The Victorian era of the United Kingdom and its overseas Empire was the period of Queen Victoria's rule from June 1837 to January 1901. The era was preceded by the Georgian period and succeeded by the Edwardian period. Some scholars would extend the beginning of the period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—back five years to the passage of the Reform Act 1832. This was a long period of prosperity for the British people, as profits gained from the overseas Empire, as well as from industrial improvements at home, allowed a large, educated middle class to develop.
The era is often characterized as a long period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War. In fact, Britain was at war every year during this period. Towards the end of the century, the policies of New Imperialism led to increasing colonial conflicts and eventually the Anglo-Zanzibar War and the Boer War. The empire's size doubled during the era. The latter half of the Victorian era roughly coincided with the first portion of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and other non-English speaking countries within Europe.
Domestically, the agenda was increasingly liberal with a number of shifts in the direction of gradual political reform and the widening of the voting franchise. The term Victorian morality is often used to describe the ethos of the period, which embraced sexual proprietary, hard work, honesty, thrift, a sense of duty and responsibility towards the less well off, provided that they deserved help (alcoholics and the work-shy did not). Anomalies existed, not least of all how the British treated their colonial subjects. Yet, sometimes unwittingly, the Victorians did much to create an increasingly inter-connected world, in which some people could speak of co-responsibility to make the world a better place. When Victorians spoke about justice, ending poverty or child-labor and about improving the quality of life, even if their practice was often parochial, their vision was global.
In the early part of the era the House of Commons was dominated by the two parties, the Whigs and the Tories. From the late 1850s onwards the Whigs became the Liberals even as the Tories became known as the Conservatives. These parties were led by many prominent statesmen including Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Derby, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. The unsolved problems relating to Irish Home Rule played a great part in politics in the later Victorian era, particularly in view of Gladstone's determination to achieve a political settlement.
The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented population increase in England. One reason for the increase was that there was no catastrophic epidemic or famine in England or Scotland in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, Ireland’s population decreased rapidly, primarily due to the Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849), from 8.2 million in 1841 to less than 4.5 million in 1901.
The middle of the nineteenth century saw The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair and showcased the greatest innovations of the century. At its center was the Crystal Palace, an enormous, modular glass and iron structure—the first of its kind. It was condemned by critic John Ruskin as the very model of mechanical dehumanization in design, but later came to be presented as the prototype of Modern architecture. The emergence of photography, which was showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art with Queen Victoria being the first British monarch to be photographed. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl.
Gothic Revival architecture became increasingly significant in the period, leading to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideals. Charles Barry's architecture for the new Palace of Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, built on the medieval style of Westminster Hall, the surviving part of the building. It constructed a narrative of cultural continuity, set in opposition to the violent disjunctions of Revolutionary France, a comparison common to the period, as expressed in Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.
Popular forms of entertainment varied by social class. Victorian Britain, like the periods before it, was interested in theater and the arts, and music, drama, and opera were widely attended. There were, however, other forms of entertainment. Gambling at cards in establishments popularly called casinos was wildly popular during the period: so much so that evangelical and reform movements specifically targeted such establishments in their efforts to stop gambling, drinking, and prostitution.
Brass bands and 'The Bandstand' became popular in the Victorian era. The band stand was a simple construction that not only created an ornamental focal point, but also served acoustic requirements whilst providing shelter from the changeable British weather. It was common to hear the sound of a brass band whilst strolling through parklands. At this time musical recording was still very much a novelty.
Another form of entertainment involved 'spectacles' where paranormal events, such as hypnotism, communication with the dead (by way of mediumship or channelling), ghost conjuring and the like, were carried out to the delight of crowds and participants. Such activities were more popular at this time than in other periods of recent Western history.
The impetus of the Industrial Revolution had already occurred, but it was during this period that the full effects of industrialization made themselves felt, leading to the mass consumer society of the twentieth century. The revolution led to the rise of railways across the country and great leaps forward in engineering, most famously by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Another great engineering feat in the Victorian Era was the sewage system in London. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette in 1858. He proposed to build 82 mi (132 km) of sewerage linked with over 1,000 mi (1,600 km) of street sewers. Many problems were found but the sewers were completed. After this, Bazalgette designed the Thames Embankment which housed sewers, water pipes and the London Underground. During the same period London's water supply network was expanded and improved, and gas reticulation for lighting and heating was introduced in the 1880s.
