The Victorian Age

The Victorian Age

By achieving its victory over Napoleon the British Government acquired a far-flung empire in several fits of absence of mind. Imperialism, sought in pursuit of glory, as with the French conqueror, had little appeal: colonies were appreciated for their trade or their use as naval bases. The West Indies, for example, were valued for their sugar and India for its tea. But otherwise colonies were regarded as expensive luxuries. Canada, which had not much except furs to offer, needed to be protected from American expansion; Australia was chiefly a dumping ground for convicts; New Zealand was as yet only a field for missionaries. The Cape of Good Hope, like Heligoland, Mauritius, Malta and the Ionian Islands, all obtained by treaty in 1815, were ports of call for the British navy. However, the second British Empire bought a large part of England’s exports, although the United States, the heart of the first British Empire, still took a fair proportion of them. The fruit of peace was not immediately prosperity. The war had cost £1,000,000,000, so taxation remained high. Bad harvests caused depressions in 1826 and 1829. But by 1832 employment was becoming plentiful and the cost of living was lower than during the war. More money was available for investment, the rate of interest being as little as 4 or 5 per cent. Yet it was a serious recession with which the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) opened.

In fact this recession continued intermittently until 1841. In the summer of 1837 50,000 workers were unemployed or on short time in Manchester alone: an influx of impecunious Irish labour was partly responsible. The price of bread shot up and instances of death from starvation were recorded in the newspapers. The cost of administering the Poor Law rose, though not to the same extent as it did after the end of the war. In 1840 the infant mortality rate among the wage-earning classes was one in four. Commissioners appointed under an act of 1834 – the charter of the rate-payer, it has been called – had to abandon the idea of not giving any outdoor relief and in fact thousands of families were allowed a shilling or two a week. Those who were lucky enough to be employed, for example in the textile industries, were often required to work a seventy-two-hour week.

It has been observed justly that ‘the imagination can hardly apprehend the horror in which thousands of families were then born, dragged out their ghastly lives and died’.’ No wonder that an Anti-Corn-Law League, aimed at reducing the price of bread, was founded in 1838, or that in the same year the London Working Men’s Association drew up a ‘People’s Charter’ demanding annual parliaments, universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, the removal of property qualifications for Members of Parliament, payment of Members and a secret ballot, all in the optimistic belief that a House of Commons so reformed would assuage the grievances of the poor. The Chartist movement failed; but the Anti-Corn-Law League led by Richard Cobden, a self-made man, and John Bright, a textile manufacturer, triumphed by persuading the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, to abolish the laws in 1846. This meant that the export of grain was no longer subsidized and the import of corn could not be prohibited, procedures that had been habitual since the thirteenth century. The supporters of repeal were largely business men in Manchester and elsewhere who were able to contribute or collect ample funds to back the movement. Some of the working men’s leaders, however, far from regarding it as a moral crusade, feared that should repeal result in reducing the price of bread it would be employed as an excuse for lowering wages. Fergus O’Connor, the Chartist leader, said: ‘it will make the rich richer and the poor poorer’.2

The repeal of the Corn Laws did not have the evil consequences forecast by landowners and big farmers (Lord John Russell, the Whig leader, had feared that the struggle over repeal would be injurious to the aristocracy to which he belonged). The price of wheat remained fairly steady, around 5o shillings a quarter, until the eighteen-seventies (except during the Crimean War of 1854-6). The profits earned by growers of grain were dependent on a yield of about twenty-six bushels per acre. Owing to the high cost of carrying goods by sea corn imported from America was never cheap for a generation after the repeal. It was only with the opening of the prairies in the Middle West and the introduction of steamships that foreign competition in the sale of food became acute. The cost of transporting grain from Chicago to Liverpool fell by nearly a third between 1873 and 1884. It was then that rents, incomes, prices and wages in the English countryside slid catastrophically downwards.

Yet before the dismal seventies farmers were trying hard to put their house in order. An enormous improvement in drainage, which made heavy soils more workable, was taking place; enclosures were more or less completed and an increase in output was obtained, not so much by bringing commons and wastes into cultivation as by enriching the land under the plough, eliminating fallow years, and using more manures and fertilizers such as superphosphate and guano (fish manure), which was imported. Capital was invested in land and labour-saving machines were introduced, lowering the costs of ploughing and sowing seed. The Royal Agricultural Society, founded in 1838, and the Rothamsted Experimental Station, set up in 1842, offered advice to farmers on scientific matters. Mechanization proceeded apace, but the number of people employed on the land had diminished little by 185 1.  Although the population as a whole was growing rapidly the country still managed to produce 90 per cent of the food it needed. In fact, the big and medium-sized farms earned good profits for their owners, making them more affluent than they had ever been until today: ‘that English farming was the best in the world all the world acknowledged,’ wrote a historian of the Victorian age. Mixed farming made great headway between the early 185o and the early 187os, when the prices of fat stock fed on cheap grain were often high.

