Living in the Past: Exploring Everyday Life during and after the Victorian Period in an East Midlands Industrial Town


Living in the Past’ (hereafter LIP) is a voluntary community archaeology project that aims to investigate everyday life in and around Derby (fig. 1) during and after the Victorian period, by testing the potential of two largely untapped resources. The first consists of buildings originally constructed to house industrial workers during the in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and earlier buildings predominantly occupied by working-class families and individuals during this time). Both standing buildings and the plots of since demolished ‘slum’ housing will be investigated, through (in the former case) archaeological standing building surveys and (in both cases) by recording the material remains of domestic waste that occasionally surface within garden topsoil. Although primarily focusing upon urban households, the integration of semi-rural and suburban contexts within programmes of investigations will be beneficial. [1]

Figure 1. Derby: project study areas. 1. Allestree Village (pending); 2. Little Chester (Chester Green); 3. ‘West End’; 4. Friar Gate / Ashbourne Road area; and location of project case study (Map: Author)

The discovery of a contemporaneous domestic ‘rubbish tip’ − a second body of evidence that has received little scholarly attention, which the project hopes to record and sample – provides opportunities to compare domestic material culture associated with industrial workers on the outskirts of the city, to those occupying high-density inner city housing. The project may also investigate other sites, such as a local graveyard, in order to broaden the study of social relationships and identities.

This fieldwork, targeting currently occupied housing and associated sites (mostly small ‘terraced’ houses, but also later buildings that replaced tenements), endeavours to support residents in exploring the proximate, familiar, and yet often ignored, material traces that represent the activities of ‘ordinary’ people in the recent past. This approach has the potential to enliven interest in, and enhance engagement with, the Historic Environment. Also, by encouraging participants to share oral and family histories (adopting an ‘archaeological ethnographic’ approach that enables analysis of a range of historical sources alongside material culture), historical interpretations might be expanded in ways that are meaningful to local communities. [2]


Some might question the need to study the recent past archaeologically, particularly considering the extensive work already carried out by scholars within other disciplines; however, Historical Archaeologists contest such a view [3]. Despite much having been learnt from ‘traditional’ historical studies, the most obvious grounds for advocating archaeological investigations are that no academic discipline can be considered as without limitations or difficulties, and (particularly acknowledging the diverse and divergent ‘histories’ that might be both encountered and written), no study can claim to present, or represent, a complete picture of the past. Indeed, whilst the nature of archaeological evidence may provide insight into some areas of life inaccessible through documentary, or even oral, accounts, it is by combining the varying sources that broader understandings of the past might be developed.

Systematic excavation of 19th and early 20th century domestic contexts prior to urban redevelopment – until recently, mostly outside Britain (notable exceptions including ‘Dig Hungate’, York, and Olympic Park, London, with post-excavation analysis of previously recovered material through the ‘Victorian London’ project) − has demonstrated the benefits of archaeological study, particularly with regard to exploring urban poverty and ‘slum’ housing. [4] Such investigations have not only confirmed the claims of an increasing number of historians – that many ‘descriptions’ of life for ‘the poor’ provided by contemporaneous social investigators and reformers are at best incomplete, and have commonly perpetuated damaging stereotypes. [5] These studies have also revealed the varied ways in which individuals, families, and communities negotiated their (often-mutable) circumstances. Such projects therefore allow a more nuanced understanding of interactions between agency and structure. [6]

Historians (including archaeologists) have more commonly concentrated upon larger metropolitan centres. However, it is acknowledged that ‘…urban transformation and its underpinning imbalance between human wellbeing and disadvantage’ might most effectively be studied through investigation of industrial cities in the British Midlands and the North. [7] As a centre of manufacturing and engineering innovation, it would be imprudent to ignore Derby within studies of the social effects of industrialisation. The central location (fig. 2) of this small East Midlands city (a county town until 1977), its growth as a major railway centre, and sustained economic exchange with nearby rural communities, has surely influenced cultural development. Such factors allow greater consideration of interrelationships between ‘town’ and ‘country’ (going beyond stale notions of polarisation), and provide opportunities to compare local, regional, and international fields of interaction. It is only through such multi-scalar analyses that the integration of individuals, families, communities within broader society and economies might be appreciated in more fully. [8] By also incorporating and contrasting a range of socio-economic conditions, such an approach holds the potential to reveal the diverse processes by which industrial life was socially and culturally mediated and expressed. [9]

