Victorian London and Victorian Britain

Victorian London was the centre of the British empire and its foremost city.  It was the quintessential Victorian boom-town:  between 1800 and 1900 the population increased from 1 million to 6.7 million.  Unlike the London of the previous century, which had remained tightly focused around the City, Victorian London spread outwards to engulf satellite towns and villages.  A detailed map of this new London can be found here.

It was an era of architectural and engineering achievement: the Houses of Parliament; the Royal Albert Hall; Tower Bridge; the National Gallery; the great railway stations of King's Cross, St Pancras, Euston and Paddington; the first sections of the Underground; and the massive new underground sewer system.

Royal Albert Hall
Public DomainRoyal Albert Hall
The Construction of the Fleet Sewer
Public DomainThe Construction of the Fleet Sewer
St Pancras Railway Station
Creative Commons AttributionSt Pancras Railway Station - Credit: GadgetDude

 

Victorian London was a city of striking contrasts. The profits of empire and of industrialisation poured in to create the extravagant wealth of the rising middle class, while just a few streets away the poorest citizens were starving to death or succumbing to diseases like cholera and tuberculosis.  The most comfortably-off inhabitants lived well into their 70s, 80s and 90s, while poorer districts saw infant mortality rates as high as 185 deaths in every 1000 births (modern rate 4.8).

A slum district of London (1840)
Public DomainA slum district of London (1840)
A middle class area of London (1837)
Public DomainA middle class area of London (1837)

 

 

Inhabitants of Britain at the start of Victoria's long reign would have struggled to recognise the country at its end. Technological advances included railways (both long-distance overground and underground), domestic electricity, photography, the beginning of cinema, the telegraph, telephones, the car. 

The social changes were just as striking: the emancipation of women; the beginnings of a genuine universal democracy and legal trade unions; the revolution in evolutionary and geological science (among a plethora of other scientific advances); the foundation of a modern police force; the end of child labour and beginning of universal education.  Victorians were aware that they were living in a time of profound change and greeted it with a whole spectrum of responses, from fear and bewilderment to optimism.

Extensive original records from the period, illuminating everything from politics to popular leisure activities, can be found at The Dictionary of Victorian London.

Dorset

Dorset is a county in the south west of England, adjacent to Wiltshire, Somerset, Hampshire and Devon. 

The region has a history stretching back millennia.  As well as the fossils that play a large part in the novel's early sections, there is archeological evidence of Stone Age settlements and Roman encampments.

The industrial revolution had relatively little effect on Dorset, which remained a primarily agricultural county.  As the 19th century wore on, the area came to prominence in the fledgling trade union movement of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Although a railway was built in 1860 to link Dorset to the capital, London would still have seemed another world to the people of Dorset.  The costumes, social mores and customs of the capital would have been regarded by locals as the cutting edge of fashion or scandalously modern, depending on personal outlook.

Lyme Regis
The location of Lyme Bay
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe location of Lyme Bay - Credit: Steinsky

Lyme Regis is known as "the Pearl of Dorset".  The town is placed at the northern edge of Lyme Bay, in the far west of Dorset.

 

Google Map

 

The town first came to prominence in the 13th century, when it became an important trade port. By the 19th century the shallow harbour was no longer suitable for the ever-larger ships being constructed and Lyme's economic importance rapidly decreased.

 

View of the Cobb encircling Lyme harbour
Public DomainView of the Cobb encircling Lyme harbour
Lyme, seen from the Cobb
Public DomainLyme, seen from the Cobb

 

 

 

 

Lyme's pretty whitewashed buildings, clean beaches and attractive countryside have made it a popular tourist destination for several centuries. The 18th and 19th century fashion for sea-bathing, believed to restore and maintain health, brought upper-class visitors to spa towns along the south coast, including Lyme.  Among these visitors was Jane Austen, who records two visits to the town in her letters.  She later used Lyme as the setting for parts of her novel Persuasion.

 

The front at Lyme
Public DomainThe front at Lyme

 

Outside the town, the scenery gets a little wilder, with dramatic cliffs and untamed wildernesses like the Undercliff. Lyme is well known for the large number of fossils found in the cliffs around the town.  In 2004, a large stretch of the Dorset coast around Lyme was declared the Jurassic Coast UNESCO world heritage site because of its archeological importance.

 

The Jurassic Coast, near Lyme
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe Jurassic Coast, near Lyme - Credit: Steinsky
The Undercliff at Lyme Regis
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe Undercliff at Lyme Regis - Credit: Tony Atkin
Other locations

While the story of The French Lieutenant's Woman is centred around Lyme Regis and London, events soon take characters further afield.  This map shows all the novel's settings and the locations of its more significant references.