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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Women and Urban Life in Victorian Britain

By Lynda Nead
The city

'Punch' cartoon, depicting Victorian woman out in the streets of London
'Punch' cartoon, 1894: Victorian woman out in the streets of London  
Modern urban life presented the Victorian middle classes with many complex social and moral problems. The public sphere of the city was regarded as dangerous and corrupting.It was the location of crime and poverty and anyone could succumb to diseases generated in the slums and carried on the air by an invisible smell, or 'miasma'.

Women played a particular role in this image of city life. Respectable women, it was claimed, could not be part of the public sphere of city life. If women left the safety of the home and were on the streets, it was claimed, they became corrupted by the transgressive values of the city. They would be thought to be either prostitutes or vulnerable working women - with both groups the victims of a hostile and threatening environment.

'... as soon as she paused she could become a victim of this hostile urban world.'

Victorian artists often turned to the image of the endangered working woman for modern life subjects. Charles Hunt's painting, A Coffee Stall, Westminster (c.1860, Museum of London) shows a number of urban types who have stopped at a refreshment stall in the centre of the metropolis.

Attention is focused on the two figures on the right. One is a young milliner's apprentice with her hat-box, and the other is an ominous, top-hatted 'swell', the seducer, who will inevitably turn the woman into another of his sexual victims. The woman would have been thought to be vulnerable, because her work took her through the city streets alone to deliver goods to clients and, as soon as she paused, she could become a victim of this hostile urban world.

'A Coffee Stall, Westminster', by Charles Hunt
'A Coffee Stall, Westminster', by Charles Hunt ©

Published: 2004-11-04

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