Victorian Britons were obsessed with their homes. This was a period characterized by rapid industrialization, expansion of the availability of consumer goods, suburbanization, and the redefining of houses as domestic sanctuaries filled with the material evidence that a family was or was not “middle class.” Men and women no longer labored side-by-side in the home to make a living. Instead, bread-winning husbands left the house in the morning, worked the day away in an office or overseeing a factory, and returned home hungry and ready to be enveloped by the warmth of his house, family, and domestic angel (aka, wife). The warmth – and light – of those houses was another characteristic of Victorian life. While open coal hearths continued to dominate home heating, the Victorian era was also the first to use radiant boiler-powered heat, whole-house gas lighting, and even – infrequently, but innovatively nonetheless – electricity. It was a brave, sometimes dangerous, often times poisonous, new world, but at least it was warm?
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.
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Transcript of Get Lit: Heating and Illuminating Homes in Victorian Britain
Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD
Produced and recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, MIL, PhD Candidate
Averill: Victorian Britons were obsessed with their homes. This was a period characterized by rapid industrialization, expansion of the availability of consumer goods, suburbanization, and the redefining of houses as domestic sanctuaries filled with the material evidence that a family was or was not “middle class.” Men and women no longer labored side-by-side in the home to make a living. Instead, bread-winning husbands left the house in the morning, worked the day away in an office or overseeing a factory, and returned home hungry and ready to be enveloped by the warmth of his house, family, and domestic angel (aka, wife). The warmth – and light – of those houses was another characteristic of Victorian life. While open coal hearths continued to dominate home heating, the Victorian era was also the first to use radiant boiler-powered heat, whole-house gas lighting, and even – infrequently, but innovatively nonetheless – electricity. It was a brave, sometimes dangerous, often times poisonous, new world, but at least it was warm.
I’m Averill Earls
And I’m Marissa Rhodes
And we’re YOUR historians for this episode of Dig.
Marissa: When we talk about the “Victorian era,” historians are generally referring to the period in which Queen Victoria reigned in Great Britain and Ireland, or 1837 to 1901. But Victorian ideals of behavior, gender roles, domesticity, imperialism, and various aspects of society extended beyond Victoria’s life, and beyond Great Britain and Ireland. But for today’s purposes we’re talking specifically about Britain in the time of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Averill: If you dropped down into January 1880 London and took a deep breath before jauntily (John T. Walker) heading down the street, you’d probably keel over gasping and spluttering. Besides the high likelihood that you’d be near a glue factory, a chemical works, or a slaughterhouse, there was widespread garbage on the streets, poor sewage drainage, and overflowing cesspools all over the city. And in addition to the foul stench in every late-Victorian cities, the very air was saturated with noxious death fumes. In the winter of 1880, over 2000 Londoners choked to death, pre-existing lung conditions exacerbated beyond repair by the coal-emission polluted fog that hung heavily over the city. Travel, trade, and everyday life ground to a halt under the heft of the poisonous air. In the early part of the century, the air pollution was mainly the result of tall factory smoke stacks churning out the bi-product of industrialization. But between 1841 and 1880, Britain’s population nearly doubled from 18.5 million to 29.7 million, and the domestic consumption of coal on the island rose exponentially, from 12 million tons to some 28 million tons annually. In 1800 the London population was just under 1 million; by the end of the century it was over six million. The miasma of London in 1880 was a joint effort of industrial production and everyday Londoners trying to keep warm in their soot-blackened home interiors.
Marissa: So instead of taking a deep breath and whistling your way home, you might instead lift your embroidered handkerchief – purchased for you by your wife at Harding, Howell & Company, the world’s first department store, located in St. James’s, London – to cover your mouth as you’re hit with a wave of that nauseating London stench. Fortunately for you, you’re a pretty successful middle class white man. We’re going to call you Daniel Charles Wallace. That’s a pretty solid Victorian British name, right? And, of course, all of the characters in this podcast are fictional, no matter how much they may seem to resemble a real person. So you, Mr. Wallace, are going to head out of the toxic heart of London to your quaint, new-build home in the fashionable Stoke Newington suburb, north of London. It’s a long walk out of the city center to Stoke Newington, but fortunately your manservant is waiting with the carriage to take you home. You hop in, and Paddy sets the carriage in motion along the cobbled streets. Paddy, you reflect, is an uncharacteristically quiet Irishman; you were hesitant to hire him, because you are mistrustful of the hordes of tenement-occupying immigrants of London’s East End, but your wife interviewed his last employer – per Mrs. Beeton’s advice – and he came with favorable recommendation.
