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Two men working on a barge on the River Thames. London. 1877.Bishopsgate Institute
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Slum children of London. Circa 1895.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Although London is a rainy city, it can get dry in the summer. In the Victorian era, water carts like these would patrol the streets on hot, dry days, wetting the roads to dampen the dust. Children would sometimes run after the cart for a quick cool-down.
During rainier weather, water cart drivers could often find employment cleaning the road or carrying equipment. Bishopsgate Institute
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Women eating dinner at a workhouse in St. Pancras, London. Circa 1900.
Workhouses like these offered poor people meals, employment, and a place to stay. General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
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People gather outside of a rag shop in Lambeth, London after the River Thames overflowed and flooded the street.
One victim of the floods said, "I live for my boy and he lives for me, but since the floods he has been troubled by a hacking cough... As for myself, I have never felt right since that awful night, when with my little girl I sat above the water on my bed until the tide went down."Bishopsgate Institute
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A sign writer sits in his studio, working on a new sign. Circa 1883-1905.Bishopsgate Institute
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A chimney sweep and his assistant. Boys, sometimes as young as four years old, were often used as unpaid assistants to chimney sweeps in 19th-century London. The work was difficult and dangerous, and several boys got sick while on the job.
After a boy named George Brewster died in a chimney in 1875, chimney sweeps in London were forbidden from using children as their assistants. Bishopsgate Institute
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A street photographer snaps a family photo at Clapham Common, a park established in 1878. Bishopsgate Institute
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Dinner at St. Marylebone Workhouse. London. Circa 1901.The Print Collector/Getty Images
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Public disinfectors work to sanitize the streets after an outbreak of smallpox.
Smallpox was one of the dangers of Victorian London. It spread fast and killed about 30 percent of the people it infected. Although the government compelled people to take the smallpox vaccine in the 1850s, many refused. Bishopsgate Institute
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Members of the British Army stand outside a public house in Westminster, looking for potential recruits. Bishopsgate Institute
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People gather around a shellfish stand, looking to buy oysters and whelks. Beef and oyster pie was a Victorian favorite. Bishopsgate Institute
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Three men and one young boy gather around a shoeshine stand. Circa 1883-1905.Bishopsgate Institute
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A fruit vendor with a cart pulled by a donkey.
Fruit vendors like these, called costermongers, were popular during the Victorian era. Bishopsgate Institute
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Two men work on posting advertisements. The man on the left is preparing a poster for "Madame Tussauds" wax museum. Bishopsgate Institute
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A street doctor sells new cough drops. His sign reads: "Prevention Better Cure: Try Our New Cough Preventative Peppermints."Bishopsgate Institute
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A locksmith at work at his street stall. Circa 1883-1905.Bishopsgate Institute
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Women talk outside a secondhand shop in London. Bishopsgate Institute
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Effigies are pulled through the street in anticipation of Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th.
Originally, the holiday celebrated the survival of King James I after an assassination plot. Since that assassination attempt was planned by a Catholic man, the holiday often took on an anti-Catholic sentiment during the 19th century. But as time went on, the holiday became more of a general celebration and social event. Bishopsgate Institute
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A caravan at an encampment near Latimer Road, Notting Hill, London. Bishopsgate Institute
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A London cabbie sitting on his hansom cab talks to a man on the street.
At the height of their popularity, there were about 7,500 hansom cabs in London. They began to fade from sight after the introduction of motor vehicles at the beginning of the 20th century. Bishopsgate Institute
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A London boardman passing out flyers. Boardmen were uneducated and often mocked during the Victorian era. Bishopsgate Institute
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Italian street musicians perform in public.
Performers like these were considered part of the street scene in Victorian London. The 19th century saw an influx of immigrants from Italy to Britain, and many of them settled in London. Bishopsgate Institute
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A young shoe-shiner at work. He was most likely unlicensed — because a license cost an annual fee. Bishopsgate Institute
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A young girl named Hookey Alf waits outside of a London pub, in the hopes of finding work from coal merchants. Bishopsgate Institute
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Taken at Clapham Common, this photo shows both ginger beer makers and "mush fakers."
