Human Interest

A Victorian Summer

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Above Halfpenny Ice seller. Image from: Street Life in London by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877 from Lee Jackson’s Victorian Dictionary website:

The nineteenth century saw an increased percentage of the population of working in factories, sweat shops, mines, and dockyards etc., in the major, industrialised cities of the United Kingdom, rather than on rural farms. Reforms to education also brought in compulsory schooling for children, or “scholars” as they’re so often referred to in census reports from the era. 

These reforms also included the annual six weeks’ vacation for school children. This vacation traditionally begins at the end of June and lasts until the first week in September. The reason for its creation has often been (erroneously) cited as the need for children to help bring in the annual harvest. The agricultural calendar tells us this can’t be the case, however, as early fall is the usual time for the harvest to be brought in. 

Whatever the reason for the vacation, schoolchildren were nonetheless given an opportunity to enjoy the good weather over summer. This enjoyment wasn’t just had by the children, either. The Bank Holidays Act of 1871—and the supplementary Act of 1875 for all banks in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—also provided working adults with designated days off. Though not statutory public holidays, these days have—more often than not—extended to most places of business. One such day is in August; the height of summer.

What did the average working Victorian do to make the most of their time off, then? Prior to the construction of the steam railway network across the United Kingdom, travel for pleasure was a luxury enjoyed by the wealthy elite. After the steam railway was introduced, though, the average working Victorian could afford a day ticket to one of the numerous seaside resorts, such as Southend, Brighton, and Blackpool. Once there, they’d take in the fresh air (sea air was thought to bring many health benefits), sit on the beach, partake in seafront entertainments—such as shooting galleries and fun fairs—swim, or watch beach entertainers.  

Above: BRIGHTON 1896 – NO SOUND video uploaded to YouTube by British Movietone on 21st July 2015 

During the Victorian era, many workshops would create their own Excursion Clubs. This would consist of each employee putting in some money, the workshop closing down for the day, and everyone in the workshop travelling—by cart or the like—to Epping Forest for a picnic. Restall’s Trips were also organised by a company run by Messrs. Restall during the summer. These were half-day outings to the abovementioned seaside resorts. According to Charles Dickens Jr. et al, Dickens Dictionary of London, c.1908 edition, Restall held five excursions in 1894 with 4,000 passengers, 37 in 1895 with 24,000 passengers, 50 in 1896 with 55,000 passengers and so on. In 1900, Restall ran 109 excursions with 99,078 passengers—a truly magnificent number for the time.

Above: George Cruikshank (in ‘Punch and Judy’ by J.P.Collier) 1828

A staple of British, Victorian seaside resorts was the Punch & Judy puppet show. According to Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.):

“Punch…made his first appearance in England more than two hundred years ago; for we find that in 1666—7 an Italian puppet-player set up his booth at Charing Cross, and paid a small rental to the overseers of the parish of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. If we look in their books under that date, we shall see four entries of various sums ‘received of Punchinello, ye Italian popet player, for his booth at Charing Cross.’ So that Master Punch is rather an old inhabitant in our midst, and we may look upon him as a rare relic of the rough fun of our forefathers.”

The catchphrase “that’s the way to do it”, a string of sausages, a crocodile, and a stick were all trademarks of the beloved story performed for the enjoyment of young children over the centuries. As described above, Punch & Judy puppet shows weren’t only performed at the seaside. 

Working Victorians enjoying some well-earned time off could also find entertainment in the form of a visit to the macabre Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition of Waxworks and Napoleonic Relics on Baker Street. The Chamber of Horrors included the likeness of Mr Muller who, in 1864, committed the first murder on a train (that of Mr Briggs), and was executed for his crime in the same year. 

Donkey rides on Clapham Common and the wide open spaces of Hampstead Heath were also on offer. The donkey rides were also a common sight at British seaside resorts. I remember a time when my brothers (who are only in their late twenties at the time of writing this feature) enjoyed a donkey ride along a beach at South Shields in the North-East of England when they were small children. 

Ice cream—or “cream ice” as it was more commonly known at the time—was a particular favourite amongst the street children of London during the summer months. The cream ice makers were predominately Italian. According to Adolphe Smith in his book with J. Thomson, Street Life in London from 1877, the vendors gained the most profit from the “coloured and water ices” which:

“…generally consists of cochineal, and has no connexion whatever with the raspberries or strawberries which it is supposed to represent. There really is nothing in these ices but sugar, to which the cochineal adds a certain roughness that produces a titillation on the tongue, fondly believed by the street urchins to be due to raspberries. This ice is altogether, therefore, a very questionable article, and the less consumed the better the consumer will find himself. The lemon ices are equally inexpensive, consisting but of sugar and water, flavoured with a lemon, or with some essence of lemon. This is a safer delicacy, and, in fact, if the essence may be relied upon, and the water clean, cannot do any harm”.

In contrast, the cream ice has the following ingredients: 

“…milk is indispensable to its manufacture, and indeed eggs should also be used. This necessity altogether destroys the golden dreams suggested by the water ices, and great are the efforts made to sell the latter, or at least to mix a goodly proportion with the expensive cream delicacy.”

As mentioned earlier, Punch & Judy puppet shows were performed for children in the city, too. Other street entertainers included clowns, acrobats, and even a potato thrower. The last being an unfortunate man who—with a bald held full of bruised bumps and lumps—would toss large potatoes into the air and attempt to catch them. Onlookers would toss in money at the thrower’s behest and, after the first variety of potato was tossed, onlookers would be invited to toss in yet more money to see him throw an even larger variety of potato. 

Our journey through a Victorian summer has ended, but our summer has only just begun. Whatever you do over the coming months, I wish you and yours a very, very happy summer. 

Sources of reference:

A Brief History of The English Summer Holiday, an Oxford Royale article published on the 12th August 2016 

Bank holiday, an Encyclopaedia Britannica article by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 

BRIGHTON 1896 – NO SOUND video uploaded to YouTube by British Movietone on 21st July 2015 

The following are all sources taken from Lee Jackson’s Victorian Dictionary website: 

Street Life in London: HALFPENNY ICES chapter by J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877  

Street Life in London: CLAPHAM COMMON INDUSTRIES chapter by J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877  

George Cruikshank (in ‘Punch and Judy’ by J.P.Collier) 1828

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879

Charles Dickens Jr. et al, Dickens Dictionary of London, c.1908 edition

‘One of the Old Brigade’ (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853

Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883]

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

T.G. Campbell is a British Crime Fiction Author living just outside of London, England. Her debut novel, The Case of The Curious Client, won the Fresh Lifestyle Magazine Book Award in April 2017. A month later she was honoured to accept the opportunity to become a monthly columnist. Her novels follow a fictional group of amateur detectives operating in 1896 London called the Bow Street Society. She undertakes extensive research and study of the British Victorian Era to ensure accuracy in her work; study/research which includes visits to museums, attending Victorian Era-themed events, and a whole lot of reading. It’s her passions for history, true crime, and British Victorian culture which she wants to share with Fresh Lifestyle Magazine readers. All her works may be found on Amazon and more can be found at  

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