British History- the Victorian Age, 1837-1914 a brief Survey of People, Places and Events

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British History- The Victorian Age, 1837-1914

A Brief Survey of People, Places and Events

Prepared by Professor Matthew Ruane

January 2002, 2010

Industrialism gripped 19th century Britain, transforming the national political scene and the power of the British state. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 allowed Britain to grow economically without the distraction of 25+ years of conflict on the European continent. The British government looked askance at unbound industrialization, still depending on agricultural interests as the bedrock of political stability. Working class violence frightened the political leadership, with economic reformers such as Robert Owen and his experiments at New Lanark favored over radical protests advocated by the earlier Luddites who destroyed mill towns and factories in the Midlands and the North. The ideas of the radical William Cobbett and the inflammatory utopian visions of William Blake were challenged by the government on several fronts, even going so far as to co-opt poets such as Byron and Shelly to uphold domestic tranquility.
Political reform was necessary to bring the middle classes into the government and quell radical protests by agricultural workers and emerging trade unions. In 1832, Parliament passed the Reform Act that enlarged the British electorate and gave parliamentary representation to 41 large towns that had not been represented previously (including Manchester and Birmingham). Along the with Catholic Emancipation which had been passed in 1829 after threats of rebellion among supporters of Irish MP Daniel O’Connell (who was denied his seat in Westminster because of his faith), many of the political complaints originating from middle and upper classes in British society had been answered. The 1830s was a period of further political reform, including the infamous Poor Law of 1834, which made it a crime to be poor and sentenced debtors to prison terms in Union Workhouses. Reform of urban areas took place with the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 that allowed for the creation of local governments offering municipal services to the citizens, paid through local taxation. Nevertheless, political agitation took on a short-lived national dimension under the direction of the Chartists. Chartists demanded adult male suffrage, secret ballots, equal electoral districts, and abolition of property requirements for MPs, paid salaries for MPs and annual Parliaments. It was a strange merger of working class radicalism, Engel’s beliefs in organized working class power, and demands for democratic economic and political reforms. It eventually found its ideas co-opted by Parliament, and the movement faltered in the late 1840s after a series of embarrassing lies and distortions were revealed to the public.
The revolutions of 1848 touched Britain briefly, especially as the Chartists mobilized in London to present a petition to Parliament. Ten thousand special constables were chosen to control the protest march that took place in April, but little happened out of the ordinary. Revolutions were something that happened elsewhere in Europe, obviously not in Britain. This seemed contrary to the writings of Karl Marx and Fredreich Engels, both of whom were living in London when they drafted the Communist Manifesto. Yet Marx and Engels were offset by a new idea in British political thought, that of “incorporation”, which encouraged sympathy for working class demands and gradual political reform. It was political and social evolution, not revolution that was espoused by intellectuals such as Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill. Perhaps the most famous and outspoken critic about the slow pace of reform was the author Charles Dickens, yet he was also equally critical of revolution and lawlessness. His confused views are quite apparent in Hard Times, his vicious satire of life in Manchester, but one in which he is hard pressed to present a better future for the inhabitants of Coketown.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked the ascendancy of Great Britain and its commitment to economic progress. Housed in a purpose built structure of glass and iron, the Crystal Palace was a marvel of British engineering and the Great Exhibition was a commercial success far beyond its planners’ dreams, attracting nearly six million paying visitors before it ended. The profits from the exhibit were used to build the museums in South Kensington, including the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. Politics was undergoing a change as well, with the emergence of a new political party called the Liberal party replacing the old Whig party. In fact, a new political ascendancy by the Liberals was made evident by their virtual control on power between 1852 and 1874, particularly under Prime Minister William Gladstone. They were the party of “laissez faire” economics and individualism, believing that the state should keep is hands off society and the economy. This belief, first made explicit in Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), became the cornerstone of mid-century British liberalism.
The economy boomed under laissez faire politics, as did the growth of urban areas in Britain. By 1901, only 20% of Britain’s population lived in rural areas, with much of the concentration in urban population centered in cities built since 1750. The fear of a revolutionary working class, which had dominated British political thought until 1850, never emerged despite the growth of the urban working classes in British cities. Real wages doubled for the working classes between 1860 and 1914, and the standard of living saw significant improvements for those living in urban areas. Sanitation reforms and purpose built housing estates allowed the working classes to live in better accommodations. For the first time, even the working classes found that not all of their wages went to the essentials of food, clothing and lodging. Working class self-awareness was expressed in two very different ways: through the growth of trade unions and through the spread of Association Football. Association Football had begun in the universities and public schools, but by the mid-1880s, was a professional sport with clubs in nearly every industrial town, including at least a half dozen teams in London alone. All of them encouraged a local patriotism, enthusiasm and self-identification on the part of the followers. It was the product of a modern urban society in which the working classes were content to pay for its leisure watching professionals’ play for an organized club usually run by local businessmen.
