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).

Its major characteristic is that it was an age of expansion (cf. "Ulysses," "that untravelled world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move"), which had to do with industrialization. There was a great s Shift from land ownership as the basis of the economy to trade and manufacturing. Some examples include: improvements in steam power for railways, ships, looms, printing presses, and farmers' combines; and the introduction of the telegraph, intercontinental cable, photography, anesthetics, and universal compulsory education. England thus became the first industrialized country, a change that was both profitable and painful.


Major Dates


1832 - The First Reform Bill

Now all men owning property worth ten pounds or more in annual rent could vote. This is obviously concerned with the enfranchisement of 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.

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.


Economic depression leads to rioting

Increased urbanization, the consequences of the Indusctrial 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.

1845-1849 - The Great Famine in Ireland (An Gor Morta)

In September 1845, the potato crop which had previously provided approximately 60% of the nation's food needs, began to rot all over Ireland. 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.

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 included those 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.

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 in 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

The Reform Bill - Repeal of Corn Laws - Economic Depression - The Great Famine

Mid-Victorian period - 1848-70: Economic prosperity and religious controversy

Economic stability and optimism

The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park = showcasing the triumphs of Victorian technology

Assaults on religious faith: Scientific attitude applied to the Bible - Geology and astronomy - The Origin of Species, 1859 - Philosophy, esp. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism: was faith useful?

A variety of literary reactions:

  • Hopkins: a devout Catholic and a Jesuit, held the religious line
  • Tennyson: intuition leads to faith
  • Arnold & Carlyle: humanistic reaction-- poetry and human love replaced faith
  • Meredith: evolution is wonderful
  • Huxley: agnostic, favored education
  • Morris & Pater: education and art can fill the void left by the loss of faith
Late Victorian period -1870-1901: The decay of Victorian values

People became aware of the disparity between the smoothly-running institutions of mid-Victorian England the actual turbulence in which people were living.

The Irish Question: Irish home rule became a heated debate.

Germany's military build up under Bismarck threatened England's military position as well as her preeminence in trade and industry.

Competition from US after our Civil War.

Depressions in 1873 and 1874.

Labor became an economic and political force: the Second Reform Bill gave people the right to vote. Thus labor became a force to be reckoned with.


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?