Why I love the Victorians

The Victorian Slum was an emotive series touching those who know little about the era as well as those who know much more about it. As I tweeted at the time, this programme should be on the school curriculum.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Victorian era. For me it is the era where history starts. Anything since the Victorians is just modern day whereas anything before it stands as a Victorian gateway, guiding us yet further into our past.

Queen Victoria died in 1901, just seeing us into the new century. It was the century during which almost everyone I know (older than 16) was born. Somehow that connects us along the production-line known as the human race.

The Victorian Slum was a well-crafted insight on fast-forward across several decades into what life might have been like for the poorer end of society. I initially watched as an observer but got emotionally pulled into the trials of all of the inhabitants of the tenement building. I’d never before considered the connectedness and the intricacies of how one person’s bad luck then might be good luck for another inhabitant. I lived it with them.

And I was particularly outraged for The Victorian Slum-dwellers when the paying wealthy public were permitted to tour the slum homes and gawp at their misfortunes. Yet gawping is something we still do in this day and age at both the wealthy and unfortunate, yet perhaps a little more in the privacy of our own homes – via the internet, television or newspapers.

wp_20161205_11_06_25_pro-1During my lifetime I’ve met real-life Victorians. My maternal great-grandfather (a German – pictured) came to Sheffield, England in 1888 as young teen for a better life. He moved with family down to Birmingham where he married and settled into a new life, marrying in 1897. Sadly he died when I was a young girl in the 1960s and although I can remember him as an elderly gent in a tall Victorian front room sat in front of an open fire, I wonder what the younger man was like. What was going on in the world that made his mother pack him off to relatives in Victoria’s England for a better life when he was so young?

My paternal step-nan was born in 1899. She lived into her 90s into the 1990s. What a world of change she must have seen. She’d have been a toddler in 1901 on Queen Victoria’s demise so, strictly speaking she was a Victorian and we only lost her about 20 years ago. That IS recent history.

Victorian memorabilia surrounds us in abundance of what they’ve left behind – design, industry, architecture, monuments, commercial buildings and houses. Paintings, documents, books, crockery, fashion, events, a way of doing things. We see it, use it, live with it all daily.

This is the first era captured comprehensively by photography to give us clues as to what life might have been for them. The Victorian era can be brought alive by photographs – real pictures taken of our ancestors. Whether it is with formal photographs of rigid looking families all dressed up in their Sunday best or those less formal taken by the very wealthy who owned a camera or news enterprise. I stare in fascination into the faces of those caught on camera, time-travelling and pondering on what they did immediately after breaking their frozen pose. They walked our land.

For me this all adds up and contributes to the feeling the Victorians have only just got up and left our planet. They’ve left so much of themselves for us to ponder on or enjoy.

Life has changed considerably since the black and white world of the Victorians was here. But it’s important that we don’t lose this history nor stop making the connection that most of us touch these ancestors in some way.

Another of my favourites is back – Who Do You Think You Are? Tantalising series pulling us into the depths of someone’s ancestry and mixing in social information of the day. Invariably they transverse the Victorian times, sometimes they stay and explore awhile. Victoria came to the throne in 1837. A census exists from 1841 and every 10 years thereafter facilitating this research.

It’s important to know where we came from if not to stand back in awe at how far we have come and how grateful we should be for the advancements in science, technology, medicine that we are able to take common advantage of today. For the very fact we can sit in the warmth of our centrally heated homes, enjoying a journey into an often uncomfortable past on our flat-screen televisions; sustained by popping to the kitchen cupboards for a high calorie snack or hot drink – the things we take for granted are vast.

December is here. That means Christmas is not far behind it. I love Victorian-influenced pictures on Christmas cards, the kind I rejected first out of the box when I was younger. I savour anything with children, snow and frosted shop windows on it! Perhaps its time I got Charles Dickens out for a reminder of the grim reality of Victorian Britain. Although I can be effortlessly transported via the written word and pictures into a Victorian world, I suspect I only do it so readily because I can decide at the flicker of a few brain cells to return to be living more than a century later where we can decide to luxuriate in and spend time on pleasure, rather than the more immediate business of trying to stay alive…