ireland. In addition, they needed a degree in medicine or a diploma or licence of the Royal Physicians of London or a certificate to practice as an apothecary from the Society of Apothecaries of London. They could also apply if they had been in practice as an apothecary on 1 August 1815 or if they had a warrant or commission as surgeon or assistant-surgeon in Her Majesty’s Navy, Her Majesty’s Army or the Honourable East India Company prior to 1 August 1826.
The main duty of the workhouse medical officer was to medically examine the paupers as they were admitted to the receiving ward. If any paupers were found to be ill, he had to direct the master to send them to the sick ward; the medical officer would then oversee their treatment. He also had to decide if those of unsound mind were fit to stay in the workhouse, or whether they were too dangerous to themselves and others, and therefore should be sent to a lunatic asylum. In addition to these duties, workhouse medical officers had to issue medical certificates for every sick pauper, record the death of anyone who died in the institution and keep meticulous records regarding the dietary of sick paupers
The district medical officer also had very specific duties. He was to ‘attend duly and punctually upon all poor persons requiring medical attendance within the District of the Union assigned to him, and according to his agreement to supply the requisite medicines to such persons…’ It was important that he only attended paupers ‘with a written or printed order of the Guardians, or of a Relieving Officer of the Union, or of an Overseer.’ Like the workhouse medical officer, he also had to keep meticulous records for the guardians of the medical relief he had provided and make sure he informed the relieving officer of ‘any poor person whom he may attend without an order’.
nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the guardians of poor law unions
relied on the workhouse medical officers to supply drugs for the inmates from
their own salaries. This was an extremely contentious issue and medical officers often recommended extras like food
and beer to provide nourishment for the sick paupers under their care. As these
extras were part of the workhouse diet, they did not have to be funded from the
medical officers’ own pockets.
The main problem faced by medical officers for poor law unions was that they undertook their roles alongside their private practice and other posts in public service. Yet their duties were seemingly never-ending, leading to many cases of alleged neglect. For my books, I looked at the career of John McNab Ballenden who was born in Stromness, Orkney in 1813. The Medical Register records that he became a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in 1847. He obtained his MD from the University of St Andrews in 1850 and became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in London in the same year.
It’s not known why John chose to settle in Staffordshire but he commenced general practice in Sedgley and raised a family there. The Medical Directory states that he had a number of additional appointments. He was a member of the Hunterian Society, a Poor Law Medical Officer, a Police Surgeon, a Certifying Factory Surgeon and a Medical Referee for the London & Liverpool Assurance Society. As a police surgeon, John was regularly called upon to offer his professional opinion about suspicious deaths and to carry out post-mortems, the results of which were reported in local newspapers.
John’s long association with the Dudley Poor Law Union began in November 1859 when he was appointed Medical Officer for the Upper Sedgley District (also known as No. 1 District). He had the difficult task of visiting paupers in their homes to administer medical relief across a wide, geographical area, at the same time as attending to patients from his own practice.
In April 1877, it was alleged that John had neglected his duties by ‘not having given proper Medical Attention to…Mary Edwards during her confinement’ and that she died as a result. The guardians suspended him while investigations were carried out. An inquest into Mary Edwards’ death confirmed she ‘died from exhaustion, consequent upon the weak state of the Heart, the laceration of the peritoneum and Vagina consequent on the cross-birth and protracted Labour’.
John McNab Ballenden wrote to the guardians explaining his actions:
‘I prescribed some opium Pills, and gave a Saline mixture with Tartrate of Antimony, and left the case in charge of a midwife, to whom I gave the necessary directions, and told her if any alteration took place, to send for me again. Having had a very extensive midwifery practice extending over many years and amounting to about 9000 Patients, the case presented no difficulty to me, it was one requiring time, and medicine to allay irritation and help natural relaxation… During my evening Surgery hours I had been told that another Doctor was attending Mrs Edwards…’
If he had returned to attend to Mary Edwards, John had intended to carry out a craniotomy procedure, something he termed ‘breaking up the child’. He explained: ‘I would not when it is necessary hesitate to sacrifice the child to save the Mother…Any man of experience with common sense would say in such a case, use every means to increase the natural dilation and diminish the bulk of the object to be passed through’.
The guardians were satisfied with his explanation for not attending Mary Edwards a second time and his suspension was removed. He continued as the district medical officer for the First Sedgley District until 1894 when he resigned due to ill-health and infirmity, dying the following year. In his obituary, the guardians of the Dudley Union Workhouse described him as the ‘oldest officer of the union who discharged his duties very satisfactorily’.
