The Victorian Era

The results of the late 18th-century and early 19th-century Industrial Revolution, largely based on the perfection of the steam engine and improved methods of iron- and steel-production, led to ever larger industrial cities in central and northern England. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Europe knew a century of virtual peace. The growth of the “professional” middle class, the improved standard-of-living of the working class, and  the spread of basic education to almost everyone meant that reading now became an almost universal habit.

became queen in 1837, on the death of her uncle, William IV, when she was only 18 and she only died in 1901. During her reign, Britain expanded its colonies into the British Empire, and consolidated its influence over huge areas of the world. The construction of the railway across England at the start of her reign brought even remote areas within easy reach of London.


The first full scale working railway steam locomotive was built in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, an English engineer born in Cornwall. This used high pressure steam to drive the engine. On 21 February 1804 the world's first railway journey took place as Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, in South Wales. In 1814 George Stephenson, inspired by the early locomotives of Trevithick and others, persuaded the manager of the Killingworth colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. He built the Blücher, one of the first successful locomotives. Stephenson played a pivotal role in the development and widespread adoption of the steam locomotive. His designs considerably improved on the work of the earlier pioneers. In 1825 he built the Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, north east England, which was the first public steam railway in the world.

The success of the Stockton and Darlington encouraged the rich investors of the rapidly industrialising North West of England to embark upon a project to link the rich cotton manufacturing town of Manchester with the thriving port of Liverpool. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first modern railway, in that both the goods and passenger traffic was operated by scheduled or timetabled locomotive hauled trains. A widely reported competition was held in 1829, to find the most suitable steam engine to haul the trains. A number of locomotives were entered, the winner was Stephenson's Rocket.

The promoters were mainly interested in goods traffic, but after the line opened on 15 September 1830, they found to their amazement that passenger traffic was just as remunerative. The success of the Liverpool and Manchester railway influenced the development of railways elsewhere in Britain and abroad. The Liverpool and Manchester line was still a short one (56 km), linking two towns within an English county. The world's first trunk line can be said to be the Grand Junction Railway, opening in 1837, and linking a mid point on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with Birmingham, by way of Crewe, Stafford, and Wolverhampton.

By the 1850s, many steam-powered railways had reached the fringes of built-up London. But the new lines were not permitted to demolish enough property to penetrate the City or the West End, so passengers had to disembark at Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross, Fenchurch Street, Charing Cross, Waterloo or Victoria and then make their own way via hackney carriage or on foot into the centre, thereby massively increasing congestion in the city. A railway was planned to run under the ground to connect several of these separate railway terminals, and this became the world's first "Metro." The Metropolitan Railway and the Metropolitan District Railway were the first two underground railways to be built in London. These two companies formed the basis of what would later become known as the London Underground network by creating the Circle Line. The underground railway eventually opened to the public on 10 January 1863. In its first few months of operation, an average of 26,500 passengers used the line every day.

Queen Victoria's husband (the Prince Consort) was a German prince, Albert, with progressive ideas. He encouraged the organizers of a "Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations" that was held  in 1851 in a specially constructed Crystal Palace, a great hall of iron and glass, In London. Because of the cheap travel offered by railways, thousands came to visit it from all over Britain, 100,000 or more in one day. It was the first world trade fair, and especially it gave visitors a glimpse of the cultures of the various countries forming the British Empire. The railway system around London gave rise to the suburbs from which people could "commute" to work each day by train. London spread immensely. One major problem remained -- hygiene. Most drinking water came from shallow wells that were easily polluted by the sewage from primitive toilets; as a result, thousands of people regularly died of typhoid and cholera, including Prince Albert in 1861. Finally the connection was recognized; piped water and modern systems of sewage disposal were established.

Ruskin and Morris

As standards of living improved, people began to be aware of the ugliness that indutrialization had provoked. They felt that they had been dehumanized. Even the furniture and textiles produced in factories seemed lacking in style. The Gothic revival from earlier in the century paved the way for a new vision of an architecture and an attitude to work that would be both humane and harmonious. The past, from being a ‘dark ages’ became a source of inspiration and even nostalgia. Venice, particularly the remains of medieval, Gothic Venice, was one of the fundamental sources of inspiration for John Ruskin (1819-1900), who visited it eleven times. Ruskin was an art critic and social thinker, also remembered as a poet and artist. And he was the main inspiration for the founders of British Socialism and the Labor Party, as well as of most aspects of the Victorian Gothic Revival in architecture and the almost worldwide Arts and Crafts Movement that derived from it.

He praised the Gothic style for what he saw as its reverence for nature and natural forms; the free, unfettered expression of artisans constructing and decorating buildings; and for the organic relationship he posited between worker and guild, worker and community, worker and natural environment, and between worker and God. Ruskin believed the division of labour to be the main cause of the unhappiness of the poor. Ruskin argued that the rich had never been so generous in the past, but the poor's hatred of the rich was at its greatest point. This was because the poor were now unsatisfied by monotonous work that used them as a tool, instead of a person. His main writings are The Stones of Venice and
Unto This Last.