However, after 1877, because of foreign competition, arable farming (which employed four men an acre) declined and the membership of the National Agricultural Labourers Union, started by Joseph Arch in 1872, fell significantly from 100,000 to 23,000 in 1879. By then agricultural labourers had grown accustomed to three-bedroom cottages, were paid 12 to 14 shillings a week and ate wheaten bread that cost fivepence or sixpence for a four-pound loaf. They fed on pork or bacon and drank beer or elderberry wine. Who could then have dreamt that self-contained rural village life would virtually disappear in the twentieth century, or that the country would be in danger of starvation once wars encompassed the entire globe?

Before the repeal of the Corn Laws Peel had reduced or abolished a large number of duties for fiscal, not free-trade, reasons. A Committee on Import Duties had reported that 94.5 per cent of the total Customs revenue was derived from duties on only seventeen items. But Peel retained a 5 per cent tax on imported raw materials and 12 per cent on partly manufactured goods. He maintained the duties on wines and spirits and reimposed income tax at sevenpence in the pound to meet the expense of simplifying the tariff. After the victory of what has been called the Manchester School over the Corn Laws, free trade gradually took hold. Imperial preferences were swept away, though preferences on sugar were retained until 1854 and on timber until 186o. The Navigation Acts, protecting the mercantile marine, were repealed in 1849. With further assistance from Mr Gladstone England became the free-trade country par excellence during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Protection was no longer deemed necessary, because no longer were there infant industries crying out to be fostered. Imports could be paid for by a booming export trade. The growth in exports, in which cotton goods predominated, was, in relation to the population, far higher between 1840 and 186o than ever before or since. After cotton, other industries such as coal, iron and steel, woollen textiles and ‘invisible exports’ (for example earnings from marine insurance, shipping and overseas investment) also contributed to national prosperity. Lloyd’s Society of Underwriters had been founded as early as 1771. Capital was invested not only in the British Empire but in Central and South America and in the United States. The Baring brothers and the Rothschilds were pioneers in such foreign investments and were the outstanding merchant bankers of the time. Indeed, more money was invested overseas than at home. British industry largely financed itself by ploughing back profits. Few private firms sought investment from the public until towards the end of the century, and the banks were still reluctant to tie up their resources by loaning money to buy fixed capital. Although limited liability was introduced in the eighteen-fifties, family businesses were slow to convert themselves into private or public companies.3

The railways, like the canals, were the outcome of private enterprise, which by quickening the transport of goods cheapened them. Iron rails had been used to move coal from pit-heads and steamboats had carried traffic on rivers during the second half of the eighteenth century. On the earliest railways the locomotives that moved wagons, particularly uphill, were stationary. Furthermore, on these railways customers were allowed to run their own trains, drawn by horses as well as by hired locomotives, just as they used their own barges along the canals. No fewer than nineteen Railway Acts were passed by Parliament during the first two decades of the nineteenth century permitting the construction of lines to carry coal in south Wales alone.

George Stephenson, a self-made man who worked in the collieries, built his first locomotive in 1814. When in 1825 a company opened a railway to carry mineral traffic between Stockton and Darlington, a distance of eight and a half miles, Stephenson was appointed company engineer and persuaded his employers to replace horses with steam engines to draw the trains. The company then engaged on a larger project, a railway between Liverpool and Manchester, offering a prize for the best locomotive, and this was won by Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’, with a fantastically lengthy funnel, built in 1829. In 1838 another company constructed a railway from London to Birmingham and the Great Western Railway developed a line between London and Bristol at the same time. In the forties new railways were rapidly built and companies amalgamated. The Midland Railway and the London and North-Western Railway came into being. Every effort was exerted to attract passengers. For the purposes of refreshment the railways advertised ‘magnificent salons, luxuriously furnished, warmed and illuminated, and buffets where attendants neither desire nor expect tips’.4

One of the results of the building of railways by private enterprise was that in a mania for quick profits lines were duplicated. For example, one could still choose alternative routes between London and Birmingham and between London and Manchester in the first half of the twentieth century. Secondly, since the railway companies had to buy up land in towns and villages they were often compelled to put their stations away from the town centres, as at Oxford and Cambridge. By 1870 the basic network was virtually complete, covering a total distance of 6,000 miles. The railways soon became effective rivals to the canals in carrying goods and to the turnpike roads for passenger traffic.