During the Victorian era, science grew into the discipline it is today. In addition to the increasing professionalism of university science, many Victorian gentlemen devoted their time to the study of natural history. This study of natural history was most powerfully impacted by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution first published in his book "On the Origins of Species" in 1859.
Photography was realized in 1829 by Louis Daguerre in France and William Fox Talbot in the UK. By 1900, hand-held cameras were available.
Although initially developed in the early years of the nineteenth century, gas lighting became widespread during the Victorian era in industry, homes, public buildings and the streets. The invention of the incandescent gas mantle in the 1890s greatly improved light output and ensured its survival as late as the 1960s. Hundreds of gasworks were constructed in cities and towns across the country. In 1882, incandescent electric lights were introduced to London streets, although it took many years before they were installed everywhere.
Nineteenth-century Britain saw a huge population increase accompanied by rapid urbanization stimulated by the industrial revolution. The large numbers of skilled and unskilled people looking for work suppressed wages down to barely subsistence level. Available housing was scarce and expensive, resulting in overcrowding. These problems were magnified in London, where the population grew at record rates. Large houses were turned into flats and tenements, and as landlords failed to maintain these dwellings, slum housing developed. Kellow Chesney described the situation as follows "Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the, metropolis... In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room." (The Victorian Underworld)
The Victorian era became notorious for employing young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. Children were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs and low wages. Agile boys were employed by the chimney sweeps; small children were employed to scramble under machinery to retrieve cotton bobbins; and children were also employed to work in coal mines to crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. Children also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers and other cheap goods. Many children got stuck in the chimneys that they were sweeping and eventually died. In factories it was not uncommon for children to lose limbs crawling under machinery to pick things up.
Several Factory Acts were passed to prevent the exploitation of children in the workplace. Children of poor families would leave school at the age of eight and were then forced to go to work. School was not free at this time.
Beginning in the late 1840s, major news organizations, clergymen and single women became increasingly concerned about prostitution, which came to be known as "The Great Social Evil." Although estimates of the number of prostitutes in London by the 1850s vary widely (in his landmark study, Prostitution, William Acton reported that the police estimated there were 8,600 in London alone in 1857), it is enough to say that the number of women working the streets became increasingly difficult to ignore. When the United Kingdom Census 1851 publicly revealed a 4 percent demographic imbalance in favor of women (i.e. 4 percent more women than men), the problem of prostitution began to shift from a moral/religious cause to a socio-economic one. The 1851 census showed that the population of Great Britain was roughly 18 million; this meant that roughly 750,000 women would remain unmarried simply because there were not enough men. These women came to be referred to as "superfluous women" or "redundant women," and many essays were published discussing what, precisely, ought to be done with them.
While the Magdalene Asylums had been "reforming" prostitutes since the mid-eighteenth century, the years between 1848 and 1870 saw a veritable explosion in the number of institutions working to "reclaim" these "fallen women" from the streets and retrain them for entry into respectable society—usually for work as domestic servants. The theme of prostitution and the "fallen woman" (an umbrella term used to describe any women who had sexual intercourse out of wedlock) became a staple feature of mid-Victorian literature and politics. In the writings of Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth and others, prostitution began to be seen as a social problem.
When Parliament passed the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864 (which allowed the local constabulary to force any woman suspected of venereal disease to submit to its inspection), Josephine Butler's crusade to repeal the CD Acts yoked the anti-prostitution cause with the emergent feminist movement. Butler attacked the long-established double standard of sexual morality.
Prostitutes were often presented as victims in sentimental literature such as Thomas Hood's poem The Bridge of Sighs, Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton and Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The emphasis on the purity of women found in such works as Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House led to the portrayal of the prostitute and fallen woman as soiled, corrupted, and in need of cleansing.