Averill: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was the instruction manual for Victorians. Originally published in installments between 1859 and 1861, it was first bound as a single volume in 1861. Though Isabella Beeton, the author, died in 1865, subsequent editions continued to be produced and expanded well into the 20th century. It provided detailed instructions on every conceivable aspect of middle class life – from how to prepare meals, in vivid detail, to managing the household budget, to decorating the home, to hiring staff. A successful middle class household would employ a range of man and maidservants – though, of course, few actually had the means to do so. In the section on hiring help, Beeton counseled the lady of the house to be careful when choosing potential servants, and rather than interviewing the prospective employee him or herself, the lady should interview the previous employer. Conversely, a good middle class lady would never give a good recommendation for a “bad” employee. The image of Victorian life presented in Beeton’s manual represents the ideal; as in all things idealized, the expectations laid out in domestic guidebooks were rarely attainable. Beeton’s book is exemplary, however, in its detailed instructions for cooks. Earlier cookery books lacked the step-by-step instructions we’re more used to now. Beeton’s led the way in teaching ladies how to prepare everything from curried fish to roast beast. She also recommended, disturbingly, the cooking of carrots for upwards of 1.5 hours – so hopefully Victorian women took even her cooking lessons with a grain of salt.
Marissa: With regard to the hiring of Domestic Servants, one edition of Beeton’s Book counsels:
When the distinction really depends on things so insignificant, this is very probably the case; when the lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tournure of his calf, it is not surprising that she should find a domestic who has no attachment for the family, who considers the figure he cuts behind her carriage, and the late hours he is compelled to keep, a full compensation for the wages he exacts, for the food he wastes, and for the perquisites he can lay his hands on. … The sensible master and the kind mistress know, that if servants depend on them for their means of living, in their turn they are dependent on their servants for very many of the comforts of life; and that, with a proper amount of care in choosing servants, and treating them like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses for the shortcomings of human nature, they will, save in some exceptional case, be tolerably well served, and, in most instances, surround themselves with attached domestics.
Averill: Unfortunately for you, Mr. Wallace, riding in your carriage back home to Stoke Newington, your wife follows every direction in Beeton’s book. You remember, with some dread, that’s she’s making curried boiled salmon with carrots for supper. You sigh, woefully, regretting that you didn’t stop at the Reform Club on Pall Mall to take your supper. And then your carriage pulls up in front of your home. The Gothic Revivalist style is adorned with hood mouldings and decorative patterns in an almost gingerbread-house facade, and the Welsh slate of the roof is just visible on the steeply peaked roof. Your house, semi-detached and very similar to every other semi-detached house on the street, shares a front stoop with the Kinsleys next door. You can see Mrs. Kingsley closing the heavy drapes of her drawing-room, her tightly corseted frame silhouetted alluringly in the window. You do not, you remind yourself, covet your neighbor’s wife.
Marissa: There isn’t a single, discernible “Victorian” style of architecture. Britons lump a range of architectural styles together under monarchical titles. So just as Georgian and Edwardian homes and buildings can vary in their design and style, Victorian homes and buildings tended to be an amalgamation of Gothic Revival, Queen Anne’s style, Arts and Crafts in the later period, and a mish-mosh of Middle Eastern and East Asian aesthetics and details. Still, the mid- and late- parts of the Victorian period ushered in acres and acres of suburban and urban housing developments, making long streets of almost identical semi-detached, row, and back-to-back houses throughout and around British cities. So semi-detached, three-story buildings like Mr. Wallace’s home were quite common.
