Friday, 18 September 2015


As the current series of Ripper Street draws to a close on BBC1, I decided to devote this blog post to policing in late Victorian London. I've been impressed by the character of P.C. Bobby Grace in Series 3 and will look forward to his development in the next series. But how were police constables recruited and what were their day-to-day duties?

In 1901, a journalist for Living London observed the Metropolitan Police Force at work. When referring to police constables, he wrote: "Any young man in possession of good health and character, between twenty-one and twenty-seven years of age and not less than 5 ft 9 in. in height, may apply for admission to the force; and, if preliminary inquiries prove satisfactory, he will be directed to attend at headquarters on a specified Tuesday. There, in company with some fifty other candidates, he must undergo a searching examination at the hands of the Chief Surgeon, and if pronounced physically fit for police duty will be further tested as to his general intelligence and his ability to read and to write well."

Afterwards, the budding constable was sent for three weeks as a 'candidate on probation' to the Candidates' Section House in Kennington Lane. While there, he was drilled twice daily in squad exercises by an instructor at Wellington Barracks, and also trained in the use of the ambulance. He was then sworn in as a constable "from which moment his career as a guardian of the public peace begins". He was then posted to fill a vacancy at one or other of the twenty-two divisions of the force.
'Drilling Recruits (Wellington Barracks)' from Living London (1901)
At his division, the new young constable was given his number and a uniform. His on-the-job training continued: "After attending the local police court to observe how police cases are conducted, he is sent out for a little while under the charge of an experienced officer to gain practical knowledge of his duties, and is given leisure for the study of his 'police instruction book' - a vellum-bound volume, full of statutes and regulations, and apt to prove a very indigestible mental diet to the 'new chum'. And at last he finds himself a recognised 'duty man' taking his share with the rest in the police control of London."

In 1901, a police constable's pay started at 25s. 6d. weekly, "rising a shilling annually to the modest limit of 33s. 6d." But if he was a efficient officer, a policeman like P.C. Bobby Grace could "rise through the grades of sergeant, station officer, and inspector to the rank of superintendent, at a salary of £400 a year." Along with his uniform, the police constable was given "an armlet, to be worn on the left sleeve when on duty, a whistle and chain, and a stout boxwood truncheon - his sole weapon of defence." By 1901, handcuffs were no longer carried unless some violent or dangerous offender was to be apprehended. The young officer was then sent to do eight hours' duty daily in the London streets, either in two terms of four hours each or in a single spell.
'Going on Duty' from Living London (1901)

The work was extremely varied with "disturbances to be quelled and crowds dispersed, doubtful characters to be watched and obstructive costermongers and street vendors to be 'moved on', endless questions to be answered and directions given; stray dogs to be seized, pickpockets, beggars, drunken persons, and other actual or suspected offenders to be arrested, besides innumerable minor breaches of the law to be reported."

The single men of each division were housed in the 'divisional section house', "a sort of police barracks, but roomy, well-appointed, and homely, as soldiers' quarters are not". For a subscription of six or seven shillings weekly, the constable was entitled to a comfortable bed in this building, a hot dinner or supper daily, and the use of the police library and common rooms.  After his duty was over, "he amuses himself with billiards, chess, boxing, and gymnastics, or, if he prefers, can read or study for promotion undisturbed. There are cricket and football clubs in each division, a band for musical members of the force, a sick room and medical care for the suffering."

'In a Section House: A Wrestling Bout' from Living London (1901)
 The journalist for Living London was at pains to point out the benefits of working in the police force: "reserve pay, snug billets as caretakers, special payments for doing duty at London theatres and museums, and so on. Thus, arduous and trying as is police life in London, it has its compensations. And it is rewarded, besides, after twenty-six years' service, with a life-pension of two-thirds of the officer's pay - a fitting conclusion to the career of this long-suffering guardian and useful servant of the London public."

It will be interesting to see how far P.C. Bobby Grace progresses up the ranks - if he doesn't get killed off, that is!