This will be my last post for a few weeks as I take a break over Easter. I will return to Victorian England in early May – see you then!
Like most things in Victorian society, the type of education children received depended very much upon the social class they belonged to. While sons of the wealthy were educated at public schools, their daughters were taught at home for a limited period by a governess. For parents who could afford it, there were ‘dame’ schools usually run by a mistress in her own home who took in a number of children. This service was similar to child-minding and children attending often learned very little, in many cases being left to their own devices.
Working-class children probably learned more at Sunday
schools which were first introduced in the 1780s. For children who worked
during the week, these schools provided the only education they received in
literacy, numeracy and instruction in the Bible.
There were also ‘ragged’ schools providing free education
specifically for the poorest children and orphans. First introduced in 1818,
these developed quickly after the Ragged School Union was formed in 1844. From 1833,
children working in factories were to be provided with two hours of schooling
each day, although this was not always adhered to. This was extended to three
hours a day from 1844.
Education was also provided in industrial schools for vulnerable children, who were at risk of becoming criminal offenders, especially after 1857. In addition, child inmates in workhouses were given schooling to help them escape from the cycle of poverty.
Before the landmark Elementary Education Act of 1870, most schools for ordinary children were provided by religious organisations. The largest was the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor set up by the Anglican Church in 1811. It founded National Schools to teach poor children reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. By 1860, it owned around 90 per cent of all public elementary schools in Britain, catering for about three-quarters of pupils.
Another organisation – the British and Foreign Schools Society – was founded in 1814 and established British Schools on behalf of the Non-conformist churches. There were also other denominations running schools such as the Catholic Poor School Committee and the Wesleyan Methodist Education Committee. All these schools were established through public subscriptions, not through rates. They usually charged a few pence per week per child.
From 1833, the government started providing supplementary grants for schools; it was a condition of receiving a grant that annual inspections were undertaken. The standard of education varied enormously across the country, partly because the National and British Schools used variations of the monitorial system. Under this method, there was just one teacher in charge with ‘monitors’ drawn from the older pupils, who taught groups of between eight and twenty younger ones. This meant that very few children were taught by a qualified teacher. Huge numbers were not being educated at all because there was an insufficient number of places, especially in the cities. In Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, less than a fifth of children were receiving an adequate education. It was impossible for the religious organisations to open sufficient schools because of the ever increasing population.
In 1870, the Elementary Education Act was passed to address the issue. Under the new legislation, school places were to be provided for all children aged between five and 12 in a school run by a qualified headteacher. To achieve this, the voluntary religious organisations were given six months to increase their provision. After that time, in districts where they were unable or unwilling to fill the gaps, ‘School Boards’ made up of elected members were set up. They had the power to build and control board schools in their district which were to be non-sectarian and paid for by rates.
Education provided in these schools was not free and the fees varied between one and four pence a week. However, school boards could waive fees for parents who were genuinely too poor to pay. For many parents, sending their child to school meant the loss of an income for the family, so attendance continued to be sporadic especially at certain times of the year such as harvest or the hop-picking season.
In the new board schools, the use of pupil-teachers was the preferred teaching method. Under this system, older boys and girls over the age of 13 were apprenticed as pupil-teachers to assist in class and after five years, they could become teachers themselves following further training.
What was it like for a child to attend a board school? The day usually ran from 9am to 12 noon, followed by a break for two hours when most children went home for a meal. The afternoon session started at 2pm and finished between 4 and 5pm, depending on the season. In addition to reading, writing, arithmetic and some religious instruction, other activities might include singing, physical training in the form of drill exercises or the ‘object lesson’, which was especially useful for teaching science. Classes were large and more than 100 children could be taught in one room.
Paper and ink were expensive so most work was done on slates. Daisy Cowper attended school in Liverpool in the 1890s. She recalled: “One horrid thing about those days was the use of slates…it was disgusting to see them being cleaned by spitting and rubbing with a slate-rag; if no slate-rag was to hand, the bare wrist would serve!” *
Between 1862 and 1897, children were subjected to the ‘payment by results’ system. This was brought in to raise standards and schools could lose part of their grants if insufficient children attained the expected grades in the three Rs. They also needed to show a satisfactory level of attendance. Schools were tested annually by a government inspector, which was stressful for both teachers and pupils.
