BBC4’s hour-long documentary Hidden Killers of The Victorian Home has been one of my recent television highlights. Dr Suzannah Lipscomb reveals some of the hidden horrors lurking in a typical, middle-class, Victorian home. Joining Dr Lipscomb in her quest to uncover these invisible dangers were a whole host of experts including: Judith Flanders; Dr Suzy Lishman; Prof. Andrew Meharg; Colin King; Matt Furber; Sarah Nicol; Dr Matthew Avison; Nathan Goss and Max Wagner.
The Victorian era was a time of rapid change. The Industrial Revolution enabled many to prosper, leading to greater social mobility for some and the emergence of the new middle-classes. Dr Lipscomb states that as a result of Industrialisation, by the end of the Victorian era, 25% of the population were categorised as middle-class. The middle-classes, with their disposable income, were looking to splash their cash. Gadgets for domestic use as well as decorative items for the home were a particular favourite and the Victorian consumer was spoilt for choice. However, in this unregulated, pre-trading standards era, the margin for human catastrophe was huge.
Arsenic and lead were two particular toxins that caused many, often unexplained, deaths. In a time before health and safety dominated our everyday lives, danger, sometimes death, was never far away and could be found in the most unlikely of domestic items. Vivid green pigments in wallpaper contained traces of arsenic, children’s toys were coated with lead paint and feeding bottles for babies were breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases making them one of the leading contributors towards infant mortality in Victorian Britain.
The fashionable silhouettes of the hour-glass shape or ‘wasp’ waist meant that corsets were very tightly laced and vital organs became misshapen. In the BBC4 documentary there featured a liver specimen from a lady whose tight-lacing habits had put so much pressure on her rib-cage that indentations appeared on the organ itself.
Whilst researching this article, I found the following which appeared in a newspaper from 1895. The piece discusses both trends and dangers of tight-lacing as well as the gradual move towards dress reform – The Rational Dress Society was established in London in 1881. Although, I do get the impression from reading this article that dress reform is viewed by the author with some degree of suspicion: ‘..The dress reformers who are determined to abolish all waists, no matter how sylph-like or how divine..’ The aesthetic for a tiny waist seems to appeal to the author :
Fads in Corsets – Longer in the waist, but not to be laced so tightly. The dress reformers who are determined to abolish all waists, no matter how sylph-like or how divine, will wax indignant when they learn that the latest news of the corset market is the appearance of the longest waisted corset yet offered to women. Heretofore “five clasps and a half” has been considered “extra long”. This gave what the corset experts call a three-inch waist. Women whose anatomy demanded something even longer-waisted than that have had corsets made to order. But now in a few days there will appear a six-clasp corset, and the waist measure thereof will be about four inches – not four inches around, but four inches on the length of the corset bones. This measure of the waist is a term with which most women are not familiar. It means that in bending the corset top and bottom together there is a springy motion which commences a certain distance above the lower edge of the corset. That is the lowest edge of the waist. The point near the top of the corset where the springy action practically ends is the top of the waist. Short-waisted persons may only measure two inches. Four inches indicates that the wearer must either be as slim as a rail or else intend to crowd and crush her vitals into a space that would be almost fatal to a constant wearer after a few years. There is a tendency, however, which all manufacturers and dealers in corsets notice; to wear corsets looser than ever… They [dressmakers] say the ambition of a young woman is to show an hour-glass figure. When she wears tight sleeves and narrow shoulders she laces to secure the hour-glass effect. With the immense sleeves giving such breadth of shoulders it would be perfectly ridiculous to lace into a wasp waist. So the dressmakers claim that the big sleeves are saving many women from death by corsets badly worn. The fact that corsets are worn less tightly laced is partly responsibly for this new six-clasp, four-inch waist style.
