Home and Family Life in Victorian England

Reflections on urban middle-class and working-class relationshsips

Seminar Paper, 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2.0




1. Introduction

2. Background Information
2.1 Victorian Legislation Concerning Children
2.2 Social Classes
2.3 Perceptions of Childhood

3. Family Life
3.1 Doctrine of Two Spheres
3.2 Ideal of Womanhood
3.3 Family Constellations
3.4 Middle-Class Family Life
3.4.1 Marriage
3.4.2 Gender Roles Men Women
3.4.3 Children’s Upbringing Education of Boys and Girls
3.5 Working-Class Family Life
3.5.1 Marriage
3.5.2 Gender Roles Men Women
3.5.3 Children between Work and School Differences between Girls and Boys

4. Conclusion




The Victorian Age, referring to Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to1901, was a period of drastic political, economic and social change.

The impacts of the continuing industrialization affected people’s lives to a great extent. Different occupational patterns as well as renewed social and moral values emerged and shaped the society of this time. The family cannot be considered as a single unit since its interaction with its social environment cannot be denied. Hence, people’s home and family life also underwent a radical change. Yet, not all of England’s citizens were equally affected as the prevailing sharp separation into social classes brought about different prerequisites and chances to cope with the developments. Urban middle-class and working- class members were most susceptible to outside influences, and the purpose of my studies is therefore to analyze and compare their family lives during the Victorian era.


Families are often seen as products of social forces. Thus, it is essential to analyze and understand the political, economical and social conditions that prevailed during the Victorian Age and influenced people’s attitudes and family lives.

2.1 Victorian Legislation Concerning Children

During the 19th century the government passed many laws which reflect the time’s attitude towards childhood and which had major consequences for children’s and accordingly family’s lives.

The Factory Acts (1802, 1833, 1844, 1847, 1850, 1867, 1874 and 1891) set government regulations for working conditions. They included issues like the length of the work day, permitted time-frame for working hours, exclusions of women and children from certain industries and the introduction of factory schools.1

The Youthful Offenders Acts (1854, 1857, 1861 and 1866) established juvenile delinquency as a separate category and drew attention to the child and parent relationship.2 In 1870, the Elementary Education Act set the framework for a national system of state education in Britain. Successive Education Acts of the 1870’s and 1880’s specified certain aspects to encourage as many children as possible to benefit from and to hold parents liable for a basic education.3

Further significant legislative acts were those covering the age of consent (1885), infant life protection (1827 and 1897) and the prevention of cruelty to, and neglect of children (1889).4

2.2 Social Classes

“Different social classes can be […] distinguished by inequalities in such areas as power, authority, wealth, working and living conditions, life-styles, life-span, education, religion, and culture.”5 However, there are neither clear-cut boundaries between the classes nor can one class be considered as homogeneous as its members hold different employment and financial statuses. Nevertheless, they identify themselves with people from similar economic and social backgrounds and dissociate from others.6

England’s Victorian society can be roughly divided into upper class (income from heritage), middle class (white-collar workers) and working class (mostly physical labourers).

All members of a family share a common lifestyle and are equally affected by the demographic differences based on the occupational status of the household’s head. The family instead of the individual can therefore be considered as the unit of social class.7

In an industrial city, working-class families mostly inhabited the central parts whereas middle-class families retreated into the surrounding areas. This geographical distance as well as the social disparity induced the development of two distinct cultures, which are relevant for my further findings about different patterns of family lives.

The middle class in the Victorian era grew because education for the poor enabled social mobility to some extent. However, over 90% of the workers remained in the working class and many of those who climbed the social ladder failed to overcome their working background.8 Downward mobility was also frequent as dramatic economic fluctuations led to bankruptcy among middle-class entrepreneurs.9

2.3 Perceptions of Childhood

Ideas like parenthood and childhood are socially constructed and therefore different perceptions need to be seen as people’s responds to the social, economic, religious and political challenges of their time.10

Before the Victorian Age, the doctrine of original sin, stating that children were born corrupt, had become widely accepted. Popular writers giving mothers practical advices in the 19th century like Hannah More were of the opinion that children have evil dispositions which need to be rectified by education.11 Likewise, Reverend Jacob Abbot instructed parents to bring their children into an absolute submission.12

This idea of childhood was challenged by an upcoming opposing belief.