Thursday, 7 May 2015


The second episode of the BBC's 24 Hours in the Past was set in a coaching inn in the 1840s, with the National Trust's New Inn at Stowe providing a very authentic backdrop. Coaching inns (or stages) were the hub of stagecoach activity, providing extensive stables, fresh horses and refreshments for passengers en route. They were also the principal hotels for the towns in which they are located. On a major route, there could be as many as 15 or 20 coaches passing through every day, from early in the morning to late at night.

North Country Mails at the Peacock Islington, 1838, courtesy of Print & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-03502

The six celebrities were given various domestic service roles from maid of all work and potman through to kitchen maid and ostler. Experience with horses and quite technical harnessing expertise would have been required to be an ostler; without these skills, Alistair McGowan and Colin Jackson both found it difficult.

The work of the other servants was made up of more general duties. As the maid of all work, Miquita Oliver's predicament in not knowing how to start a fire in the dining room was fairly common for young girls new to domestic service. She was also required to clean and iron laundry, wait at the tables and service the guests' bedrooms, including emptying the chamberpots.

Tyger Drew-Honey drew the short straw in his role as potman. This job involved being a general dogsbody and jack of all trades from serving drinks in the taproom and washing the plates and cutlery through to butchering a pig! 24 Hours in the Past stressed the importance of the stagecoaches keeping to a strict timetable with all the servants working as a team to effect a quick turnaround.

The County Hotel, Lancaster, circa 1900.

There wasn't much mention of tips in the programme but the staff at coaching inns, rustic inns and hotels relied heavily on tips from guests to augment their meagre pay. On his first visit to England in 1847, the American John Henry Sherburne stayed at the Black Bear in Manchester, but he was unaware that service was not included. He paid his moderate bill and while getting into his cab, he was ‘surrounded by all the servants of the establishment, asking to be remembered from the head cook to the boots’. He was later advised by a friend that, when asking for his bill at a hotel, he should insist that the servants also be charged in it. In this way, he would find himself ‘a few pounds the richer’ and save himself ‘much trouble and mortification’.

Most of the celebrities managed to work well as servants but there was one scene which simply didn't ring true. I'm referring, of course, to the refusal by Ann Widdecombe and Zoe Lucker to skin rabbits or pluck pheasants as part of their work as kitchen maids. In the real world of the 1840s, refusing to do what was asked by a master or mistress would result in instant dismissal without a character (the written reference provided by an employer so that a servant could find another place in service). 

The Cat and Fiddle Inn, Hinton, Dorset, circa 1900
Knowing one's place, being deferential and only speaking when spoken to were the golden rules if you wanted to keep your job as a servant, gain valuable experience and move on to a position with higher pay and better prospects. This was a time when people worked simply to earn money for food and lodgings; there was no choice but to do as one was told.   

Thursday, 30 April 2015


I wasn't sure about the concept of the BBC's 24 Hours in the Past at first. Watching celebrities complain about the frankly unpleasant nineteenth century tasks they had to undertake didn't sound very appealing. However, I was impressed by how realistic the scenes in the first episode were. Filmed at the wonderful Black Country Living Museum, episode 1 was set in a dust-yard where dust and other rubbish was sifted through to collect bones, rags and pieces of metal. 

'Removing Street Refuse' from Living London (circa 1901)
The street was covered with horse manure and the celebrities were expected to clean it up while looking out for valuable 'pure' which was mixed in. Zoe Lucker, quickly getting fed up with her shovel, got stuck in and used her bare hands to pick up the manure.

While this is shocking to the modern eye, for the lower working-classes it was simply a fact of life. 'Pure-finders' spent every working day picking up dog excrement to sell on for a premium to leather-dressers and tanners (it was used to soften the animal skins before the actual tanning could take place).

Upper-class Victorians who happened to witness this daily task were equally as shocked. An American, John Henry Sherburne, who visited England in 1847, wrote that on passing through the great thoroughfares of Liverpool, ‘the most disgusting sight’ to him ‘was seeing women and young girls employed in scraping up street manure with their naked hands, and placing it in baskets, or their aprons’. He concluded, ‘These scenes are so common, as not to be noticed by the citizens'.

