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July 20 , 2009

Victorian London

The Tale of a City 1840--1870


To Londoners, the years 1840 to 1870 were years of dramatic change and achievement. As suburbs expanded and roads multiplied, London was ripped apart to build railway lines and stations and life-saving sewers. The Thames was contained by embankments, and traffic congestion was eased by the first underground railway in the world. A start was made on providing housing for the "deserving poor." There were significant advances in medicine, and the Ragged Schools are perhaps the least known of Victorian achievements, in those last decades before universal state education. In 1851 the Great Exhibition managed to astonish almost everyone, attracting exhibitors and visitors from all over the world. But there was also appalling poverty and exploitation, exposed by Henry Mayhew and others. For the laboring classes, pay was pitifully low, the hours long, and job security nonexistent.

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Liza Picard shows us the physical reality of daily life in Victorian London. She takes us into schools and prisons, churches and cemeteries. Many practical innovations of the time—flushing lavatories, underground railways, umbrellas, letter boxes, driving on the left—point the way forward. But this was also, at least until the 1850s, a city of cholera outbreaks, transportation to Australia, public executions, and the workhouse, where children could be sold by their parents for as little as £12 and streetpeddlers sold sparrows for a penny, tied by the leg for children to play with. Cruelty and hypocrisy flourished alongside invention, industry, and philanthropy.

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