Setting the Scene

Victorian England

To really understand a person it is necessary to understand also the time and society in which he lived. This section explains how that of Britain in 1864, the year of Rivers’ birth, differed greatly to that we know today. The issues mentioned, due to the need for brevity,  will usually be those most relevant to the aim of the site

The country was at the height of its empirical power and at the forefront of industrial development. Only half a century from the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, the army and navy were respected abroad and probably as well- trained as they ever had been.

To those in power, and to the ‘leisure classes’ the future must have looked reasonably bright but for others, little had changed. Vast monuments costing huge amounts of money, proclaiming the funders’ name could be found not a great distance from people who lived on the streets (consider the proximity of the infamous St Giles Rookery to the Houses of Parliament); a man feasting on wine and several courses of food could look out of his window and watch a child who had hardly eaten in a week , without compunction to go out and help them. A person was expected to ‘know his or her place’, whether they be male or female, rich or poor, and sadly the majority of the population was more than likely clinging to the breadline. Women, ideally, were supposed to stay in the home, cook, clean and look after the family whilst men (and older children) worked, often more than 12 hours per day.

In reality, a great deal of working class women also worked, in order to keep the family from starvation and the only options for anyone who couldn’t work were to rely on help from relations, friends and the Parish or, God forbid, the dreaded workhouse. An unemployed person, whatever the reason, was generally regarded as lazy or shirking and this was a Great Sin .To be admitted to the Workhouse or ‘Union’ as some of the institutions were known was a thing of shame and risked falling into hardly less cruel conditions; families were separated, the labour intensive and the meals often consisting merely of thin soup and bread. Punishment for any misdemeanour would be probably as harsh as in jail

Religion, Protestant, Anglican or Catholic was still important to many and its strictures more strict than they had been since Puritan times, despite the publication of Darwin’s theories a few years earlier. Too frequently, God was used as a figurehead, religion an excuse to push objectors into obedience Morals and religious adherence to the Ten Commandments and similar were greatly emphasised, particularly in anything that was connected with either sex or laxness. The former began to be looked upon as something almost criminal that should never be mentioned, or even inferred to, in front of females, and that certainly should not be indulged in before marriage – and when it was, the decent females was to show no enjoyment of the act. Men, were allowed to take pleasure from intercourse but largely because it was seen as vital to their health that they should indulge in it whereas it was merely their wives duty to let them. This strict outlook, in fairness, was likely in reaction to the growing number of illegitimate children being registered as reliant ‘on the parish’, and the rise in population in general (which had tripled in a century ) but one might argue that the notion went a little too far when it became utterly rude for a woman’s ankle’s to be seen in public and for a man to refer to a chair’s (or any other furniture’s) legs lest he be, in reality, suggesting a females…

Laxness was worse, totally abhorrent and considered a complete dereliction of a person’s duty – and Duty was utmost in the Victorian mind; Duty to God, Monarch, Empire and Country, Family, others and then oneself. Ideally a person was brought up from childhood to consider every consequence of his or her actions upon others, whether this was the expectation that a rich man should do his best to enhance and safe guard the lives of those in his employ or a child encouraged to share her toy with her brother or neighbour. In general it can be argued that more emphasis was perhaps put upon the poor, the working man keeping to his rather than the rich who often were looked to for example but all too frequently had the means to behave otherwise and get away with it. Some focused on trying to ease the lot of the poor and many philanthropic projects were undertaken (Lord Shaftbury’s ‘Ragged Schools’ in London, for example) yet there existed an air of the upper class being somehow inherently right in whatever they did ..

The clamour for the poor to be educated so that they might have a better quality of life, at least to a basic extent received contradicting responses. Members of both rich and poor were suspicious as to what this would lead to. Henry Mayhew, a ‘social researcher’ of the period voiced the thoughts of many, and betrayed a notion that the lower classes would inherently indulge in criminality , when he declared “‘since crime was not caused by illiteracy, it could not be cured by education … the only certain effects being the emergence of a more skilful and sophisticated race of criminals”* The arguments pro-education eventually won through but the divide due to depth of education was still held up as a not only a class distinction but also one of intelligence and it was still some time before it was widely recognised that rank in life was not an indicator of sense, morality or ability to learn.

The empire, meanwhile, had made many a family fortune and it was considered the responsibility of all Britons to colonise as much of the world as possible, exporting the country’s values as it went. This included Christianity (albeit a very modified version), social mores and ‘democracy’, enforced without a great deal of regard as to whether the natives of these places wanted or were even ready for such changes.. Not all measures taken at the time were bad (the slave trade was abolished, for example.) but , in pursuit of imposing ‘justice’ and correctness at home and abroad, in the name of duty to one’s fellow man, innumerable local customs, skills and beliefs were lost for ever. In a manner with little to do with real Christianity, more and more citizens were pressured into adherence to a single way of life with intolerance to difference encouraged as a good thing. Rivers himself commented on the consequence this had on native people