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