Queen Victoria ruled the UK from 1837 to 1901

Introduction to the Victorian Period


Victoria reigned in England for sixty-three years (1837-1901). Most historians trace the beginnings of this period not to Victoria's ascension to the throne, but to either 1832 (the First Reform Bill) or even 1815 (the end of the Napoleonic Wars).

It was an age of expansion, coming from industrialization.

that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"
The basis of the economy shifted from land ownership to trade and manufacturing. This was connected to: England thus became the first industrialized country, a change that was both profitable and painful.



The opening of the 1832 Reform Act

Major Dates

1832 - The First Reform Act

Composed to avoid a revolt by the lower classes (like the French Revolution). All men owning property worth ten pounds or more in annual rent could now vote. This enfranchises the lower middle classes, who were now able to vote, but not the working classes (they had to wait for the Second Reform Bill in 1867). This first bill broke up the monopoly held by conservative landowners.




1837 - Victoria becomes queen

Victoria became queen at the age of 18 after the death of her uncle, William IV. She reigned for more than 60 years, longer than any other British monarch. Her reign was a period of significant social, economic and technological change, which saw the expansion of Britain's industrial power and of the British empire.




A broadside for a celebratory service
1838 - Slavery abolished in the British Empire

In 1834, slaves in the British empire started a four-year period of "apprenticeship," during which they were obliged to work without pay for their former owners. Abolitionists campaigned against the system and in the Caribbean there were widespread protests. When the apprenticeship period ended in 1838, over 700,000 slaves were freed in the British Caribbean. Plantation owners received about £20 million in government compensation for the loss of their slaves. The former slaves received nothing.




1840s - Economic depression leads to rioting

Increased urbanization, the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, and inadequate social safety nets lead to a rise in infant mortality, increased urban poverty, and emigration for those who could afford it. Life in Victorian factories and mines was "poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Hobbes).




1846 - The Corn Laws repealed

High tariffs on imported grains (corn, etc.) created to protect English farm products from competition with low-priced products from abroad. Their repeal allowed free trade, enabled the influx of lower-priced goods, and helped relieve the economic crisis.




Detail from a Famine Memorial in Dublin
1845-1849 - The Great Famine in Ireland (An Gor Morta)

In September 1845, the potato crop in Ireland, which had previously provided approximately 60% of the nation's food needs, began to rot. The potato blight struck again the following year. What began as a natural catastrophe was exacerbated by the actions and inactions of the British government. It is estimated that about a million people died during the four-year famine, and that between 1845 and 1855 another million emigrated, most to Britain and North America.




1850 - Tennyson succeeds Wordsworth as Poet Laureate

A significant passing of the torch; a social recognition that Romanticism had played out its string.




The Crystal Palace housed the Great Exhibition

1851 - The Great Exhibition in London

This event was the brainchild of Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, and was designed to provide a showcase for the world's most advanced inventions, manufactures and works of art. It was housed in the massive 19-acre Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton. The event attracted almost six million visitors during the five summer months it was open. Many ordinary people travelled to London for the first time on cheap-rate excursion trains.




1854 - Britain and France declare war on Russia; the Crimean War begins

The Crimean War was fought between the Russians and an alliance of the British, French and Turks who feared Russian expansion in the Balkans. Notable battles were fought at Sebastopol, Balaclava (which saw the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade) and Inkerman. Russia was forced to sue for peace, and the war was ended by the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. British troops casualties were as much from poor equipment and medical care as from fighting the Russians.




Darwin's famous "I Think" tree of life
1859 - Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species published

Charles Darwin's masterwork, which argued that all species evolved on the basis of natural selection, resulted from more than 20 years' research following a five-year journey around Cape Horn on HMS "Beagle." The book created an immediate stir, since Darwin's theory appeared to contradict the bible's creation story and call into question ideas of divine providence. Despite the influence of Darwin's work, very few Victorian scientists took up an atheistic position as a result of reading it.




1867 - Second Reform Act

This Reform Act was passed by a minority Conservative government led by Frederick, Earl of Derby. Its orchestrator was Benjamin Disraeli, who permitted larger extensions to the franchise than the Liberals would have countenanced. It virtually doubled the electorate, enabling one-third of adult males in Britain and one-sixth in Ireland to vote in parliamentary elections. In a few urban constituencies, working men were an electoral majority. A separate act for Scotland was passed in 1868.




1876 - Victoria is declared Empress of India

India came under direct British government control in 1858, when the remaining authority of the East India Company was dissolved. The Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, suggested to the queen that she should be proclaimed empress. His motive seems mainly to have been flattery. Despite objections from the Liberal opposition, who were not consulted, the title was endorsed and Victoria used it officially from 1877.




1880 - Education becomes compulsory for children under ten

Although WE Forster's act of 1870 had greatly expanded education opportunities, and an act passed in Benjamin Disraeli's government of 1876 had set up school attendance committees, significant gaps remained. AJ Mundella introduced a bill on behalf of William Gladstone's Liberal government which made school attendance compulsory from ages 5 to 10. State expenditure on education, about £1.25 million a year in 1870, rose to £4 million, and would reach £12 million by the end of Victoria's reign.




1897 - Women's suffrage campaign gains momentum

The first organised activity in support of votes for women dates from the 1860s, but pressure grew rapidly in the late 1880s. A turning point was the merger of the National Central Society for Women's Suffrage and the Central Committee for Women's Suffrage into the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. The NUWSS co-ordinated a range of regional activities. Its president, Millicent Fawcett, opposed violence and promoted her organisation as law-abiding and above party politics.




1899 - Second Boer War begins in South Africa

After the First Boer War in 1880-1881, the Boers (farmers of European descent) of the Transvaal forced the British government to recognise their independence. But the Boers refused to recognise the rights of the British (many prospecting for gold) in the Transvaal, leading to the Second Boer War. Although the Boers had initial military successes, the war ended in May 1902 with a Boer surrender. It was costly and unpopular war and Britain received much international criticism for its use of concentration camps.



1901 - Death of Victoria


Three Phases of the Victorian Period


Early Victorian period - 1832-48: Troubles Mid-Victorian period - 1848-70: Economic prosperity and religious controversy Late Victorian period -1870-1901: The decay of Victorian values


The Central Literary Question

What is the proper role of the artist / author/ poet in society? Should the artist / author / poet withdraw from society or engage it in hopes of reforming it?