The Victorian EraCharles Dickens was ostensibly writing about the French Revolution when he penned ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’ in 1859. But the serial-turned-novel’s iconic opening gambit was very much an observation of life in the Victorian Era.
On the 20th June 1837, when Alexandrina Victoria was informed that her uncle, King William IV , had died from heart failure, a young woman inherited a realm where the Industrial Revolution had visited both great wealth and poverty upon its populace. A queen at eighteen, Victoria would reign for 63 years, longer than any other monarch. But, within decades of her accession to throne, she would arguably witness more societal changes than any sovereign before her. This was an age of extremes, of contrasting morals and fortunes.
This was a country at work in the factory. This was a nation in the grip of railway fever. George Stephenson and James Watt ’s advancements in steam technology had propelled the nation forwards. Within a year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, the London to Birmingham line had opened for business. Euston station welcomed its first of many commuters on the 17th September 1838. The 112 mile line, five years in the making, was the brainchild of Stephenson. Not George, though; Richard, his son. Clearly, rail engineering was in the blood.
The London-Birmingham line was testimony that the nation’s primitive infrastructure was responding in kind to the economic growth that had inspired an exodus from rural Britain, and made the nation’s towns heave under the pressure of a population boom. The people followed the money, going to work in factories. Textiles, chemicals and coalmining employed people who would once have earned a seasonal living on the farm. Industrialists grew rich, but there was an underclass. Child labour was accepted practice. Match, nail and shoe polish factories, chimney sweeps and mining; children as young as five and six were put to work. Britain’s class structure became explicitly evident as the Victorian Era matured. A large, upwardly mobile middle class emerged, and with it the thorny issue of class politics.
In 1838, the Chartist Movement coalesced round the draft bill of the People’s Charter. It became a workers’ movement that lasted a decade. The Chartist Movement lobbied for social inclusion. Its manifesto endorsed six principals of democratic reform: manhood suffrage, with one vote for every man over the age of 21; the secret ballot; abolition of property qualifications for MPs; reform of electoral districts; payment for MPs; and annual parliamentary elections. Radical for the time, its leaders, including the cavalier Feargus O’Conner and the more measured William Lovett, were essentially proponents of peaceful protests, with thousands of their supporters descending upon Kennington Park in London to petition the government.
Peaceful protests through ‘moral force’, that was Lovett’s decree, but the authorities took the hardline: the very nature of workers’ rights was incendiary. O’Connor was certainly a firebrand, and the Chartists were considered a danger to the peace. They raged against legislation like the New Poor Law of 1834, which was viewed as another attack on the proletariat, stripping them of their rights and exposing them to poorer conditions in already cramped workhouses. Sixteen hour days were commonplace. It was a situation exacerbated by the bourgeoisie’s tax breaks. In 1839, 22 protesters were shot dead by the army at a workers’ uprising in Newport .
The Chartist movement lost momentum and died in 1848. Two years later, O’Connor succumbed to syphilis; the advanced stages of the disease robbed him of his sanity. 40,000 people attended his funeral. To them he remained a charismatic figure. Chartism’s legacy is hard to quantify. But its ethos proposed many of the tenets of modern democracy, and should be considered as an influence Britain’s socialist ideology.
Radical workers’ movements were not the only critics of Britain’s two-tiered society. Charles Dickens, the leading novelist of his generation and one of the most influential writers England has produced, would weigh in with a number of acerbic tomes. His work offered a literary inspiration for progressive social policies that sought to improve the living and working conditions for the lower classes. Industrialism had opened a chasm between the rich and the poor. Britain was described as two nations living independently of each other. The wealthy – the landowners, the business leaders and the merchants – lived a closeted lifestyle wherein the poor disappeared as soon as the doors were shut in their opulent townhouses. Outside, in the overcrowded slums thrown up in the great migration to city, disease and crime were piled high. Vice was rife in an impoverished society where woman outnumbered men. Dickens surveyed all of it, and reanimated it in print, his characters cast from the stereotypes of the time. Though fictional, his novels, crawling with characters of all virtues, took seed in the harsh reality of Victorian life.
Dickens was a child of the Georgian Era. When he was born on the 7th February 1812, Portsmouth , King George IV was on the throne, the locomotive was yet to hypnotise the nation and the British Empire was yet to dominate the world’s economy. Dickens had a happy childhood that, like many of that time, would end abruptly. His family moved to Camden when he was ten years old. His father, John Dickens, fell into financial hardship and was placed in Marshalsea debtor’s prison; Dickens, aged twelve, soon found himself in labour.
