Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Views of English Social Life

From Medieval times the church was the center of English life. The typical early village church was usually constructed of rubble, stones of irregular shapes and sizes, it gave the walls a rough-hewn quality that grew more beautiful with age. The nave had an exposed stone base with timber and plaster upper walls. The most prominent feature of most churches was the bell tower which contained a large bell. It was usually made of bronze and was rung on Sunday for church services and at other times to communicate village emergencies.

Usually the center of activity for the village, the church provided the villagers with daily devotions and regular church services. Victorians were regular and complacent churchgoers, and the vast majority of residents professed some variety of Protestant Christianity. Children were especially required to attend Sunday school where they first learned to read and write. Their recreation was provided by the church choirs, mission societies, study groups, and religious excursions.

Another form of religious building within a community was the brick Abbey, usually a monastery for men ruled by an abbot. The main feature of the abbey was the twin spires that rise majestically over the countryside. Although the massive oak doors under the rose window hurg on heavy iron hinges, they opened easily to welcome parishioners. The small covered door on the side led to the sacristy where sacred vestments were kept. The vestry was the room where the clergyman dressed for the service and was where the bride and groom signed the parish registry after the wedding ceremony. These building is an example of late Gothic architecture.

Church construction was never accidental and many of the buildings’ features were designed to employ the parishioners in gainful activity. A typical rural or countrystyle place of worship contained a thatched roof, with its single bell tower. The roof needed constant repair by parishioners thus keeping them from being idle and at the same time, tied to the church. The tremendous warmth which spread from the fireplace, at the rear of the church, made the members move closer to the front altar for more comfort and a closer message from the Word of God. The floor was either beaten earth or stone, and rushes were strewn on these to keep the feet of the worshippers warm and dry. To make further use of the materials at hand, tufted clumps of earth and grass called “hassocks” were brought into churches to serve as footrests and provided a softer place on which to kneel.

Church attendance was highest in the rural villages where, on Sunday, two services were held, one in the morning (matins) and another in the early evening (vespers). The Book of Common Prayer was used in all church services to insure the uniformity of practice and worship. The “prayer book” contained the text for the service of the two church sacraments (baptism and communion) plus a set of directions printed in red for the conduct of services.

The head of the church conducted the services, gave the weekly sermons, oversaw the village school, and preformed marriages, baptisms, and funerals. In a small village, he might well have been the only person with a university education, and parishioners often turned to him for information and advice of all sorts.

The rectory was the residence of the presiding vicar or parish priest. Located next to or near the church, it was also known as the parsonage. The vicar or parish priest was in charge of the daily activities of the church but was assisted by the deacon, the lowest order of the church hierarchy. The deacon was a person in training who assisted in conducting services, especially communion, helped the children with their catechism and visited the sick. After a year of servitude, the deacon could become a rector or vicar.

Churchwardens, a one-year unpaid job of some prestige, were elected by the congregation and usually came from its upper social classes. They were responsible for seeing that the congregation behaved themselves.

The parish clerk kept the records and might read the scriptures and lead responses during the service. He had to be literate, but because the salary was insignificant the post was often held by a schoolmaster or small tradesman.


During the Victorian era each segment of society possessed a personality of its own, and the manner and style of dress usually indicated their station in life.

The upper class or those with considerable wealth usually had their clothes made to order from the local tailor shop like Walpole Tailor. They would visit the shop to pick out the style and type of clothing desired and have the tailor take their current measurements. Each time clothing was ordered, a new fitting was made to correspond with the person’s current size and weight. Some of the foreign and more expensive clothing material was obtained from shops such as the Scotch Woolens shop located on Tottenham Road. The finished product was ready to purchase about two weeks later. Among the most desired wool was worsted, named for a place in Norfolk where this woolen material was first made. Worsteds contain only the long uniform fibers of wool which are dyed under pressure and are then spun with a high degree of twist to produce a hard smooth yarn. Instead of being napped, worsteds have a clear, smooth finish.

Special outer garments such as cloaks and heavy winter coats were purchased from establishments such as Bumpstead Nye Cloaks and Canes. Hats and canes were also available on the street from the local hat mongers who could be found on any busy street pushing their carts through the crowds. Canes were useful in providing an aid to walking the uneven and irregular cobblestone streets of many villages. Well-to-do women as well as men had canes, and some of these walking sticks often were equipped with perfume bottles, music boxes or had romantic pictures hidden inside.

