Wednesday, 23 December 2015


We've reached the last day of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards! The final card I'd like to share with you has a design of some naughty kittens in bed:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The verse says:

While laurel boughs and berries red,
Glow bright on every side.
Oh, be their freshness o'er thee shed
And cheer your Holly-tide!

All that remains for me to do is to wish you and yours a happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


Today is day 11 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards and I thought I'd share a very traditional-looking design of the Nativity with you. This is a three-dimensional card from the 1890s and this is the front when the card is flat:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
 This is what the card looks like when it's fully open:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The card was published by Raphael Tuck & Sons. As well as being a three-dimensional card, it's also a novelty card. If you shine a light through the blue cellophane-like material which represents the window, it illuminates the baby Jesus.

Monday, 21 December 2015


Now we've reached day 10 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, it's about time that I share a mechanical card with you. Victorian Christmas card designers were ingenious in their designs and inventions and all manner of pop-up style cards appeared. This is one of my favourites: an embossed black cat. This is what the card looks like from the front when fully closed.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The card opens out to reveal a brilliant concertina cat:

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Sunday, 20 December 2015


Today is day 9 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards and I have another image of a shaped card to share. This one's in the shape of an envelope with a rose seal.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The clue to what you'll find underneath the seal is in the dog collar at the top:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
 The card is dated 1890 on the reverse and was sent to 'Master Hippo' from Annie.

Saturday, 19 December 2015


For day 8 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards, here's a very unusual card. Look away if you're scared of spiders! In a circular shape, the design is of a large spider on its web with a fly approaching:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The verse isn't clear at all on the scan but it says:

Will you walk into my parlour
Said the spider to the fly.
I've a very nice plum pudding
And a beautiful Mince pie.

Friday, 18 December 2015


In today's card for 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, I'd like to share another card with an animal design. This one is dated 1884 and it was published by Louis Prang & Co., Boston. A group of owls and rabbits are playing blind man's buff by moonlight.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
In case you can't read the verse, it says:

By loving friends you are surrounded,
Oh, be not blind to this, I pray.
They wish that joy and mirth unbounded
May crown your happy Christmas day.

Thursday, 17 December 2015


On Day 6 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, here's an example of the Victorians' often very odd sense of humour.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The card looks very unassuming with a baby's bottle design but it opens up to reveal this:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
Imagine receiving this card as a 'soother' for Christmas! This is a very late Victorian or early Edwardian card published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015


Today, I'd like to share an image of a shaped Victorian Christmas card. These are my favourite types of cards because they're all so different and unusual. This one has a Yule log design.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Dating from the 1880s, the card is entirely flat but it's embossed and has a three-dimensional effect. 'Bringing in the Yule log' was a tradition when a large log was brought home on Christmas Eve and burned for the 12 nights of Christmas until Twelfth Night.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015


Today, it's Day 4 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards and we return to the anthropomorphic theme - I did warn you!

This card from the late 1880s is signed RD for Robert Dudley and it's published by Castell Bros. In case you can't read the verse, it says:

In spring the cuckoo calls, in summer swallow twits.
Plump goose to autumn falls, winter brisk robin fits. 

The sender has hand-written in the 'from' section:

The Town Friend the swallow
To the Country Friend the cuckoo.

Monday, 14 December 2015


On Day 3 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, here's a design that doesn't look very Christmasy at all: a chick with a special message.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
This slightly scary card is dated 1878 and is published by R. Canton. The design was part of a set which also included parrots, mice, cats and dogs. This is the card that first got me interested in Victorian Christmas cards, not just because of the unusual design but because it has a very cryptic message on the reverse. As mentioned yesterday, until the 1890s, most Victorian cards were flat, not folded, and the sender wrote a greeting on the back.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

In case you can't read it, the message says:

Good-bye! I leave on Sunday next - fare thee well!!! 
Ato Acton [not sure of these words]
23 - 12 - 78

It's difficult to work out the two words above the date because the way the letters are written is inconsistent. But the message has always intrigued me: who was the sender? Did he or she and the recipient ever meet again? All very intriguing...

Sunday, 13 December 2015


Yesterday, I shared an image of a Victorian Christmas card featuring rabbits riding penny farthings. Today, I'd like to show you a more 'typical' design of a child enjoying winter pursuits.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Here we have a young girl with her dog skating on the ice (probably a frozen river or lake), complete with a very stylish muff! This card is a typical design from the late 1860s and early 1870s; it has a scalloped edge and it's relatively small, about the same size as a visiting card that the Victorians left at people's houses to show they had called.

