clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

PBS's 'Victorian Slum House' takes family history to a new level

PBS is taking family history education to a new, slightly cruel level.

In the new show "Victorian Slum House," average British families recreate what life was like for Victorian London slum dwellers. This five-part reality series, premiering Tuesday, May 2 at 7 p.m. MST, brings the poverty of the 1860s-1900s to life.

Several of the participating families' ancestors lived in London's East End during the Victorian era and, many of them expressed, what better way to get to know and connect with their forebears than by experiencing life as they did?

What starts as a charming idea soon becomes a rude wakeup call.

Forced to find work that would have been available during the time period, their challenges start to sound like a Charles Dickens story. One family has to send their young daughters to work when the bread-winning grandfather throws out his back after a full day of manual labor. A single mom with almost no options for earning money (the host Michael Mosley mentions that 1 in 12 Victorian women turned to prostitution), faces debt and eviction with her two small children. The man who plays the role of the rent collector lost one of his legs in a sporting accident, and learns how impossible life would be for a poor, disabled person during this time period.

As it happens, watching people subject themselves to near-starvation while freezing in tiny, rundown rooms and working their tails off to barely survive might seem like self-imposed torture to many, especially as it includes children, but it does make good television.

And it's not all dire: the show also demonstrates how extreme difficulties can bring families closer together. Show participants are forced to work together to survive and, as some of them hoped, they feel closer to their ancestors through their shared experiences.

One mother is brought to tears (partially out of hunger, likely), when she realizes how much her ancestors sacrificed to bring her where she is in life. Another woman says she will never again say she grew up in poverty, as she now knows what true poverty is.

Past and present come together in "Victorian Slum House" to give viewers an educational and often emotional experience of the nitty-gritty details of a historical time that can be easily overlooked.

Future episodes of the show will progress by decade, showing times of change and revolution for the impoverished Victorians, and how they eventually built changes into British society that created the welfare system today.