The building of the railways had significant social and economic consequences. They were invaluable alike to manufacturing industry, to the export trade and to agriculture. The railways enabled farmers to send perishable goods to distant town markets and to collect their raw materials from factories and ports: this fortified agriculture, in spite of the repeal of the Corn Laws. By 1870 a larger acreage was under the plough than ever before or since. The building and manning of the railways stimulated employment directly and indirectly in Victorian England. Walter Bagehot, the political theorist, and Charles Dickens, the novelist, both thought the railways were democratic institutions. When a general Railway Act was passed in 1844 it required companies to provide trains running each way along their lines every day except Good Friday and Christmas Day, at a rate of twenty miles an hour, stopping at all stations and with a maximum fare of a penny a mile. This ‘parliamentary train’ might be deemed democratic. But it is doubtful whether the introduction of first-class carriages (intended for gentlemen), second-class carriages (intended for gentlemen’s servants) and third-class carriages (for the rest) did anything to eliminate class distinctions. Trains did, however, reduce the isolation of rural life. ‘The railroad’, it has been claimed, was ‘the Magna Carta of people’s motive freedom’. And possibly the novelty of this form of transport made fellow passengers more affable and sociable than they generally are today. The poor, argued The Economist in 181, benefited from ‘this vast invention. How few among the last generation ever stirred beyond their own villages. How few among the present will die without visiting London.’5

Parliament continued to be exercised about the employment of women and young persons (up to the age of eighteen) in textile factories. An act passed in 1847 limited their working day to ten hours or fifty-eight hours a week. This act has been considered by some historians as more meaningful than the repeal of the Corn Laws, but it did not result in a ten-hour day for adult men, whose working hours were not the subject of legislation until the twentieth century. In any case the act allowed women and young persons to be worked in shift or ‘relay’ systems, as they were called, entailing longer hours for men, and it permitted the employment of children to help them during an afternoon shift when the women and young persons had gone home. A compromise was reached with a Factory Act of 1850 which provided for a sixty-hour week for women and young persons, prohibited their doing night work and required the closure of textile mills at 2 P.M. on Saturdays. Further Factory Acts extended regulations to other industries than textiles. Gradually the restriction of adult working hours became a reality.

The ‘sweating’ of women in retail millinery, dressmaking and tailoring, particularly in London, was notorious. George Augustus Sala in his book Turn Round the Clock (1859) related how he saw seamstresses and milliners’ workwomen bound for the dress factories in London’s West End with ‘pinched faces, eager faces, sullen faces’ and ‘with large mild eyes’, wondering at the necessity of working a twelve-hour day or longer to make ballroom dresses for countesses and marchionesses .6 An act of 1891 belatedly attempted to deal with this form of exploitation, but only limited working hours to twelve a day. The sweating of sewing-women has persisted in one form or another until the present day.

Further acts affecting industrial employment followed during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. An Employers’ Liability Act of 188o required employers to insure their workpeople against the risks of their calling. An act of 1895 limited the working hours of children to thirty a week. Finally, the Factory and Workshop Consolidation Act of 1901 marked the progress achieved during the Victorian era: it even empowered the Home Secretary to regulate processes in industry and matters of health by departmental orders. The struggle for social reform had been long and arduous. Indeed, the conditions in which men, women and children were called upon to work in factories, workshops and mines had been so degrading as to shock contemporaries as well as posterity.

From the economic point of view the long reign of Queen Victoria may be divided into three periods. The first and shortest, covering the initial thirteen years of the reign, was one of trouble and unrest, with many strikes in Lancashire and the Midlands. When in July 1838 the House of Commons refused to consider a petition for the People’s Charter, bearing 1,200,000 signatures, a convention, meeting in Birmingham, actually threatened a general strike, though the Chartist leader, O’Connor, recoiled from any kind of ‘physical force’. The Chartist agitation reached its apogee during the years 1838 to 1842, when both wholesale and retail prices were rising.

Although after that real wages improved, a bad harvest in England in 1845 and the failure of the potato crop in Ireland in 1846 brought an end to the brief period of prosperity and ensured victory for the excellently organized campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws, a victory which split asunder the Tory Party. The state of the Lancashire cotton mills was so bad from the point of view of the men, women and children employed in them that the series of Factory Acts already outlined was forced through Parliament. The antagonism between capital and labour was ventilated in pamphlets and in O’Connor’s newspaper, The Northern Star. Robert Owen, himself a successful manufacturer and mill owner, argued that capitalism could be eliminated by socialism: by socialism he meant workers’ control of industry, not control by the State. Such co-operation, he believed, could be established without a revolution. It would scarcely have been surprising if the revolutions that took place in France, Austria and Italy had infected England. But partly because O’Connor was no revolutionary the Chartist movement collapsed. To those who believe that individuals count in history, it would appear that the statesmanship of Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington averted the danger of complete upheaval in the hungry eighteen-forties.