Averill: Down the street, the lamps have begun to glow. Forty years ago there would have been lamplighters tramping up and down streets to manually bring light to the streets of London. By 1880 most of the tall, black street lamps were powered by gas and automatically lit on a mechanical timer.
Marissa: Public and private gas lighting arrived in Britain in the early 1800s. The gas used to power this form of illumination was a by-product of the industrial processes used to turn wood, turf, and coal into charcoal, coke, and tar. In the heating of the former, an inflammable gas was released, and if harnessed, that gas could be used to fuel lighting fixtures. Combined with advancements in pneumatic chemistry, this gas was captured, stored, and delivered to illumination devices all over Great Britain, from the street lamps outside to the chandeliers and lights in homes that would, for the first time, light entire rooms. Rather than the limited scope of an oil lamp or candle, gas lighting changed the everyday Victorian experience, indoors and out.
Averill: On the Continent, attempts to expand the accessibility of gas lighting failed in the late 18th and early 19th century beyond individual inventors’ projects — like the Hotel de Seignelay, which was completely lit by gaslight by 1801, thanks to the efforts of the French civil engineer Phillipe Lebon. The infrastructure to commercially scale gas lighting did not exist in France; but they did exist in Britain. Boulton & Watt, an early British engineering and manufacturing company known for making marine and stationary steam engines, led the way. Between 1802 and 1810, Boulton & Watt developed the technology to scale and distribute gas lighting, which they did to mills in the north of England. By the time they lost interest in pursuing it as a commercial venture, they’d worked out the kinks enough to make the technology viable for others to pick up.
Marissa: By the mid-19th century, gas lighting was ubiquitous in public city spaces of Britain. Many of London’s streets were illuminated – particularly in the middle and upper class neighborhoods like Kensington, Piccadilly, and Stoke Newington. As Hans Casper Escher wrote in 1814,
Since my last visit to London, a remarkable undertaking has been launched there. In one of the main streets the shop windows have been lighted by gas. This gas–or inflammable air–is conveyed like water through pipes on both sides of the street. Every householder or shopkeeper gets in touch with the gas company and signs a contract for the supply of lamps or wick-holders which he requires and he pays for the gas in accordance with the number and size of lamps.
Averill: (If anyone is familiar with the PBS/BBS historical drama Victoria, gas and modernization is a subplot of the “downstairs”– Victoria’s confident and governess attempts to have Buckingham palace updated with gas pipes and lighting to cut down on the cost of candles. She and the head butler clash, because the Butler – and every servant in the royal household, evidently – is making a side profit by selling gently used royal paraphernalia, from the candles to Victoria’s gloves (she requires a new pair every day). The butler is resistant to the gas for his profiteering reasons, but exclaims that the governess will blow up the house, and goes on a subversive crusade to make the installation of the pipes impossible. Despite gaslighting being so prevalent in Victorian life, Victoria’s palace was never gaslighted. Instead the royal family had electricity installed, starting with the ballroom in 1883, with the rest of the palace electrified by 1887.)
Marissa: Between 1812 and 1820, the Gas Light and Coke Company set up shop in London. When GLCC started, there was no comparable model to base their business on; telegraph systems, water provision, sewage disposal, and other city-wide networks for similar services and products did not yet exist. So GLCC had to start a network. With no comparable city-wide services, they led the way. They had to install and, by extension, own everything about their service – the pipes, the gasworks, even the burners in homes and shops and on streets. They started with several small producing plants scattered throughout the city, but demand was so high they had to build a much bigger factory to produce an adequate supply. With a royal charter and public enthusiasm, gas lighting spread from London to the industrial north and smaller cities.
Averill: Back to you, Mr. Wallace. You throw open the heavy front door, immediately shaking off your heavy woolen overcoat – another Harding, Howell & Company purchase – and hang up your hat. While your house’s exterior might or might not reveal your Victorian middle class identity – because, again, architectural styles varied quite widely in the Victorian period – the interior decorating and layout of your home most certainly evinces your Victorianness. The walls are papered with an intricate red and gold swirling leaf pattern – fortunately you vetoed the use of the arsenic-green that your wife proposed for the hallway after reading about the dozen or more deaths caused by people’s wallpaper . There are shadow boxes and portraits suspended from the walls, and the warm glow of several gas ceiling fixtures light the length of the hall. Dark wood furniture lines the hallway – a grandfather clock on the right, a tall, ornate wall console adorned with religious iconography and statuettes on the left, and an umbrella stand carved with Indian elephants is beside the front door. Material wealth is a marker of social status. Being able to afford the new ‘modern’ conveniences and latest and most fashionable household goods is central to your middle class identity. Home, sweet home.