By the 1880s, children made up a good proportion of the target market so it was very common to see Christmas card designs featuring children. As mentioned yesterday, Victorian toy shops were one of the types of retail outlet which sold Christmas cards.

At first, Victorian Christmas cards were completely different from modern versions because they weren't folded; they were flat and the sender wrote a message on the reverse. It was not until the 1890s that the folded card became popular.

Saturday, 12 December 2015


Last year, in the run-up to Christmas, I shared some images of Victorian Christmas cards from my small collection (my very first book was a Shire book on collecting cards). People seemed to like these images so I've selected twelve more unusual, humorous or downright odd cards to show you. Hope it's a good antidote to the madness of Christmas shopping...

On Day 1, I give you rabbits riding bicycles! Penny farthings, to be precise. These bunnies are extremely good at multi-tasking because some of them are also playing trumpets!

Copyright Michelle Higgs

In case you can't make out the verse, it says:

By "Rabbit" Transit 'mid snow and icicles
We bring our Christmas wishes on bicycles.

The Victorians loved to put animals on their Christmas cards and they particularly enjoyed making them anthropomorphic, like these rabbit cyclists. I have quite a few cards with anthropomorphic designs so I'm sure you'll be seeing a few more!

Just a quick recap about the history of Christmas cards: although the world's first Christmas card was produced in 1843 for Henry Cole (later Sir), sending pre-printed Christmas cards did not catch on until almost twenty years later. Before the invention of chromolithography in about 1860, Christmas cards were very expensive to produce. They were also expensive to post until 1870 when the Post Office in England introduced a halfpenny stamp for postcards. At the same time, it declared that Christmas cards (and letters) could be sent for a halfpenny if they were enclosed in an unsealed envelope. 

From 1870, the popularity of Christmas cards really took off and by the 1880s, sales reached well into the millions. In 1877, it was estimated that 4,500,000 letters and cards were sent in the seven days before Christmas. The Victorians liked to collect all manner of things, and Christmas cards became the new craze. This hobby was especially popular with children, and they stuck their cards into albums, often with the date and name of the sender written underneath.

Christmas cards were sold in toy shops, tobacconists and drapery stores as well as bookshops and stationers. They were reviewed in newspapers, as books are today, and long advertisements were printed detailing the designs of cards in the run up to Christmas. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


Back in 2006, when I did the research for my book Prison Life in Victorian England, I remember being struck with sadness and pity for the babies of female prisoners who were born in prison and incarcerated with their mothers. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences.

In the 1860s, when Henry Mayhew visited Brixton Prison, the chaplain explained the rules about infants in the prison: ‘If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother but if born in jail before the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison.  We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat’.

'A Baby's Cot' from 'In Wormwood Scrubs Prison' (Living London, 1901)

The first crèche for prison babies was at Holloway Castle prison where babies born in jail and those under three months old at the time of their mothers’ conviction were cared for. Under this system, a baby slept in a cot in its mother’s cell and was taken to the day-nursery at 8.30 a.m. The wardresses bathed and fed each baby before putting it to bed again. If the mother's conduct had been satisfactory, she might be allowed to see her baby at lunchtime or to take it with her when exercising in the prison yard. In fine weather, after lunch the baby spent most of the day with a prison nurse in a special tent in the garden.

Concerns were raised about children in convict prison nurseries, especially those who were there for long periods. It was feared that the contaminating influence of the criminal mothers on their offspring would mean the children themselves would be tempted into a life of crime. By 1900, all babies had to leave the prison at nine months. After this age, if a criminal mother had no family to look after her baby, it was sent to the workhouse and became an inmate for the duration of the prison sentence.

How wonderful, then, to read of a more positive view of prison babies at the end of the 19th century. I recently discovered an article in Living London (1901) about Wormwood Scrubs Prison which argued that "in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born - more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town."

'Baby Parade' from 'In Wormwood Scrubs Prison' (Living London, 1901)

The journalist added:

"Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time. 

High officials, visitors, matron, warders, are all glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother's arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche." 

'In the Women's Work Room' from 'In Wormwood Scrubs Prison' (Living London , 1901)

If you ever get the chance, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. In the prison, there is a nursery in which you can see a Victorian baby's cradle. On one end of the cradle was a rope which hung down into the room below. This was the female prisoners' workroom and they could rock their infants' cradles from below the nursery without stopping their work. At Beaumaris, you can also explore all the corridors and cells, including the condemned cell and the punishment cell. There's also the original treadwheel used to provide work for the prisoners - this is the only place I've ever seen a surviving one of these.

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