THE WORKING CLASSES
(This passage has been excerpted from the introductions and other editorial matter in John Burnett's superb collection of working-class life-histories, The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974. GPL.)
Within what seemed a closed and rigid social structure the working classes constructed their own exclusive world, remote from the acquisitive, accumulative impulses of the Victorian economy. In part, it was an escape from the harshness of the real world, in part an attempt to create community in the anonymity of the industrial town. Ultimately, through the growth of education and democracy, improvements in living standards, working conditions, housing, food and dress, the working classes became, to a degree, participant members of society, but for most of the period covered by these writings [1820-1920] they were both excluded, and excluded themselves, from public life. Behind the great public institutions and images of the Victorian age the working classes inhabited an inner, secret life which perpetuated traditional values and patterns of behaviour, essentially of rural origin, into the new urban industrial society. In past times almost the whole of life, including work, had gone forward within the circle of the family; increasingly, as the nineteenth century progressed, though much less quickly than is commonly supposed, work became separated from the family and the home, and the new cult of work sought to erect it into the centre of human existence. The working classes, it seems, for long rejected this unpalatable and alien notion.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “Remember you shall die”. In the Victorian era, photography was in its infancy and extremely costly. When a loved one died, their relatives would sometimes have a photograph taken of the corpse in a pose – often with other members of the family. For the vast majority of Victorians, this was the only time they would be photographed. In these post-mortem photographs eyes were often painted onto the photographic print and a rosy tint on the cheeks was added to give a living effect. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types. In the photo (left) the slight movement of the girl's parents causes them to be a little blurred due to the long exposure time, but the girl who is dead, and therefore perfectly still is creepily in focus!
Workhouseshouses were government-run facilities where the poor, infirm, or mentally ill could live. They were usually filthy and full to the brim of societies unwanted people. At the time, poverty was seen as dishonorable as it came from a lack of the moral virtue of industriousness. Many of the people who lived in the poorhouses were required to work to contribute to the cost of their board and it was not uncommon for whole families to live together with other families in the communal environment. In the Victorian era life didn’t get much worse than that of a poorhouse resident.
The children who couldn't get work ended up living in the streets and surviving through thievery or through begging. Some children became 'runners' the Victorian equivalent of email. Boys were especially good at taking messages across London. These children knew the short cuts and how to jump on the back of an omnibus while it was moving to deliver a message anywhere in London faster than adults. They also had prodigious memories, memorising each message down to the last word.