Women and Urban Life in Victorian Britain

By Lynda Nead
The idea of femininity in the Victorian era was encapsulated in the idea of the 'woman's mission', but this passive role could not be tolerated for long. Women soon began to seek a more independent life.
A seemingly typical Victorian wife 

Woman's mission

Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) was a period of intensive industrialisation, urbanisation, and social change. Whereas in previous centuries generations had stayed in the same communities and remained close to the parental home, in the 19th century there was considerable mobility within the population. Within the span of two generations, a family might move from the country to the city, then to the suburbs.

For the new members of industrialised middle classes, social identity was created around sets of values which marked them out as separate and different from the aristocracy above them and the working classes below them. Broadly speaking, middle-class identity was built on a platform of moral respectability and domesticity.

'... the moral health of the nation ... depended on the moral purity of its women.'

Women played a central role in all this, and the ideal of femininity was encapsulated in the idea of a 'woman's mission', which was that of playing a model mother, wife and daughter. Women were also seen as moral and spiritual guardians - as Samuel Smiles declared in Self-Help, 'The nation comes from the nursery.' In other words, the moral health of the nation and its empire depended on the moral purity of its women.

Domestic sphere

The pure woman was closely associated with the shelter of the private sphere, of the home. Her purity guaranteed the home as a haven and a source of social stability and, in turn, feminine purity itself was ensured through the protection of the domestic sanctuary.

Within this interlocking set of beliefs, the classification of deviant forms of female behaviour was as critical as the definition and promotion of female respectability. The image of the prostitute thus became a symbol of the danger and disorder of the city streets.

Domestic values were also partly defined in relation to a debate concerning the country and the city. Within popular accounts, the countryside was seen as the opposite of the disease-ridden and potentially revolutionary city. It was healthy, moral and peaceful, and its homes were imagined as happy, timeless and natural.

Ideas concerning the countryside, the home and the family came together in the construction of a rural ideal. According to middle-class values, the family was a 'natural' and stable unit which should ideally be located in a rural setting, or at least a suburban version of the rural.

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

Ordinary women

Image of Victorian women travelling independently
Victorian women travelling independently
Current views concerning Victorian femininity continue to be dominated by the 19th-century concept of domestic purity and the associated figure of the ideal woman, the 'angel in the house', carrying out her mission as wife, mother and daughter.

But we should not allow this particular conception of Victorian femininity to blind us to the existence of different, sometimes conflicting, versions of female respectability in this period. Are we really to believe that upstanding women of the Victorian middle classes did not travel alone in the city? That they did not walk to visit friends and relatives, or travel on the omnibus or underground railway?

'Respectability was not as clear-cut as Victorian domestic values would suggest.'

It is time to take the angel out of the house and place her back on the pavements of the city - not as a victim, but as a confident pedestrian. Evidence of the everyday presence of ordinary women on the city streets can be found in many historical sources from the period.

Women were evidently quick to exploit the new opportunities offered by technology and industrialisation. One lithograph from the 1860s (London Transport Museum) depicts King's Cross, one of the original stations of the underground railway. The focus is on the architecture and the engine, but the incidental details of the figures on the platform show women of respectable dress and appearance, on their own, travelling independently across the city. Indeed, female use of the underground was so extensive that the Illustrated London News welcomed the publication, in 1868, of a new railway map which 'appears to be exactly that for which the British matrons are urgent'.

Image of Kings Cross station, Metropolitan Railway, 1863
Kings Cross station, Metropolitan Railway, 1863

But respectability was not as clear-cut as Victorian domestic values would suggest. The urban crowd brought together strangers of all classes in greater numbers than ever before and offered unprecedented opportunities for social interaction. So we can begin to imagine women as far more active and independent participants in the social and economic world of Victorian cities. Certainly there were dangers in the city (as there still are) but there were also immense possibilities and sources of pleasure and excitement.

