Victorian era  

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The usage of new materials such as iron, steel, concrete and glass is ascribed an important place, with the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Historians have seen the Crystal Palace as a reaction to the eclecticism and "poor taste" of the Victorian Era fuelled by the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution.
The usage of new materials such as iron, steel, concrete and glass is ascribed an important place, with the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Historians have seen the Crystal Palace as a reaction to the eclecticism and "poor taste" of the Victorian Era fuelled by the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution.
Image:Richard Dadd - Come unto These Yellow Sands.jpg
Come unto These Yellow Sands (1842) by Richard Dadd. Images of nude and semi-nude fairies dancing in rings became popular during the Victorian era.

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The Victorian era of the United Kingdom was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The reign was a long period of prosperity for the British people, as a result of profits gained from the British Empire, as well as from industrial improvements at home. Some scholars extend the beginning of the period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political games that have come to be associated with the Victorians—back five years to the passage of the Reform Act 1832.

The era was preceded by the Georgian period and succeeded by the Edwardian period. The latter half of the Victorian era roughly coincided with the first portion of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and the Gilded Age of the United States.


Population in the Victorian era

The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented demographic increase in England. The population rose from 13.897 million in 1831 to 32.528 million in 1901. Two major factors affecting population growth are fertility rates and mortality rates. England was the first country to undergo an Industrial Revolution.


Gothic Revival architecture became increasingly significant during the period, leading to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideals. Charles Barry's architecture for the new Palace of Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, was built in the medieval style of Westminster Hall, the surviving part of the building. It constructed a narrative of cultural continuity, set in opposition to the violent disjunctions of Revolutionary France, a comparison common to the period, as expressed in Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Gothic was also supported by critic John Ruskin, who argued that it epitomised communal and inclusive social values, as opposed to Classicism, which he considered to epitomise mechanical standardisation.

The middle of the 19th century saw The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair, which showcased the greatest innovations of the century. At its centre was the Crystal Palace, a modular glass and iron structure - the first of its kind. It was condemned by Ruskin as the very model of mechanical dehumanisation in design, but later came to be presented as the prototype of Modern architecture. The emergence of photography, showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art with Queen Victoria being the first British monarch to be photographed. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl.


Popular forms of entertainment varied by social class. Victorian Britain, like the periods before it, was interested in literature (see Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and William Makepeace Thackeray), theatre and the arts (see Aesthetic movement and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), and music, drama, and opera were widely attended. Michael Balfe was the most popular British grand opera composer of the period, while the most popular musical theatre was a series of fourteen comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, although there was also musical burlesque and the beginning of Edwardian musical comedy in the 1890s. Drama ranged from low comedy to Shakespeare (see Henry Irving). There were, however, other forms of entertainment. Gentlemen went to dining clubs, like the Beefsteak club or the Savage club. Gambling at cards in establishments popularly called casinos was wildly popular during the period: so much so that evangelical and reform movements specifically targeted such establishments in their efforts to stop gambling, drinking, and prostitution.

Brass bands and 'The Bandstand' became popular in the Victorian era. The band stand was a simple construction that not only created an ornamental focal point, but also served acoustic requirements whilst providing shelter from the changeable British weather. It was common to hear the sound of a brass band whilst strolling through parklands. At this time musical recording was still very much a novelty.

Another form of entertainment involved 'spectacles' where paranormal events, such as hypnotism, communication with the dead (by way of mediumship or channelling), ghost conjuring and the like, were carried out to the delight of crowds and participants. Such activities were more popular at this time than in other periods of recent Western history.

Natural history became increasingly an "amateur" activity. Particularly in Britain and the United States, this grew into specialist hobbies such as the study of birds, butterflies, seashells (malacology/conchology), beetles and wildflowers. Amateur collectors and natural history entrepreneurs played an important role in building the large natural history collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Many people used the train services to visit the seaside, helped by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, which created a number of fixed holidays which all sectors of society could enjoy. Large numbers travelling to quiet fishing villages such as Worthing, Brighton, Morecambe and Scarborough began turning them into major tourist centres, and people like Thomas Cook saw tourism and even overseas travel as viable businesses.

Technology and engineering

steampunk, Unidentified 'automatic hand' Victorian illustration

An important development during the Victorian era was the improvement of communication links. Stage coaches, canals, steam ships and most notably the railways all allowed goods, raw materials and people to be moved about, rapidly facilitating trade and industry. Trains became another important factor ordering society, with "railway time" being the standard by which clocks were set throughout Britain. Steam ships made international travel more common but also advanced trade, so that in Britain it was not just the luxury goods of earlier times that were imported into the country but essentials such as corn from the United States and meat from Australia. One more important innovation in communications was the Penny Black, the first postage stamp, which standardised postage to a flat price regardless of distance sent.

Even later communication methods such as cinema, telegraph, telephones, cars and aircraft, had an impact. Photography was realized in 1839 by Louis Daguerre in France and William Fox Talbot in the UK. By 1900, hand-held cameras were available.

Similar sanitation reforms, prompted by the Public Health Acts 1848 and 1869, were made in the crowded, dirty streets of the existing cities, and soap was the main product shown in the relatively new phenomenon of advertising. A great engineering feat in the Victorian Era was the sewage system in London. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette in 1858. After this, Bazalgette designed the Thames Embankment which housed sewers, water pipes and the London Underground. During the same period London's water supply network was expanded and improved, and a gas network for lighting and heating was introduced in the 1880s.

