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.
Liza Picard shows us the physical reality of daily life. 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 street peddlers sold sparrows for a penny, tied by the leg for children to play with. Cruelty and hypocrisy flourished alongside invention, industry, and philanthropy.
"The author freezes a three-decade time frame to capture the essence—literally, the sights, sounds, and odors—of the British capital at the height of the Victorian era. Picard's systematic examination offers both detail and insight into conditions of life, from all walks of life, as she presents an account at once greatly factual and highly atmospheric. The format is logical and the material easy to follow, with chapters ranging in topic from 'Smells' (to really appreciate London back then, the author instructs the reader to 'think of the worst smell you have ever met'), 'The Streets,' 'Destitution and Poverty,' 'Upper Classes and Royalty,' 'Health,' 'Education,' and 'Religion' . . . [F]or serious and well-versed readers seeking to stoke their interest in learning more about the city that, at the time, was the world's capital."—Brad Hooper, Booklist
"Picard has made a career of writing about London during particular historical eras, and in her Victorian volume she retains the wry tone that makes her social histories so entertaining. Beginning with the scatological (in this case, relating to odors) and finishing with death, she builds her history on primary sources—the diaries of Victorians—as well as published accounts from the era. She looks at the roles of women, the classes, royalty, poverty, the railways, and healthcare, all the while tucking in short, detailed entries on breweries, how to be a lady, the soiling of the Thames and the unfortunately named Thomas Crapper, a pioneer in bathroom plumbing. She also stays close to the story with more and perhaps bawdier personal observations than fit the academic norm, but Picard is not striving to write traditional history. She traces the particulars of London's part in England's industrial revolution through such projects as the London Underground and the building of the Thames Embankments . . . Picard's broader text will enlighten and amuse. Recommended."—Robert Moore, Library Journal
"Picard opens this entertaining study of London's modern transformation with the exemplary tale of engineering genius Joseph Bazalgette's new sewer complex, which relieved the city's stink from overflowing cesspits. She goes on to show how the rise of railways transformed Victorian urban planning, spurring the growth of commuter suburbs. Touching on philanthropic initiatives in public housing, Picard also describes the architectural quirks of the typical Victorian middle-class terraced house and the everyday workings of the city's police, fire, water, gas and refuse services. Picard uses the material details of working, middle and upper classes to tell the story of Victorian class difference, dwelling on the hardships of the domestic servant and the intricacies of some of London's more successful trades, from tanning to piano manufacture to sugar refining. She also provides a fascinating history of London hospitals and medical schools . . . Picard's use of servant diaries, the journals of visiting French tourists and contemporary advice manuals is effective and often humorous. Arch and conversational in tone, Picard's history is an informative treat."—Publishers Weekly