The working classes also began to spend some of their hard-earned money on annual vacations during the new public Bank Holidays. Resorts such as Blackpool and Scarborough rose to meet demand and to further stimulate new demand. Holidays for the working classes almost always meant a holiday in a town. Even the “beach” meant time spent at piers, sideshows and bathing beaches, all backed by hotels and shops. Despite attempts by reformers to encourage trips to the countryside, the working classes tended to follow tradition and continue their “resort holidays”. The more prosperous sections of the working classes began to share in the prosperity and expectations that the industrial revolution had brought to the middle classes half a century earlier.
The middle classes enjoyed a long era of prosperity after 1851. Easily defined in Britain, the middle class consisted of professionals, businessmen, bankers and large shopkeepers. The gulf between this group and the working classes was wide and deep, though by 1900 an intermediate group had emerged from the general prosperity of the late 19th century. This intermediate group was made of up white-collar clerks serving in retail, banking, advertising and government offices. London was particularly affected by the changes with the growth of a vast army of City workers, trained at the new polytechnics, commuting to work by train or the underground subways. These lower middle classes lived in the suburbs and were the children of Liberalism, testaments of the new propertied aspirations of society. Their views were reflected in the conservative leaning newspaper, the Daily Mail founded in 1896.
The upper middle classes were split between the working professionals and clergy and the manufacturing middle classes that owned businesses and large shops. Sons of the first group, educated at public schools and universities, they became the backbone of the government and the ruling classes that controlled a British Empire upon which the sun never set. The sons of the manufacturing classes, often educated at less prestigious universities, rarely returned back to the shop floor, instead finding commerce and banking more to their interests. Thus Britain was slowly transformed by these upper ranks of middle class society, slowly becoming the first consumer based economy, with earnings shifting from tangible men and products to intangible money and services. These families demanded social respect, and women demanded more from their lives than motherhood and housewife. These partially liberated women played important roles in charities, churches, local politics and the arts. Some forced themselves with great difficulty into universities and from the late 1870s women’s colleges were formed at Oxford, Cambridge and London. Most professions remained barred to women, though a few did gain admittance as doctors.
The aristocracy and country gentry were least effected by change in the 19th century. They continued to hold control over most of the political establishment, with members dominating the national parties, running local government and officering the army. (The navy, remarkably as it was considered the senior and more prestigious service, was actually much less socially rigid and exclusive). The aristocracy gained from the sale of agricultural land for the establishment of new suburbs even as farming became less important. They moved their surplus capital into commerce, reaping from the development of this sector of the economy, particularly from banking and insurance. They also were injected with new wealth between shrewd marriages between wealthy American heiresses and poverty stricken but titled British nobles. (The most famous marriage being that between Consuelo Vanderbilt and he 9th Duke of Marlborough. She brought a dowry of nearly $5 million dollars to her marriage in the 1880s, an amount equal to at least $400 million dollars today.) The nobility became associated with the country and a leisured life, particularly in the popular press and magazines. It was an era of ostentatious consumption and moral laxity, and its poster child had to be the Edward, the Prince of Wales, and the heir to the British throne.
The Victorian era was also a period in which the British Empire grew in leaps and bounds across the globe, becoming truly an empire upon which the sun never set. It was an odd sort of growth, with devolution occurring in certain quarters of the empire, particularly with the Dominion of Canada Act in 1867 and the Commonwealth of Australia Act in 1900. While these two areas achieved a limited form of independence, the last 40 years of the 19th century saw the vast annexation of land in Africa, the Far East and the Pacific. Unlike colonization by other European powers, British annexation followed trade, not the reverse which was more typical. In Africa, much of the British presence was religious in nature, with the great adventure story of the times being the search for Dr. Livingston by H. M. Stanley in 1871. In some areas, free trade was bought at gunpoint, particular where it concerned the Chinese and the sale of opium. In other areas, Chartered companies, particularly in the cases of Rhodesia, Nigeria and East Africa initiated trade. When these chartered companies went bankrupt, even Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1923, the British government was forced to step in and take over direct administration of these colonies.
The jewel of the imperial crown was India, which had increasingly fallen under the control of the British parliament after the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58. In 1876, at the direct request of Queen Victoria, Parliament made her the Empress of India. To safeguard India and the route to the subcontinent, Britain annexed large swathes of territory. Malaya and Burma were annexed at the request of the Indian administration, while Egypt and the Sudan were annexed to protect the vital Suez Canal and the sea routes to India and other Pacific colonies. Egypt was invaded in 1882, partly on behalf on the canal’s creditors, and Britain took direct control over the running of the canal until 1954, though it never formally annexed Egypt as a whole. Thus Egypt had unique status within the British Empire, akin to some of the theoretically independent Indian princely states which had been allowed to survive British control of the subcontinent. Formal annexation of the rebellious Sudan followed, with all rebellion being crushed in 1898 by Lord Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman.