Marissa: This entryway is to the ground floor of the house. A comfortably wide hallway stretches past two rooms on your left – the front drawing-room and then the formal dining room, and then is interrupted by a staircase leading up to the first floor. Slightly to the left of the staircase is the door to the kitchen. Distantly you can hear the sound of little feet running from upstairs; most likely your playing children in their nursery on the second floor. You head past the drawing-room – your wife is not entertaining today, so it is quiet and unoccupied – and into the dining room. She sits in an armchair by the fire, comfortably stitching at some needlework.
Averill: Every room in the Victorian British house would have a fireplace. By the 19th century, the standard fireplace reflected heat back into the room rather than being sucked up entirely into the chimney. Still, as one might guess, fireplaces are not particularly efficient heating sources. The fireplace was central to every Victorian room, and every home manual and guidebook gushed over the centrality of the hearth as the heart of a home. And, as we’ve already suggested, by the mid-19th century, everyone was burning coal in their fireplaces. Though there were German-designed closed stoves and American-designed steam heating options widely available on the market, most Britons rejected these options. The open fire was simply too important to family time, to the sense of the home’s warmth. Paradoxically, the inefficiency of the fireplace was part of its appeal. Shirley Forster Murphy’s guidebook argues against the use of the American or German heating system, stating that, “The open fire has this advantage, that one man may war himself at it and get as close to it as he likes, and another may keep away from its rays, and yet be in the society of those who profit by its heat. In a room heated by stove popes or warmed by air this is not so.” Historian Judith Flanders notes sardonically that “this was only one of many books to say that being half burnt, half-frozen was a positive feature of the English system.”
Marissa: At the start of Victoria’s reign, there were several heating options available to Britons. By the 1880s, gas heaters were available for consumer purchase, and could connect to the existing gas delivery system to the houses. Alternatively, ‘closed’ stoves were on the market, which vented out of the house, and which burned anthracite or coke. Steam power, the crux of British industrialization, was adapted to home heating by the 1840s.
Averill: But, like you, Mr. Wallace, and your white middle class family, many houses maintained their open coal fires. This was particularly so among the working class, whose homes had no other option – or for whom the luxury of radiant or forced air heating was too expensive. Coal was plentiful and relatively cheap. On average a common laborer could expect to make about 1 pound per week in the 1880s; a week’s supply of coal cost on average 1 shilling and 3 pence, or about 23 pence. (There are 240 pence in a pound.) But middle class families maintained their central coal fires as well. Counterintuitively, Victorians believed that the open fireplace would provide the householders with greater ventilation and cleaner air.\
Marissa: The cozy open fire was also contributing to the miasma within the home. There was constantly soot floating into the house. Winters were thus long and filthy affairs. The dining room table wasn’t set until minutes before eating, or it would be grey and dingy before the family sat down to the meal. A housemaid was likely to spend all of her time in the winter tending to fires and lamps throughout the house, and giving the fireplaces a daily cleaning. Cleaning the fireplace involved removing the ashes, buffing the fender, grate, and fender irons until they gleamed, and if there was any rust visible, rubbing it off and touching it up with a black paste that was then polished to a shine. If a middle class household couldn’t afford a live-in servant, the lady of the house took up the arduous task of maintaining the home heating. And spring cleaning was a serious undertaking – once the fires weren’t needed, the entire house would need to be scrubbed, oiled, beaten, and shaken to combat a winter’s worth of coal, candle, and lamp soot and grime.
