The Victorian age is measured by the life and reign of Queen Victoria, who was born on 24 May 1819 and would oversee a period on unparalleled magnificence and colour in British history, guided by the good sense (most of the time) and stability of her rule. Her death in 1901 ushered in a new century and a darker, more uncertain age. So what were some of the key developments at home and abroad during this reign?
1. Abolition of Slavery
Whilst technically slavery was abolished prior to Victoria’s reign, the end of ‘apprenticeships’ and the start of true emancipation only came into force in 1838. Subsequent acts passed in 1843 and 1873 continued to outlaw practices associated with slavery, although the Slave Compensation Act ensured that slave owners continued to profit from slavery. The debt was only paid off by the government in 2015.
2. Mass urbanisation
The population of the United Kingdom grew by more than double during the course of Victoria’s reign, and society was transformed through the Industrial Revolution. The economy moved from a primarily rural, agricultural based one to an urban, industrialised one. Working conditions were poor, wages were low and hours were long: urban poverty and pollution proved to be one of the biggest blights of the era.
However, urban centres proved to be an attractive prospect for many people: they quickly became hubs for radical new political thought, the dissemination of ideas and social centres.
3. Rising living standards
By the end of Victoria’s reign, legislation was coming into force to improve living conditions for the very poorest in society. The Factory Act of 1878 prohibited work before the age of 10 and applied to all trades, whilst the Education Act of 1880 introduced compulsory schooling until the age of 10.
Reports on the full extent of poverty, as well as a greater understanding of its causes were also being published towards the end of the 19th century, including Seebohm Rowntree’s investigation into poverty in York and Charles Booth’s ‘poverty line’ in London.
The Boer War (1899-1902) further highlighted the issues poor living standards as large numbers of young men who enlisted failed to pass basic medical inspections. David Lloyd George’s Liberal party won a landslide victory in 1906, promising
4. The British Empire reached its zenith
Famously the sun never set on the British Empire under Victoria: Britain ruled around 400 million people, nearly 25% of the world’s population at the time. India became a particularly important (and financially lucrative) asset, and for the first time, the British monarch was crowned Empress of India.
British expansion in Africa also took off: the age of exploration, colonisation and conquest was in full force. The 1880s saw the ‘Scramble for Africa’: European powers carved up the continent using arbitrary and artificial lines to allow for competing interests and colonial interests.
White colonies also gained more self-determination, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand being granted dominion status by the late 19th century, which effectively allowed them some level of self-determination.
5. Modern medicine
With urbanisation came disease: cramped living quarters saw diseases spread like wildfire. At the start of Victoria’s reign, medicine remained somewhat rudimentary: the rich were often no better off in the hands of doctors than the poor. The Public Health Act (1848) established a central board of health, and further breakthroughs in the 1850s established dirty water as a cause of cholera, as well as the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic.
Victoria herself used chloroform as a means of pain relief during the birth of her sixth child. Advances in medicine and surgery proved hugely beneficial at all levels of society, and life expectancy was on the up by the end of her reign.
6. Extending the franchise
Whilst suffrage was far from universal by the start of the 20th century, over 60% of men had the right to vote, as opposed to 20%, which was the case when Victoria became queen in 1837. The 1872 Ballot Act allowed for parliamentary election ballots to be cast in secret, which greatly reduced external influences or pressures affecting voting habits.
Unlike many other European counterparts, Britain managed to extend the franchise gradually and without revolution: she remained politically stable throughout the 20th century as a result.
7. Redefining the monarch
The monarchy’s image was badly tarnished when Victoria inherited the throne. Known for extravagance, loose morals and infighting, the Royal Family needed to change its image. The 18 year old Victoria proved to be a breath of fresh air: 400,000 people lined the streets of London on her coronation day in the hope of catching a glimpse of the new queen.
Victoria and her husband Albert created a much more visible monarchy, becoming patrons of dozens of charities and societies, sitting for photographs, visiting towns and cities and presenting awards themselves. They cultivated the image of a happy family and domestic bliss: the couple appeared to be very much in love and produced nine children. Victoria’s long period of mourning following Albert’s death became a source of frustration to money, but attested to her devotion to her husband.
8. Leisure time and popular culture
Leisure time did not exist for the vast majority of the population prior to urbanisation: agricultural work was physically demanding, and sparsely populated land left little to do for fun outside of working hours (assuming of course there was sufficient light to do so). The rise of new technologies like oil and gas lamps, combined with higher wages, limits on working hours and large numbers of people close together fuelled a rise in leisure activities.
Museums, exhibitions, zoos, theatres, seaside trips and football matches all became popular ways to enjoy leisure time for many, rather than just the elites. An increasingly literate population saw a boom in newspaper and book production, and whole new economies, like those of department stores as well as cheap books, theatres, and shops began to spring up: some proved, like the Great Exhibition of 1851, proved to be an excellent political and propaganda opportunity, museums proved a chance to enlighten and educate the masses, whilst penny dreadfuls proved popular (and lucrative) amongst the masses.