The second period of the reign was heralded by the opening of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, erected in Hyde Park during 181, the year after Peel died. It was largely the inspiration of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, and while foreign countries contributed to the 10,000 items on display, most of the exhibits were advertisements for the industrial progress of the United Kingdom, which was then gathering momentum. Thackeray could boast that ‘these, England’s arms of conquest, are the trophies of her bloodless war!’

England was then beginning to benefit from the events of the tempestuous early decades of the century, such as the building of the railways and the introduction of labour-saving devices into the textile industries. The insanitary conditions of work of the labouring classes had been exposed and condemned and were to some extent remedied. Effective acts of parliament mitigated the harsh working life in the cotton mills; a Mines Act of 1842 had forbidden the employment of women and young children underground; in 1848 a General Board of Health was set up, though improvements in hygiene came slowly. Responsible trade unions were established, such as the Miners’ Association in 1841 and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1851. The first meeting of the Trades Union Congress took place in 1868. For the managerial class and the skilled workers at any rate salaries, real wages and working conditions became better, so that output rose. Some employers realized that they could increase production by means of incentives rather than by insisting on long hours. A habit of taking Mondays off, notably in Birmingham, always a wealthy city, was winked at by employers, as it often is now.

Although a temporary setback took place during the American Civil War (1861-5), when a big reduction in imports of raw cotton damaged the industry in Lancashire, commodity prices rose, the economy flourished – it was one of the fastest growing in the world – and unemployment virtually disappeared. From the material point of view the mid Victorian period was the high-water mark in English history. The upper and middle classes were pampered: in 1871 nearly 16 per cent of the population were domestic servants, a higher proportion than those employed in agriculture or textiles. Although wage-earners did not necessarily possess comfortable housing, satisfactory conditions or easy lives, let alone social equality, it can be claimed that the population as a whole enjoyed a richer and more varied standard of living as a result of industrialization. One feature of the age was the growth of retail outlets. The number of shops increased enormously, replacing pedlars and, to a lesser extent, street markets. A network of wholesale dealers, commercial travellers and local shops covered everything people needed to buy. London saw the beginnings of the ‘super store’. Covered markets, such as that at Oxford, which still survives, were introduced in many industrial towns.

The boom that took place during the mid Victorian period came to an end in 1873, when the third period of this reign, the late Victorian era, may be said to have begun. Wholesale prices began to fall and continued to do so intermittently until 1896. This was the first but not by any means the worst of the depressions suffered in modern times. It was partly international in character and so reduced the demand for the export of goods, services and capital, the rate of progress of all of which slowed down. Great Britain was particularly badly hit because by this time its head start in industrialization had ceased to be an advantage, as the United States of America and Germany were speedily expanding their manufactures and protecting their industries with high tariffs. While the population of England and Wales continued to grow fast (from 22,712,266 in 1871 to 29,002,525 in 1891), the value of exports per head declined during the same period. Great Britain’s share of the total world output of coal, pig iron, steel and cotton fell and went on falling until 1914. In the United States scarcity of labour stimulated the invention of mass-production methods, such as conveyor belts, while in Germany academic scientific research invigorated the chemical and optical industries.

It may well be that English business men who prospered in mid Victorian times were too complacent; some of them, it has even been suggested, were living on their capital. Mr Dombey did not worry unduly about his company’s affairs, as he passed his time in Leamington Spa courting a beautiful widow. Money was easily borrowed and profits flowed in, though sometimes they were smaller than expected. Why should managements bother about changing techniques when everything looked rosy? As a rule, unskilled labour was ample and could be employed for long hours without interference from powerful trade unions, real wages being reasonably satisfactory. On the other hand, highly skilled and intelligent operatives were not numerous: some inventions, in the steel industry, for instance, had to be abandoned because of this scarcity. Consequently industrial discoveries or improvements were then fewer than in the United States or Germany. Moreover, such inventions were no longer the brainwaves of self-taught men like Newcomen and Cort: they required an educational background. Men were expected to enter industry as boys, at the very latest by the age of thirteen or fourteen, to learn their trades as they went along, even if they were the sons of successful business men. Well-educated men were siphoned off into the professions. The British manufacturer, it has been said, ‘was distinguished more for his commercial experience than by his technical skill’.7 It has also been contended that industry was less vigorous and adaptable than it might have been at this stage in English history.

