Is Victorian Britain still worthy of serious scholarly attention? By: John C. McKnight Victorian Britain has been viewed by many as a period of progress and prosperity. In The Victorians since 1901: Histories, Representations and Revisions, Miles Taylor states that “we are now encouraged to look back at the Victorians and admire their modernity and energy, sympathize with their moral dilemmas, and appreciate the complexity of their attitudes towards race, sex and class.”1 This is true, Victorian Britain is a very interesting and complex period of history and the historians of today should still continue to research and analyze the events and ideas that developed during this period of time. The Victorian period has been labeled by the reign of Queen Victoria and had she not lived so long, historians would have probably broken up the Victorian period into separate periods. Instead, historians have established three subdivisions, early, middle, and late Victorian. The longevity of the Victorian period is what makes it so complex, and the complexity is what calls for the need of constant scholarly attention. Victorian Britain witnessed multiple accounts of reform. Many of these were social reforms and dealt with the following problems: public health, poverty, factory regulation, and moral and mental improvements. At the beginning of the Victorian period, these problems were starting to appear through reports and surveys. These reports and surveys sparked what was called a statistical movement. This was a movement where middle class individuals were collecting loads of information or statistics and presenting them to law-makers hoping to promote reform. In the beginning of the Victorian period, the biggest problem with reforms dealt with the intervention of the state. Before, the government strictly stayed out of what was called

Miles Taylor and Michael Wolff, eds. The Victorians since 1901: Histories, Representatives, and Revisions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 9.


private matters. In Self-Help, Samuels Smiles gives a solid representation of this thought by saying, “Government that is ahead of the people will inevitably be dragged down to their level, as the Government that is behind them will in the long run be dragged up.”2 The question then was what was considered private and public matters to them? At the beginning of the period, most of these matters or problems were considered to be private. So, the government would distance themselves from these problems. That is until the need for reforms presented itself in the mid-nineteenth century. The 1830’s and 1840’s are considered to be a time of crucial breakthrough in the Victorian period, in that it was a time when “an influential group of high Whigs, most exercised by notions of noblesse oblige, succeeded in pushing through a series of social reforms against the opposition of Peelite Tories and laissez-faire Radicals.”3 Two areas of concern that eventually become public matters were health and poverty. Health became an issue of reform during the nineteenth century. Historian F.B. Smith, while referring to the public health reform of the nineteenth century, states that “towards the end of the nineteenth century veterans of the sanitary movement could look back on their work and see that it was good…their promises in Edwin Chadwick’s report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes of Great Britain…were being fulfilled.”4 In the beginning of the Victorian period, public health became an issue that needed to be dealt with and Chadwick, a Benthamite utilitarian, was able to persuade the government with 10,000 reports on sanitation, the need for reform.5 Industrialization and the increase in populations created dirtier and filthier cities. These cities were becoming infested with airborne diseases (cholera epidemic in 1831) and there was a need for sanitation improvements. In order to solve these problems the Public Health Acts were
2 3

Smiles, Samuel. Self-Help (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986), 19-20. Hoppen, K. Theodore. The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846- 1886 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 97. 4 Smith, F.B. The People’s Heath, 1830-1910 (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1979), 195. 5 Benthamite utilitarian here refers to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian view of state intervention. This view was that it was the states’ right or duty to intervene in certain matters as in this case public welfare or health of the state.


created in the years 1848, 1866, 1871, and 1875. Each one of these acts consisted of new improvements and eventually created a much healthier public welfare. They improved the methods of sewage disposal, ventilation and medical service, which in return caused the death rate to decrease and life expectancy to increase.6 Poverty was another issue that called for reform during the nineteenth century. In the past, the people of Britain would usually blame poverty on the individual. In the Victorian period, some people were beginning to blame it on the state. The rise of Industrialization created many jobs in the urban cities, but there was a major decline in the economy of the rural areas. In order to solve this problem, reformers like Nassau Senior and Chadwick pushed for the reform of the old poor law through a report called the Royal Commission of 1832. 7 This report blamed the old poor law as the cause of poverty. The Poor Law Act of 1834 changed this; it established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the relief of the nation and the building of workhouses to as unemployment relief. Although, this act did in general fail to relieve the poor, it did open the door to reform. It allowed the state, especially the Tories and others opposed to reform, to realize that they did not necessarily have to fear the idea of reform. Another issue that brought to attention the need for reform was factory regulation. A majority of the working-class had to depend on their children to work. The problems that dealt with the factory system were child labor and long work hours. There were numerous factory acts that were passed to limit the amount of hours that woman and children worked in the textile industry at first and later in all industries.8 In overall, there were eleven different Factory Acts that were established during the Victorian period, from 1831 with the Hobhouse Factory Act to 1897 with the Workmen’s Compensation Act.
6 7

Smith, 195-197. Brundage, Anthony. The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930 (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 62-63. 8 Hoppen, 97.