Ginger beer was popular among London residents after a night out. As for "mush fakers," they sold, repaired, and built umbrellas for London's famously rainy days. Bishopsgate Institute
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Homeless people in London, like this woman, were known as "crawlers" because they would "crawl" from place to place.
This woman, pictured with her young son, is the widow of a tailor. Bishopsgate Institute
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Two horse-drawn cabs on Great George Street, looking toward Parliament Square, London. "Big Ben" is visible in the background. Circa 1905. London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A horse and cart traveling down Ludgate Hill in London in 1897. London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Tower Bridge on the River Thames in London. The bridge was completed in 1894. Its drawbridge allowed larger ships to go by. Circa 1900. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A London slum family with all their possessions out on the street after they were evicted from their residence. 1901. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Poor children of the Stepney slum in the East End of London. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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Men in top hats gather to buy fish in St. Giles, a poor area in the West End of London.
This young fish seller bought a barrel of fish for 25 shillings. He's selling large fish for a penny and smaller fish for a halfpenny.
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Dustmen of London went door to door to remove "dust" — ash and soot that had accumulated from domestic fires.
Air pollution was a major problem at the turn of the century in London. Parks were established to combat the smoggy air. Even today, London's parks are still referred to as its "lungs."Bishopsgate Institute
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Two women and a child at a secondhand clothing shop in St. Giles. Bishopsgate Institute
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Street vendors selling "fancy" wares.
"I have had [poor women] come with their youngsters without shoes or stockings," boasted one of the vendors. "And spend money on ear-drops, or a fancy comb for the hair.'"Bishopsgate Institute
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Laborers at Covent Garden, selling flowers. Bishopsgate Institute
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Flower sellers near Covent Garden in London. These women likely returned to the same spot every day to sell their wares. When they died, their daughters would often take their place. Bishopsgate Institute
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Omnibuses like this one were popular in Victorian London. Some even had a second deck.
But by the turn of the century, Londoners had other options for public transportation, including the young London Underground. Bishopsgate Institute
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"Caney," pictured, was a popular clown in Victorian London until a vein in his leg burst. After that, he turned to mending chairs to make a living — but he would still occasionally perform on the street when he was feeling up to it. Bishopsgate Institute
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This coster, or street seller, uses a donkey to get around. Circa 1883-1905.
Costers were known as London's rebel class, and they had little affiliation with political or religious groups. However, they were known for treating their donkeys well. Bishopsgate Institute
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Convicts and "ticket-of-leave" men — recently jailed men with a "ticket" testifying to their trustworthiness — frequented this establishment for food and company. Bishopsgate Institute
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Traffic outside the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange in the financial district of London. Circa 1896.
For most of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, London was the biggest city in the world. London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
43 Colorized Photos That Capture Victorian London As It Really Was
During the Victorian era, England was the world's preeminent power and London was its bustling metropolis. But underneath all the opulence that a global colonial empire afforded, there was a vast underbelly of destitution and poverty in the city.
These 43 colorized photos of London paint a rare picture of what life was really like at the turn of the 20th century. They capture everything from the newly constructed Tower Bridge to the city's worst slums.
Explore the real streets of Victorian London in the gallery above.
The Rapid Modernization Of Victorian London
London's size has increased dramatically over time, as shown by this animation.
At the start of the 19th century, London was already big and bustling — and it was expanding quickly. Between 1815 and 1860, the population had grown three-fold to reach over 3 million people. And by the time the 20th century began, the population had swelled to 6.5 million.
How did London grow so big, so fast? First off, many people flocked to the city in search of better wages. In 1881, the London census recorded that 25 percent of all Londoners had been born in non-metropolitan Britain. Many of them were women, who came to London to work as domestic servants.