Undoubtedly, the remarkable growth in exports characteristic of Victorian England had begun to slow down after the eighteen-seventies, but it is questionable whether industrial productivity declined substantially. It has been estimated that the market value of the goods and services produced by the national economy (the gross national product) doubled between 1870 and 1900 and the explanation may well be that domestic consumption increased at the expense of exports. Even if industrial output might have grown faster with the aid of technological improvements, the fact remains that the reign of Queen Victoria ended in another boom and a rise in the standard of living of the working classes.8

At the end of the century agriculture was even more subject to foreign competition than manufacture. It is true that during the eighties remissions of rents, a fall in tithes and relief for some farmers from the burden of rates arrested impoverishment. But both landlords and tenants found themselves in difficulties. Because the area devoted to growing wheat and barley was very substantially reduced, so was the number of agricultural workers, many of whom drifted into towns or emigrated. Fertile arable land was converted into grass to feed sheep and cattle. The price of wheat plummeted – it fell to about 22 shillings a quarter in 1894, as compared with 56 shillings in 1877 – and so did the earnings of yeomen and tenant farmers. The creation of a Board of Agriculture in 1889 and the setting up of a Royal Commission in 1893 did nothing to halt the decline. With its agriculture in disarray and its export industries suffering from foreign competition, the economy of England was less buoyant than it had been earlier. But this was not so much owing to innate deficiencies as to changing circumstances throughout the world, especially in North America.

The nineteenth century saw some of the most remarkable transformations in English social history. Gas lighting enabled factories to stay open through the night. In 1798 Boulton and Watt’s Soho factory was first lit by gas in open burners instead of by oil lamps and candles. Part of Pall Mall was illuminated by gas in 1807, being supplied by mains from a central works. In 1812 what was to become the London Gas Light and Coke Company was formed; other companies introduced gas lighting in provincial towns. Besides factories, concert halls and assembly rooms installed gas light; but it was not until the eighteen-eighties that gas was extensively used for cooking and heating. England lagged behind other countries in gas-work chemistry – such as the production of dyes and drugs from the by-products of the gas-making process – and the employment of gas furnaces or engines in industry.

Progress with electricity was also slow: it did not begin replacing steam power or gas until towards the end of the century. To start with, it was used only for telegraphy: railway companies erected telegraph poles along their lines. An Electric Telegraphy Company held a monopoly from 1846, but it sold out to the Post Office in 1870. Electric tramways were first successful in Liverpool; they were substituted for horse-drawn trams in Leeds in 1891. Four years later Bristol had electric trams and other towns followed suit. In 1889 the first underground electric railway was built from Edgware Road in London to King’s Cross.

Better lighting in factories and workshops and improvements in public transport (London obtained its first omnibuses as early as 1829) meant that shift systems could be organized in industry through day and night, reducing overhead costs and enlarging output.

The most striking aspect of social change during the reign of Queen Victoria was the widening and strengthening of the middle classes in the community. No satisfactory definition of these classes has ever been evolved, but they were undoubtedly the product of industrialization, which increased the numbers of business men and their clerks. Their existence and characteristics were recognized and described by Victorian authors, who were mostly middle-class themselves. As Lord David Cecil has observed, ‘the formidable cloud of a sternly moral tone’ which hung over the novels of George Eliot derived from ‘that great middle class which between 1750 and 185o gradually became the predominating force in England’. In earlier English history one thinks in terms of an upper and lower gentry and a business community, comprising retail as well as wholesale merchants. Apart from lawyers, merchants (usually representing ports) were the only members of the House of Commons who were not landed gentry, while voters were nearly always subject to the advice and influence of the aristocracy and local landowners. In the eighteenth century it was not difficult to buy a seat in the House of Commons, which was regarded as a very agreeable coffee house and a highway to the House of Lords.

The first Parliamentary Reform Act in 1832 gave the vote in the boroughs to all who occupied houses or offices the annual value of which exceeded £10. In the counties, in addition to the 40-shilling freeholders, the vote was given to tenants who paid an annual rent of £50 or more.

Thus it could be claimed that modestly off members of the middle classes had become electors everywhere. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835, by abolishing existing close corporations and replacing them with councils elected by rate-payers, reduced the powers of the justices of the peace, who had in effect controlled local government since the Middle Ages. But it was not until 1888 that the County Councils deprived the gentry of their administrative authority, which had been traditional in country life. These political changes reflected social changes.

Though thus restricted by law, the influence of the nobility and landed gentry lingered on. In some constituencies long-established families continued to enjoy almost a prescriptive right, hallowed by time, to seats in Parliament. The Church and the Army were still mainly the provinces of the landed gentry, but members of other professions – lawyers, physicians, surgeons, civil engineers and the like – could be deemed members of an upper middle class, in which successful merchants, sailors and financiers could also be included. The lower middle class consisted chiefly of minor officials, shopkeepers and clerks, some spruce and some shabby.