During the Victorian era, eyeglasses were often worn purely as fashionable accessories, not as aids to vision. Such glasses were obtained from a Spectacle Shop and were frequently set in gold frames decorated with precious jewels. Sometimes the lenses were removed completely, leaving only the decorative frame to ornament the face

As a result of the normal rainfall throughout England, the umbrella (known as a bumbershoot) was a necessity as much as a fashion accessory, but only for the wealthy. It was considered vulgar to hold an umbrella under one’s arm. Well-bred people gripped their umbrellas in the middle, with the handle turned toward the ground. Only silk umbrellas were considered fashionable by the British upper class and these only if they were blue or green. For the general public, moreover, umbrellas were an unaffordable luxury. When it rained, the ordinary man or woman would hire an umbrella from a local stand, usually at the cost of one and a half pence per hour.

In the first part of the 19th century a gentleman was never without his top boots (boots turned down at the top), Hessians (with a tassel), Wellingtons (they had a uniform height) or bluchers (a half boot). Given the condition of roads and streets and the need to ride horseback frequently, boots were quite practical. Both the Booter and Cobbler helped the general population by providing the proper footwear. A master with all kinds of leather, the cobbler not only mended the footwear of local villagers but was responsible for the creation of many types of shoes and boots. Before King George IV (r. 1820-30) of England ordered a set of boots made to fit each of his feet, shoes were designed to be worn on either foot. Boots were made to order, and the buyer was required to have his feet measured and sized several times prior to the final sale. Shoes prior to 1790 were fastened with buckles. Shoestrings were used until 1893 when the zipper was invented which made putting on footwear much easier. Other items such as harnesses, saddles and clothing such as leather aprons (used by the blacksmith trade) were also made by these craftsmen.

The working class or lower class frequently sold their wares from the street and were referred to as “mongers”. Renowned for being “flashy” dressers, mongers were inordinately proud of their silk neckerchiefs. Many men wore a kind of uniform of long cord waistcoats with huge and numerous pockets and shining brass or mother-of-pearl buttons. Their seamed trousers fitted tightly at the knee and billowed out over highly polished boots. A typical monger had his head covered with a worsted or cloth skull-cap pulled completely down over his hair. Women mongers, such a as Flower Monger, usually wore a straw or colorful bonnet with a few ribbons or flowers, and a printed cotton gown with a silk handkerchief tucked into the neck. Petticoats were worn short, ending at the ankles so that they were just high enough to show the much admired boots.


Education was a valued, and sought after prize by the British of the 19th century. Working class schools were frequently “acquired” buildings and had many classrooms on each level (buildings always had a “ground” floor and were then numbered with the second floor being referred to as the “first” floor). Each floor was dedicated as follows: one for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the youngest children (infants). These large classrooms had movable partitions which were used to divide the age groups and educational levels of the students. Infants were allowed in school from the age of three, and they had their own classroom until they reached the age of five. At that time, they were put into separate classes, determined by their ability.

Dotheboy Hall Boarding School, named for the cruel headmaster, was built of plaster over brick and stone and had a deeply sloped brown roof with many gables. The front of the building housed the school, and in the rear of the premises was a smaller apartment where Mr. Dotheboy and his family lived. Dotheboy Hall was a typical school of the period in that the staff lacked any education qualifications. This school took in little boys, brutally ill-treating and partially starving them. The only classroom in this type of school housed a large number of pupils. Several different lessons were being taught as the same time, usually by a head teacher, an assistant teacher, or a monitor or pupil teacher.

Children in Victorian England were educated in many different ways, or not at all, depending on their sex and their parents’ financial circumstances, social class, religion, and values. Unfortunately, for the students, there was little agreement among the school administrators as to what to teach, how to pay for schools, or whom to educate.

Depending upon the type of organization and funding, elementary schools were called by several different names: boarding school, district school, parish school, village school, etc. Few elementary schools were entirely free until the 1890’s; the usual charge was between one and four pence per week.

Compulsory schooling and longer attendance vastly increased the demand for teachers. Men with enough education for teaching had access to other jobs with better prospects. Except in one-room village schools, older boys usually had male teachers, but teaching girls and infants became a woman’s vocation. Many women from middle-class backgrounds entered elementary teaching after it became possible to attend training college directly instead of serving an apprenticeship as a pupil teacher.

Discipline had to be strict, especially with the crowded conditions of the classrooms. All pupils sat still in their seats, stood when an adult entered the room, and lined up to enter or leave. Girls curtsied to the schoolmaster at the end of the day. Knocking a ruler on the knuckles or caning a child on the palms enforced order. For serious infractions, a pupil’s name was written in a punishment book. This book was used as a reference when an employer asked the school for a dependable worker.

The daily school routines during the Victorian era were not unlike the school day of modern times. School was typically in session from 9:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and from 2:00 P.M. to 4:30 P.M. With some exceptions, children went home in the middle of the day for dinner. Rural children who had a long walk brought food and stayed at school. Because part of the school’s funding depended on average attendance, stringent efforts were made to make children come to school every day. There was a two-week holiday at Christmas, one week at Easter, and three or four weeks from mid-July to mid-August.


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