Immigrants from abroad also came to London in droves. By 1901, the city was home to 27,400 Germans, 11,300 French, and 11,000 Italians, as well as 33,000 people who had been born in British colonies or dependencies. Many of these people were seeking refuge from political instability.
Jewish people, who were fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe, also moved to London around this same time period. By 1901, there were around 140,000 Jews living in the metropolis.
London, as a port city, was also home to a small contingent of adventurous sailors from all around the world. By the river, you were likely to find people from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
Wikimedia CommonsFirst opened in 1863, the London Tube greatly expanded London's reach as a city.
Not only did the city grow in terms of its population, but it also grew in physical size. In 1851, London covered about 122 square miles. By 1896, the city stretched across 693 square miles.
Part of London's land growth was driven by the emergence of new suburbs. Starting in the early 19th century, many people sought to escape the dirty city air by moving further away from the city center. If they needed to work somewhere in the heart of the city, they simply commuted by omnibus.
The opening of the London Underground in 1863 gave many people an even easier way to get to work — and a reason to move even further away from the center of town. But despite the development of new public transportation options, London remained a crowded, bustling city.
As London grew, so did its infrastructure. In the late 19th century, the London Bridge was the main way of crossing the River Thames. But London's expanding population meant that this bridge had become congested. In just a 24-hour period, an estimated 110,000 pedestrians went across.
As a result, other bridges were constructed, including the famous Tower Bridge in 1894. Still, the London Bridge remained clogged for years.
London's Growing Pains: Poverty, Pollution, And Deadly Diseases
Traffic in turn-of-the-century London. Circa 1896-1903.
The glamour of London's rise at the turn of the century had a darker side. While the city was renowned for its splendor and worldliness, many residents experienced extreme poverty, disease, and choking pollution.
One of the worst slums in London was St. Giles. Life here was so grim that "St. Giles" became a byword for poverty. In 1847, a medical report described St. Giles as "a disgrace to a civilised country." And in 1849, residents wrote to The Times: "We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place."
By the end of the 19th century, an estimated 35 percent of Londoners lived in utter poverty. Officially, these residents were classified into three categories: poor, very poor, and semi-criminal. Homeless people were often called "crawlers" — since they were forced to "crawl" from place to place.
People lived close together, often in subpar conditions, which made them vulnerable to disease. Smallpox was rampant in Victorian London, along with tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid. By the mid-19th century, the average life expectancy at birth was just 40 for men and 42 for women. Even the very wealthiest Londoners weren't safe from falling deathly ill during epidemics.
Wikimedia CommonsA heatwave in 1858 exacerbated the smell of pollution in the River Thames, resulting in the "Great Stink."
And even those who managed to avoid serious illness had to deal with the suffocating pollution. The air was often choked with smoke from coal-fires, which created eerie fogs across the city. Charles Dickens described the air in his Dictionary of London, writing: "Nothing could be more deleterious to the lungs and the air-passages than the wholesale inhalation of the foul air and floating carbon which, combined, form a London fog."
Jack London, another writer, described the air quality of Victorian London in his book The People of the Abyss: "The air he breathes, and from which he never escapes, is sufficient to weaken him mentally and physically so that he becomes unable to compete with the fresh virile life from the country hastening on to London Town to destroy and be destroyed."
London had long suffered from bad air — but the population boom in the 19th century meant more people, more fires, and more toxic "fog."
The Public Health Acts of 1872 and 1875 sought to combat some of these squalid conditions. After these acts were passed, all new residential accommodations had to have running water and proper drainage. Authorities were also required to maintain sewers throughout the city.
Victorian London was full of contradictions. As the biggest city in the world, it drew people from all over who wanted a fresh start. Life in the city wasn't easy — and some never found what they were looking for. But if you wanted to take your best shot at "making it," London was the place to go.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.