Originally introduced under the Revised Code of Regulations
in 1862 and revised again in 1872, there were six Standards of Education
relating to reading, writing and arithmetic through which children were meant
to progress. For example, in Standard III, pupils were expected to read a short
paragraph from a more advanced reading book, write a sentence slowly dictated
once by a few words at a time from the same book, and to carry out long
division and compound rules relating to money.
Children could not, for instance, be promoted to Standard IV if they failed to pass the criteria for Standard III. Many children left school without having attained Standard VI, which is unsurprising given the problems associated with sporadic attendance. The Standards roughly corresponded to ages between seven and 12.
Charles Cooper attended Walton School in the West Riding of
Yorkshire in the 1870s and 1880s:
“It was a cruel system…Children were not regarded as mentally deficient. The idea was that every child could do the work if he tried hard enough. And he was made to try by threat of punishment. For reading, the same books were used year after year until they were ready to fall to pieces…For writing, Copy Books were used and the correct holding of the pen was insisted upon…Blots and finger marks were punishable by cane…In arithmetic the addition and subtraction of simple figures came first and more difficult examples were gradually introduced…this type of work included boys and girls, but in the afternoons when the girls were sewing, the boys would work from cards.” *
‘Payment by results’ placed undue emphasis on the three Rs at the expense of everything else. It was watered down slightly from 1871 when grants could be awarded for passes in ‘specific’ subjects in higher Standards including history, geography and geometry. From 1875, these grants were extended to passes in ‘class’ subjects across the Standards such as history, geography, grammar and needlework for girls.
Charles Cooper’s school “consisted of one large room, with no partition or classrooms, in which upwards of a hundred boys and girls were taught in Standards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 by the Head Master and two Pupil Teachers, in mixed classes…Opposite the school, across the road, was a laundry used for training poor and needy girls…A part of the laundry was used by the Infants. Here the Infants and Standard 1 were taught by a Mistress, assisted by a girl from the Orphanage.”
Discipline was harsh in Victorian schools and the cane was regularly used to punish even slight misdemeanours. Daisy Cowper remembered a headmistress who “would bring her beastly cane on the palms, one on each hand, with such a full-arm action and sickening thwack that I was terrified that the hand would drop off at the wrist, and lie there, cut off, on the floor! I could easily have been sick!” *
The Elementary Education Act was particularly successful in London where between 1870 and 1902, over 400 new board schools were opened. However, nationally, by the end of the nineteenth century, more children still attended denominational schools than board schools. In 1895, there were 2.4 million at voluntary schools and 1.9 million at board schools.
Education was still not compulsory so sporadic attendance remained an issue. Nor was it free, so it was difficult for poor families to send their children to school. It was not until 1880 that education was made compulsory for children up to the age of 10; the school leaving age was raised to 11 in 1893 and to 12 in 1899. The ‘school penny’ was finally abolished in 1891, making education free for all who attended public elementary schools.
*Extracts from the memoirs of Daisy Cowper and Charles Cooper can be found in John Burnett’s Destiny Obscure (see the Books & Resources page).
Victorian England was a dangerous place to live, especially in the bustling towns and cities. There was a potential accident around every corner, for instance, being run over by a cart or falling from a horse, or being burned or scalded at home when clothing caught fire or a pot of boiling water was knocked over.
In the 1840s, with the increasing amount of building work going on in urban areas, the number of accidents rose. Railways, docks and collieries were also extremely hazardous. In the mills and factories, workers could easily lose a limb or be killed if they became caught up in unfenced machinery. Injuries were also prevalent in manual occupations. A labourer could sustain a crushed hand or finger after carrying (and dropping) a heavy load; the same risk applied to a waggoner unloading goods from a cart.
Anyone injured in a serious accident would be taken to the nearest general hospital for surgical treatment, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing before the 1880s. That’s because a 35% post-operative death rate was usual at this time. For an operation such as amputation at the thigh, this death rate was as high as 65%. ‘Hospital diseases’ such as hospital gangrene, erysipelas (also known as St Anthony’s Fire) and pyaemia were deadly killers.
In 1861, 42% of deaths after amputations at Guy’s Hospital in London were a direct result of pyaemia. The name of the disease literally means ‘pus in the blood’, it being a form of blood poisoning caused by the spread of pus-forming bacteria in the bloodstream. The infection could spread rapidly in a hospital ward as miasmatic material could infect one patient while their emanations could infect other patients in the ward. The disease had a very distinct ‘sweet’ smell.