This emphasis on female purity was allied to the stress on the homemaking role of women, who helped to create a space free from the pollution and corruption of the city. In this respect the prostitute came to have symbolic significance as the embodiment of the violation of that divide. The double standard remained in force. Divorce legislation introduced in 1857 allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce if adultery was accompanied by cruelty. The anonymity of the city led to a large increase in prostitution and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Dickens and other writers associated prostitution with the mechanization and industrialization of modern life, portraying prostitutes as human commodities consumed and thrown away like refuse when they were used up. Moral reform movements attempted to close down brothels, something that has sometimes been argued to have been a factor in the concentration of street-prostitution in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, by the 1880s.
Religion was a dominant interest throughout the Victoria era, impacting almost every aspect of life and culture. Whether the issue was politics, marriage, sexuality, class relations, literature or attitudes to other peoples and countries, religion played a central role in discussion. Doctrinal disputes within Christianity generally and the Church of England in particular, as well as debate between religion and science, characterized the era. Although the Church of England remained the Established Church, other denominations increased in size and in influence, especially in the new industrial cities, which were often dominated by civic leaders from the Free Churches. The Victorian era saw much missionary activity. Societies founded by different denominations sent personnel to countries within the British Empire and to countries ruled by other powers. Commentators point out that Victorian Britain was the most religious society that the world had ever known. Church attendance was as high as 50 percent. As Erickson notes, “Biblical Christianity was thickly intertwined in the fabric of Victorian society.” Christian symbols were prominently displayed everywhere, such as signs reading “choose this day whom you will serve,” and “be sure your sins will find you out” on prison walls. English men and women were “serious about their faith,” which “undergirded their lives to an extent unimaginable to nonchurchgoers in our own time.”
Concepts such as sin and ungodliness, says Erickson, “defined experience.” Belief that it was Britain's god-given “duty to save the world [resulted in] a huge increase in foreign missionary activity, along with an upsurge in moral imperialism ... that abetted and reinforced the everyday patriotism of parades, naval reviews, music-hall songs, and saber-rattling literature.” For some, Britain was the New Israel through which God's providential purposes would unfold. This would especially influence British policy in the Middle East, which always had a “biblical dimension… more than any other European people, nineteenth and early twentieth century Britons spoke of resettling Jews in the historic land of Israel,” an idea towards which “two imperially minded [Victorian prime ministers] were also well disposed: Benjamin Disraeli (who pioneered the idea in a book) and Viscount Palmerston (who thought a British client state in the Middle East would be economically advantageous).”
Victorian religion thus informed the idea that Britain had a special role to play in Christianizing and civilizing the world. On the one hand, this was associated with attitudes of religious and cultural superiority that denigrated and demonized other religions. It was also associated with ideas about race; it was the burden of the white race to govern lesser races, expressed by Rudyard Kipling's "Take up the White Man's burden." Much that was written about other cultures and faiths, even when offered as objective scholarship, reflected attitudes of superiority. It can, though, be questioned whether the Queen herself shared these attitudes. On the other hand, the British Empire stretched around the globe, and by constructing transport and communication infrastructure, ended up stimulating the development of ideas about common Values and of shared human obligations. Victorian morality, too, which placed a premium on concepts such as duty and social responsibility, also spread across the empire on which the sun never set.
The legacy of the Victorian era continues through its literature, music and art, through technological and scientific advances that enriched and still enrich human life. One significant aspect of Victorian morality was its focus on public duty and responsibility. Victorian imperialism was in many respects patronizing and exploitative but the idea that government has a duty to improve people's lives took deep root. At the beginning of the era, dealing with poverty or the welfare of the body politic was more or less left to private philanthropy. As such Acts as the Mines Act (1842), the Education Act (1870), and the Health Act (1875) became law, responsibility for public welfare was gradually transferred from private philanthropy to government. Since Victoria reigned over a global empire, the ideals that stimulated concern for public welfare also spread across the globe. As a consequence, many more people throughout the world started to regard themselves as members of a common culture, as co-citizens of an inter-dependent world. Calder suggests that while it is undeniable "That the Victorians wanted to make the world a better place" they often "had to settle for making the home a better place" instead. Nonetheless, perhaps more than their predecessors, the Victorians were not parochial in their interests. The Victorians may have seen themselves as the world's police; yet despite the arrogant aspects of this, it assumes that all people belong to a single world community, and that certain standards in governance, civil life, law and order are universal, to be shared by everyone.
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