Introducing The Victorian Dictionary

Image: Punch, 6th September, 1890

Guest Post: Lee Jackson

I’m hoping that some of you will have already stumbled across The Victorian Dictionary (aka The Dictionary of Victorian London, aka but I’m always looking for more readers, so it was great to hear from Literature Compass that they’d like me to introduce the site to a wider audience.

What is The Victorian Dictionary, you may ask? And who is this guy anyway?

Well, let’s start with the first question. Essentially, it’s an online repository for 19th century texts that illuminate the social history of Victorian London, and Victorian life in general. You can browse the various pages (there are about five thousand now, I think) by category and sub-category, and a page can contain anything from a brief quote from a newspaper article, to several chapters from various 19th C. books.

If you want a really short answer, it’s an online anthology of Victorian London life.

What’s special about the site, I like to think, is the sheer variety of the material available, combined with the specific focus on London. So, for instance, if you want to find half a dozen contemporary accounts of London music halls, see Entertainment – Theatre and Shows – Music Hall; if you’re interested in reading about hanging, see Prisons – Executions and Punishments; if it’s drains you fancy, then Health and Hygiene – Sewers and Sanitation. The list isn’t endless, but if you browse through, you’ll find it’s quite substantial. You can also search by keywords, like a Google search, and there’s a Bibliography. There’s no commentary; no attempt to be ‘comprehensive’; but it’s chock full of primary sources. The texts themselves range from London reportage and ‘social investigation’ (from the likes of George Sala, Henry Mayhew, James Greenwood, and more obscure authors) to extracts from diaries, guidebooks, etiquette manuals, maps, official reports, topography, penny dreadfuls, journal articles &c. There’s also a range of cartoons (from Punch, Cruikshank and others), a limited number of photographs, and a few ‘added features’, such as a Dickens-specific search engine, a random-page button, a slang dictionary, plus links to other more obscure Victorian sites … well, discover them for yourself!

The site came about because, as a historical novelist, I just couldn’t keep track of what I was reading about the city. It’s really an ‘electronic brain’ so I don’t have to worry about indexing my books. However, being somewhat obsessive, I seem to have devised an ongoing project so large and peculiar that everyone wants to use it (number 1 on Google for ‘Victorian London’ – hurrah!), and that’s great too. In fact, a recent survey found that my site users were:-

1. Just curious about Victorian history 23%
2. Looking into family history / genealogy 21%
3. Student – at University (18+ years old) 16%
4. Author / Writer 13%
5. Student – at school (16 years old and under) 10%
6. Teacher / Lecturer 6%
7. Student – sixth form/college (17-18 years old) 4%
8. Researcher (TV/Film/Radio etc) 3%

I suspect the majority of academic ‘hits’ are basically people referring their students to particular sources on the site. Even with the existence of Google Books, many of the site’s texts are very hard to find either in print or online; and keeping everything in plain text (as opposed to scanned images) keeps the site simple and quick to load. Equally, you can certainly use it for pure research – try a few keyword searches and see what you come up with!

You may wonder why, as a novelist, and not an academic, I maintain The Victorian Dictionary at all. I certainly enjoy attempting to answer occasional emails from people who are researching Victorian London or their ancestors. Occasionally it generates a small publishing deal (a book of selections from the site is available!) or a lecture. Mainly, though, it just fuels my enthusiasm to find out more about the Victorian city, and share it with others. I also like the fact that it goes back to the first principles of the Internet – hard-to-find information being made freely available to all.

I’m particularly happy when others offer contributions – my latest effort, for instance, a digitisation of the very rare somewhat massive Mysteries of London, the infamous 1840s penny dreadful, is well under way, with assistance from a notable scholar, who wishes to remain nameless. (See here).
If anyone else would like to contribute anything, then please do let me know. Previous ‘donations’ include James Cantlie’s Degeneration Amongst Londoners (see here) and Mayhew on prostitution (see here).

What does the future hold for the site? In terms of threats, one worry is its long-term preservation. I’m pleased to say that it’s been archived by the British Library (see here) and there are numerous individuals around the globe with ‘backups’ in the shape of CD copies which I manage to sell on a regular basis. I had also worried that large-scale databases like the new BL British Newspapers collection, and the ongoing development of Google Books, might render it redundant. Instead, however, I find that a site with such a clear focus and editorial control over content is just as useful as ever, if not more so. The average reader (if not the dedicated academic researcher) is increasingly faced with ‘information overload’ in terms of possible source material, whereas specialist ‘expert’ sites solve that problem.

In terms of growing the site, I try and add something new every month – wherever the fancy takes me, often relating to research for my novels. Most recently this was a full digitisation of The String of Pearls, the 1840s penny dreadful that introduced Sweeney Todd to the world (yes, I confess, a movie tie-in on my part!) (See here)

Anyway, enough chatter! If you didn’t know about, I hope that’s whetted your appetite. And, if you did, let me know how you find it, and whether you have any suggestions for improvements!

best wishes,

Lee Jackson (

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