Thursday, 31 October 2013


Imagine if you could visit Victorian England and take a sneaky peek inside the cupboards of an ordinary house - and wouldn't we all love to do that! Chances are you'd find numerous pills and potions designed to treat every ailment under the sun. The Victorians constantly worried about their health and that of their family - for good reason. Epidemics of infectious diseases came and went in never-ending cycles of typhus and typhoid, cholera, smallpox, measles and scarlet fever. Add in respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, which were the major killers from the 1880s, and you get a good idea of how unhealthy it was to live in Victorian England. Even catching a simple chill could lead to a more serious, life-threatening illness. 

It's no wonder, then, that the Victorians lapped up the claims of drug manufacturers to cure all ills. The newspapers were full of advertisements proclaiming the success of X, Y and Z to treat conditions like skin diseases, gout and digestive complaints. Many of the Victorians' 'tummy' problems were probably a result of food adulteration, such as the addition of alum, ground bones and plaster to bread, and the extra ingredients of vitriol and cocolus indicus in beer. For the wealthy upper classes who ate large meals made up of multiple courses, indigestion was inevitable. 

Patent medicines became hugely popular to solve digestive complaints and one of the most well-known examples was Holloway's Pills, invented by Thomas Holloway, the son of a baker. Advertisements claimed the pills could 'strengthen the stomach, and promote the healthy action of the liver, purifying the blood, cleansing the skin, bracing the nerves and invigorating the system'. 

Here's the front of a trade card for Holloway's Pills and Ointments:

And here's the reverse with Holloway's claims for what his medicines could treat:

The pills and the ointment were hugely successful, not just in Britain but across the Empire. They made Thomas Holloway a multi-millionaire and when he died in 1883, he had amassed a personal estate of £596,335 plus freehold properties. After his death, the pills were analysed and found to contain nothing more than aloe, saffron and myrhh - a traditional herbal remedy.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


Last week, the Victorian Silver Arcade in Leicester was finally re-opened after years of restoration. Shopping arcades across Victorian Britain were built to a similar design with an open central archway and two floors, although unusually the Silver Arcade had four storeys. The buildings were extremely decorative inside with lavish use of lighting, glass and high quality materials. The aim was to attract upper-class customers with plenty of money to spend. 

Birmingham's Great Western Arcade is an excellent example. Opened to the public on 28 September 1876, it was built over the tunnel of the Great Western Railway running from Monmouth Street to Temple Row. On 2 December, the Illustrated London News reported on the new building:

"The shops, of which there are forty-two on the ground floor and forty-two on the balcony, are mostly let, and almost every trade will be represented. Some London firms have taken shops here. The fronts are ebony and gold, and have been made by Mr F Sage, of Gray's-inn-road, London. The arcade is 400ft. long and commodiously wide and is 40 ft. high. The dome is 75ft. from the top to the floor."  

Here is a view of the exterior of the Great Western Arcade:

The New Great Western Arcade, Birmingham (Illustrated London News, 2 December 1876)

As you can see, carriages frequently transported wealthy customers to the arcade. They could instruct their coachmen to drop them off outside and to return within a specified amount of time. 

Inside, no expense was spared to impress the shoppers, particularly with the lighting scheme:

"The galleries are illuminated by forty-four four-light candelabra, making 176 lights in all. Beneath are forty-four three-light hanging pendants, or chandeliers, whilst in the centre of the building, immediately under the dome, is suspended a colossal chandelier, 14 ft. high and 8 ft. in diameter, comprising two tiers of lights, the upper one consisting of eighteen jets and the lower one twenty-four. Thus the body of the arcade is lighted by 350 gas jets, the whole of which are enclosed in opal globes, shedding a mellow light on the building. When the 600 lights are lit the effect is magnificent."

 Here's a view of the interior, which gives a good illustration of the lights and the dome above:

The New Great Western Arcade, Birmingham (Illustrated London News, 2 December 1876)

I wonder if the gas bill was as colossal as the chandeliers!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013


While researching my forthcoming book, A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England, I came across hundreds of fascinating stories in newspapers, contemporary periodicals and original sources. Many of them did not make it into the book so I'd like to share them with you on this blog.

One of the most interesting aspects of Victorian England is the fashion, probably because it's so different to modern-day clothing. In fact, I first became interested in this period in history after having fun dressing up in replica Victorian costumes at Morwellham Quay in Devon.

Then, as now, young ladies liked to wear up-to-the-minute clothing and they pored over fashion plates in magazines straight from Paris. One of the regular features in Cassell's Family Magazine was 'What to Wear: Chit-Chat on Dress From Our Paris Correspondent'. The writer offers highly detailed, no-nonsense advice to look good on a budget. Here are some of her suggestions for October 1885:

"If any of you are in doubt about a becoming, useful and dressy autumn gown, let me advise you to choose a grey beige. Have a habit bodice bordered with close-set rows of silver braid, and a waistcoat of silver braid; arrange the skirt with wide box-plaiting, having seven rows of the braid an inch from the edge, and draperies above bordered in the same way. You will then have a gown that will stand any amount of wear and tear, that will wash like a piece of calico, and cannot fail to be ladylike and in good style."

Here's a pic from the article:

Cassell's Family Magazine, October 1885

You'll notice that the style of dress in the mid 1880s created an hourglass silhouette. The writer of the article stressed that dresses "should fit glove-tight, and to effect this, and begin at the beginning, the stays must be good." Another option was to "wear inside the lower portion of the stay a semi-circular nickel plate, which is supposed to compress backwards, and not downwards, and therefore is less hurtful."

To me, wearing stays (or corsets) still sounds downright uncomfortable! It might be why the lady on the left of the picture below holding the ball can't bend down...

Cassell's Family Magazine, October 1885