Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu


The Dangerous City? Urban Society & Culture 1800-1914 - 30 credits (HS1896)

Module Tutor: Prof Keir Waddington Dore, London: A Pilgrimage

Course Description

During the nineteenth century, Britain experienced a period of unprecedented urbanization. Rather than this being a source of pride or optimism, contemporary observers feared that the city was becoming a ‘terra incognita’, a place of ‘dreadful delight’ or danger. At a physical level, urbanization compounded existing social problems of sanitation, disease, and housing and gave rise to new ones that contemporaries linked to crime, prostitution, and poverty. Cities were seen as sites of moral corruption and violence, the haunts of criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals and dangerous immigrants; fears that were given potent form in the figure of Jack the Ripper. More adventurous Victorians saw cities as places of excitement, however. Many took advantage of the growing leisure opportunities on offer. Others went ‘slumming’, exploring working-class districts and slums either in pursuit of excitement or to offer charity and moral guidance. This module explores the underside of the Victorian and Edwardian cities and the nature of urban living. Rather than sensationalizing the urban experience, it looks at how contemporaries viewed and interpreted the city. It examines the effect of rapid urbanisation on different institutions, groups and individuals as well as on ideas of class, gender, sexuality, race and welfare. It investigates those who lived, played, and worked in them, and how the social and physical problems they encountered were defined and tackled. In doing so, the module explores of number of issues, such as poverty and fears of the underclass, crime, leisure and pleasure, drink and drugs, sex and prostitution, pollution and disease, race and fears of degeneration, and examines contemporary responses to them through the police, social purity movement, charity, temperance movement, etc.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites N/A

Necessary for N/A

Teaching methods

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:

(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,
or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.
and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.

Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

Topics covered include:

  • Historians the Victorian City
  • Images of the Victorian and Edwardian City
  • The Underclass
  • Slums
  • Charity and slumming
  • Crime and Violence
  • Police and resistance
  • Entertainment and the Music Hall
  • Drink and Disorder
  • Drug dens and addiction
  • Sex and Prostitution
  • Jack the Ripper
  • Homosexuality
  • Pollution and Disease
  • Public Health
  • Race and Immigrant
  • Fears of degeneration

Learning outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • demonstrate a critical and systematic knowledge of history of urban society and culture in Britain between 1800 and 1914 and an understanding of pertinent historical and historiographical ideas/contexts/frameworks;
  • critically identify the main trends in contemporary discourses about the impact of urbanization of British culture and society between 1800 and 1914 and the perceived problems (crime, slums, prostitution, poverty, etc) generated by urbanization and the solutions adopted;
  • critically identify the main trends in research on history of urban society and culture in Britain between 1800 and 1914;
  • analyse key themes and issues in history of urban society and culture in Britain between 1800 and 1914 in the light of those ideas/contexts/frameworks;
  • demonstrate a critical understanding of key primary sources urban history and their significance.
  • summarise and critically evaluate the relative merits and demerits of alternative views and interpretations about the history of urban society and culture in Britain between 1800 and 1914 and evaluate their significance;
  • identify problems, assess evidence, and reach conclusions consistent with them on history of urban society and culture in Britain between 1800 and 1914;
  • devise and sustain arguments about issues such poverty, crime, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, health, leisure, and ideas of degeneration using a range of ideas or techniques including historical geography, gender, ethnicity.

Students will extend their ability to:

  • formulate and justify their own arguments and conclusions in seminar discussions
  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, with supporting evidence, in class discussion and in writing
  • modify as well and defend their own position
  • think critically and challenge assumptions
  • use and evaluate primary sources and demonstrate an appreciation of how historians have approached them
  • use information technology for research and assignment presentation
  • manage their time and organise their own study methods and workload
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions

Suggested book purchases


Suggested preparatory reading

The best thematic overviews are provided by

Kelly Boyd & Rohan McWilliam (eds), The Victorian Studies Reader (2007)
Martin Daunton (ed.), The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. 3: 1840-1950 (2000)
Chris Williams (ed.), Companion to Nineteenth Century Britain (2004)

You might also look at:

Chris Cook, Routledge Companion to Britain in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1914 (2005)
Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (2004/5)
Morris & Rodger (eds), The Victorian City (1993)
L. Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (2000)
P. Waller, Town, City and Nation (1983)
Philip Waller (ed.), The English Urban Landscape (2000)