Life in Victorian Britain: Bleak times?

Charles Dickens spent much of 1851 writing 'Bleak House'. But was it an accurate portrait of contemporary life? Yesterday's publication of that year's census has the answer. By Ian Herbert
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The event will draw six million visitors from across the world and leave many British towns and villages deserted as the residents flock to marvel at creations ranging from musical instruments to guns and from chocolate-stirring machines to locomotives.

They crowd into the newly created Crystal Palace, a vast structure of prefabricated glass panels and iron erected in a matter of weeks in London's Hyde Park.

Yet a few miles beyond Joseph Paxton's glass creation, another, more unappetising story of Britain is in evidence, one of grinding poverty, premature death and daily struggle endured by those whose job is to fuel the economic miracle. This "real" Britain, full of inequalities and hypocrises, is being observed by Charles Dickens for his ninth novel, Bleak House, which will be published in 20 monthly parts from March 1852.

It is also be chronicled by the first complete census of the British nation, undertaken on March 30 1851, a month before the Great Exhibition was officially opened.

For those who missed last night's first episode of the BBC1's 15-part adaptation of Bleak House, directed by Andrew Davies, the census now provides another chance to delve into the story of 1851, because it is launched online today by in conjunction with The National Archives.

Last year, the 1861 census was published online and that means checking geneology can be done on the internet.

The availability of the census fuels the nation's apparently unquenchable desire to study family history. But it also provides a chance to examine a year in which a poor family would be forced to live in one room and where the unemployed and infirm eked out an existence in the workhouse, removing tar from ships' ropes in return for a bed and food.

Look behind any one of millions of names which make an appearance in the 1851 census and lives are uncovered that are every bit as grim as those depicted by Dickens, only minus the vicious satire and comic timing of Bleak House.

No individual is more representative than Elizabeth Bentley, who makes her appearance in the "Yorkshire" category of the category, as a " mill worker, born 1806, age 23". There is an immediate touch of Dickens about the particulars of her working life, gleaned from a public inquiry into factory conditions from the time. She works for the Dickensian-sounding Mr Busk, who ran a flax mill in Leeds.

Work started there for her there at the age of six and she earned a pittance as a "doffer" (removing full spindles of thread or bolts of cloth from the spinning or weaving machinery) . She was allowed 40 minutes at noon for mealtimes but had no time for breakfast or drinks.

Her home was two miles from the mill - naturally, she had to walk - and if she arrived late in the morning, she would be "quartered". In other words if she was quarter of an hour late, she would lose half an hour's pay. She was never beaten for being late but regularly saw boys beaten for being late.

There is no mention of a husband in her life, so she avoided the beatings afforded by the Bleak House character she most resembles, Jenny (played by Charlie Brooks). But if she slowed down at all at the mill, the foremen would strap her, sometimes severely.

Such was the lot of many women like her. As Frederich Engels, then an unknown 24-year-old German exile in Britain, had written in 1844, industrial production made Britain the "workshop of the world" but its social effects included abject poverty, overcrowded dwellings, child labour, sexual exploitation, dirt and drunkenness. The 1851 census recorded that 1,296,000 people worked in the textile industries, 572,000 in metal manufacture and 394,000 in mining. They were servants of machines and subject to the relentless discipline of mechanisation.

This industrial discipline created a working class - which Robert Peel called "an additional race of men" - that was not only dragooned into factories but also compelled to be hard-working, sober and respectable.

The cities created by the Industrial Revolution are magnificent in their scale and monumentally frightful in their slums. Yet, at the same time, cities are magnets, offering women and men much better pay. The Census reveals their sizes.

In 1801, only London had more than 100,000 people. By 1851, there are 10 towns of this size. London grows from 959,000 in 1801 to 2,362,000 in 1851, Manchester from 75,000 to 303,000. The census shows more people live in towns than in the countryside. By 1881, only 12 per cent of the population are agricultural workers. But for those well above the poverty line, there was much to look forward to. Communications were advancing fast, a decade after creation of the Penny Post.

The invention of the sewing machine in 1851 was a source of great excitement. The British were becoming accustomed to the newly created match, too. A man at the peak of his powers was Isamabard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest engineers of the age, who from 1833 had been engineer of the Great Western Railway, a wonder of Victorian engineering and part of a 10,000-mile rail network which, in itself, changed social habits and enables economic growth.

