Primary History

Victorian Britain: An introduction

  • Who were the Victorians?

    The Victorian age in British history is named after Queen Victoria, who was Britain's queen from 1837 until 1901.

    What was life like for Victorian children? There were big differences in homes, schools, toys and entertainments. No TV, no computers, no central heating, no cars (until the last few years of Victoria's reign). No air travel - unless you went up in a balloon! Many children went to work, not to school. Welcome to the Victorian world. It's time to find out how children (your great-great-great-grandparents perhaps!) lived more than a hundred years ago.

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  • The British Empire

    Britain ruled the British Empire. Victoria was Empress of India as well as Queen of Britain, Canada (the biggest country in the Empire) and small countries such as Jamaica. Trade with the Empire helped make Britain rich. Some British children emigrated with their families to new homes in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. Children were taught about the Empire in school.

    In Victorian classrooms, children could easily find the countries of the Empire on a map because they were coloured pink or red.

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  • The Industrial Revolution

    The Industrial Revolution changed Britain from a land of small towns, villages and farms into a land of cities, large towns and factories. The population grew from 16 million in 1801 to over 41 million by 1901. Cities grew fast, as people moved from the countryside to work in factories.

    Men, women and children worked in factories, and in coal mines. Factory and mine owners became rich, but most factory and mine workers were poor. They were paid low wages, and lived in unhealthy, overcrowded slums.

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Fun Facts
  • Queen Victoria tried something new in 1847. She had her first bathe in the sea, while on holiday on the Isle of Wight with her husband Prince Albert and her children. She was 28!

  • Not all Victorian homes had indoor bathrooms and toilets. Many people used an outside toilet in the backyard or garden. They call it by various names, including 'privy', 'convenience' and 'the necessary house'.

  • Victorians counted their money in pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d). There were 20 shillings to one pound, and 12 pence in one shilling.

  • Victorians sent the first Christmas cards. The first card was sent in 1843.

  • Some Victorians blamed an increase in road accidents on tar. They said new asphalt (tar-covered) roads made carts too quiet.

  • The most famous animal of Victorian times was London Zoo's elephant Jumbo. In 1882, he was sold to an American circus despite thousands of letters from children to Queen Victoria begging her to keep Jumbo in England.

  • Rugby was one of the rougher games Victorians liked to play. Until 1877 rugby players were allowed to kick one another.

  • Some Victorian houses were built to look like mediaeval castles, with pinnacles and turrets.

  • Many Victorian ladies liked to have slender waists. Some wore corsets (laced underwear) laced so tightly that they fainted!

  • Gas cookers were an exciting new invention on show in the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

  • Many Victorian men had beards or moustaches. Some preferred side-whiskers called mutton-chops.

  • Almost every Victorian man wore a hat out of doors.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.