• Participants in 'Queen Victoria's Slum' travel back in time. (SBS)Source: SBS
If you're sick of people who don't know how good they have it, check out 'Queen Victoria's Slum'.
Alice Fraser

4 Jul 2017 - 10:42 AM  UPDATED 4 Jul 2017 - 10:42 AM

Queen Victoria's Slum is a reality series that drops modern people into a reconstructed Victorian slum house in London’s East End to make ends meet - and it is totally my new jam. I love a bit of history, particularly when it's combined with the kind of brutal reality TV that’s not about manufactured drama.

Instead, the Michael Mosley-hosted series is more about people coming to heart-wrenching terms with what life might have been like had we been born in a different time or place. I speak from experience when I say watching a few episodes of this makes dropping your iPhone and smashing the screen seem a whole lot less stressful.


Don't like handing your phone to someone to show them a picture lest they accidentally swipe into some sexts?

Try an era where surviving meant sharing a bed with your parents. Yes, every night. Sharing a bed with your whole family. And bugs, probably, though the realism of this TV exploration of Victorian slum life falls short of throwing vermin into the mix. But shared beds are the least of it.

Consider communal outhouses that double as sheds for smoking fish. The second last thing I want is for a dead haddock to be staring at me while I relieve myself. The last thing I want is to have to eat that haddock.


Worried about your marks at school or uni?

This program reminds us what an incredible thing performance-based success is. The volunteered modern egalitarian humans are dropped into a world (not so long ago) where it's their ancestry and nothing else that determines their place in the stratified world of the 19th century poor.

In the Victorian era, people were born poor and died poor. And when I say "poor", I don't mean "on the dole" poor or "no takeaway coffees" poor or even "McDonalds as a fancy night out" poor. I mean so poor they bought bread by the slice and tea by the spoonful.

We see children who need to work to keep their family above water, selling food or doing menial piecework to keep a roof over their own heads. So much for helicopter parents at parent teacher night.

Too much screen time keeping you awake? How stressful

The poor of London's East End sometimes had to sleep on their feet, literally hanging by their waists over a rope. Without even being able to Instagram it. If they couldn't afford food (about two-thirds of your family's income) or rent (the rest), they'd be turned out on the streets, with no address to order UberEATS to deliver to. Avocado on toast or not, these people were worlds away from getting a foot on the housing ladder. They were sleeping on a housing rope.

According to estimates, 20 percent of young lower class women were forced onto the streets due to money pressures. An inability to find work that would provide a subsistence living for them and their children led them to sex work - an interesting insight into some of the reasons that industry remains heavily stigmatised today.


Worried about big government regulation? Happy to work overtime or for less than minimum wage? Annoyed at dole bludgers?

Each week in Queen Victoria's Slum, we are taken into a new decade from 1860-1910, with its assorted technological advances and social pressures. The brutality of life in London’s East End gives us a new perspective on just how bad things were before public housing, workers’ rights, free education and Medicare. It's a reminder of why many of those things we take so much for granted that we’re willing to see them chipped away were instituted in the first place.

Set in Britain, where these issues are even more on the nose than they are in Australia's political climate, we watch each resident go from confident to beaten. Every to-camera piece indicates how much gratitude the participants have for now controversial modern welfare safety nets.

Hate how political correctness has gone mad on Twitter?

We have a long way to go, but it's inspiring to see how far we've come from the times depicted in Queen Victoria's Slum. Race mattered. Age mattered. Disabilities mattered. Any of those things could be the difference between making enough money to get through the day or... not.

It's enough to make you believe in progress and technology, to see the difference between the important workplace battles we have facing us today and those of the slum-dwellers of Victorian England. As the pressures on the population of the house rise, we see them form unions, and you see why that makes sense.


Why should you watch Queen Victoria’s Slum?

This show is not just my jam, it's my tea and jam. It's no affected drawing room soap opera. Sneakily political, it's fact-based reality TV of the non-scripted definitely-not-the-Kardashians type, focused on family and relationship-based human drama. While being a fun historical romp, it's also a visceral experience where we suddenly become aware of the rights we have by seeing them stripped away from people like us.


Queen Victoria's Slum airs Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS.

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