Sunday, March 22, 2015

They Survived Victorian England!

Having recently finished reading Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Victorian:  A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life my amazement and gratitude know no bounds:  I have ancestors who lived in and survived the Victorian era in England.

On my sidebar under "About Me" I wrote, "Sometimes I want to jump back in time, into the lives of my ancestors.  Not to stay, of course -- too many modern conveniences I'd rather not do without -- but to meet them and watch their interactions with each other...."  That statement is more true now than it has ever been.  I'm pleased to read about what life may have like 150 years ago but I'm grateful that I live in these modern, enlightened times with such extensive knowledge about diet, health, medicine, etc.

Reading Goodman's book immerses one in the day-to-day activities, complexities, and simplicities of Victorian life from the time a person arose in the morning until bedtime.  In this 440-page book there is both depth and breadth.  The reader learns about living conditions, food and diet, work, leisure, health and illness, personal care, school, clothing, and so much more. For example:
  • It is possible to effectively clean one's teeth with soot.
  • Windows were left open in all types of weather to ensure enough oxygen to live through the night.
  • Cold baths were thought to harden the body and make the bather more resilient to common illness and disease. 
  • If there was meat -- possibly a strip of bacon -- at a meal it was eaten by the primary breadwinner. 

I have two known Victorian ancestor families from both sides of my family.

First:  My great-grandmother Elizabeth Armitage was born in 1852 in Yorkshire.  Her parents were Abel Armitage and Eliza Hartley.  Abel lived until at least 1880 but Eliza died between 1852 and about 1859.  Abel was a coal miner during some of the years he lived in England.  Elizabeth, her sister Ann, her father, step-mother and half siblings all immigrated to the U.S. in 1864.

Second:  William Doyle, born in 1863, and his parents, Andrew Doyle and Elizabeth Jane Laws lived in Northumberland.  William is my great-grandfather.  Both Andrew and William were coal miners.  Andrew brought his family to the United States in 1869 and 1870 where he again took up coal mining, at least for a while.

I know little about the siblings and parents of Abel, Eliza, Andrew, and Elizabeth Jane, but certainly they lived in Victorian England, too.  Sturdy individuals, all.

My only disappointment with the book was that it has no notes of any kind nor citations at the end.  Goodman includes a lengthy list of contemporary publications she used as source material but a reader would be hard-pressed to determine volume, date, page, etc. if he or she wished to find a particular topic in those resources.  Despite that, I recommend How to Be a Victorian if you'd like to learn more about how your Victorian ancestor may have lived between 1840 and the early 1900s.

I continue to marvel that my Victorian-born ancestors survived the challenges of the era.


Copyright © 2015 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I see the contestants on "Survivor" cleaning their teeth with sticks. That seems like a better alternative to soot. As for open windows, perhaps that prevented carbon monoxide poisoning -- just a guess.

    1. Yeah, Wendy, I'm not sure about using soot. The author used soot and said it worked fine. But then I'm not sure about using sticks, either.... I like my modern conveniences.

      Yes, they were concerned about "carbonic acid gas." About this the author commented that they grossly underestimated the movement of air in and out of a room and house. The worst part about the open windows was that many of the people didn't have enough clothing or coverings to keep themselves warm. An already underfed body was using its little resources to try to stay warm during the night. I guess I could have been more specific about why I was surprised that they kept their windows open at night and the consequences.

  2. Very interesting post. I know people today that always have a window at least partially open when they sleep and I wonder if it is something that has been passed down over time. It's one thing in a warm climate, but a whole different story in the winter...burr! I always wonder how some of those things got started. For instance, I wonder how it ever got started that a cold bath would make you more resilient to illness?

    1. I know a few people who keep their windows open a at night. They usually have plenty of covers to stay warm, a luxury that it seems many Victorians didn't have. Hunger was a fact of life to many Victorians. Add to that the need to keep the body warm and not enough clothes or bed coverings to do that and the whole situation seems to go from bad to worse.

      I don't know what people were thinking who suggested cold water baths. They may have tied the idea to fresh air and exercise. The author told a little of the history of cold water baths but didn't elaborate on how the idea started.

  3. I’m going to have a look at this the next time I’m in a book shop. It’s sounds like something I would enjoy.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Barbara. No doubt you'll know of several (or more) ancestors who lived during that time period.


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