Events in South Africa were complicated by the presence of the Boer, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers. The territory of the Cape Colony had been seized from the Dutch in 1795 during the Napoleonic wars, with justification linked to securing sea routes between India and Britain. The Boers moved into the hinterland where they came into conflict with the native Zulus. Conflict erupted between Britain and the Zulus in 1877 with the defeat and deaths of 800 British soldiers at Isandlhwana, one of the few times in which spears triumphed over modern firearms. Within two years, however, the British defeat the Zulus and eradicated their ability to influence political events in southern Africa. The Boers, seeing the British as weak and wishing peace, started a brief war (1st Boer War, 1880-1881) in which they managed to extra limited self-government from the British over the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. This situation would have lasted had not gold and diamonds been discovered in the Transvaal in 1886, an event which transformed the importance of the area in British colonial trade.
A 2nd Boer War erupted in 1899, and like the war with the Zulus, began badly for the British forces in South Africa. Though the war was expected to be short, the Boers had been armed by Germany and the British, who had mostly fought natives armed with spears and a few firearms, were unprepared for the scale and nature of war on the African veldt. However, the weight of British supplies and manpower transformed the situation, so that by 1900, the tide had changed and the British had captured most of the main Boer population centers. The war, however, took on a new and brutal character, marked by the introduction of concentration camps and the forced relocation of Boers. This period of guerrilla warfare dragged on for two years, turning many in Britain against the war in South Africa as well as failing to break the power of the Boers.
It was an expensive war, with the costs exceeded all other imperial conflicts in the 19th century added together. The war showed the strength of the British Empire and the loyalty of the Dominions, particularly the Canadian and Australian troops sent to aid the war effort. But it also exposed the weaknesses of the imperial system and the policy of British isolation. Throughout the 19th century, Britain had considered France to be her most likely enemy and Germany her most likely ally, but events in South Africa had flip flopped that assumption. After 1901, Germany became the larger threat, and contemporary feelings were expressed in popular literature such as Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903). The colonial war had also brought home to British politicians the reality that certain sectors of the American and German economies now surpassed British economic dominance, though it was still arguable that Britain was the leading world economic power. Criticism of the liberal state established in the 1850s and 1860s came from all spectrums. Rudyard Kipling criticized imperial policies from the right, Hobson and Hobhouse from the center and George Bernard Shaw from the left. Shaw’s criticism was also supported by a growth in socialist thinking, demanding that the state spend more money on correcting societal ills. From 1884, socialism in Britain was supported by the influential Fabian Society based in London, whose members included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and the young Ramsay MacDonald. They criticized the liberal economic policy not just as unfair, but also that it was inefficient and wasteful: that a centrally planned economy and labor market would eliminate inefficiency, the trade cycle of boom and bust, unemployment and poverty. This change would come about through evolution, not revolution. Though the Fabians were intellectuals and dedicated their work towards influencing other intelligentsia, there was a working class outpouring of support for socialist ideologies, given a voice piece with the creation of the Independent Labour Party by Keir Hardie in 1893.
The death of Queen Victoria in early 1901 marked a significant change in Britain. Politicians and commoners alike began to look to a new future, one in which change seemed ever present and constantly occurring. Electricity would bring new appliances into even middle class homes, as did the telephone, typewriters, gramophones, automobiles, and eventually wireless radio and airplanes. Edwardian Britain became a turbulent period of change and transformation. Politics underwent a dramatic shift to the left with the Liberal governments between 1905-1914. The introduction of free school meals (1907), old age pensions (1908), National Insurance (1911) and national income tax (1912) to pay for the changes marked a radical shift away liberal laissez faire economic policies that dominated the 19th century. Women demanded a say in 20th century politics, and though the older National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had made some headway, it took the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) to force the issue into the spotlight. Led by the Pankhursts, a mother and daughter team of suffragettes, the WSPU advocated violence against public property and politicians, as well as encouraging members who were arrested to go on hunger strikes. Historians are unsure of the effect of the WSPU: on one hand it dramatized the cause for women’s suffrage, on the other the violence advocated by its more radical members alienated some of its potential supporters. Nothing had been done about the right of women to vote by 1914.
The outbreak of hostilities in August of 1914 marked the end of the long 19th century. Britain was unprepared for the war, both physically and psychologically. Military values were part of upper class education, but they had little impact elsewhere. Colonial wars had been fought by Britain’s small, but professional army and some volunteers, but this war would need a much larger commitment. The first industrial nation had taught the world the benefits of liberal democracy, peace and foreign trade. It was an experiment that would be brought to a halt on Tuesday, August 4th 1914.
Queen Victoria (1837-1901)

King Edward VII (1901-1910)

King George V (1910-1936)

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