The last major social reform movement of nineteenth century Britain was moral and mental improvement. Just as all the other reforms of this period it was headed by middle-class reformers. They pushed for people to spread sound opinion and conduct, getting involved in improving institutions, giving advice, and intellectual uplifting. By doing this they were successful in developing institutions that would help provide people with the tools to become more respectable. These institutions consisted of public libraries, Sunday schools, and education societies. It is from this reform movement that the great philosophers like Samuel Smiles and John Stuart Mill and ideas like self-help or self-reliance, morality, liberty and philanthropy developed. The main idea was to try to make the less fortunate to become better citizens. For example, in Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill explains the utilitarian idea as “the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promise happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”9 As seen from just giving brief explanations of these social reforms, there are many complexities involved. There was a great deal of opposition towards these reforms and reforms in general. The public health and sanitation reform had a great deal of opposition from legislature. The idea of reform was foreign to them since the state did not intervene into private matters before the Victorian period. The Poor Law’s opposition involved the disapproval of the working-class. “Opposition of the new Poor Law formed a general backdrop to working-class distrust of the state, with even outdoor relief often regarded as degrading.”10 For example, Anthony Brundage states that “in their [working-class] eyes, the New Poor was a symptom of class rule.”11 There was even opposition to the law from people of the middle-class, including

Mills, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 137. Hoppen, 101. 11 Brundage, 82.


Charles Dickens. His book, “Oliver Twist was presented to the public in serialized form from 1837-1839…the novel portrayed essentially the inhumanity of the new law.”12 There was also opposition to factory regulation. As stated by K. Theodore Hoppen, “factory legislation too aroused a good deal of hostility because parents often depended on the earnings of their children.”13 A society usually seems to be divided along class lines. Modern societies, especially the United States, are usually divided along the lines of salaries, where the amount of money you make determines what class you are considered to belong. Historian E.P. Thompson refers to class as social and cultural formation and that it is not based on structure or category. Instead, he infers that it is determined by the relations into which we are born and that it is a result of common experiences.14 The classes of the Victorian period consisted of the aristocratic, the middle-class, and the working-class. The aristocratic class had already been established through the constitutional monarch system of government, but the middle- and working-classes developed during the Victorian period. The working-class emerged through industrialization and were mainly factory workers. In 1831, Lord Brougham compared wealth, intelligence, and the glory of being labeled British with the middle-class.15 The middle-class also emerged through industrialization and with the emergence of this class came the multitude of Victorian values that were presenting during the Victorian period. At the same time the working-class and middle-class were developing there was a decline in the aristocracy, as explained in historian David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of British Aristocracy.

12 13

Brundage, 83. Hoppen, 101. 14 Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), Preface 1-2. 15 Hoppen, 31.


Historians have always had trouble with generalizing about Victorian values. As historian, Asia Briggs, states in Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth Century Society, “in a period of continuing change there was never any full agreement about what Victorian values really were.”16 Samuel Smiles’ concept of individuality and self-help and John Stuart Mill’s concept of individuality and liberty are two prime examples of Victorian values. Samuel Smiles’ refers to things like character in that it “is human nature in its best form. It is the moral order embodied in the individual.”17 His philosophy of thought is based around individuality in that it is up to the individual to better himself. In John Stuart Mill’s, On Liberty, he states that his objective: “Is to assert one very simple principle…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, again his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”18 These two examples of Victorian values shows how complex the ideas and values of the Victorians were during the nineteenth century. The Victorian economy is often seen as one big and constant boom because of industrialization. This is false and in actuality the economy was pretty erratic during the nineteenth century. As W.W. Rostow explains in his book, British Economy of the Nineteenth

Marsden, Gordon, ed. Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth Century Society (London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1990), Foreword. 17 Smiles, 231. 18 Mills, 14.