The census bears the names of those swept along on this tide of growth. They include Samuel Lewis (born Birmingham, 1837.) Like Elizabeth Bentley, he began work when 13, became a salesman of steel pens, then opened a jeweller's shop, and finally moved into money-lending.

Edith Barber, a Suffolk listing, was a gardener's daughter who moved with her family at a young age to Hastings, got a job as a draper's assistant to William Bowerman. In 1888, following the death of his first wife, William and Edith married and she too evaded the grinding struggle many of her contemporaries would have known.

Real lives from 1851

Orphan, Joseph Sefton

For the Bleak House orphan Ada Clare, there is hope of life, liberty and riches beyond the grinding poverty into which she was born. But some, such as Joseph Sefton, did not even have that. A native of London, he had a mother but was moved north at 13 to the Quarry Bank cotton mill outside Manchester to earn his keep. Life was better there than for some left in London. "We had clean sheets every month and clean shirts every Sunday," he said. But like many other mill children, Joseph fled home to find his mother. He took a week to reach London on foot, but was caught and hauled before Middlesex magistrates. In court, facing charges of having " eloped and deserted the service of Samuel Greg, cotton manufacturer", he told them: "We had school every night, which we used to attend once a week besides Sundays, eight boys going at a time." He was sent back to the mill.

Aristocrat, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury

Like Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House, "a fine, upstanding indicidual from a noble family", though minus the dark secrets Leicester encounters in the novel. At 25, he was elected MP for Woodstock, a pocket borough. He took an interest in social issues after reading reports about child labour. The Rev George Bull asked him to become new leader of the factory reform movement in the Commons. His critics said he took this up "as much from a dislike of the mill-owners as from sympathy with the mill-workers." But in 1840 he helped set up the Children's Employment Commission. Its first report on mines and collieries was published in 1842. Most people in Britain were unaware women and children worked as miners. Later that year, he piloted the Coal Mines Act through the House of Commons. As a result of this legislation, women and children were prohibited from working underground.

Working Class made good, Edith Bowerman

A gardener's daughter, Edith (née Barber) moved with her family at a young age from Baddingham, Suffolk, to Hastings Old Town. She became a draper's assistant for William Bowerman and eventually married him, giving birth to Elsie when she was 25, in 1889.

Elsie's father retired in 1890, selling his chain of shops, but made sure his daughter was raised in comfortable circumstances. She studied piano at Hastings and St Leonard's college until the age of 11, when she went to Wycombe Abbey School. Her intelligence was apparent as she then went on to study at Cambridge.

Mother and daughter then joined the Women's Social and Political Union, started by Emmeline Pankhurst, and campaigned for the Suffragettes. They took part in increasingly militant, sometimes violent demonstrations; Edith was injured in one by a policeman in 1910. Both women survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Businessman and gent, James Holdsworth

James Houldsworth, a Bleak House John Jarndyce, was a silk designer and manufacturer from Manchester. Born in 1826, he would only have been 25 when he displayed embroidered quilts, table covers, curtains, and panels made from home-grown silk at the 1851 Great Exhibition. He won a prize medal in a manufacturing class and a picture of one of his silk banners was placed in the official catalogue. He was helped by a woman who tried to prove the possibility of profitably rearing the silkworm in England during 10 years of experiments. Houldsworth is still a silk manufacturer on the 1861 census, employing 200 to 300 people. He is living in Prestwich, Lancashire, with his young family including two children and six servants. By the 1871 census he is "a landed proprietor" in Kensington with four more children, 12 servants and two governesses. So the silk business was good business.

Detective, James McLevy

In Bleak House, Bucket is hired to investigate an aristocratic secret. But James McLevy, operated in the low life and criminal underclass. He was among the first detectives to write of his experiences in novels, and bring alive the "the swearings, the fights, the drunken brawls, the prostitutions, the blasphemies, the cruelties, and the robberies" he encountered. Born on a farm in Co Armagh, he was apprenticed at 17 to a linen weaver. Strongly built and powerful, he moved to Edinburgh and joined the police in 1830. His books reveal what happened to many Victorian children who wore good clothes. They were lured into alleys by sugar candy and stripped naked "the little mouth, still stuffed with the sweet bait, was taken care of by a rough hand. The plucking was the work of an instant, bonnet, pinny, napkin, frock, petticoats, boots and stockings". His book, Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh, was based on some of the 2,220 cases he investigated in 1861.