The Victorians were impressed by science and progress, and felt that they could improve society in the same way as they were improving technology. The model town of Saltaire was founded, along with others, as a planned environment with good sanitation and many civic, educational and recreational facilities, although it lacked a pub, which was regarded as a focus of dissent. During the Victorian era, science grew into the discipline it is today. In addition to the increasing professionalism of university science, many Victorian gentlemen devoted their time to the study of natural history. This study of natural history was most powerfully advanced by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution first published in his book On the Origin of Speciess in 1859.

Although initially developed in the early years of the 19th century, gas lighting became widespread during the Victorian era in industry, homes, public buildings and the streets. The invention of the incandescent gas mantle in the 1890s greatly improved light output and ensured its survival as late as the 1960s. Hundreds of gasworks were constructed in cities and towns across the country. In 1882, incandescent electric lights were introduced to London streets, although it took many years before they were installed everywhere.

Health and medicine

Medicine progressed during Queen Victoria's reign.

Although nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, had been proposed as an anaesthetic as far back as 1799 by Humphry Davy, it wasn't until 1846 when an American Dentist named William Morton started using ether on his patients that anaesthetics became common in the medical profession. In 1847 chloroform was introduced as an anaesthetic by James Young Simpson. Chloroform was favored by doctors and hospital staff because it is much less flammable than ether, but critics complained that it could cause the patient to have a heart attack. Chloroform gained in popularity in England and Germany after Dr. John Snow gave Queen Victoria chloroform for the birth of her eighth child (Prince Leopold). By 1920, chloroform was used in 80 to 95% of all narcoses performed in UK and German-speaking countries.

Anaesthetics made painless dentistry possible. At the same time the European diet grew a great deal sweeter as the use of sugar became more widespread. As a result, more and more people were having teeth pulled and needed replacements. This gave rise to "Waterloo Teeth", which were real human teeth set into hand-carved chunks of ivory from hippopotamus or walrus jaws. The teeth were obtained from executed criminals, victims of battlefields, from grave-robbers, and were even bought directly from the desperately impoverished.

Medicine also benefited from the introduction of antiseptics by Joseph Lister in 1867 in the form of Carbolic acid (phenol). He instructed the hospital staff to wear gloves and wash their hands, instruments, and dressings with a phenol solution and, in 1869, he invented a machine that would spray carbolic acid in the operating theatre during surgery.


19th century Britain saw a huge population increase accompanied by rapid urbanization stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The large numbers of skilled and unskilled people looking for work kept wages down to a barely subsistence level. Available housing was scarce and expensive, resulting in overcrowding. These problems were magnified in London, where the population grew at record rates. Large houses were turned into flats and tenements, and as landlords failed to maintain these dwellings slum housing developed. Kellow Chesney described the situation as follows: "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."

Child labour

The Victorian era became notorious for the employment of young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. Child labour, often brought about by economic hardship, played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset: Charles Dickens, for example, worked at the age of 12 in a blacking factory, with his family in a debtors' prison. In 1840 only about 20 percent of the children in London had any schooling. By 1860 about half of the children between 5 and 15 were in school (including Sunday school).

The children of the poor were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages. Agile boys were employed by the chimney sweeps; small children were employed to scramble under machinery to retrieve cotton bobbins; and children were also employed to work in coal mines, crawling through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. Children also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, or shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers, and other cheap goods. Some children undertook work as apprentices to respectable trades, such as building, or as domestic servants (there were over 120,000 domestic servants in London in the mid 18th century). Working hours were long: builders might work 64 hours a week in summer and 52 in winter, while domestic servants worked 80 hour weeks. Many young people worked as prostitutes (the majority of prostitutes in London were between 15 and 22 years of age).

"Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom. I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs." (Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer, testimony gathered by Ashley's Mines Commission 1842)
"My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to mill; all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers; one lives at home and does nothing; mother does nought but look after home. All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write; I go to pit at five o'clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters' did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out;" (Patience Kershaw, 17 years old, coal-bearer, testimony gathered by Ashley's Mines Commission 1842)

Children as young as three were put to work. In coal mines children began work at the age of 5 and generally died before the age of 25. Many children (and adults) worked 16 hour days. As early as 1802 and 1819, Factory Acts were passed to limit the working hours of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day. These acts were largely ineffective and after radical agitation, by for example the "Short Time Committees" in 1831, a Royal Commission recommended in 1833 that children aged 11–18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, children aged 9–11 a maximum of eight hours, and children under the age of nine should no longer be permitted to work. This act, however, only applied to the textile industry, and further agitation led to another act in 1847 limiting both adults and children to 10 hour working days.


Victorian morality, Women in the Victorian era, history of prostitution, Prostitution in the Victorian era

Beginning in the late 1840s, major news organizations, clergymen, and single women became increasingly concerned about prostitution, which came to be known as "The Great Social Evil". Estimates of the number of prostitutes in London in the 1850s vary widely (in his landmark study, Prostitution, William Acton reported that the police estimated there were 8,600 in London alone in 1857). When the United Kingdom Census 1851 publicly revealed a 4% demographic imbalance in favour of women (i.e., 4% more women than men), the problem of prostitution began to shift from a moral/religious cause to a socio-economic one. The 1851 census showed that the population of Great Britain was roughly 18 million; this meant that roughly 750,000 women would remain unmarried simply because there were not enough men. These women came to be referred to as "superfluous women" or "redundant women", and many essays were published discussing what, precisely, ought to be done with them. "Why are Women Redundant" William Rathbone Greg, N. Trubner & Co. 1869]

In popular culture

Further reading

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