Primary History

Victorian Britain: Rich and poor families

  • Why such big families?

    Many women had lots of babies. Birth control was not widespread, and few couples used any means of contraception. Child-bearing could be dangerous, and many women died in childbirth. Many babies also died, from childhood diseases. Queen Victoria had nine children. Her children were called Edward, Alfred, Arthur, Leopold, Victoria, Alice, Helena, Louise and Beatrice. The royal family became a model for other families.

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  • Slum children

    Many poor children lived in tiny country cottages or in city slums. There was no money for toys, nowhere to play except alleys and yards. Many children had to work, while others were too sick and hungry to play. Yet most poor children still managed to make some fun. They played with whatever they could find, perhaps dancing to the music of a hurdy-gurdy man, paddling in a stream, or climbing trees and lamp-posts.

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  • Nanny in the nursery

    Rich families had large houses, with a special room for children called the nursery. This was often at the top of the house. In the nursery younger children ate, played and slept. They were looked after by a woman called a nanny. She took them for walks in the park or to the zoo. Some rich children saw their parents only in the morning and evening, and were looked after mostly by their nanny and by other servants. Most Victorians thought children should be 'seen and not heard'.

    The person who looked after the children was called a nanny

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  • Fun at home

    Victorians made their own entertainment at home. They had no radio or TV. They enjoyed singing, and a rich family would sing around the piano, while poorer families enjoyed tunes on a pipe or a fiddle. Families played card games and board games, and acted out charades. At birthday parties, a special treat was a magic lantern show. An oil or gas lamp sent a beam of light through a glass lens and onto a screen, to show enlarged images, perhaps of wild animals or a story told in pictures.

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Fun Facts
  • Rich children enjoyed rides in small carts pulled by goats or ponies.

  • Boys were told that if they put on their shirt inside out, they had to keep it that way all day - it was bad luck to change!

  • Many people thought being poor was part of life: they said things like 'the poor are always with us'

  • Some poor orphans lived in a 'prentice house' for apprentices (trainee workers). They worked shifts - one set of children worked while the other set were asleep in bed.

  • Children were scared of getting sick, and scared too of some of the 'cures'. For whooping cough, one cure was to swallow a spider in butter!

  • Victorian children were usually dressed like miniature adults. Boy babies often wore skirts - later a boy might wear a sailor suit.

  • Children would run to meet the hokey-pokey man. He sold ice cream from a small hand cart or barrow

  • Some poor children wore second-hand boots or shoes, nicknamed 'translators'.

  • One Victorian slang word for 'children' was 'chavy'.

  • For parties, lots of little Victorian girls wore red cloaks - perhaps because Little Red Riding Hood was a favourite nursery story.

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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.