Dangers of the Victorian Era

The Victorian Era — the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901 — was a time of peace, prosperity, and refined sensibilities. Fertility rates increased, no catastrophic epidemics or famines occurred, and health standards and nutrition rose. Nitrous oxide became a common anesthetic in 1846, chloroform was introduced a year later, and antiseptics were discovered by Joseph Lister in 1867. In fact, things were so good during the Victorian Era the populations of England and Wales doubled and approximately 15 million people emigrated to other countries, primarily the United States, Australia, and Canada.

Victorian Era Dangers: Queen Victoria, Author's Collection

Queen Victoria. Author’s collection.

The Victorian Era also saw the first World’s Fair, known as The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations of 1851, which showcased the greatest and latest discoveries, including innovations from bookbinding to firearms and from carriages to musical instruments. It was a time for cultural fulfillment, lavish entertainment, and modern sports. Literature created by Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray was available for all Victorians to read. There were also traveling circuses, museums, and seaside activities, and, when it came to sports, there was cricket, skating, bicycling, croquet, and tennis. Yet, not everything was wonderful during the Victorian Era because there were many dangers Victorians faced some of which included ship travel, crinoline, boracic acid, hydrophobia, and the air.

Ship travel was dangerous for emigrants who were poor and primarily English, Irish, or Scottish. To transport them, emigrants traveled in “steerage,” which in the early Victorian Era was a windowless and ventless lower deck compartment near the rudder that was about 5 feet high:

“[Steerage is] cold, dark, and — at the very outset of the voyage — foul-smelling. It extends nearly the whole length of the vessel beneath the saloon deck, and is divided into gloomy compartments.”[1]

Emigrant Ship, Author's Collection

Emigrant ship. Author’s collection.

People were crammed into these compartments with four tiers of berths or bunks, two on each side:

“[They were] roughly driven hither and thither, and urged into their places by much hard swearing and abuse. Neither officers nor men considered them worthy of the least respect, and treated them as a drove of cattle.”[2]

Emigrants were also expected to provide and cook their own food, and often they either brought an insufficient quantity or no provisions at all. To cook the food, several hundred people used “two small ‘galleys,’ about five feet wide and four feet deep, each supplied with a grate.”[3]

Thousands of emigrants died before reaching their destination because nearly 20 out of every 100 passengers died at sea either from fever or starvation. After the Irish potato famine of 1846, “out of about ninety-eight thousand laborers sent from Ireland to Canada … nearly twenty-five thousand perished in consequence of the poor rations and defective ventilation of the ships.”[4]

Ship travel was not the only Victorian danger. Crinoline, which was a stiffened petticoat or rigid shape designed to support and form a woman’s dress into a bell shape, was described by one paper in this sense:

“We use the word ‘crinoline’ in its conventional meaning — that is, an extravagantly large hoop, or congeries of hoops, whether made of steel, whalebone, or other material.”[5]

Cutaway View of Crinoline, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Cutaway View of Crinoline. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

But crinoline was more than a fashion statement. It was dangerous and blamed for numerous deaths, including the death of an 18-year-old named Sarah Padley. According to Thomas Spencer, about 11:20 in the morning he heard screams and found Padley with her dress on fire. He grabbed a carpet, rolled Padley in it, and succeeded in extinguishing the flames but not before every particle Padley was wearing, except for her boots, was completely consumed by fire. Not only was Padley burnt but also two rooms were set on fire. Padley was wearing a muslin dress extended by crinoline, and, apparently, when she crossed the room, the skirt of her dress touched the fire and immediately ignited. The Middlesex coroner, a Dr. Lankester, noted:

“[It was] one of those numerously distressing casualties from the use of the dangerous crinolines … [and] if every fatal crinoline accident were reported the pubic would know of them, and … crinoline would soon be abandoned.”[6]

In fact, Lankester claimed that between 1861 and 1864 “as many females have met their deaths by fire as were burned to death in Santiago!”[7] and, of these 2,500 deaths, he claimed “the great majority … resulted from the use of crinoline!”[8]

Victorians also had hardly a food or drink that did not have an additive in it. Liquor, bread, cheese, pickled vegetables, and sugary confections were just some of the items poisoned with such things as copper, sulphuric acid, or lead. To stop these poisonings, numerous acts were passed between 1860 and 1879 that helped to create safer foods, but it did not completely solve the problem.

