Alissa Johnson, a RITA Award nominee, is the author of Tempting Fate and several witty historical romances. She grew up on Air Force bases in the United States and Europe and attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She currently lives in the Ozarks, Arkansas.
In my newest Victorian set romance, A Gift for Guile, my heroine, Esther Walker-Bales, finds herself in London for the first time in nearly a decade. As a woman with a taste for adventure, Esther desperately wants the chance to explore all the delights the city has to offer. Alas, she has a mystery to solve, villains to vanquish, and the interfering Sir Samuel Brass shadowing her every move.
But individuals without quite so much on their plate could find plenty of amusements in Victorian London. Whether their preferences ran toward the exciting or the subdued, there was something available for everyone.
Without further ado, here are five things a visitor might see and do in Victorian London.
- Check out the Great Exhibition—In 1851, “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” opened its doors in Hyde Park. Housed in the crystal palace, a 990,000 square foot building of glass, it displayed more than 14,000 of the world’s greatest inventions, innovations, and curiosities of the time. The exhibition ran from just May 1 to October 11, but it was an enormous success, bringing in over six million visitors. After its closing, the crystal palace was taken down and rebuilt in south London. Sadly, it was permanently lost to fire in 1936. The spirit of the Great Exhibition, however, lived on in the popularity of future World’s Fair exhibitions.
- Do a little shopping—Prior to the mid-19th century, shopping was a very different experience than it is today. Stores usually kept their goods out of sight in drawers, cupboards and cabinets. If, for example, you were shopping for gloves, you waited for the shopkeeper or attendant to pick through their wares and present you with choices. That all changed with the rise of the department store. Suddenly, browsing was an option. Goods (and their price tags) were finally on display for everyone to see. And you could buy your gloves, hats, cosmetics and dozens of other necessities and luxuries all in the same store.
- Start a collection—Collecting was a favorite pastime during the Victorian era, and Londoners were no exception. Individuals might take a fancy to anything from insects to popular folk songs. While any kind of item could be collected, some proved to be especially popular. Pteridomania, or “Fern-Fever,” was a Victorian craze for everything fern related. Ferns were a highly sought after decorative design, and the collection and study of species was taken up by amateurs and experts alike. The craze lasted into the 1890s and may have been helped along by the recent introduction of the terrarium, or “the Wardian case.”
- Ride the Underground—The first underground railroad in London opened to the public in 1863. The Metropolitan Railway was under four miles long and consisted of a steam engine and a line of open, wooden cars that left passengers exposed to smoke and steam. It has to be assumed that this was not the most comfortable way to travel. Nevertheless, it was a success, carrying almost ten million people during its first year. The line was quickly extended, and construction on new ones began right away.
- Visit the Palace of Westminster—This may or may not have been of particular interest to your average Victorian Londoner. But if you just happened to be visiting before 1834, you could see how Westminster looked before much of it succumbed to fire. And if you took a trip between 1840 and 1870, you’d have the opportunity to watch the new palace being constructed. Personally, I’d want to be around on July 11, 1859—that’s when the iconic Big Ben chimed for the very first time.