Erysipelas, an infection that caused red patches on the skin, and hospital gangrene were an ever present threat to patients in the 1860s and 1870s. Nathaniel Paine Blaker, a surgeon at the Sussex County Hospital recalled that in the autumn of 1864,
“these diseases raged to such an extent that fourteen or fifteen patients, and also the head nurse, died in the male accident-ward in one week. The disease usually came on suddenly [in] …a patient with a wound…apparently going on well [who] was reported to have a rigor. This was followed by fever (there were no clinical thermo-meters in those days), restlessness, loss of appetite and perhaps vomiting. In a short time the parts round the wound became red, hot and swelled, and in a few hours gangrene commenced in a small spot and spread rapidly…”
A seemingly insignificant event could result in death from pyaemia. On a Saturday night in March 1864, George Milton, a fifty-two-year old domestic servant from Glasgow, ‘had his thumb seized by a drunken man who bent it back till it forced the lower end of the second phalanx through the skin & caused compound dislocation of it’. George was admitted to Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary and the House Surgeon ‘took off [the] lower end of bone of phalanx & replaced it’. By 14 March, erysipelas of the forearm had set in and two weeks later, the unit joint was affected with George’s general health suffering. The whole of his left forearm was put up in a poultice. On 30 March, it was decided to amputate the limb below the elbow joint under the influence of chloroform. Although George ‘appeared to rally a little after the operation [he] took rigor several times during the day and sank, complaining of stiffness & pain of his joints, his breath [had] a faint odour resembling that in pyaemia’. George died on 4 April, just over a month after his thumb had been injured.
Given the high death rates after operations (which through word of mouth and newspapers patients would have been aware of), it’s no wonder that hospital registers record a significant number of patients refusing treatment and leaving voluntarily. Frederick Treves, a surgeon at The London recalled the surgical wards in the 1870s:
“The poor had a terror of it, which was not unjustified, and many an hour I spent merely trying to persuade patients to come in for treatment. Operation results were not encouraging and the general public knew it. I remember the whole of Talbot [ward] being decimated by hospital gangrene. Every man died with the exception of two who fled the building. There was only one sponge in the ward and with that deadly instrument the nurse… washed every wound in the evening using, not only the same sponge, but the same basin and the same water!…Maggots in a wound were regarded as part of the normal fauna of a hospital ward and called for no particular comment.”
Hospitals tried a wide variety of methods to address the
increasing mortality rates. They included white-washing walls, removing privies
from wards, separating medical and surgical patients, building new wards to
allow more cubic space per patient, instigating new ventilation systems, and trying
to prevent contaminated air entering the wards. Beds and wards were also disinfected
with chemicals such as carbolic acid.
Wounds had been treated with wine and vinegar acting as antiseptics for centuries and various post-operative and post-accident dressings were used to assist the healing process, including nitric acid, arsenic and tincture of iodine. Unfortunately, no-one yet understood the link between germs and infections, or that the surgical staff themselves could be the source. Surgeons and their assistants operated in blood-spattered street clothes with unsterile wooden-handled instruments, without changing between patients or using face masks or gloves.
Joseph Lister put forward his theory of antisepsis while working as a surgeon at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He concurred with Louis Pasteur’s argument that germs were airborne, carried on dust particles, and that they could be removed from the air by filtration, heat or other means. After hearing of the effectiveness of carbolic acid in disinfecting sewage in Carlisle, Lister decided to use the chemical as a filter between the air and open wounds.
On 12 August 1865, Lister undertook his first trial of
carbolic acid on eleven-year-old James Greenlees, whose left leg had been run
over by a cart. Lister dressed a compound fracture of the tibia with lint
soaked in linseed oil and carbolic acid, and kept the dressing in place for
four days. The wound healed perfectly and James walked out of the hospital six
In 1867, Lister wrote about his antiseptic methods and the germ theory in the Lancet but most surgeons saw antisepsis simply as a new type of wound dressing which involved carbolic acid, and they only adopted parts of it. Other surgeons, such as George Callender at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, developed their own effective means of combating sepsis which were less time-consuming and cumbersome. Many still believed that infections occurred spontaneously in wounds, not through bacteria.