Milk dealers regularly added a boracic acid (sometimes called boric acid) preparation to milk to retard its coagulation and did so into the 1890s. Boracic acid was considered an antiseptic agent and a great food preservative because “when applied to milk warm from the cow, it kept it sweet and lasted twice as long as milk not treated with it.” A Professor Caldwell popularized boracic acid’s use and drank milk with boracic acid in it. He claimed, “No injury occurs to the milk in using 1 part boracic acid for 1000 of milk.”[9] Additionally, proponents of the acid asserted that it was “as permissible to add boracic acid to a food as it is to add salt.”[10]

Critics disagreed. They argued there was no comparison as salt was a food and boracic acid was a drug. In 1892, Dr. J. Förster, who had conducted several experiments related to boracic acid, maintained that even the “addition of boracic acid to articles of food in far smaller proportions than is customary is injurious to health.”[11] The writer of an article titled Food, noted. the “long continued use of the acid is not favourable to good health and … its addition to milk should be prohibited.”[12]

One thing that caused great fear in Victorians was hydrophobia or canine madness (one of the two historic names for rabies). In fact, people of 1800s were so scared of rabies when someone was bitten, sometimes the person committed suicide or other people killed the person because of an irrational fear about what would happen and how the bitten person might behave. The fear was not diminished by Victorian papers either. They were constantly reporting on deaths caused by rabid dogs. For instance, in 1880, in Belfast, one newspaper reported:

“Great excitement was occasioned in Belfast yesterday afternoon by a mad dog running through the principal thoroughfare and biting several persons.”[13]

Rabid Dog, Public Domain

Rabid dog. Public domain.

Fortunately, the animal was caught and destroyed, but not until after it had bitten six individuals, three of who the paper reported were in critical condition.

There were also numerous incidences of hydrophobia in 1881. One particular incident noted that a 5-year-old Manchester girl was bitten when a dog ran into a shop. As the dog was being driven out, it jumped up and bit her on the cheek and lip. She ran home, her mother took her to a chemist, who cauterized the wound, and she seemed fine until suddenly she manifested symptoms of hydrophobia and then died on Christmas Day.

Many other hydrophobia cases happened exactly the same way, and almost all cases were fatal until Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine — harvested from infected rabbits — in 1885. Ten years later, one writer noted that prior to Pasteur’s vaccine the outcome was 

“[O]ut of a hundred persons bitten, nineteen or twenty [died because of hydrophobia and that] … ‘the mortality amongst cases treated at the Pasteur Institute … [fell] to less than one-half per cent,’ … and of 1673 patients treated by Pasteur’s method only thirteen died.”[14]

Besides ship travel, crinoline, adulterated milk, and hydrophobia, probably one of the most dangerous things Victorians had to deal with was the air. Throughout most of the Victorian Era, horses were the primary source of transportation. This meant Victorians constantly dealt with piles of manure, which caused two major problems: It smelled bad and when dried easily converted into a powder that swirled in the air, coating and covering everything wherever and whenever it landed.

Sheffield, England, 1874, Public Domain

Sheffield, England, 1874. Public domain.

Add to the floating manure was coal. It was the main energy source for Victorian businesses and homes. In foggy weather, houses spewed out sooty smoke:

“Steamboats on the Thames … [were] accustomed to vomit out huge volumes of smoke … [and] factory chimneys in the eastern districts of London … filled the air with blackness.”[15]

When this smoke was combined with London’s thick fog, it created smog, and London was soon nicknamed the “Big Smoke.” Yet, London was not alone in creating dangerous sooty air, all major cities did. If smoking houses, boats, and industries were not bad enough, there were numerous noxious and offensive businesses that created pungent odors daily. Tanners, hatters, “fellmongers, soap-makers, fat-melters, bone-boilers, glue-makers, etc. together with all sorts of waste from furriers, wool-spinners, hairdressers, etc.; putrid fish, putrid flesh, and the offal of markets and slaughter-houses … treated in vats or boilers with sulphuric acid and steam [regularly created offensive vapors].”[16] These were mixed and mingled with manure and smoke already thick and blanketing the cities.

References:

  • [1] The Century, Volume 14, 1877, p. 580.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 579.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Crinoline. 1863, p. 2.
  • [6] Punch, Vol. 42, 1862, p. 79.
  • [7] “Crinoline and Fire,” Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser, 26 March 1864, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Workshop Receipts, Vol. 2, 1890, p. 450.
  • [10] Workshop Receipts, Vol. 5, 1883, p. 273.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 272.
  • [12] Ibid. p. 271.
  • [13] “Hydrophobia,” in Portsmouth Evening News, 22 July 1880, p. 2.
  • [14] The Living Age, Vol. 207, 1895, p. 458.
  • [15] Transactions of the Seventh International Congress of Hygiene and Demography, Volumes 5-6, 1892, p. 28.
  • [16] The American Chemist, Vol. 5, 1875, p. 380.

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