Victorian era
Georgian era Edwardian era

In the history of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, the Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. Slightly different definitions are sometimes used. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe.

Various liberalising political reforms took place in the UK including expanding the electoral franchise. The Great Famine caused mass death in Ireland early in the period. The British empire had relatively peaceful relations with the other great powers. It participated in various military conflicts mainly against minor powers. The British empire expanded during this period and was the predominant power in the world.

Victorian society valued a high standard of personal conduct which reflected across all sections of society. The emphasis on morality gave impetus to social reform but also placed restrictions on the liberty of certain groups. Prosperity rose during the period. Literacy and childhood education became near universal in Great Britain for the first time. Whilst some attempts were made to improve living conditions, slum housing and disease remained a severe problem.

The period saw significant scientific and technological development. Britain was advanced in industry and engineering in particular, but somewhat undeveloped in art, education and initially science. The population of Great Britain increased rapidly, whilst the population of Ireland fell sharply.

Terminology and periodisation

See also: Periodisation

In the strictest sense, the Victorian era covers the duration of Victoria's reign as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from her accession on 20 June 1837—after the death of her uncle, William IV—until her death on 22 January 1901, after which she was succeeded by her eldest son, Edward VII. Her reign lasted for 63 years and seven months, a longer period than any of her predecessors. The term 'Victorian' was in contemporaneous usage to describe the era.[1] The era has also been understood in a more extensive sense as a period that possessed sensibilities and characteristics distinct from the periods adjacent to it, in which case it is sometimes dated to begin before Victoria's accession—typically from the passage of or agitation for (during the 1830s) the Reform Act 1832, which introduced a wide-ranging change to the electoral system of England and Wales.[2] Encyclopædia Britannica uses a broader definition describing the Victorian era as "the period between approximately 1820 and 1914... characterized by a class-based society, a growing number of people able to vote, a growing state and economy, and Britain’s status as the most powerful empire in the world."[3] Definitions that purport a distinct sensibility or politics to the era have also created scepticism about the worth of the label "Victorian", though there have also been defences of it.[2]

Michael Sadleir was insistent that "in truth, the Victorian period is three periods, and not one".[4] He distinguished early Victorianism – the socially and politically unsettled period from 1837 to 1850[5] – and late Victorianism (from 1880 onwards), with its new waves of aestheticism and imperialism,[6] from the Victorian heyday: mid-Victorianism, 1851 to 1879. He saw the latter period as characterized by a distinctive mixture of prosperity, domestic prudery, and complacency[7] – what G. M. Trevelyan similarly called the "mid-Victorian decades of quiet politics and roaring prosperity".[8]

Political and diplomatic history

Main articles: Political and diplomatic history of the Victorian era and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Domestically, Britain liberalised and gradually evolved into a democracy. The Reform Act[note 1], which made various changes to the electoral system including expanding the franchise, had been passed in 1832.[9] The franchise was expanded again by the Second Reform Act[note 2] in 1867.[10] Cities were given greater political autonomy and the labour movement was legalised.[11] From 1845 to 1852, the Great Famine caused mass starvation, disease and death in Ireland, sparking large-scale emigration.[12] The Corn Laws were repealed in response to this.[13] Across the British Empire reform included rapid expansion, the complete abolition of slavery in the African possessions, and the end of transportation of convicts to Australia. It loosened restrictions on colonial trade and introduced responsible (i.e. semi-autonomous) government.[14][15]

Depiction of the defence of Rorke's Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (1880)

The period from 1815 to 1914, known as the Pax Britannica, was a time of relatively peaceful relations between the world's great powers. This is particularly true of Britain's interactions with the others.[16] The only war in which the British Empire fought against another major power was the Crimean War, from 1853 to 1856.[17][14] However, there were various revolts and violent conflicts within the British Empire,[14][15] and Britain participated in wars against minor powers.[18][14][15] It also took part in the diplomatic struggles of the Great Game[18] and the Scramble for Africa.[14][15]

