Entertainment and Culture

Street piano organ (photo)
LLJ559960 Street piano organ (photo) by English Photographer, (20th century); Private Collection; (add.info.: Street piano organ.); © Look and Learn / Peter Jackson Collection; English, out of copyright

Throughout the nineteenth century people began to pay particular attention to the entertainment and culture that occurred within the slums. During this period entertainment took a variety of forms, including lyrical songs, public hangings, slumming and literature. It was believed that through these mediums society could gain a greater understanding of the morals of the working class and how these could be reformed. By examining primary examples of culture within the urban slum we can better understand the obsession Victorian society had with reforming working-class entertainment. However not all of Victorian high society looked to reform the urban slums, and many enjoyed a ‘slumming’ experience where they could observe ‘a distinct race’.[1] The otherworldly nature of the slums transformed them into a performance that sparked the interest of the elites.

The moral disgrace that the urban poor found themselves in was believed to be aggravated by the lack of spirituality present within their entertainment and they were therefore seen as a product of low culture. An example of this was Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta, who believed the provision of middle-class culture for the urban poor could create ‘lamps in a dark place’.[2]

Slums as a performance attempted to bridge the gap between the elite and the working classes. By focusing on the ill morals of urban poor entertainment and culture, Victorian society was able to provide the poor with ‘spiritual insight’ whilst simultaneously reconnecting the rich with their ‘religious selves’.[3]

Peter Fathers, Hannah Harvey, Lindsey Peet, Hayley Russell and Erin Tomlin


[1] Mayhew, H., London Labour and the London Poor (London: Penguin Books, 1985) p.9.

[2] Matthews-Jones, L., ‘Lessons in seeing: Art, Religion and Class in the East End of London, 1881-1898’, Journal of Victorian Culture 16.3 (2011), p.385.

[3] Matthews-Jones, ‘Lessons in Seeing’, p.387