As an adolescent breadwinner, working in a blacking factory, Dickens witnessed firsthand the hardship of child labour, and his experiences were attendant influences in later works such as ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘The Old Curiosity’. Child labour and disease brought anchored the average life expectancy to around 25 for chimney sweeps. In other occupations, it was not much better. The mortality rate was high. If children weren’t dying in the chimneys, they succumbed to bronchial complaints. Or in factories, they would be crushed in machinery. Disease, however, affected everybody; in its own peculiar way, it was a catalyst for social change. And in the cramp, dirty cities, piled high with horse and human excrement, there was plenty of it about.
Typhus was spread by lice, mites and ticks. Sickness and diarrhoea was rife in the summer months when cities like Birmingham, Manchester and London suffered for a want of sanitisation. Apportioning blame was easy: the Victorian Era predated local government, and cities were run by private municipal firms. There was a laissez faire quality to Victorian society which allowed industry a free reign, with a small state and an emphasis on entrepreneurship. ‘Victorian values’ would be reprised 150 years on when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher sought a free market economy with a shrunken public sector. Such ideology was without context in 1848. Municipal corporations weren’t prepared to raise taxes on the middle classes to afford better housing for the proletariat. It wasn’t until cholera, the water-born scourge of Asia that had infected Germany in the 1830s, reached the middle classes that sanitation became a political concern.
Medical science was rudimentary at best, it was not until the turn of the century that doctors had accepted that it was germs and not the stench in the air that was causing epidemics. Fresh air was touted as the panacea for the nation’s poorly. Public health policy began and ended with demolishing slum housing and running a road right through it – Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho , was one high profile instance of this desperate pursuit for ‘clean air’. But the poor would have to move into even more crowded accommodation. There was little respite.
In the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign, death from disease had been the highest since the bubonic plague of the 14th Century. The middle classes’ were not concerned greatly by typhus, after all, they weren’t sharing a house with 30 others, living in the back-to-back cramped tenements of Yorkshire. Cholera was their concern, and so it should have been. The rarified ranks of the chattering classes could afford water closets and privies, as the British love affair with bathrooms bloomed. Sewers and drains originally intended for draining rainwater were carrying human waste into the River Thames , and infecting the supply of drinking water. There were sporadic cholera epidemics in Birmingham and Newcastle , and when an 1848 epidemic was killing around 2,000 people a week, the Public Health Act was introduced. The need for sanitation was long overdue.
The Public Health Act 1848 was the product of Edwin Chadwick and the Health Of Towns Commission. In such a period of societal change, it was easy to forget that the government had no experience of governing an industrialised economy, and a country whose population that would more than double during the Victorian Era. The Public Health Act accounted for the provision of local health boards in areas where the death rate was high. At odds with the laissez faire ethos of the time, ten years later the Act was repealed.
Disease wasn’t the only problem. The hitherto unchartered problem of pollution reared its ugly head, especially in the North Of England, where chemical factories went unchecked, polluting canals with heavy metals and alkalis. St Helens , Swansea , Sheffield and Liverpool were at times shrouded in noxious air. Smog was commonplace. The same industries that had brought people and jobs, growing towns like St Helens into industrial hubs by the banks of the Sankey canal, were now bringing pollution. Black Lung, emphysema, plagued the mining communities. “Where there’s muck, there’s brass” chirruped the motto of Victorian Yorkshire. But at what cost? The government introduced the Alkali Act 1874 in an attempt to bring some accountability to industry in controlling the emission of noxious vapour, but there were enough caveats in the legislation to stop industry from getting too distracted by environmental concerns. Health and Safety legislation was some way off.
Yes, for many, these were the worst of times. But they were also the best. Setting aside the Industrial Revolution and its remorseless enterprise, culture flourished under Victoria. With newfound economic wealth, the middle classes needed something to do. The arts blossomed. In 1849, artists such as Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to reprise the styles of Medieval painting, ignoring Mannerist techniques. Eschewing the post-Mannerism aesthetics of nuanced features in portraits, works such as Rossetti’s ‘Persephone’ were at once atavistic and avant garde. The movement attracted writers, poets, and a number of critics – including Dickens.