(The Western Mail, Saturday 11th May, 1895)
Following marriage, increasing numbers of middle-class women found themselves in charge of running a household for the very first time. A great many of these women had little or no prior knowledge of what this new responsibility entailed. It was to this demographic that domestic goddess, Mrs Isabella Beeton (1836-1865), targeted her famous tome, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Apart from multiple chapters containing recipe suggestions, the book also includes advice on hiring and firing staff, first aid, household legal matters as well as a chapter on the ‘Management of Childhood’.
Particularly relevant to this article is Mrs Beeton’s advice on what to do should a poisoning occur in your home. (please do not follow this advice in modern-day cases. For suspected incidents of poisoning, you should seek professional medical help IMMEDIATELY. Extract featured is purely for historical interest.):
When an alkali is the poison, give drinks of weak vinegar or lemonade. When an acid, chalk and water, whiting plaster from the walls, or white of egg; if a narcotic, give strong coffee, and do everything to keep the patient awake, walking him about, opening the windows wide, applying cold water to his face, and so on. (p.1874)
Until The Pharmacy Act of 1868, the sale, dispensing and compounding of poisons was, to a large extent, unrestricted. Arsenic was used as rat poison, sheep dip and on fly papers and thought to be an effective treatment for malaria, asthma, skin problems, rheumatism and even morning sickness. (Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Forgotten Remedies and Recipes by Eastoe, J. and Goodman, R., 2010, p.121, Pavilion Books). In the early decades of the Victorian era, people were largely ignorant of the harmful effects of ingesting, touching or being close to products containing arsenic. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning (fever, chills and sweating) resembled those associated with cholera, which was one of the nineteenth century’s biggest killers, hence mis-diagnosis and incorrect treatment for arsenic poisoning being commonplace.
Mrs Beeton also gives advice on bottle-feeding, which she refers to in her publication as ‘rearing by hand’. Using feeding bottles during the Victorian era was a very popular alternative to breast-feeding. Some of the bottles were earthenware, made in Staffordshire, others were glass. They were very difficult to clean and although bottles were supplied with long-handled brushes to help with the task, these receptacles became silent killers due to the fact that fatal germ deposits gradually built-up over time. This led to bottles earning the nickname, ‘killer bottles’. (please do not follow this advice at home for cleaning your baby bottles, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Extract is featured purely for historical interest). Mrs Beeton recommends:
There are two methods that may be employed in this artificial system of feeding – the one is to give the child its meals from a spoon, the other is to allow it to suck from a bottle. Of these the latter is preferable. It is most essential to the success of this method of feeding that the bottle or bottles be kept scrupulously clean, as dirty bottles frequently give rise to “thrush”. The best form of bottle to use is the boat-shaped one, with a rubber nipple fixed to the end or neck. No bottles with rubber tubes should be used, since milk sticks to the inside of the tube, and cannot be removed. This milk when decomposed will set-up diarrhoea. The bottle and teat must be scalded after each meal in hot water and soda, the teat turned inside out, and both rinsed in cold water. They then should be allowed to stand in cold water in which a little boracic acid has been dissolved. (p.1914)
I came across in the course of research so many interesting newspaper articles reporting incidents of domestic tragedy from this period. Sometimes death was averted and other times not. Quite a few of the articles specifically relate to the consumption of food that unwittingly contains toxic substances. Since I am currently writing a publication on the history of blancmange, I have chosen here two extracts that relate to the potential hazards of consuming this seemingly innocuous desert:
A Providential Escape – A few days ago one young family of the Hon. A. Ellis, residing at Bognor, were, together with the governess and two maids, nearly poisoned, owing to their having eaten some blancmange, a part of which was coloured a bright light green; very fortunately this green part had an unpleasant taste, which prevented their eating more of it. The medical man who analyzed the remaining quantity found it to contain a verdigris powder. Whilst he had it in a liquid state he dipped into it a knife, which became instantly covered with this green copperas, and he asserts that there was a sufficient portion of this poisonous powder in the quantity analyzed to kill six persons. As it is, the two maids and governess and one of the children are still suffering from its dangerous effects. It appears this powder for colouring the green part had been purchased from a pastrycook in london but it is to be observed that such an article ought never to be sold for such purposes, and this has been inserted as a caution to the public.