Figure 2. Location of Derby (black dot) within the East Midlands (grey), and Britain (Map: Author) Method

At this stage, LIP has no plans to carry out excavations; instead, the project will test alternative methodologies to encourage and support public participation through investigating previously inaccessible (and commonly disregarded) contexts. Ideally, the project would survey and record house interiors, associated external features, and garden artefacts in detail – an approach that might bring about interesting discoveries. [10]]However, considering the understandable desire by residents to safeguard privacy, and the obstruction of early features by modern decor and possessions, it is anticipated that such opportunities may be infrequent. Consequently, it is expected that most surveys will concentrate upon recording exterior features and ‘finds’, particularly remains associated with sanitation and waste deposits – which, as previous studies have demonstrated, may be of substantial historical value. [11]

Although limiting investigations to surface, rather than excavated, material, LIP draws upon some of the approaches that have proved successful when adopted by larger projects during post-excavation work. [12] New techniques of artefactual analysis (e.g. to examine ceramic ‘quality’), and the adaptation of trans-disciplinary approaches (such as the use of GIS to map spatial relationships between datasets, and application of social theories – particularly those associated identity studies), offer possibilities to assess the social and economic significance of 19th – early 20th century domestic material culture. [13] Asking alternative questions of previously neglected evidence holds the potential to throw new light upon relationships between poverty, class, and social status, in the mediation of community and place.

Project findings

The planning stage of the project was extended in order to respond effectively to initial enquiries made within the community (particularly to address concerns expressed over the possibility of carrying out investigations of the interiors of private properties). The discovery of a potential archaeological site, the investigation of which might significantly enhance the project objectives and outcomes, further protracted planning. This site – a surface spread of mainly late 19th – early 20th century domestic waste – is likely to be associated with the adjacent village, which housed both agricultural workers, and those employed in mills within the nearby Derwent Valley World Heritage Site.

The project will soon be open to public participation, although members of the project team have already begun a small number of archaeological standing building investigations and recordings (‘ABIR’), to test methodologies (given the unconventional subject matter), and provide case studies to inform community involvement (see fig. 2). [14] The most detailed studies are of a small terraced house, built in the late 19th century for employees of local industries (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Project case study: ‘No. 8’ (Photo: Author)

In addition to providing information that as part of a larger dataset will be used to consider broad social and cultural issues, systematic investigations of this building led to the discovery of very specific traces of everyday life, that were at once both poignant and intriguing. By examining this and other archaeological data, alongside written sources (such as census returns and trade directories), and oral histories, research has begun with the aim of developing biographies for this and neighbouring properties.

This and other preliminary investigations have informed the procedures to be adopted for subsequent studies; for example, greater attention will be paid to marginal contexts, where other evidence for youth and childhood practices has been identified. The project has also begun to approach such issues as hygiene and respectability, by investigating (alongside other sources) material traces suggestive of the use and social significance of domestic space (e.g. analysis of surface wear, and decor: fig. 5a & b). Findings will be made available in the interim via social media (principally through the project website), and ultimately presented within comprehensive reports. [15]

Figure 4. Graffiti within the Little Chester Study Area, including inscriptions of possible late Victorian date, and possibly incorporating biographical information (Photo: Author)

At a time when the heritage sector is experiencing considerable pressure upon resources, such small-scale community projects may provide mechanisms for highlighting the value of archive material and the historic environment. But beyond this, the recent past – as both present and ‘other’: seemingly remote yet integral to modern-day experiences and attitudes – supplies a medium through which dialogues concerning current social and cultural issues might be developed.

