How To Experience Victorian London

St Pancras International Station | © Michiel Jelijs/Flickr
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Updated: 1 September 2016
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While we’re of course very happy to be living in a time sans cholera, work houses and public executions, the Victorians certainly had some good things going for them. An industrious and perpetually busy lot, modern Londoners owe some of the best our city has to offer to the Victorian age, from world-class museums to stunning landmarks. Featuring the best of the era’s surviving shopping arcades, pie and mash joints, cemeteries and pleasure gardens, here’s the best London has to offer in all things Victorian.

Head to a Victorian-inspired museum

There are several museums in London which offer the chance to experience and immerse yourself in life as a Victorian. The Ragged School Museum, featuring reconstructed classrooms and a circa-1900 East End kitchen, opens a window into the life of poor Victorian children. Also found in the East End is the brilliant Geffrye Museum, which documents the evolution of the home space over 400 years; a Victorian living space features among its series of period rooms. For a real-life Victorian home in which you can roam freely, head to Leighton House Museum, the preserved studio-house of the era’s most famous artist, Dennis Severs’ House, a ‘still-life drama’ in which you can journey from the 18th to the 20th centuries as you step through its dressed rooms, or the William Morris Gallery, which is filled with interior design treasures from the late 19th century Arts and Craft Movement.

The Ragged School Museum
©Karen Bryan/Flickr

Go for a walk around town

In theory, simply going for a sightseeing walk around central London is a bit of a Victorian experience, given the number of London landmarks that date back to the era. The industrious Victorians were great builders; amongst the iconic, central London structures erected during Queen Victoria’s reign are the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, the Royal Courts of Justice and the National Portrait Gallery. To the west, a walk around the museum district of South Kensington is virtually a journey into the ultimate Victorian utopia. The world-famous galleries and museums housed along Exhibition Road — the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Royal Albert Hall, the V&A, for instance — were built as per the vision of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who wished to create a centre for cultural and scientific learning, unparalleled by any other nation. The Victorians were a fiercely proud bunch.

The Houses of Parliament or Palace of Westminster

However, if you’re after a more immersive Victorian experience, there are a number of great themed walks on offer in the city. The Charles Dickens’ London walking tour gives an insight into the experiences and inspirations of the age’s most vivid chronicler. Other great Victorian-era literary tours include The London of Oscar Wilde and a Sherlock Holmes walking tour, while the Jack the Ripper Walk paints a stark picture of how the other half lived in the East End of Victorian London. Best of all, though, is Darkest Victorian London, a two-hour tour through the ‘real’ London, which encourages you to imagine life in the city for Victorian citizens, from chimney sweeps to pickpockets.

Take a stroll in a green space

London’s parks can be a great spot for catching some Victorian vibes, both those built during Victoria’s reign and pre-existing ones which received significant additions during the period. One of the more obvious ones that springs to mind is Victoria Park, built in 1845. The first public park to be built specifically for the common people of London, it was hoped the wide, grassy space would help to improve public health among the slums of East London. Although a lot of the original features were destroyed during WWII, one or two ornamental structures remain, including the magnificent and gothic Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain, built in 1862. The Victorians were particularly big on pleasure gardens (recreational public gardens used for entertainment, which are largely considered to be precursors to the modern theme park), building several across the 19th century. Sadly, most have long since vanished, but one significant remaining example is Crystal Palace Park, which was created in 1854 as a space in which to house the magnificent Crystal Palace when it relocated after the 1851 Great Exhibition. Alongside a maze, lakes and a concert bowl, the most iconic feature is a range of full-scale models of what were at the time newly-discovered dinosaurs.

Dinosaur models in Crystal Palace Park
©Ian Wright/Flickr

A more macabre but thrilling choice than Victorian parks, why not instead take a stroll around one of London’s several Victorian-era cemeteries. Disposing of the dead was a hot topic in Victorian London, in light of severe overcrowding in the city’s small parish graveyards. Throughout the 19th century, seven large private cemeteries – referred to as the Magnificent Seven – were established outside of central London. Among the more famous of the seven are Kensal Rise Cemetery and Highgate Cemetery; home to a compelling, archetypal Victorian mix of architectural styles (Gothic Revivalist alongside Neoclassical) as well as the graves of some extraordinary cultural figures (Karl Marx, Harold Pinter, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot), they make a great location for a Victorian-themed trip.

Indulge in a spot of shopping

There may not be many actual Victorian stores left in London, but the development of consumerism and shopping as a pastime throughout the latter half of the 19th century left an indelible mark on the city. Many of London’s most iconic stores were founded during or on the cusp of Victoria’s reign — Harvey Nichols opened in 1831, Harrods in 1849 and Liberty in 1875 — encouraged by the growth of imported goods from across the empire. Though the stores are very different places today, parts of their interiors still display their Victorian origins — the grandiose food court at Harrods is a prime example. Elsewhere in the city, the Victorians built covered market halls and shopping galleries, many of which still exist today — Leadenhall Market, Old Spitalfields Market, the Burlington Arcade and the Royal Arcade are great shopping destinations in which to experience beautiful Victorian-style architecture. Of course, dotted around the city you can find the odd Victorian store still going strong. James Smith & Sons, for example, have been making umbrellas since 1830, with the store retaining its original fittings inside as well as its Victorian frontage. Cecil Court, which links Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, is also a fantastic street to walk down; its Victorian shop frontages haven’t been touched in over a century, and the street is still lined with traditional gas lamps. Family-run grocers W. Martyn in Muswell Hill has been selling tea, coffee and fine foods since 1897, and still adheres to traditional, old-timey merchandising, with stock piled from floor to ceiling, on the counter and in wooden shelves.

Leadenhall Market
©Laurie Nevay/Flickr

Enjoy a meal out

As far as traditional Victorian grub goes, your best bet is definitely pie and mash. The simple, working-class dish has been popular for centuries but existed as mainly street food, moving into permanent premises during the 19th century when the traditional pie, mash and eel shops began to flourish — in 1890 there were over 50 of them, doubling to over 100 by the end of the century. One of the oldest of London’s surviving pie shops is M. Manze on Tower Bridge Road, which first opened in 1902 and was followed by several others from various members of the Manze family, who still run the business today. Over the years, the family have strayed very little from their original recipe for both their pies and liquor, while the interiors have also stayed authentic. Likewise, F. Cooke on Broadway Market have been serving pie, mash and eels on the premises since 1900.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum, head to the Criterion restaurant (now billed as ‘Savini at Criterion’) in Piccadilly to eat in gloriously decadent, Neo-Byzantine surroundings dating from 1874 — the Criterion was a society hotspot in its day, frequented by Arthur Conan Doyle. Or go to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, an 1828 oak-panelled dining room and one of the city’s oldest traditional English restaurants, where roast meat is still carved at the table on silver-domed trolleys. Head towards Embankment for an after dinner drink at Gordon’s Wine Bar — established in 1890, it is one of London’s oldest wine bars, and a visit here is truly like stepping back in time — or to Holborn and The Viaduct Tavern, perhaps the last remaining, authentic example of a Victorian gin palace.

Image courtesy of Gordon’s Wine Bar
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