Victorian England: An Introduction

The Romantic Period: began in 1798

It ended in one of the following years:

1832--Reform Bill is passed *
1837--Victoria becomes Queen
1850 -- Death of William Wordsworth

The Victorian period: ended 1901


For much of this century the term Victorian, which literally describes things and events (roughly) in the reign of Queen Victoria, conveyed connotations of "prudish," "repressed," and "old fashioned." Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture.

In science and technology, the Victorians invented the modern idea of invention -- the notion that one can create solutions to problems, that man can create new means of bettering himself and his environment.

In religion, the Victorians experienced a great age of doubt, the first that called into question institutional Christianity on such a large scale. In literature and the other arts, the Victorians attempted to combine Romantic emphases upon self, emotion, and imagination with Neoclassical ones upon the public role of art and a corollary responsibility of the artist.

In ideology, politics, and society, the Victorians created astonishing innovation and change: democracy, feminism, unionization of workers, socialism, Marxism, and other modern movements took form. In fact, this age of Darwin, Marx, and Freud appears to be not only the first that experienced modern problems but also the first that attempted modern solutions. Victorian, in other words, can be taken to mean parent of the modern -- and like most powerful parents, it provoked a powerful reaction against itself.

The Victorian age was not one, not single, simple, or unified, only in part because Victoria's reign lasted so long that it comprised several periods. Above all, it was an age of paradox and power. The Catholicism of the Oxford Movement, the Evangelical movement, the spread of the Broad Church, and the rise of Utilitarianism, socialism, Darwinism, and scientific Agnosticism, were all in their own ways characteristically Victorian; as were the prophetic writings of Carlyle and Ruskin, the criticism of Arnold, and the empirical prose of Darwin and Huxley; as were the fantasy of George MacDonald and the realism of George Eliot and George Bernard Shaw.

More than anything else what makes Victorians Victorian is their sense of social responsibility. The poet Matthew Arnold refused to reprint his poem "Empedocles on Etna," in which the Greek philosopher throws himself into the volcano, because it set a bad example; and he criticized an Anglican bishop who pointed out mathematical inconsistencies in the Bible not on the grounds that he was wrong, but that for a bishop to point these things out to the general public was irresponsible.

The Victorian Age was characterised by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere - from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. Over time, this rapid transformation deeply affected the country's mood: an age that began with a confidence and optimism leading to economic boom and prosperity eventually gave way to uncertainty and doubt regarding Britain's place in the world.


Born on 24 May 1819.
On 10th June 1837, following the death of her uncle, William IV, she became queen at the age of eighteen.
She fell instantly in love with her German cousin, Prince Albert and they were married on 10 February 1840. Between 1841 and 1857 Queen Victoria had nine children - four sons, five daughters. Prince Albert was very interested in art, science and manufacturing and took a keen interest in the building of the Crystal Palace. He died suddenly of typhoid in 1861. His widow was overcome with grief and wrote in her diary, "My life as a happy person is ended!" She wore black for the rest of her life. For a long time she refused to appear in public, which made her very unpopular.
Queen Victoria died aged 80 on 22 January 1901 and a new age - the Edwardian - began.


In 1876 Victoria was declared Empress of India and the English Empire was constantly being expanded. The prevailing attitude in Britain was that expansion of British control around the globe was good for everyone.

One, England had an obligation to enlighten and civilize the 'less fortunate savages' of the world (often referred to as the "White Man's Burden").
Second, they (as a chosen people) had a destiny to fulfill -- they were 'destined' to rule the world.
Finally, they needed money, resources, labor, and new markets for expanding industry in England.

The British Empire (map) was the largest empire ever, consisting of over 25% of the world's population and area. It included India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, several islands in the West Indies and various colonies on the African coast. In 1750 the population of Britain was 4 million. By 1851 it was 21 million. By 1900, Queen Victoria reigned over 410 million people. British Victorians were excited by geographical exploration, by the opening up of Africa and Asia to the West, yet were troubled by the intractable Irish situation and humiliated by the failures of the Boer War.


This was also the age of the 'Irish Question', the question being whether or not the Irish should be allowed to rule themselves. Gladstone was a constant activist for increased Irish autonomy, but his views were not widely supported, and Irish extremists began a campaign of terrorism, the fruits of which are still with us today.


Victorian England was a deeply religious country. A great number of people were habitual church-goers, at least once and probably twice, every Sunday. The Bible was frequently and widely read by people of every class; so too were religious stories and allegories. Yet towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the hold of organized religion upon the English people began to slacken for several reasons.