The Victorian Era sired a new breed of theatregoer. Though the Victorians had a priggish attitude to social morality, their personal enjoyment was not under lock and key like those during the middle of the 17th Century, when plays were banned by the Puritans for the good of the nation's moral fibre. Dion Boucicault; Robert Browning ; Sir William Schwenck Gilbert ; and the inimitable Oscar Wilde were some of the dramatists to titillate the Victorian theatre goer. The 1843 Theatre Regulation Act permitted acts without music (what was known as 'legitimate drama') to be played throughout London's theatres, thus opening opportunities for the Victorian literary sect to get their work onto the stage. That 18th Century curio of the theatre diary, the pantomime, continued to enjoy august fortunes with the Victorian public, with E.L. Blanchard writing tales of puckishness and harlequins for the Drury Lane Pantomime for 37 years.
Satire enjoyed a surge in popularity in the Victorian Era. In 1841, Henry Mayhew and engraver Ebenezer Landells launched a magazine called The London Charivari. Heavily influenced by the Parisian title of the same name, the weekly digest of humour and satire became famous as Punch Magazine , and lasted until 1992, enjoying a brief resurrection four years later. Punch hit the bull’s eye with its tone; the Victorians abhorred vulgarity, but relished a bit of devilment – Punch delivered it in spades, and would later enjoy running its cartoons in The Times. Indeed, the word cartoon is credited to the magazine.
One remarkable facet of the Victorian Era was the welcome absence of widespread warfare. In an age that became noted for its peace, ‘Pax Britannia’ allowed Britain to grow rich. Richer than any other country. The costly wars of the Georgian period were largely absent, with Europe primarily busying itself with the Industrial Revolution. To think that Napoleon once derided the British as a nation of shopkeepers. In defeating France at the turn of the century, Britain had steadied her position in world politics. The Crimean War disturbed the peace in March 1853, when an allied coalition of Britain, Russia, France and Sardinia fought with the Ottoman Empire. The conflict lasted three years and claimed around 3,000 British lives.
Politics in Britain was becoming increasingly democratic, with the Tory-Whig rivalry maintaining a hegemony in Parliament. As the 19th Century advanced, the Whigs would become the Liberals, and the Tories would be known as the Conservatives. Maintaining the balance between a free market economy and social justice were the perennial arguments. But the United Kingdom would be attendant in the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the nation, when years of failed agricultural policy and potato blight brought famine to Ireland . It was a tragedy beyond compare. Ireland, part of Great Britain since the Act Of Union 1801, saw her population starve when blight destroyed the country’s potato crop in successive years. Irish society since the Union had endured incredible poverty amongst the Catholic majority. A Whig government in London, lead by Lord John Russell, failed the people of Ireland. Between 1846 and 1851, one million people died of starvation and disease. Ireland’s population dropped like a stone as a further two million took their chances on overcrowded ships heading west towards America, or to the British mainland.
While people died in their thousands in Ireland, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert , was commissioning the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park . The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton , was the epitome of modernity, and a precursor to modern architecture, the likes of which sends Prince Charles into paroxysms of displeasure. Open for the summer of 1851, nearly six million people visited it. If ever there was a metaphor for the Victorian paradox between rich and poor, it was the Great Exhibition celebrating industrialism and new-found wealth, during a context of intolerable suffering in Ireland.
Queen Victoria’s reign would be pockmarked by famine in British colonies. Towards the end of the century, famine in India claimed between six and ten million lives; for all Britain’s economic might, it was not capable or willing to react to humanitarian disaster. Victoria, herself, shrank from the public spotlight in 1861, after the death of her husband. Britain, however, would witness the rise to prominence of one of its most influential politicians, William Gladstone . Joining the Liberals in 1859, he lead them nine years later as prime minister. A renowned social reformer, Gladstone trained his policy on Ireland. Post-Famine, the country was still in extreme poverty. It was asked of Irish Republicans of the time why the Industrial Revolution was largely passing the country by. Gladstone at least passed a Land Act to alleviate the problems of absentee landlords, who had reduced much of Ireland’s lower classes to the state of agrarian slavery. Towards the end of the Victorian Era, Gladstone petitioned vehemently for Irish home rule. He resigned in 1893 after another home rule bill was rejected, and died on the 19th May 1898.
As Victoria’s rule came to an end at the turn of the century, Britain was scarcely recognisable. Guglielmo Marconi had patented the radio; Lister had discovered antiseptics; and photography was now an art form. Local government, too, had been established as Victoria’s influence over parliament diminished into the role of constitutional monarch. On the 22nd January 1901 , Queen Victoria died at the age of 81. It ended this bold era of progress. An era when the Empress-Queen ruled an empire that constituted of almost a quarter of the world’s population. King Edward VII took the throne, the 20th Century began. A century in which the industrialised world would resume hostilities like never before.
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