By 1871, Lister had introduced the carbolic acid spray and
gauze elements to his method. However, it was not widely used until the late
1870s and it did not kill air-borne micro-organisms. Although Lister
religiously used his antisepsis techniques, he did not scrub his hands, simply
rinsing them in carbolic solution, and he operated in his street clothes.
Lister’s antiseptic theories were more widely accepted after 1877 when he became Professor of Clinical Surgery at King’s College, London. He continued to adapt his methods, abandoning the cumbersome spray in 1887, and by the 1890s, cleanliness and the germ theory became part and parcel of the practice of asepsis to exclude germs from wards and operating theatres.
The bacteria which caused surgical infections were identified by the 1880s and it was now known that they could be destroyed with antiseptics like carbolic. Hospitals strove for absolute cleanliness to prevent infections and crucially, this included medical and surgical instruments. As early as 1874, Louis Pasteur had suggested placing medical instruments in boiling water and passing them through a flame to sterilise them. In 1881, Robert Koch advocated the heat sterilisation of instruments but this method was not widely used until the 1890s.
Hugh Lett, a medical student at The London in 1896
described the procedures undertaken before surgery:
“Instruments and ligatures were boiled and placed in a tray of carbolic lotion, and before long on a sterile towel, and handed to the surgeon…Rubber gloves were still unknown, the preparation of the surgeon’s hands [were] therefore formidable; prolonged scrubbing with soap and Lysol, followed by soaking in carbolic lotion, and finally immersion for some minutes in a solution of biniodide of mercury in spirit. Further, during the operation the surgeon frequently dipped his hands into a solution of carbolic.”
By the 1890s, hospitals were no longer feared by the public. The new antiseptic and aseptic techniques, and a better understanding of how deadly hospital diseases were transmitted, led to a significant reduction in post-operative death rates.
Buying food today is a straightforward process. Products are made under strict hygiene standards, the ingredients are usually clearly labelled and the origin of the product is named. In Victorian England, it was far more hazardous. The problem was that nothing was as it seemed because almost every kind of food was adulterated in some way.
From bread, pickled fruits and vegetables through to sweets, cakes, cheese and butter – they were all adulterated. This meant that foods were being bulked up with other additives to increase the shopkeepers’ profit margins. Every time the Victorians went shopping, they were being sold adulterated food. Even worse, this could pose serious risks to their health.
Potatoes, ground bones, plaster of Paris, lime and pipe-clay were often added to bread, as was sulphate of copper and alum. Alum was used in the dyeing and tanning industry, and it increased the weight of bread and added whiteness. Although it wasn’t poisonous in itself, it caused severe indigestion and constipation.
Even more deadly were the poisons that were routinely added to sweets and other confectionery to make them more colourful and attractive. Chromate of lead created a deep yellow but caused lead poisoning; the more times it was ingested, the more serious the results. Red sulphuret of mercury (vermilion) produced a bright orange-red hue but was known to be a dangerous poison, while green sweets were usually coloured with verdigris (copper acetate) which was a highly poisonous salt.
In 1858, the use of poisons as additives in sweets became headline news. In Bradford, twenty people died and more than 200 others became ill after eating sweets that had been accidentally laced with arsenic during the making process, instead of harmless ‘daft’ (usually plaster of Paris).
A year later, another less well-known poisoning scandal hit the headlines. I wrote briefly about the case of the poisonous Bath buns a few years ago for the British Newspaper Archive blog. But the story is worth re-telling in greater detail. In December 1859, six boys from a boarding school in Clifton, near Bristol bought some Bath buns from the shop of a confectioner named Farr. Within half an hour of eating them, they fell violently ill ‘with a horrible sickness and other symptoms of irritant poison’. The quick thinking of a doctor in using emetics to empty their stomachs meant that five of the boys soon recovered.
But for one of the boys, the poisoning almost proved fatal. He had been greedier than the others and had eaten three of the buns. He remained ‘writhing in agony for a number of hours and fell into a state of collapse’. Luckily, he eventually recovered. The schoolboys were not the only people affected by this batch of Bath buns. A publican called May also bought some for himself and his brother, and they ‘likewise suffered horrid tortures’ for nine hours. When he got better, May complained to the magistrates but as he had not been poisoned outright, there was no case to answer. Had he died, a manslaughter case might have been brought.