Averill: The residue of loving and relying on open fires was not just an aesthetic concern. The anxiety around carbonic acid was not just outside the home. The noxious fumes that might suffocate children and women – those who spent the most time in their homes – were just as likely to come from the heating and lighting elements inside the home. Some middle and working class parents even left their childrens’ windows open all night long to try and air the room out. For a poor family, that might mean children would huddle together on a thin mattress, wearing all their clothes, maybe with a thin blanket, sharing their body heat and little more in the cold British winter air. The doctors who wrote and railed against the filthy British atmosphere kindled real fear in parents.
Marissa: Many elected to not have fires in the bedrooms at all. Even the wealthiest middle class families who had fires roaring in four or five common spaces day and night preferred cold bedrooms. The Modern Householder by Shirley Forster Murphy thought that 50 degrees was the ideal temperature for the bedroom. (And Averill would agree with this, because that’s the temperature of her house all the time.) And because the inefficient fireplaces leaked all their heat out the chimney, there was little chance that heat from the ground floor could rise to warm the first floor, and certainly not the second floor, where the servants’ and younger childrens’ bedrooms were tucked away. Middle class children, at least, would have the luxury of warm blankets to snuggle under, and possibly even bed curtains to trap some of their body heat.
Averill: Rather than install the more efficient heating units, Victorian Britons found all kinds of work-arounds to stay warm. People heated bricks to set their feet on and wore shawls indoors. Drapes over doorways were both fashionable and sensible, preventing drafts from blowing under doors. Cold bedrooms meant the wood floors that were standard in 19th century homes were painfully cold to walk on in the morning. Those who could afford it had rugs everywhere. The poorest would weave rag rugs out of fabric scraps. The middling sort moved old parlour and drawing-room carpets up into bedrooms, sometimes even cutting the larger area rugs of those spaces to give better coverage to several bedrooms. These were generally threadbare, stained, and well beyond their years. Mrs. Panton describes the carpet of her 1850s and 60s youth as a “threadbare monstrosity, with great sprawling green leaves and red blotches, ‘made over’ from a first appearance in a drawing-room, where it had spent a long and honored existence, and where its enormous design was not quite as much out-of-place as it was in the upper chambers.” Bedrooms in the early part of the Victorian era were sparsely furnished, with pieces no longer suitable for the entertaining rooms on the ground floor. By the end of the 19th century, those who could afford to outfit their rooms as lavishly as their public spaces did so. A lusher carpet, after all, would protect feet more effectively from cold floors on a winter’s morning.
Marissa: As you, Mr. Wallace, step into the dining room, your fashionable wife rises slowly, setting her needlework aside. You throw yourself onto the chaise lounge, and put out your hand. After a few moments, she sets a glass of gin and tonic in your outstretched hand. It’s still your favorite drink since your days with the Company in India. She pets your head gently, and you sit up enough to sip your drink. You tell her about your long day at the office and she coos prettily, perching on the edge of the lounge. “Where are the children, Mother?” you ask her. “I should like to play trains with them before supper.” She murmurs that she will fetch them from the nursery, and then see to supper.
Averill: As a side note, your wife is demure and quiet because her very breathing is restrained by the tight corset that gives her an unnatural 20 inch waist. In the name of fashion, she straps into a whale bone corset which pushes her breasts up and out, and also squashes her internal organs into places where they should not be, preventing her diaphragm from ever taking a full breath. She moves quite slowly through the house, because to do otherwise would send her into a faint from corset-induced hyperventillating. The pleasures of being a Victorian lady. And yes, you refer to her as “Mother,” rather than her name or even some less Freudian pet name, because you’ve been trained to see her in her role as mother and keeper of the house. She is your domestic angel. Lucky her. She sends your two children down to play, and the three of you make train noises on the floor while she disappears into the kitchen to see how Cook is progressing with your evening meal.
Marissa: The kitchen is most certainly the warmest place in the house during the day. A massive cast iron range takes up most of one wall. Your new-build home has a range with an integrated chimney, rather than a stove that is built into a pre-existing fireplace, which was the case with most mid-19th century homes retrofitted with the ‘modern’ convenience of a range. Victorian stoves had to be massive because they would, on a regular basis, be making meals for upwards of 12 people. Your household is comparatively small – just you, your wife, your two children, the footman, the Cook, the Cook’s assistant, and the housegirl. A mere nine people for whom to make breakfast and dinner every day.