Paint found within ground floor front room cupboard space (also found in the under-stairs ‘pantry’ of a nearby house); stratified beneath probable ‘Paris Green’ (arsenic-based) paint, comparable to paint within original scullery (Photos: Author)
No. 8 interior. Left: Blue distemper within probable children’s bedroom;
No. 8 interior. Blue distemper within probable children’s bedroom;

Kirsten Jarrett is a freelance historical archaeologist and Adult and Continuing Education tutor (having taught for the WEA, Keele University, the University of Nottingham, and University of Oxford); she was awarded a PhD by the University of Sheffield in 2010. Her main research is on domestic material culture and social identities, with particular interests in late 19th – early 20th century housing, class, and poverty. Kirsten directs ‘Living in the Past’ Community Archaeology Project, which aims to support public participation in the study of everyday life in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Derby, through surveys of standing buildings, and by recording ‘finds’ from gardens and waste disposal ‘tips’.

Twitter @KJ_Archaeology



Twitter: @UrbArc20



[1] See Symonds, J. 2011 ‘The poverty trap: Or why poverty is not about the individual’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15: 563–571, p. 568.

[2] See e.g. Hamilakis, Yannis, and Anagnostopoulos 2009 ‘What is archaeological ethnography?’, Public Archaeology: Archaeological Ethnographies 8(2–3): 65–87; Mayne, Alan and Lawrence, Susan 1999 ‘Ethnographies of place: a new urban research agenda’, Urban History 26(3).

[3] See e.g. Giles, Kate and Rees Jones, Sarah 2011 ‘Poverty in depth: new international perspectives’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15: 544–552, p. 545.

[4] Hungate: [URL 1]; ‘Victorian London’: [URL 2]. Notable projects outside Britain include ‘Little Lon’, Melbourne: Murray, Tim and Mayne, Alan 2003 ‘(Re) constructing a lost community: “Little Lon,” Melbourne, Australia, Historical Archaeology 37(1): 87–101; New York’s ‘Five Points’: Yamin, Rebecca 2000 Tales of Five Points: Working-Class Life in Nineteenth-Century New York, 3 Vols.; and Lowell, Massachusetts: Beaudry, Mary C. 2006 ‘Stories that matter: Material lives in 19th century Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts, USA’, in Adrian Green and Roger Leech (ed.) Cities in the World 1500–2000: Proceedings of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology Conference, Department of Archaeology, Southampton University, April 2002, Maney, London, pp. 249–268.

[5] For example, see Welshman, John 2006 Underclass. A History of the Excluded 1880-2000; Mayne and Lawrence 1999, op. cit..

[6] For example, see Rimmer, Jayne 2011 ‘People and their buildings in the working-class neighborhood of Hungate, York’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15: 617–628.

[7] Murray, Tim 2011 ‘Poverty in the modern city: Retrospects and prospects’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15: 572–581, p554.

[8] Richard, François G. 2011 ‘Materializing poverty: archaeological reflections from the postcolony’, Historical Archaeology 45(3): 166-82, p. 170. A case study within the nearby market town of Ashbourne (Derbyshire) was also undertaken for comparison.

[9] Symonds 2011, op. cit..

[10] For discoveries made during preliminary investigations, see [URL 3].

[11] For example, see Connelly, Peter A. 2011 ‘Flush with the past: An insight into late nineteenth-century Hungate and its role in providing a better understanding of urban development’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15: 607–616; Geismar, Joan H. 1993 ‘Where is night soil? Thoughts on an urban privy’, Historical Archaeology 27(2): 57-70; Jeffries, Nigel 2006 ‘The Metropolis Management Act and the archaeology of sanitary reform in the London Borough of Lambeth 1856–1886’, Post-Medieval Archaeology 40(2): 272–90; Owens, Alistair, Jeffries, Nigel, Wehner, Karen, Featherby, Rupert 2010 ‘Fragments of the modern city: Material culture and the rhythms of everyday life in Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian Culture 15(2): 212-225; Wheeler, Kathleen L. (ed.) 2000 Historical Archaeology 34:1 View From the Outhouse: What We Can Learn from the Excavation of Privies.

[12] For example, the ‘archaeological ethnographies’ and ‘ethnographies of place’ approaches noted above: see endnotes 4 and 11 regarding the ‘Victorian London’ project.

[13] See Crook, Penny 2011 ‘Rethinking assemblage analysis: New approaches to the archaeology of working-class neighborhoods’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15: 582-93.

[14] See note 8 with regard to an outlying site.

[15] See;;


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