A large number of the middle classes were nonconformists. William Cobbett had noticed how Methodists and Quakers were prominent in business life. After the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, which since the seventeenth century had excluded dissenters from all public offices, the magistrates’ benches began to be filled by nonconformists. It has been pointed out that during the mid Victorian period the mayors of several large towns were Unitarians. Congregational chapels were largely attended by middle-class tradesmen. The number of Baptist chapels multiplied fourfold between 18o1 and 1851. The nonconformists made big strides forward in the industrial areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Wales, as the wide variety of chapel buildings still to be seen there bears witness.

Chapel-building continued fast throughout the mid Victorian era; but only half the population was avowedly religious. Church-going was an upper- and middle-class practice. In 1850 few urban working-class people attended any form of service. This was hardly surprising when one considers the long hours which most of the wage-earning class were required to work. Sundays and Christian holidays were their sole recognized days for relaxation. Only the Salvation Army, formed in 1879, with its brass bands, cheerful singing and popular paper, The War Cry, made much impact on the religion of the poor.9

The urban masses sought consolation from the drabness of their existence not, as in the past, by contemplating a celestial life to come, but by drinking alcohol, watching sports and betting. Excellent excuses for drink were that it acted as a painkiller, moderated gloom and enhanced festivity. Though many ordinary men and women drank when they could afford it, the heaviest drinkers were Irish immigrants, who earned enough money to buy it by undertaking the dirtiestjobs, such as building the underground railways. By an act of 1834 public houses were permitted to stay open from five in the morning until midnight: an earlier Beer Act allowed excise officers to issue retail licences to anybody who paid a fee of 2 guineas (£2 1op). Nonconformists, the Salvation Army and modern historians have all been exercised over the evils of alcohol, and the temperance cause was prominent among the lobbyists of the Victorian era.’° In fact the number of on-licences and the consumption of alcohol per head of population have fallen considerably since then.

The public house was the working man’s club, as it still is. (Rich men’s clubs also proliferated during the first half of the nineteenth century.) Judging by the behaviour of Miss Abbey Potterson, proprietor and manager of the ‘Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters’ in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, one may suppose that good order was kept in them. Outdoor amusements included horse racing, dog racing and even pigeon racing, particularly popular in the Potteries. Cock-fighting and bull-baiting had been banned by acts of parliament in the eighteen-thirties. Though ferocious prizefighting was popular with spectators, less bestial sports existed. The laws of cricket were not formulated until the second half of the century. It is hard to decide whether cricket was a democratic game. In so far as it was played extensively on village greens, it may be said to have been so. But cricket on the highest level, as played on Lord’s Cricket Ground, established on its present site in 1814, was patronized by the aristocracy, who betted heavily on match results; and the distinction between ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Players’ was retained until 1962. The Football Association was founded in 1863 and once the game was professionalized it attracted large ‘gates’. Sir Robert Peel was said to have been one of the best football players at Harrow school, where he was educated. At Rugby school the other, amateur, form of the game was introduced, from which it spread to most public (that is, private) schools: the Rugby Union was formed in 1871. Other games – lawn tennis, croquet and golf – were played chiefly by the middle classes.

By way of indoor entertainments the theatre held its own, but wage-earners had neither the time nor the money to patronize it. Between 1850 and 1870, however, taverns and public houses were building halls where singers, comedians, acrobats and jugglers performed before audiences who sat at tables and drank. From these evolved, the music hail, which after a rollicking period of success in the early days of the twentieth century, survived the First World War unscathed, but began dying after the war of 1939-45. Because it became mainly a family entertainment (particularly in the theatres owned by Sir Oswald Stoll), its vulgarity was restricted. In the second half of the twentieth century this form of amusement has resumed its late-Victorian aspect, delighting wage-earning families in northern England, nights for men only being interspersed with shows for all.

The late Victorians were concerned with more serious matters than music-hall turns and public houses. The education of the children of the poor, which had been frowned upon during earlier centuries because it reduced family incomes, was advocated by enlightened politicians. Elementary education progressed fairly rapidly, the number of children at school multiplying fivefold between 18o1 and 1858. Then in 1870 an Education Act laid down that all children in England should be given the opportunity of learning the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) and elected school boards were set up; but it was not until 1891 that elementary education became compulsory and free. For the benefit of the middle classes ‘public’ schools were founded, mostly boarding schools like Marlborough and Wellington. Girls’ schools started in 1856.

As to higher education, London University, uniting University College and King’s College, had been founded in 1836; it was cheaper to be educated there than at Oxford or Cambridge. Moreover it was radical and secular in its outlook and not dominated by the classics. On the whole, however, higher education was alien to the middle classes. As has been noted, boys going into business were expected to leave school early, start at the bottom of the ladder, and work their way upwards. This practice persisted until the mid twentieth century. In any case it was not until then that university education was made freely available to promising boys and girls whose parents could not afford to pay all their fees and expenses.