'Sorting a Dust-heap at a County Council Depot' from Living London (circa 1901)
The dust-yard was the Victorian version of today's recycling factories. No landfill for them! Nothing was thrown away because every single thing had a value and could be re-used in different forms. Rags were sold to paper makers after washing; bones were used to make knife handles and ornaments, and the grease from them was a component of the soap-making process; coal and cinders were needed for brickmaking; while horse manure mixed with night-soil (human excrement) and hops made an excellent fertiliser.

This first episode of 24 Hours in the Past illustrated the back-breaking manual labour our working-class ancestors had to carry out on a daily basis for a pittance; they lived a stark hand to mouth existence - when there was no work, there was no pay and no food. We take so much for granted today and this episode was a timely reminder of that.

'A Crossing Sweeper' from Living London (circa 1901)

Thursday, 23 April 2015


My Victorian England blog has been shamefully neglected of late because most of my time has been taken up with my forthcoming book, 'Servants' Stories'. Now that I have a bit more breathing space, I can start to blog again.

Let's start with a review of Mark Stevens' thoroughly absorbing book 'Life in the Victorian Asylum'. This is very late as the book was published in October last year, but better late than never! Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a subject I'm fascinated with.

'Life in the Victorian Asylum' is the companion to Mark's highly successful first book, 'Broadmoor Revealed' which dealt with the treatment of the criminally insane and focused on some of the most interesting case histories. This new book is more general and as the title suggests, it describes daily life for the asylum patient.

The book is separated into two distinct parts. The first part is written in the style of a handbook for Victorian asylum patients and the reader is addressed as if he or she was a new inmate. Walking them through step by step, the information includes what they could expect during the admission process and how a diagnosis was made; what the accommodation and the daily routine was like; the treatment for mental illness and general healthcare; and how patients were discharged after recovery.

If you have an ancestor who was admitted to an asylum, this section of the book will give you a detailed overview of daily life for him or her inside the institution.  The sad thing about the handbook is that, in reality, even if the process had been fully explained to asylum patients, their fragile mental state would probably have meant they would not have understood it.

The second part of the book is written as a straight history of Victorian asylums with special reference to Moulsford Asylum (Fair Mile Hospital) in Berkshire, which was the inspiration for the book. Mark Stevens is an archivist at Berkshire Record Office where he looks after the archives of both Fair Mile Hospital and Broadmoor so there are plenty of fascinating examples and case histories from the archives throughout the book.

The book provides a tantalising snapshot of a world behind the locked doors of the asylum and shatters a few myths about the purpose of such institutions and the treatment for patients within them. So often portrayed as dark, forbidding places from which there was no escape, Mark Stevens offers a different point of view about lunatic asylums. What really comes across is that the staff of Victorian asylums were extremely compassionate in the way they treated their patients with the aim of achieving recovery for as many as possible.

If you haven't already read 'Life in the Victorian Asylum', I would highly recommend it. It's available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon.

'Needlework in Bethlem' from 'Lunatic London' in Living London, 1900

Tuesday, 23 December 2014


On the final day of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I'd like to share a card from the 1860s featuring a New Year message. Many Victorian cards looked ahead to the New Year.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
Cards from the 1860s always had a paper 'lace' border like this. In this card, you can see a scene from Dr Yule's Popular Lectures for the Young with a Christmas pudding for the globe.  I'm not sure what the diagram on the blackboard is referring to!

I hope you've enjoyed looking at these cards as much as I've enjoyed selecting them. This is my last blog of the year so I'd like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Monday, 22 December 2014


On Day 11 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I have a humorous card from the 1870s to share. It pokes fun at the skill and balance required to ride a penny farthing safely:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The cyclist, complete with top hat and newspaper, is about to fall into the canal. I love the expression on his face - and his whiskers!

Sunday, 21 December 2014


It's Day 10 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards' and I have a real treat for you today. Continuing with the animals and birds theme, here is a wonderful card from the 1880s:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
It features two beautiful owls flying in the moonlight while wearing top hats. One of them has an intriguing key around its neck.

The reason may be found in a second card which makes up the pair:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
I think the owls in top hats are possibly a bridegroom and his best man, and that the second card shows the bride owl in her bonnet with her new husband at her side. How very romantic!