In 1840, Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. The couple had nine children who themselves married into various royal families, and the queen thus became known as the "grandmother of Europe".[19][11] In 1861, Prince Albert died.[18] Queen Victoria went into mourning and withdrew from public life for ten years.[11] In 1871, with republican sentiments growing in Britain, the queen began to return to public life. In her later years, her popularity soared as she became a symbol of the British Empire. Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901.[19]

Society and culture

Main article: Society and culture of the Victorian era

Recreation of a Victorian Parlour at Nidderdale Museum, Yorkshire

The era saw a rapidly growing middle class who became an important cultural influence; to a significant extent it replaced the aristocracy as the dominant class in British society.[20][21] A distinctive middle class lifestyle developed which reflected what was valued by society as a whole.[20][22] Increased importance was placed on the value of the family; and the idea that marriage should be based on romantic love gained popularity.[23][24] A clear separation was established between the home and the workplace; this had often not been the case before.[22] The home was seen as a private environment,[22] where housewives provided their husbands with a respite from the troubles of the outside world.[23] Within this ideal, women were expected to focus on domestic matters and to rely on men as breadwinners.[25][26] Women had limited legal rights in most areas of life and a feminist movement developed.[26][27] Whilst parental authority was seen as important, children were given legal protections against abuse and neglect for the first time.[28]

Cheap meals for poor children in East London (1870)

The growing middle class and strong evangelical movement placed great emphasis on a respectable and moral code of behaviour. This included features such as charity, personal responsibility, controlled habits,[note 3] child discipline and self criticism.[21] [29] As well as personal improvement, importance was given to social reform.[30] Utilitarianism was another philosophy which saw itself as based on science rather than on morality, but also emphasised social progress.[31][32] An alliance formed between these two ideological strands.[33] The reformers emphasised causes such as improving the conditions of women and children, giving police reform priority over harsh punishment to prevent crime, religious equality and political reform in order to establish a democracy.[34] The political legacy of the reform movement was to link the nonconformists (a part of the evangelical movement) in England and Wales with the Liberal Party.[35] This continued up until the First World War.[36] The Presbyterians played a similar role as a religious voice for reform in Scotland.[37]

Religion was politically controversial during this era, with Nonconformists pushing for the disestablishment of the Church of England.[38] Nonconformists comprised about half of church attendees in 1851,[39] and gradually the legal discrimination which had been established against them outside of Scotland was removed.[40][41][42][43] Legal restrictions on Roman Catholics were also largely removed. The number of Catholics grew in Great Britain due to conversions and immigration from Ireland.[38] Secularism and doubts about the accuracy of the Old Testament grew among people with higher levels of education.[44] Northern English and Scottish academics tended to be more religiously conservative, whilst agnosticism and even atheism (though its promotion was illegal)[45] gained appeal among academics in the south.[46] Historians refer to a "Victorian Crisis of Faith" as a period when religious views had to readjust to suit new scientific knowledge and criticism of the Bible.[47]

Leisure hours (1855), depiction of a man resting by George Hardy

Access to education increased rapidly during the 19th century. State funded schools were established in England and Wales for the first time. Education became compulsory for pre-teenaged children in England, Scotland and Wales. Literacy rates increased rapidly, and had become nearly universal by the end of the century.[48][49] Private education for wealthier children, both boys and more gradually girls, became more formalised over the course of the century.[48] A variety of reading materials grew in popularity during the period.[50][51][52][1][53][54][55] Other popular forms of entertainment included brass bands,[56] circuses,[57] "spectacles" (alleged paranormal activities),[58] amateur nature collecting,[59][60] gentlemen's clubs for wealthier men[61] and seaside holidays for the middle class.[62] Many sports were introduced or popularised during the Victorian era.[63] They became important to male identity.[64] Popular sports of the period included cricket,[65] cycling, croquet, horse-riding, and many water activities.[66] Opportunities for leisure increased as restrictions were placed on maximum working hours, wages increased and routine annual leave became increasingly common.[67][68]

Economy, industry, and trade

Further information: Economy, industry, and trade of the Victorian era; Industrial revolution; and Second industrial revolution

Illustrations of the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield in The Illustrated London News (1861)