For the higher education of women Girton and Newnham Colleges were founded at Cambridge in the eighteen-seventies, but though women were allowed to take university examinations, degrees were not conferred on them. At Oxford Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville were opened in the eighteen-eighties, these colleges being kept well away from the men’s colleges. It had not been until 1871 that all posts as well as degrees became open to nonconformists at Oxford and Cambridge. They were among the last citadels surrendered by the Church of England.

Progress in popular education was reflected by the successful establishment of W.H. Smith’s bookshops and bookstalls at railway stations (though the circulation of newspapers was not yet large) and by the expansion of public libraries, both of which took place in the eighteen-sixties. Other amenities that may be credited to the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign included the building of museums and art galleries and the spread of public parks. Such open spaces had been singularly lacking in the industrialized towns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Looking back on the Victorian age from the viewpoint of the nineteen-twenties or thirties, those who were then young – and the author was one of them – formed strong impressions or prejudices about it. The first impression was that respectability and narrow-mindedness were its key characteristics. The second was that England’s place in the world then stood supreme, because so much of it could be painted red on the map as being British possessions (indeed, it was thought a misfortune that we no longer ruled the upstart United States of America) and because our swift progress in industrialization had given us incredible affluence. Thirdly, the Victorians were regarded as philistines, whose execrable taste had left its marks on our towns and cities, particularly in the north of England. Lastly, we thought that women and children had been exploited and maltreated, the descriptions of men’s greed and cruelty riveting our attention on the pages of Dickens’s and Mrs Gaskell’s novels. Of course, all these notions were partial and inexact.

The search for respectability was essentially confined to the expanding middle classes in society and was stimulated by religion. The family was sacrosanct. The father was expected to be ambitious for himself and his children and to increase his income by industry and abstinence. The mother had the duty not merely of supervising the household and correcting the behaviour of her children, but also of raising the tone of her husband’s mind ‘from low anxieties and vulgar cares’.12 ‘Home’, it has been said, was ‘a place of rest for the husband where a woman finds her highest pride in the sweetest humility and the tenderest self-suppression.’13 Family prayers, family attendance at church or chapel and family holidays were unifying habits. A suitor was expected to ask a father’s permission to court his daughter. Fidelity was the supreme virtue in marriage. Love was deified and women were idolized. A good example was set by a virtuous, domesticated and happily married Queen.

All this we tended to look upon as a mixture of prudery and hypocrisy. But we were shocked to discover that Charles Dickens, the proponent of middle-class respectability, had a mistress who was an actress, and surprised that Gladstone, the pattern Victorian Prime Minister, had as his hobby (which kept him out at nights) the reformation of prostitutes. We forgot that the Victorians themselves produced some of the most outspoken critics of the middle-class belief in infinite progress and infinite goodness. Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, J. A. Froude, William Morris and Lord Morley were all in their different ways contemptuous of the competitive industrial society of their time, condemned the tendency to cant and hypocrisy and deplored the current emphasis on the ‘moral’ side of life at the expense of the intellectual and artistic.

Lord Palmerston, a typical Whig aristocrat, who was Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister, was considered to epitomize the best aspects of imperialism. We thought of the British Empire, as ruled by him and his like, as an institution managed chiefly for the benefit of the governed. The colonies we regarded as a trust and our duty, we felt, was to educate them in parliamentary democracy. It was only when the Empire disintegrated that it was realized how valuable the colonies had been to us economically and how much our trade had depended on their ready-made markets. Moreover, the men who had actually governed them in the Indian or colonial Civil Service recognized with a shock what a comfortable life they had led overseas when they returned to a servantless England.

It was customary to sneer at the Albert Memorial, at Sandringham, the favourite home of Queen Victoria, and even at the Crystal Palace. Victorian Gothic was a joke; the Pre-Raphaelites were condemned for trying to imitate medieval art; painters like Frith and Landseer were castigated for being sentimental. But we scarcely grasped that photography, another triumphant discovery of the Victorian period, had been the underlying reason for the development of the post-Impressionist and abstract painting we admired so much, since the kind of paintings done by G.F. Watts, Edwin Landseer and other Victorian artists could be successfully rivalled by photographers. Today we no longer look upon the Victorians as philistines. In fact it is generally accepted that Pugin, Barry, Gilbert Scott, Philip Webb and Norman Shaw constituted a distinguished list of architects. And many people have come to prefer mock-Tudor cottages and Victorian Gothic churches to purely functional buildings.

