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20 February 2015
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These television programmes are designed to support the KS2 History curriculum. Three History documentaries adopt an evidence-based approach, using primary and secondary sources.
About the Programme
Programme 3 - Victorian Times
Monday, 6th October

ARCHIVE - SELB programme code :TP 0396

This episode is now part of our archive. This programme is still available to schools to borrow or purchase from the Audio Visual Recording service at the SELB. Please quote the SELB programme code in your correspondence. See our ordering page for more information.

This programme presents documentary evidence to help us to build up a picture of life in Victorian Times.

The reign of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, was the longest of any British monarch before or since. She was on the throne from 1837 to 1901 and gave her name to a whole era, the Victorian age.

The Victorian age was one of great change throughout the British Isles and the far-flung British Empire. The period saw the invention of photography, the spread of a great network of railways and the growth of large densely-populated industrial cities like Belfast, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester.

The Queen was on the throne at a time of great change in rural Ireland, with the Irish potato famine of 1845-49 occurring in the first decade of her reign. The famine was caused by the onset of Phytophthora Infestans or potato blight during the late summer of 1845. It was to destroy the crop that provided the staple diet of the Irish peasantry. During the next four years, an estimated one million people died in all parts of the country, but mainly in the poorer areas of the south and west. A further one million people are believed to have left the country, most emigrating to Britain and North America. The next fifty years were to see further waves of emigration, so that by the end of Victoria's reign the population of Ireland had been reduced by half. This was from a pre-famine peak of over 8 million to just over 4 million at the turn of the twentieth century.

About the programme

Reminders of Victoria can be seen all around us. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast is named after her and her statue can be seen at the entrance. Another statue can be seen standing in front of Belfast City Hall. The Albert Clock that stands in Victoria Street was built as a memorial to her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The Grand Opera House stands in Great Victoria Street.

The programme shows a range of photographs that depict aspects of life in Victorian times. Photography was invented in the 1830's, just before Victoria's accession to the throne, so contemporary photographs are an important resource for anyone studying the period. They provide us with a form of evidence of what things looked like at the time. In showing people's appearance, they give us important clues about their lifestyle and class. They tell us whether they were rich or poor and whether they lived and worked in the country or the city.

The majority of both country and city dwellers depended on hard manual labour for their livelihood. Many were employed working on the land, performing tasks that were just beginning to be mechanised. Horses were still important as a means of transport and were used to plough and draw farm vehicles. Rural communities were much more self sufficient than they are now and grew much of their own produce. Many women churned butter for the use of their own families. Farms also supplied the needs of the growing urban population if they were within reasonable reach of a town or city.

While there was growing prosperity in many country areas at this time, there were also continuing problems of rural poverty. These were especially prevalent in parts of the west, where poor land made farming a marginal activity. Many people from these areas were forced to emigrate to places like England, Scotland and America in order to earn a living. For some this was permanent and for others it involved seasonal migration. Much of the housing in rural areas was of a poor standard. In the worst cases, families shared their accommodation with livestock like cattle and pigs. Conditions like these were obviously unhygienic and contributed to the spread of disease.

Poor housing for the poor contrasted with the houses lived in by the rich who owned much of the land. The aristocracy dominated much of the economic life of the Irish countryside. Living in the 'Big House', the landlord and his family made much of their living from renting out land on their estates. These estates were managed by Land Agents who had the responsibility of collecting rent from tenants. In the event of non-payment, many tenants were evicted from their homes. In many cases it was necessary to use physical force to do this. Families often refused to leave their homes voluntarily and so would barricade themselves in. The authorities then had to break in using weapons such as battering rams. Contemporary photographs show some of these incidents that caused great resentment among the poor.

The Victorian era saw the growth of large-scale industries in cities throughout the British Isles. In Ireland, Belfast grew rapidly and was transformed from a relatively unimportant market town into a large industrial centre. The prospect of job opportunities in the city drew many people in from poor country areas to live in the parts of Belfast that were rapidly expanding due to the new industries. The two most important industries that grew up at this time were linen and shipbuilding.

Large linen mills were built all over the city and were particularly important in the development of north and west Belfast. Many of these mills drew water from the River Farset that runs down from the hills behind Belfast. The machinery in the mills operated on steam power. The mills provided work for thousands of women who worked as doffers, spinners and weavers as well as in other specialised trades. Working conditions in the mills were poor, and women often had to work in the cold and damp.

Many mill owners built rows of 'Kitchen houses' to provide accommodation for their workers. If you look at a map of Belfast, you will find that many of the street patterns in areas like the Shankill and the Falls were established at this time. Street names like Albert, Flax, Riga and Snugville all date from this time. There were few amenities in these houses which were sometimes shared by two families.

Some of the following forms of evidence presented in the programmes give us a picture of Life in Victorian Times.
  • Photographs-People and places.
  • Drawings and Paintings- People.
  • Buildings-Domestic and industrial.
  • Statues and Memorials- Famous people.
  • Written records-Land Agent's notebook.
  • Maps-Places and Street patterns.
Before the Programme

  • Discuss the meaning of the following keywords:
    Reign, Empire, Colony, Photography, Harvest, Famine, Poverty, Flax, Landlord, Tenant, Land Agent, Factory, Machinery, Housing, Pharmacy
  • Explain who Queen Victoria was and point out the Victorian era on a timeline for the class. Ask if they can trace their own family back in time to see if any of their relatives were alive in Victorian times.
  • Discuss what life would have been like for children living in the Irish countryside just before the Great Irish Potato Famine. Ask if they would have liked to have lived in a world without modern conveniences such as electricity, television or proper sanitation.
  • Give a rough outline of how Belfast grew so dramatically during the nineteenth century into a great industrial city. Tell the children something of what jobs people did and where they lived.

After the Programme

  • Discuss with the children some of the ways that life has changed over the last 150 years.
  • Ask the children to make a survey of any buildings in their area that date from the Victorian era. Ask are they still used and if so, are they used for the same purpose for which they were built.
  • Ask the children to find out if there are any linen mills, either still working or abandoned, in their local area.
  • Discuss why linen is much less important as a fabric now than it was 100 years ago. Ask how this has affected the working lives of men and women in Northern Ireland.
  • General health care has improved greatly over the past century. Ask the children to investigate how this has happened.

Further Resources

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, County Down contains many buildings and artefacts from this period. Details available from:
The Education Officer, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Co. Down,
BT18 OEU. Tel: 028 9042 8428

The Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh, County Tyrone also contains many houses and artefacts from this period. Details available from:
The Education Officer, Ulster American Folk Park, Camphill, Castletown, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Tel: 028 8224 3292

The Benburb Valley Heritage Centre, based at Mill Farm, Benburb, is a former weaving factory with a superb collection of machinery.
Tel: 028 3754 9885

The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, Market Square, Lisburn has many exhibits relating to the linen industry.
Tel: 028 9266 3377

History Programmes
Programme 1:
Early Times:
Programme 2:
Viking Times
Programme 3:
Victorian Times
Can't find your subject? Visit our archive section where you can find programmes supporting other curricular subjects, including: Geography, History, Citizenship and English.

Visit the archive.

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