Prior to the industrial revolution, daily life had changed little for hundreds of years. The 19th century saw rapid technological development, with a wide range of new inventions.[69] This technological advancement led to Great Britain becoming the foremost industrial and trading nation of the time.[70] Historians have characterised the mid-Victorian era (1850–1870) as Britain's "Golden Years",[71][72] with national income per person increasing by half. This prosperity was driven by increased industrialisation, especially in textiles and machinery, along with exports to the empire and elsewhere.[73] The positive economic conditions, as well as a fashion among employers for providing welfare services to their workers, led to relative social stability.[73][74] Government involvement in the economy was limited.[74] It was not until the post-World War II period around a century later that the country experienced substantial economic growth again.[72] However, whilst industry was well developed, education and the arts were mediocre.[74] Historian Llewellyn Woodward concluded that during the "golden years", whilst the quality of life was improving, conditions and housing for the working classes "were still a disgrace to an age of plenty."[75] Wage rates continued to improve in the later 19th century: real wages (after taking inflation into account) were 65 percent higher in 1901, compared to 1871. Much of the money was saved, as the number of depositors in savings banks rose from 430,000 in 1831, to 5.2 million in 1887, and their deposits from £14 million to over £90 million.[76]

This illustration of a child drawer (a type of hurrier) pulling a coal tub was originally published in the Children's Employment Commission (Mines) 1842 report.

The early Victorian era before the reforms of the 1840s became notorious for the employment of young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps.[77][78] The children of the poor were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages.[79] Reformers wanted the children in school: in 1840 only about 20 percent of the children in London had any schooling.[80] By the 1850s, around half of the children in England and Wales were in school (not including Sunday school).[81] From the 1833 Factory Act onwards, attempts were made to get child labourers into part time education, though this was often difficult to achieve in practice.[82] It was only in the 1870s and 1880s that children began to be compelled into school.[81]

Housing and public health

Further information: Economy, industry, and trade of the Victorian era; Mathematics, science, technology and engineering of the Victorian era; and Demographics of the Victorian era

Slum area in Glasgow (1871)

19th-century Britain saw a huge population increase accompanied by rapid urbanisation stimulated by the Industrial Revolution.[76] The rapid growth in the urban population included the new industrial and manufacturing cities, as well as service centres such as Edinburgh and London.[83][84] Private renting from housing landlords was the dominant tenure. P. Kemp says this was usually of advantage to tenants.[85] People moved in so rapidly that there was not enough capital to build adequate housing for everyone, so low income newcomers squeezed into increasingly overcrowded slums. Clean water, sanitation, and public health facilities were inadequate; the death rate was high, especially infant mortality, and tuberculosis among young adults. Cholera from polluted water and typhoid were endemic. Unlike rural areas, there were no famines such as the one which devastated Ireland in the 1840s.[86][87][88] Conditions were particularly bad in London, where the population rose sharply and poorly maintained, overcrowded dwellings became slum housing. Kellow Chesney wrote of the situation that:[79]

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

Photograph of a mother and baby by Alfred Capel-Cure (circa 1850s or 60s)

Improvements were made over time to housing along with the management of sewage and water.[89][90] A gas network for lighting and heating was introduced in the 1880s.[89] Medicine advanced rapidly during the 19th century and germ theory was developed for the first time.[90] Doctors became more specialised and the number of hospitals grew.[90] In spite of this, the mortality rate fell only marginally, from 20.8 per thousand in 1850 to 18.2 by the end of the century. Urbanisation aided the spread of diseases and squalid living conditions in many places exacerbated the problem.[90] Britain experienced rapid population growth during the Victorian era.[91] The population of England, Scotland and Wales grew rapidly during the 19th century.[92][93] Various factors are considered contributary to this including a rising fertility rate,[94] falling infant mortality,[69] the lack of a catastrophic pandemic or famine in the island of Great Britain during the 19th century for the first time in history,[95] improved nutrition,[95] and a lower overall mortality rate.[95] The population of Ireland shrank significantly mostly due to emigration and the Great Famine.[96]