Preliminary investigations revealed that Farr regularly coloured the buns with chromate of lead without being aware of its dangers, and at first it was supposed that this time he had carelessly used too much. However, when the buns were analysed by Doctor Frederick Griffin of the Bristol School of Chemistry, it was discovered that the colouring matter was, in fact, yellow sulphide of arsenic in the proportion of six grains to each bun. It turned out that in this instance, the druggist had mistakenly supplied Farr with sulphide of arsenic, a much more deadly poison than the slower-acting chromate of lead. No action was taken against the confectioner or the druggist because the poisoning was accidental.
Doctor Griffin wrote to The Times, arguing that ‘many of the obscure chronic and dyspeptic complaints now so prevalent are due to the systematic adulteration of articles of food with unwholesome or slowly poisonous materials’. This was probably also the reason for the large numbers of adverts in Victorian newspapers offering indigestion remedies.
In 1868, the Pharmacy Act was passed, after which only qualified pharmacists and druggists could sell poisons and dangerous drugs. Unfortunately, until 1875, there still remained very little control over the food and drink sold to the public. Although the first Act for Preventing the Adulteration of Articles of Food or Drink was passed in 1860, it had very little effect. In 1872, an amended Adulteration of Food, Drink and Drugs Act came into force, which included the mandatory appointment of public analysts. A second select committee was set up and its findings formed the basis of the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875).
Under this legislation, inspectors had the power to sample
food and drugs, and to test them for adulteration. There was a further
amendment to the Act in 1879, followed by the Margarine Act (1887) and finally,
the Food Adulteration Act (1899). From the late 1880s and early 1890s, there
were an increasing number of prosecutions for food adulteration, as reported in
the local and national newspapers. This was the beginning of the trading
standards legislation we take for granted today.
For the Victorian middle classes living in towns and cities, the preferred method of transport to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short). Inside, there was usually room for five people on each side, and there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. But this quickly got wet and dirty, and it also harboured fleas. Although the seats were covered in blue velvet, they were definitely not luxurious. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened.
Inside the omnibus, passengers were tightly wedged in and there was a painful jolt every time the vehicle stopped. Sitting so close together made omnibuses a magnet for pickpockets and there was also a very serious risk of catching an infectious disease.
‘Any Gentleman Oblige a Lady?’ from Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)
For these reasons, men preferred to sit on the knifeboard of the omnibus, located on the roof. There were small ledges on which to step to reach the ‘knifeboard’, a raised partition along the middle with seats on each side. It was rare for women to venture up there as it was so difficult to get on and off wearing a cumbersome skirt or crinoline.
If you’re interested in Victorian social history, the memoirs of Molly Hughes (M V Hughes) are well worth seeking out (see Books and Resources). In A London Child of the 1870s (1934), she describes a secret adventure with her brothers in which she went on the mysterious roof of an omnibus for the first time:
‘If I had been asked to a royal ball I couldn’t have been more excited… Dym went up first, then hung down and pointed out the tiny ledges on which I had to put my feet, stretching out his hands to pull me up, while Barnholt fetched up the rear in case I slipped. On the top was what they called the knifeboard…How people stuck on to them I couldn’t imagine. But the boys had other designs: they scrambled down on to the seat in front, by the driver, and got me there too… I was safely tucked in between him and Dym, with Barnholt on his other side.
How powerful the horse looked from this point of view, how jolly to hear the chucklings and whoas, and to see the whip flourished about, but only gently touching the horse. “I never whips old Rosy,” the driver told me. “She’s been with me six years and knows what I want. I use the whip like chatting to her.” …Barnholt, as look-out man, kept calling my attention to things in the shops, and to people doing mysterious jobs in first-floor windows. One room was a nursery, where a boy was riding on a rocking-horse, and in one garden we passed there was a swing with a boy going very high.
We feared to go the whole length of our twopenny ride in case we should be late for tea, so we asked the driver to pull up for us. In my haste to show him how well I could get off by jumping down to Dym in front, I fell right into the muddy street. But no harm was done, and the boys picked me up, and we ran home as fast as we could and slipped in at the back door.’
‘Omnibus Driver’ from Living London (1901)
The knifeboard design was replaced by the ‘garden seat’ omnibus in the 1880s, which had a curved staircase at the rear leading to the top deck. This made it easier for both sexes to access the roof as there was a central gangway, with benches facing the way the passengers were going. There were also ‘decency’ or ‘modesty’ boards on the top deck to give some protection from the weather and to prevent people passing from seeing the ladies’ ankles!
‘London Bridge Station Yard’ from Living London (1901)