Thursday, 13 February 2014


If I was able to visit Victorian England, I know that one of the aspects which would fascinate me the most is the public transport. Aside from steam trains and the later electric trams, it was all horse-drawn which, of course, is so different from today's motor-driven vehicles. Horses pulled the omnibuses, carts, and brewers' drays through to the broughams, clarences and Hansom cabs. The sounds of hooves clattering on cobbles was everywhere, as was the smell of steaming horse manure...

To get about town quickly, catching a cabriolet (or cab for short) was the best bet. Cabbies plied their trade from cab-stands, not while moving. The fare was based on the distance, so it was important to know how far away the destination was to avoid being overcharged. The driver sat on a raised seat behind and above the passengers' compartment with the horse's reins going over the top of it. Passengers communicated with the driver and paid him through a trap-door in the roof. The cab-man controlled the door by means of a lever, which made it difficult to dodge paying the fare.

'A Hansom Cab' from Living London (1901)
 Ladies often found that the overhanging reins could knock off their hats, and dresses could easily be soiled on the rim of the wheel. It was also extremely difficult to get in and out of a Hansom with any dignity while wearing a crinoline.

A journalist from Living London visited a cab yard and observed cab-drivers at work in 1901:

"The day cab-men, their hansoms and four-wheelers clean and bright from the washers' hands, begin to appear in numbers about nine a.m., some hurrying Citywards with fares, and others proceeding slowly to various stands, where they find a few unfortunate and somewhat despondent night cab-men waiting in the hope of obtaining at least one good job before taking their cabs back to the yard."

The best cab-stands for the drivers were outside the railway stations and the West End theatres, but life was tough for them.  They worked twelve hour shifts and had to pay for the hire of their vehicles and horses out of the fares they earned. 

'In a Cab Yard' from Living London (1901)
 When John Hollingshead interviewed a cabman for Odd Journeys in and Out of London (1859), he was told that a Hansom cab driver had to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, in addition to ‘yard money’ which was the charges for the stables. This was before earning any money for himself. A four-wheeler could be let for slightly less at twelve shillings a day but the driver had to pay all expenses. At the time, cabmen driving licensed carriages had to pay five pound for the license plate and a shilling a day extra for the duty. 

Beatrix Potter commented in her journal in 1885, that if "cabmen were really paid at the rate of sixpence a mile, they must go forty-two miles before they begin to make any profit. They pay sixteen shillings per day to a cab-owner for a cab and two horses, and have incidental expenses as well."

'In a Cabmen's Shelter' from Living London (1901)
Cab-men could enjoy a cheap midday meal at one of the cab-men's shelters. Between two and five in the afternoon, hundreds of cabbies drove to the big yards where they changed horses and had their cabs 'spotted' to remove splashes of mud. It was usually around 9.30pm before the first hansom to finish its twelve hour day arrived back at the yard.

Although they were speedy, London cabs were rather uncomfortable. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger wrote that the "many crevices…let in wind and dust; the seats feel as if they were stuffed with broken stones; the check-string is always broken; the door won’t shut; or if shut, it won’t open; …to discover the faults of a London cab is easy."

It sounds as though a ride in a Hansom cab was bearable for a tourist, but not necessarily for everyday use!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014


In the UK, we often take the NHS for granted. Everyone, regardless of background or income, can receive medical or surgical treatment if they need it without having to worry about whether they can afford it.

Imagine, then, how different it was if you lived in Victorian England. Back then, it was your social class which determined the type of healthcare you could get. The wealthy upper classes paid for private medical treatment at home or, later in the nineteenth century, in a practitioner’s consulting room. The middle classes might also pay for their treatment, perhaps at one of the increasing number of specialist hospitals, or through a general practitioner or dispensing chemist.  

'Awaiting Their Turn: In the Out-Patients' Department at St Bartholomew's Hospital drawn by Frank Craig (The Graphic, 3 August 1907)

Workers earning a regular and sufficient income could make weekly contributions to a ‘sick club’ or other providential scheme, but the benefits rarely extended to their wives or families. The working classes who were just above the poverty line were eligible for free treatment from charitable general hospitals or dispensaries.  The abject poor who were receiving poor relief were refused admission to these hospitals and their only option was to seek treatment at the workhouse infirmary.

The out-patients' department of a Victorian general hospital was very like today's accident and emergency departments where most cases could be treated and sent home. More serious cases were admitted as in-patients. 

'Notes at a London Hospital: Saturday Night’ (The Graphic, 27 December 1879)

When a reporter for Living London (1900) visited one of these out-patients' departments, he described the waiting room: "The pale consumptive jostles a sturdy labourer whose bandaged head furnishes an illustration of the momentum of falling bodies; patients with rasping coughs and panting breath; patients on crutches; patients in splints, with limbs swathed in bandages; men and women, old and young, strong and feeble, are here mingled into an indiscriminate assembly." 

Inside one of the consulting rooms, round the sides were "a number of electric lamps fitted with bull's-eyes. At one of these a clinical assistant is examining, with the aid of a reflector fastened to his forehead, a patient's throat, while at another a student is exploring an obstructed ear." In the medical department "stethoscopes abound and coughs prevail; in the surgical, bandages, dressings and antiseptics are in evidence". In the eye department, the air was "filled with a droning sound of "E, T, B, D, L, N" as the patients read aloud the letters of the test types through the trial glasses, and students, working out 'refractions', are seen in dark closets, throwing from their ophthalmoscopes bright, dancing spots of light on to the eyes of their patients." 

'Extracting a Metal Fragment at the Ophthalmic Hospital’ (Supplement to The Sphere, 16 November 1901)

Those who had been seen by a doctor emerged from the consulting room with a prescription card which they took to the dispensary. Unlike today, bottles were not supplied free of charge so patients brought their own jars as receptacles for their medicine, or bought one from an itinerant bottle-seller outside the hospital. As well as medicines, out-patients could be prescribed surgical appliances such as crutches, artificial eyes or limbs, spectacles or a truss for supporting a hernia (a common complaint amongst labourers).  

'Notes at a London Hospital: La Queue at the Dispensary' (The Graphic, 27 December 1879)

Victorian general hospitals were staffed with highly dedicated and skilled doctors, surgeons and nurses, but they were overstretched and had to work within the constraints of a limited budget. While there is a clear parallel with today's hospitals, large numbers of the Victorian population, particularly women and children, frequently went without medical treatment simply because they weren't entitled to it and couldn't afford it. Thankfully, those days are long gone and today's NHS is a more fair and just system of healthcare.