Knowledge and infrastructure

Main article: Mathematics, science, technology and engineering of the Victorian era

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution (c.1855)

The professionalisation of scientific study began in parts of Europe following the French Revolution but was slow to reach Britain. William Whewell coined the term "scientist" in 1833 to refer to those who studied what was generally then known as natural philosophy, but it took a while to catch on. Having been previously dominated by amateurs with a separate income, the Royal Society admitted only professionals from 1847 onwards. The British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley indicated in 1852 that it remained difficult to earn a living as a scientist alone.[97] The Victorians respected science, and saw it as improving society, and science as a prestigious occupation.[98][99][97] There were significant advances in various fields of research including statistics,[100] elasticity,[101] refrigeration,[102] natural history,[97] electricity[103] and logic.[104]

Crew stood with a railway engine (1873)

Britain was advanced in engineering and technology.[98][99] The Victorian era saw methods of communication and transportation develop significantly. In 1837, William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone invented the first telegraph system. This system, which used electrical currents to transmit coded messages, quickly spread across Britain, appearing in every town and post office. A worldwide network developed towards the end of the century. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. A little over a decade later, 26,000 telephones were in service in Britain. Multiple switchboards were installed in every major town and city.[105] Guglielmo Marconi developed early radio broadcasting at the end of the period.[106] The railways were important economically in the Victorian era, allowing goods, raw materials, and people to be moved around, stimulating trade and industry.[107] Britain's engineers were contracted around the world to build railways.[98][99] Financing railways around the world became a speciality of London's financiers. They maintained an ownership share in these railways, which were largely sold in the early part of the First World War to contribute to the war effort.[107]

Moral standards

See also: Victorian morality and Women in the Victorian era

If we lift our skirts they level their eye-glasses at our ankles (1854), cartoon suggesting that men saw women lifting their dresses as a titillating opportunity to see some of their body shape.

Expected standards of personal conduct changed in around the first half of the 19th century, with good manners and self restraint becoming much more common.[108] Historians have suggested various contributing factors, such as Britain's major conflicts with France during the early 19th century meaning that the distracting temptations of sinful behaviour had to be avoided in order to focus on the war effort and the evangelical movement's push for moral improvement.[109] There is evidence that the expected standards of moral behaviour were reflected in action as well as rhetoric across all classes of society.[110][111] For instance, an analysis suggested that less than 5% of working class couples co-habited before marriage.[110]

Legal restrictions were placed on cruelty to animals.[112][113][114] Restrictions were placed on the working hours of child labourers in the 1830s and 1840s.[115][116] Further interventions took place throughout the century to increase the level of child protection.[117] The development of police forces led to a rise in prosecutions for illegal sodomy in the middle of the 19th century.[118] Male sexuality became a favorite subject of study by medical researchers.[119] All male homosexual acts were made illegal for the first time.[120] At a time when there were relatively few job options for women, some (particularly poorer women without familial support) took to prostitution to support themselves.[121] Estimates vary, but in his landmark study, Prostitution, William Acton reported an estimate of 8,600 prostitutes in London alone in 1857.[122] Whilst this caused a moral panic in some sections of public life, there were some dissenting voices at the time. Women suspected of prostitution were for a period between the 1860s and 1880s subject to spot compulsory examinations for STDs, and detainment if they were found to be infected.[121]

Contrary to popular belief, Victorian society understood that both men and women enjoyed copulation.[123] Regular sex was seen as important to male health. Married women were expected to agree to sex whenever their husbands wished for it, though it was seen as immoral for men to ask for sex in certain situations, such as when their wife was sick. Too much sex was seen as unhealthy, which led to a moral panic about masturbation, especially its perceived prevalence among middle class adolescent boys. Women were expected to be faithful to their husbands, or if unmarried, to refrain from sexual activity. There was more tolerance toward men employing prostitutes or engaging in extramarital affairs.[124]


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  1. ^ A Scottish Reform Act and Irish Reform Act were passed separately.
  2. ^ See Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1868 and Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868 for equivalent reforms made in those jurisdictions
  3. ^ Avoiding addictions such as alcoholism and excessive gambling

See also