As to the exploitation of the wage-earning classes, it has to be recognized that the social conscience of the Victorians was also aroused by it. Hence the long series of Factory Acts, the establishment of factory and health inspectors, and the creation of mechanics’ institutes and philosophical and literary societies aimed at providing spare-time occupations for all who needed them. A century that opened with the Combination Laws ended with effective trade unions. A burden to working men of all classes were the long hours they were required to toil for a modest reward. The author’s grandfather was a journeyman hatter. In the mid Victorian period he went to work at six in the morning and continued until nine or sometimes ten o’clock at night. Later, to supplement his income, he taught at a Ragged School for four evenings a week. As he worked all Saturday, he rarely saw his children in their waking moments except on Sundays. 14 But that a career could be opened to talents was shown by the fact that his eldest son rose to be Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University and his youngest a leading Civil Servant, both being knighted for their services to the community.

The changes in the social outlook and the economic structure of England during the nineteenth century were certainly the most remarkable in its history until the twentieth century, when the speed of change quickened. How one looks back upon it depends chiefly on when one was born. The reign of Victoria has been described as an age of Steam and Cant. But equally it can be said that it was guided by a genuine belief in Progress and Goodness.

Politically, much was made of the virtues of the ballot box, but it could be used by men only. It is true that women, who in earlier centuries were admitted to few occupations, now had wider opportunities of employment; but they suffered from exploitation and were denied equal rights. Hardly any women were appointed factory inspectors. The newspapers, which became cheap in the mid nineteenth century, were chiefly devoted to politics and sport and were uninterested in women readers. A tract written by the famous radical economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill, hesitantly published by him in 1869, entitled The Subjection of Women and advocating their independence, made a profound impression. A year after this a Married Women’s Property Act allowed women to retain control of any money they earned by trade or investment. Only in the last quarter of the century was a choice of worthwhile higher education opened to them. Further acts of 1882 and 1893 gave wives the same rights with regard to property as unmarried women. Marriages could take place in registry offices and divorce was made a little easier (before 1857 it was almost impossible for those who were not rich). These reforms were quite inadequate. Of all the social transformations that have taken place in the twentieth century, the emancipation of women from the position they held in Victorian times is the most significant.

It is hard to decide which event in the nineteenth century made the greatest impact on society: the invention of the steam engine, say, or the gas lamp or the establishment of police forces in London and elsewhere. From the economic point of view it was surely the growth of big cities and the alteration in the balance between manufacturing industries and agriculture. The decline in industrial supremacy had admittedly also begun: whereas in 1870 Great Britain produced one-third of the world’s output of manufactured goods, by 1900 the proportion had fallen to one-fifth. Yet though ‘there were several years of bad trade … the economy as a whole flourished’.’ 15 It needs to be remembered that England was finding new markets for the products of its staple industries in primary producing countries, where, unlike in Europe, protective tariffs did not have to be overcome. 16 Moreover, the value of invisible exports, particularly investments in American railways, compensated for setbacks in visible exports. In fact at the end of the Victorian period real wages and incomes were still growing; but compared with the galloping progress in the middle of the reign, the economy had started to slow down.


  1. G.M Young, Victorian England (1936), P. 25
  2. Cit. G. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England (1952), p. ’35
  3. William Ashworth, An Economic History of England 1870-1939 (1972), pp. 94, 147, 179
  4. J.H. Clapham, The Railway Age 1820-1850 (1926), p. 400
  5. Cit. E. Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Victorian Golden Age (1967), p.41
  6. ibid., p. 49
  7. Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (1979), p. 285
  8. Donald N. McCloskey, ‘Did Victorian Britain Fail?’, Economic History Review, 23 (1970-1); D.H. Aldcraft, ‘McCloskey on Victorian growth: a comment’, and D. N. McCloskey, ‘Victorian Growth: a rejoinder’, Economic History Review, 27 (1974)
  9. K. S. Inglis, Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England (1963), pp. 118 seq.
  10. Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians (1971), chapters 10 and 11
  11. My mother went to Newnham and always resented the fact that she was not allowed to take a degree
  12. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (1957), p. 351
  13. Quoted from an article on ‘Womanliness’ by Elizabeth Lynn Linton in the Saturday Review in 1871 by Jennie Calder, The Victorian Home (1977), p. 126
  14. James Ashley, ‘My Autobiography’ (1907), edited by Sir William Ashley, MS in my possession. Ragged Schools were voluntary institutions, established by philanthropists for the benefit of the poorest children. They started to disappear after the Education Act of 1870
  15. Ashworth, op. cit., p. 241
  16. See the arguments of C.K. Harley and D.N. McCloskey on ‘Foreign trade, competition and the expanding national economy’, in The Economic History of Britain since 1700, II, R.C. Floud and D.N. McCloskey (eds) (1981)