Averill: Both the open fire stove and closed stoves, or ‘kitcheners’, burned coal. These massive appliances had their pros and cons. The heat in these ranges, modern though they might be, were not particularly regulatable. So recipes could not call for an oven temperature of 350 and Bob’s your uncle. Instead, “recipes called for ‘a bright fire,’ or ‘a good soaking heat,’ or a fire that was ‘not too fierce.’” (Flanders, 106) Though gas cookers were available in the Victorian period, they were rarely used. Because cooking meals for 8-12 people every day took a lot of time, the cost to run a gas cooker was untenable. More importantly, the modern ranges included a boiler – so there was always hot water readily available from the kitchen range, which was a wonderful change for Victorians from earlier periods. As one might imagine, with the levels of grime a Victorian endured every day, access to hot water was a major bonus. So a bit of burn on your pudding was preferable to cold water in the wash basin on any given morning.
Marissa: But with coal being burned in both the open fireplaces and the kitchen stove – which was running for most if not the entire day, preparing these massive meals – contributed heavily to the black pallor that hung over Victorian London. Not that this was not the experience of Londoners only. In 1837 there were just five cities outside London with populations of over 100,000; by 1891, there were over 23. In 1851 more than half the population of England lived in towns, and many of them worked in the new factories. And people were living on top of each other. By 1840, population density had increased to 138,000 people per square mile in Liverpool, 100,000 people per square mile in Manchester, 87,000 in Leeds, and 50,000 in London. Population density and number increased the volume of personal coal emissions exponentially by the end of the Victorian period. The filth and poor air quality was of great concern to Victorian doctors and public health officials. The method that Victorians overwhelmingly chose to stay warm was detrimental to their health – but little was actually done about it – not at the individual level, but not even at the state level. The British government didn’t pass a clean air act until 1956.
Averill: Smoke stacks that adorned skylines were supposed to pipe the black clouds up and away from the atmosphere, but the density of coal pollution just settled in over the city, keeping out fresh air and blackening buildings, streets, and people. Trees disappeared, cut down to make way for the ever-expanding suburbs, or were killed by pollution. The costs of being warm in a house full of consumer goods, of eating, reading, and playing in a home illuminated by gas and electric lights, of living the Victorian life, were high.
Marissa: You, Mr. Wallace, will live through this winter. Your children will both get pneumonia, but they’ll pull through because you’ll all take a holiday at the seaside resort of Brighton for three weeks in February, when the worst of the smog descends on London. Your wife’s constant shallow breathing may save her in the end, because she never takes the toxic coal dust deep into her lungs. It’s good that you’re a pretty well-to-do middle class white man. Your Cook’s entire extended family – a brother, sister-in-law, and six children, will suffocate in London’s East End at the end of January. You’ll take her to Brighton with you, because you feel bad about her family, and she’ll feel healthier, if not happier by the end of the trip. By late March, the weather starts to warm up, and your wife oversees the scrubbing of every household surface, the vigorous beating of every rug, and the washing of every fabric than can be washed. It smells pretty nice for a few days. But even still, you miss the nights gathered around that cheerful fire, playing trains with your children on the floor while Mother does her needlework, and you almost look forward to next winter.
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Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management (Originally published 1859-61; made available through Project Gutenberg 2003)
Ellie Cawthorne, “7 Memorable Moments in the History of Buckingham Palace,” History Extra 2 Mar 2016
Jonathan Glancey, “A History of the Department Store,” BBC
Pat Hudson, “The Workshop of the World,” BBC (March 2011)
Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home (WW Norton: 2005)
Ruth Goodman, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide
Suzannah Lipscomb, “Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home,” BBC
Allison Meir, “Death by Wallpaper,” Hyperallergic (October 2016)
Stephen Mosley, “Fresh and Foul Air: the Role of the Open Fireplace in Ventilating the British Home,” Planning Perspectives v18 (2003)
Leslie Tomory, Progressive Enlightenment : The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820
John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle Class Home in Victorian England (Yale University Press, 2007)