Education in nineteenth-century England was not equal - not between the sexes, and not between the classes. Gentlemen would be educated at home by a governess or tutor until they were old enough to attend Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse, or a small handful of lesser schools. The curriculum was heavily weighted towards the classics - the languages and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome. After that, they would attend Oxford or Cambridge. Here they might also study mathematics, law, philosophy, and modern history. Oxford tended to produce more Members of Parliament and government officials, while Cambridge leaned more towards the sciences and produced more acclaimed scholars. However, it was not compulsory, either legally or socially, for a gentleman to attend school at all. He could, just as easily, be taught entirely at home. However, public school and University were the great staging grounds for public life, where you made your friends and developed the connections that would aid you later in life. Beau Brummel met the Prince of Wales at Eton and that friendship helped him conquer all of London Society despite his lack of family background.

A lady's education was taken, almost entirely, at home. There were boarding schools, but no University, and the studies were very different. She learned French, drawing, dancing, music, and the use of globes. If the school, or the governess, was interested in teaching any practical skills, she learned plain sewing as well as embroidery, and accounts.


Industrial Revolution: the developments that transformed Great Britain, between 1750 and 1830, from a largely rural population making a living almost entirely from agriculture to a town-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture.

As many thousands of women throughout rural Britain saw their spinning wheels become redundant and their jobs disappear into the factories, they moved to the cities. The towns offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment. On the other hand, the countryside was healthier.

The Industrial Revolution gathered steam, and accelerated the migration of the population from country to city. The result of this movement was the development of horrifying slums and cramped row housing in the overcrowded cities.


Working class - men and women who performed physical labor, paid daily or weekly wages

Middle class - men performed mental or "clean" work, paid monthly or annually

Upper class - did not work, income came from inherited land and investments


Pounds (£)
Shillings (s.)
Pence (d.)

Typical Incomes (annual)

Aristocrats £30,000
Merchants, bankers £10,000
Middle-class (doctors, lawyers, clerks) £300-800
Lower middle-class (head teachers, journalists, shopkeepers, etc.) £150-300
Skilled workers (carpenters, typesetters,etc.) £75-100
Sailors and domestic staff £40-75
Laborers, soldiers £25


Cholera - caused by human waste in the drinking water.
Symptoms: nausea, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, overwhelming thirst, cramps
Death often followed within 24 hours of the first symptom

Consumption - a tuberculosis of the lungs
Symptoms - weakness, fatigue, wasting away, blood in the lungs
(killed hundreds of thousands of English in the nineteenth century)

Typhus - spread by body lice and dirty conditions
Symptoms: delirium, headaches, rash, high fever


In the late industrial era in Britain the ideology of separate spheres which assigned the private sphere to the woman and the public sphere of business, commerce and politics to the man had been widely dispersed. The home was regarded as a haven from the busy and chaotic public world of politics and business, and from the grubby world of the factory. Those who could afford to, created cosy domestic interiors with plush fabrics, heavy curtains and fussy furnishings which effectively cocooned the inhabitants from the world outside. The middle-class household contained concrete expressions of domesticity in the form of servants, décor, furnishings, entertainment and clothing. The female body was dressed to emphasise a woman's separation from the world of work.

"The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind" - Dr. William Acton

Dr. Acton's books were very popular, and they suggest how much truth there was in our stereotypes of the constrained character of nineteenth-century English sexual behavior. In proper middle-class and upper-class circles, women were supposed to have no sexual conduct before marriage - a hand around the waist, a small kiss, and a fervent pressing of the hand was probably the accepted limit in most cases.

Also, when a woman married, she had no independent legal status. She had no right to any money (earned, inherited, etc.), she could not make a will or buy property, she had no claim to her children, she had to move with him wherever he went. If the husband died, he could name the mother as the guardian, but he did not have to do so.

Among the working classes in London, many costermongers (street vendors) lived with their girlfriends starting in their early teens. Elsewhere in the working class, premarital sex was generally winked at, as long as the couple got married.In 1800, about a third of working-class brides were pregnant on their wedding day.

For middle- and upper-class men, premarital sex would have been with servants and prostitutes, since "nice girls" didn't go beyond the small kiss or squeeze of the hand.

There were about 80,000 "gay" women (prostitutes) and "fancy men" (pimps) in London in the mid-nineteenth century. They congregated around Covent Garden and in the theater district. They tucked part of their skirts up to indicate their business. They were especially alluring to soldiers, most of whom were forbidden to marry.

For most of the nineteenth century, homosexuality was punishable by death. However, the last execution on the grounds of "homosexuality" took place in 1830.

Cafe Royal, London

Regent Street, London

Picadilly Mansions

House of the Strand

East Cheapside

Street Vendors

Flower "girls" in Covent Garden