Century, “British industrial production, and the national income, did not expand continuously from 1790 to 1914, nor was the trend of increase constant.”19 Since, the period is over such a long period of time, it is almost impossible for an economy to remain in a state of constant growth. Rostow divides the economy into five different phases: 1790 to 1815, 1815 to 1840s, 1840s to 1873, 1873 to 1900, and 1900 to 1914.20 Even though, the economy during the Victorian phase of the nineteenth century has often called the Victorian boom, Rostow could not find many extraordinary increases compared to the prior phases. For example, he states that “the rates of growth in production were only slightly less than for the previous trend period.”21 The economy of the Victorian period is a very interesting subject considering it is during industrialization. There is still much research to do with this topic as Rostow points out that “an investigation would be much strengthened if adequate data on the national income were available: its real size, composition, and distribution; but the national-income statistics, in their present form, are inadequate.”22 In 1851, Horace Mann, a statistician, collected a survey on church attendance. The results were that “under a quarter worshipped the Church of England on 30 March; just over a quarter worshipped elsewhere; half did not worship at all.”23 During the Victorian period, there were many new non-conformist denominations that were challenging the Church of England. There were four major denominations: Anglican, old Dissent (Baptist, Congregationalist, and Quakers), new Dissent (mainly Methodist), and Roman Catholicism. Historian A.D. Gilbert’s Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change 1740-1914 explains that the relationship between religion and social change during the nineteenth century
19 20

Rostow, W.W. British Economy of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 7. Rostow, 7. 21 Rostow, 20. 22 Rostow, 10. 23 Hoppen, 430-431.


was dominated by the development of new denominations and the conflict between them and the established Church of England.24 With the development of new denominations and the competition between these denominations and the Church of England, religion in Victorian Britain can become very complex, but adding evolution and Charles Darwin into the picture makes it even more multifaceted. It is hard for contemporaries to realize how much confusion an idea like evolution, appearing for the first time, can place on the faith of an individual, community or nation, but it is inevitable that Darwin’s, Origins of Species, created a stir amongst the religious community of Victorian Britain, especially a period that was willing to pursue change. During the Victorian period there were many changes that occurred dealing with the government. The decline of the Crown and rise of Cabinet as a central feature of British governance and the reform of representation are the two major changes that occurred. There were three determinants of the decline of the Crown. They were the development of the Cabinet government, King George III’s illness, and the evolution of the office of Prime Minister. With the decline of the Crown, Queen Victoria became more of an image than a politician and the Parliament had almost complete control of the government. G.H.L Le May, Frank Hardie, and Walter Bagehot, all historians of Victorian Britain, have made remarks addressing the decline of the Crown. In G.H.L Le May’s, Victorian Constitution, he refers to Peel’s thoughts on his resignation in 1835: “There was great public evil in permitting the House of Commons to exhibit itself to the country free from any control on the part of executive government, and usurping, in consequence of the absence of that control, many of the functions of that government.”25 In Frank Hardie’s, The Political Influence of Queen Victoria, he states that:

Gilbert, A.D. Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change (New York: Longman Group Limited, 1976). 25 Le May, G.H.L. The Victorian Constitution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979).


“On Queen Victoria’s accession the old question of whether the power of the State was to be the possession of the Crown or of Parliament had been definitely and finally settled in favour of Parliament, because its power had by then become broadly based on the will of the people, or, more accurately of the upper middle classes.”26 Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, refers to all the aspects of the English government. When referring to the powers of government he gives many scenarios that Queen Victoria could do, but he argues that she had three great rights and those were consulted, encourage, and warn.27 Victorian Britain is by far the most complex period of history when referring to British government. The government of Britain is so flexible because there are many policies and laws that are not statute, allowing a lot of flexibility when referring to the Constitution. The reform of representation is another key feature of Victorian Britain government reform. “Between 1832 and 1885, a new electoral system was created, and a new set of political organization to go with it.”28 There were three Reform Acts that were involved with this process: the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884-84. Each one of these acts pushed for more franchise and eventually created a uniform structure in both boroughs and counties. This increased the percentage of adults entitled to vote from five percent in 1831 to 28.5 percent in 1884. This was a huge breakthrough in political reform because before the Victorian period and even early into the period, many people


Hardie, Frank. The Political Influence of Queen Victoria (London: F. Cass, 1963).

27 28

Bagehot, Walter. The English Constitution (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1963), 82-120. Hanham, H.J. The Reformed Electoral System in Great Britain, 1832-1914 (London: The Historical Association, 1968), 24.


did not feel like the change was needed. They believed that if you do not have the ability or knowledge to vote, then you shouldn’t have the right. The Victorian period is almost a century long, considering how long Queen Victoria reigned. The amount of reforms and transitions of thoughts on society, economy, religion, and government is rich with complexity. As Helen Rogers, states in “The Victorians since 1901: Histories, Representations and Revisions, “over the recent decades we have acknowledged, and indeed reveled in, the varieties of Victorianism and the many faces of Victorians…Just because scholars elsewhere are considering a return to disciplinarily is no reason to abandon the Victorian studies project; but it must surely require us to examine that project more critically.”29


Miles Taylor and Michael Wolff, eds., 254.

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