Victorian Slum House

TV review by
Jenny Nixon, Common Sense Media
Victorian Slum House TV Poster Image
Past becomes present when modern folk move to an 1800s slum.

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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Families grow closer through their shared hardships, and everyone tries to step up and do their part. The participants reflect on how strong their forbears must have been, given what they endured.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The kids are real standouts on this show -- you'd think they'd be complaining constantly about missing their video games and smart phones, but for the most part they really seem to be learning from the experience, and doing their best to contribute to the family's well being.

Violence

There are references to death, but it's in a historical context (ie; "this is what life was like before antibiotics") and not violent.

Sex

It is briefly mentioned that 1 in 12 women turned to prostitution among the Victorian era's urban poor.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that although Victorian Slum House is technically a reality show, it's not a "game" a la Survivor. Instead, it's an ingenious way of making history come alive for viewers and participants alike, in the tradition of PBS's other shows 1900 House and Frontier House. A variety of modern families and individuals are shown living and working in a fully functional, Victorian-era slum that's been recreated near London's East End. The show is historically accurate, showing families living in grungy, crowded conditions, and exploring a time when kids were put to work as early as age 7. There is talk about infant mortality rates, and what life would have been like for the disabled. The show is educational but also entertaining, and there are contributions from historians who help give the families context for what their ancestors went through.

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What's the story?

VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE shows us what day to day life would have been like for the poor in late-1800s London by taking modern people and having them live in a meticulously recreated tenement. There's soot, bad food, back-breaking work and poor lighting to be sure, but the participants also commiserate over what they are going through, and try to figure out ways to make things better while still keeping their own families fed. Even among the poor, there are different classes, so you'll see some families who are able to afford two (filthy) rooms to sleep and work in -- and others who can barely scrape up enough for a night at the "doss house", where the poor would sleep in hay-filled, coffin-like "beds", or while sitting upright on a bench with a rope across the chest to keep them from falling over in their sleep. True to Victorian times, kids are fully expected to contribute to the rent and are shown working on piecemeal assembly projects (matchboxes, artificial flowers) or working as street vendors -- while elderly folk toil at physically demanding jobs in an era before such concepts as "retirement". Each episode, the show speeds forward by 10 years, so a family of tailors who eke out a living by hand-sewing clothing one week will delight at receiving mechanical sewing machines the following week. The cuisine is also era-appropriate, so expect to see a lot of bowls of depressing grey soup, single slices of bread as a full day's food, and even fish that's been smoked in an outhouse. Not a Starbucks in sight!

Is it any good?

In an era of cheesy reality shows focused on finding a spouse or flaunting one's wealth, it's a refreshing change of pace to see one focused on history, and how we can learn from it. Watching modern day families starve, scrape and sweat just to pay the rent in their newfound Dickensian habitat may not seem like it would be uplifting viewing, but it is indeed. Victorian Slum House pulls no punches, and shows how bleak circumstances and a judgmental society piled upon the urban poor, making a person's continued survival a daily question. It is especially illuminating seeing how past generations treated single mothers and the disabled. One of the show's participants has a prosthetic leg, which he trades in for a less-comfortable but more historically accurate version -- which, he notes, would in reality have been out of reach for him, since it cost two years salary in Victorian times. The single mom of two faces eviction on a daily basis, as she is forced to prioritize feeding her kids over paying the landlord.

Not all is grim, though. Whether it's the result of clever editing or of real lessons being learned, the kids are surprisingly eager to participate in the hard work it took to keep Victorian-era families afloat, and seem to truly appreciate that their contributions are valued. The families bond and grow closer as the weeks go by. Separated from their smartphones and video games, the kids take full stock of what's going on around them and marvel at how people were expected to live, and how little society did to help. It's an eye-opening documentary series that should inspire some enlightening conversations, and is a great choice for family viewing.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether they would be willing to participate in a reality show like Victorian Slum House. What would be the hardest part of giving up your modern life? Are there any positive aspects to what life was like back then?

  • How did the development of modern machinery like sewing machines affect the working class in London? In what ways did the Industrial Revolution help or hurt workers?

  • How do modern living conditions for the less fortunate compare to those of olden times? Is poverty still seen as a moral failing, as it was then?

  • How was the structure of the family different or the same in the Victorian era? How has life changed for children and for the elderly since then?

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