Letters to 'The Times'

Image of a Victorian woman in a model home
A Victorian woman in her model home
For further evidence of the presence of unaccompanied, respectable women on the streets of the cities, historians can begin to look at familiar sources in new ways, or can turn to different types of historical material. For example, the letters columns of the daily national newspapers are a rich source.

On January 7, 1862 The Times published an angry letter from 'Paterfamilias from the Provinces'. The correspondent explained that his daughter had been harassed by an unknown gentleman while she had been walking and shopping in the streets of London. It was an outrage, he fumed, that innocent young girls could not walk unaccompanied in the city without being bothered by the stares and comments of scoundrels masquerading as gentlemen.

'... girls go out in the city and are ... flirtatious and Paterfamilias had better come to terms with this. '

The publication of this letter stimulated excited responses in the columns of The Times and elsewhere. The first to reply to Paterfamilias was 'Puella', who declared that she walked alone in the city on many occasions and had never received any incivility. Perhaps the provincial girls had invited attention by their dress and manner.

Paterfamilias sprang to the defence of his daughter and her companion and the doubt cast by Puella on her behaviour. A few days later 'M', a female teacher, wrote to The Times supporting the fears of Paterfamilias about female safety on the city streets. 'M' walked between the residences of her pupils and was often bothered by 'middle-aged and older men'. She recommended any time before 10.30am as likely to be free from unwanted harassment.

A third correspondent offered another interpretation of the incident - girls go out in the city and are deliberately flirtatious and Paterfamilias had better come to terms with this. 'Common Sense' - the assumed name of the correspondent - claimed that fashionable girls '...take a good deal of notice of the young men in a quiet way when they walk out alone, and are not at all displeased of being taken notice of themselves.'

Rape of the glances

Image showing women's fashions of the 1850s
Fashions of the 1850s
This public debate did not stop at the pages of The Times, but spread to the middle-class periodical press. In February 1862, the Saturday Review carried its own response to the controversy, which it called the 'Rape of the Glances'.

The article begins by blaming the incident on the ubiquity of prostitution on the streets of London, and, particularly, in smart streets such as Regent Street. Paterfamilias from the Provinces, however, was apparently not aware of the street's reputation when he sent his daughter out shopping in the vicinity. 'Unacquainted with the moral geography of the West-End, they innocently trip down the tabooed side of Regent-street. The natural consequence follows...'.

'... more than one curious and furtive glance was sent after the bold adventurer...'

The article then speculates on whether the girls encouraged the stranger's gaze, whether '...more than one curious and furtive glance was sent after the bold adventurer'. But, after all, the article points out, the offence is only that of stealing a look. There was, it claims, no verbal or physical abuse.

The article upbraids Paterfamilias for his naivety. Perhaps he comes from a country: 'where nobody looks at anybody' and is shocked, therefore, at 'the ocular freedom of the London streets'. The modern city is evoked as a world of constant exchange of looks and meaningful glances and all pedestrians are caught up in this network of gazes. Perhaps, then, the stranger's glance at Paterfamilias's daughter was not illicit or stolen, but exchanged freely and knowingly.

The debate that took form in the correspondence to The Times and in the periodicals suggests that there were many different ways in which respectable women could inhabit the streets of the city, and that respectability itself embraced a wide range of attitudes to dress and behaviour. It clearly reveals the everyday presence of women of all classes amongst the city crowds, and it also offers a new and different picture of Victorian urban life. Rather than seduction and prostitution, it suggests flirtation, and misunderstanding, and interaction between strangers. Was Paterfamilias's daughter harassed by a strange man? Or did she respond to his advances? Or did she seek and initiate a flirtatious encounter?

These are all intriguing questions. But the very fact that we know they are relevant to the experience of ordinary Victorian women, means we also recognise that their role was considerably more than that of sheltered and domesticated guardians of the nation's morals.

Published on BBC History: 2004-11-04
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