(The Blackburn Standard, 18th February, 1846)
Poisoning at a public dinner – great excitement has existed at Northampton, in consequence of the sudden illness of 20 out of about 60 persons who attended a public dinner at the New Hall, which followed the ordination of the Rev. G. Nicholson, B.A., as the minister of the Ring-street dissenting chapel, in the room of the Rev. T. Milner. The viands were of the usual substantial kind, and before the cloth was removed some of the gentlemen were seized with sickness and vomiting, while others were taken ill at a later period of the entertainment. One of them, Mr Cornfield, an accountant in the town, expired at five o’clock on Thursday morning. The dinner was provided by a Mr Franklin, at whose house the whole of the cooking utensils were seized by order of the magistrates. At the inquest held on the body of the deceased, the medical witnesses stated that they had detected copper in the green colouring stuff which coated the blancmange used at the dinner. A verdict of “Manslaughter” was accordingly returned against Mr Franklin, by whom the dinner was provided, and against Randall, the cook.
(The Examiner, 17th June, 1848)
On my recent trip to the excellent Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire, I wandered in and out of the many shops and cosy cottages with their glowing ranges and welcoming costumed inhabitants. I tried to imagine what life must have really been like for those living in an industrial town during Victorian times. It is all too easy to foster a rose-tinted view of Victorian life.
Documentaries such as Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home are a stark reminder, to anyone interested in the social history of the period, to look for the truth behind the social myth.
Blists Hill is not actually a real town, it has been developed over a number of years by The Ironbridge Gorge Trust and covers an area of fifty-two acres. Its purpose is to immerse visitors in the atmosphere of a small industrial town at a pivotal time in British history – the period between 1890 and 1910, late Victorian early Edwardian.
In 2013, Blists Hill celebrates its 40th anniversary. Many of the buildings on the site are original and are from other parts of the region but have been saved and reconstructed to create the Victorian Town you see today. What is remarkable about the site is the fact that in the 1960s when historic buildings were being swept away to make room for modern constructions, the forward thinking Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust stepped in and managed to rescue some of them, ensuring that our heritage is now preserved for future generations to enjoy and study. After this initial period of rescue and reconstruction, the focus of Blists Hill shifted toward turning the site into a Victorian Town:
…the focus of Blists Hill shifted as people and not processes became the new priority. Efforts turned to recreating a coherent environment in which visitors could experience what it was like to live and work when Britain was the Workshop of the World at the very end of the 19th century. Blists Hill Open Air Museum became Blists Hill Victorian Town.
But Blists Hill has never been just a museum of buildings and old things. When the decision was made in the 1980s to put museum staff into Victorian costume, carefully replicated from original patterns, a new standard of interpretation was born. The site came to life. Since then, professional actors have added another dimension to street life, and special themed events have helped emphasise the significance of customs and traditions in the lives of ordinary working class Victorians.
(Blists Hill Victorian Town Souvenir Guidebook, 2011, p.51 & 53, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)
If you were a fan of the BBC’s Victorian Pharmacy (2010) then you may will recognise Blists Hill’s Bates & Hunt’s Pharmacy and Chemist’s shop as being the location used for the series. I could have spent hours in Bates & Hunt’s Pharmacy examining all the pills, potions and lotions that have been superbly re-displayed.
The Pharmacy is based on an original building which was located at the corner shop, Constitution Hill, Wellington, Telford in Shropshire. The date of the store is c.1890 and the contents come from West Cliffe Pharmacy (latterly Pars & Co.), Poole Hill, Bournemouth. The Pharmacy has been at Blists Hill since 9th July, 1984.
- For more information about and to plan a visit to Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire, CLICK HERE;
- For more information about events at Blists Hill and the other Ironbridge museums, CLICK HERE.