Rousseau’s assumption that children are born good, which he first introduced in his book Emile in 1762, became popular during the early 1800’s. Infants were now seen as “[…] fresh from the hand of God, living blessings which have drifted down to us from the imperial palace of the love of God.”13 Childhood became an individual state with a distinct set of characteristics, clearly separated from adulthood. Some even say that Victorians “[…] created the concept of ‘the child’ […]. “14

The two contrary viewpoints existed throughout the entire 19th century but the theory of the innocent child gained ever greater recognition.


The new understanding of children entered the domestic domain due to the fact that the concepts of childhood and family life are closely intertwined. Children were now seen as the natural centre around which the family revolved.15

3.1 Doctrine of Two Spheres

Another major influence was the among industrial societies widely spread doctrine of two spheres. The private sphere, a family’s home, was regarded as the safe haven whereas the public sphere was contrarily said to be dangerous and corrupting.16 Gender roles were divided accordingly. The Industrial Revolution shifted men’s work from the home into the marketplace where they were to follow production. Meanwhile women were responsible for reproduction and the social stability of the household. The so-called cult of true womanhood emerged ascribing the virtues piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity to a dignified woman.17

3.2 Ideal of Womanhood

Queen Victoria personified all characteristics of the ideal woman and was hence regarded as “the mother of the nation”.18

A wife was expected to create an inviting, warm-hearted home where her husband and children could retreat to. The prevailing belief within the Victorian society that domesticity and motherhood constituted a woman’s emotional fulfilment was complemented by the ideal conception that raising a well-behaved family was their social responsibility for a morally stable nation.19 Mothers were told that “[…] a happy childhood is the best preparation possible for the realities and hardships of later life.”20

The discussion about perceptions of childhood led to an increasing interest in the child’s psyche and its influencing factors. The mother was held responsible for her child’s strength of character regardless of which view she subscribed to. If the child was thought to be born innocent, bad parenting would demoralize it. In contrast, a vicious child could only be changed for the better by a decent education.21

The new attributes ascribed to a proper upbringing demanded a great deal of women causing it to become a full-time job. Those who were engaged in any additional work were frown upon and accused of endangering their children’s physical and psychic well-being.

3.3 Family Constellations

Many women felt that they could only meet the high expectations with a limited number of children as the increasing demands for time, effort, attention and financial support would have otherwise exceeded their capabilities. Consequently, British couples mostly had fewer than six children, and two to three surviving infancy were the norm throughout this period.22


1 Vgl. Cook-Taylor (Online).

2 Vgl. Hendrick 1997, S.43.

3 Vgl. Bloy (Online).

4 Vgl. Hendrick 1997, S.50.

5 Cody (Online).

6 Vgl. Zinn/Eitzen 2005, S.145.

7 Vgl. Goldthorpe 1989, S.162.

8 Vgl. Ittmann 1995, S.117.

9 Vgl. Kane 1995, S.10.

10 Vgl. Hendrick 1997, S.35.

11 Vgl. Robertson 1974, S.421.

12 Vgl. Zornado 2001, S.102.

13 Vgl. Cunningham 2007, S.69.

14 Gillis 2003, S.82.

15 Vgl. Ariès 1962, S.10.

16 Vgl. Nead (Online), S.2-3.

17 Vgl. Zinn/Eitzen 2005, S.66.

18 Abrams (Online), S.1.

19 Vgl. Abrams (Online), S.4-7.

20 Robertson 1974, S.423.

21 Vgl. Kane 1995, S.50.

22 Vgl. Kane 1995, S.6, 51, 56, 152.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Home and Family Life in Victorian England
Reflections on urban middle-class and working-class relationshsips
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Home, Family, Life, Victorian, England
Quote paper
Christina Schlüter (Author), 2008, Home and Family Life in Victorian England, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/112613


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