Where Ruskin wrote, William Morris (1834 – 1896) acted. He was a textile designer, artist, writer, socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. He was an important figure in the emergence of socialism in Britain, founding the Socialist League in 1884, but breaking with the movement over goals and methods by the end of that decade. He devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1891, dedicated to transforming the printed book into a thing of beauty similar to the medieval manuscript.

Both of these extraordinary men, and those around them in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Guild of St George, the Christian Socialists, found the source of their vision in a quality of life, of humanity and beauty, that they recognized in the middle ages and felt was lacking in their own time. Ruskin wrote in Unto This Last (1860), “There is no wealth but life, life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration. That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” Ruskin’s youthful experience of the beauty of the arts of the midle ages was enough to open his eyes to the ugliness and ecological dangers of industrialization. One of his most famous essays is entitled On the Nature of Gothic—The Function of the Workman in Art. He and Morris found in the medieval, the Gothic, a direct, Eutopian inspiration for their social, artistic and human vision in the so different, industrialized 19th century.


Electoral reform continued, with secret voting being introduced in 1872, and by 1884 most men over 21 were entitled to vote. The Whigs had by now changed their name into the Liberal Party. while the Tories were officially known as the Conservative Party; both parties developed into nationwide social organizations with local branches in every town organizing events among their supporters. The number of MPs increased to over 650 and slowly the House of Lords lost its power. The working class was still weak, but the growth of Co-operative stores (where the shoppers were the share-holders / owners, receiving dividends from profits) prepared the way for other advances. The workers in each particular skilled labour joined the national trade union representing thier particular job; in 1868 the Trades Union Congress was inaugurated, and soon began to work for the election of representatives of the working class as MPs. In the 1870s, wages were lowered in many factories and this provoked the unions to turn to strikes as the ultimate means of action. The British working class did not on the whole try to impose change by force or revolution; instead, it always looked for democratic ways of gaining influence in Parliament, to effect social change by legal methods in a relative consensus.

Across the world, imperialistic Britain was involved in a variety of conflicts. In China, the two (very shameful) Opium Wars (1840-1843 and 1856-1860) were intended to break Chinese resistance to the smuggling of opium from India, itself a measure intended to punish China for its unequal trading policies and force it to open its markets. China was totally defeated in both wars, and was forced to grant the western powers unequal treaties. By contrast, a war in Afghanistan designed to prevent Russia from moving its sphere of influence south toward India was a disaster for Britain. In 1854, fearing that Russia would take control of Turkey, Britain launched the Crimean War which was widely covered by the British newspapers. The corruption of the officers, the sufferings of the soldiers and the courage of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses in the military hospitals were all covered in great detail for the first time. In India, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was a revolt by Indian soldiers in the British army was used by local rulers as an attempt to force the British out of India; the British response was extremely violent and the cruelty of the British prepared the way for the Indian independence movement of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, with the growth of the population people from Britain were encouraged to emigrate and start a new life in the Dominions, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where the settlers were soon given self-government, the Queen remaining the titular head of state. South Africa enjoyed similar status although it had a far larger native population as well as a very substantial number of Dutch settlers (Boers).

Apart from England, which was flourishing, the people in the other parts of the United Kingdom were far less happy. In Wales, industry grew around the coal-mining area to the south around Cardiff and Swansea and the workers there expressed their identity by joining the Baptist and other Non-conformist chapels rather than the state church, and developing a radical political stance. The rural population remained backward and retained the use of the Welsh language. In Scotland the people living in the Highlands, where there had been much violence in the 18th century, were forced off their land by new landowners wishing to raise either sheep or deer (for hunting by the elite).

The worst was in Ireland, where the Protestants (descendants either of English settlers from centuries back or of Scottish settlers introduced in the 18th century) felt a need for English protection against the native Irish Catholics. As part of the United Kingdom, the Irish elected MPs to Westminster and since 1829 the freedom-seeking nationalists elected Catholics when possible. But many were extremely poor, having been deprived of their land in the 18th century when Catholics were not recognized as landowners. The staple diet of the poor was potatoes but in 1845, 1846, and 1847 a disease destroyed the potato harvest, leaving millions with nothing to eat. There was enough corn in Ireland, but the poor had no money and the ruling elite did nothing to help relieve the famine. The authorities in England also remained inactive. In those 3 years 1.5 million people died of starvation and at least a million emigrated either to the mainland or to the United States (many dying on the long journey). In the following decades Ireland continued to lose population, some 5 million settling in the United States in that period. Before the Famine there had been 8 million people, even today there are less 5 million.

Along with industrialization went the development of modern science. The single most significant name must be that of Charles Darwin, whose 1859 work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection introduced the notions of evolution of life's diversity and  of natural selection by the "survival of the fittest." His other most noted title, The Descent of Man (1871) dealt with the development of human culture among other topics. The work of geologists had already established the immense age of the earth and thus of the universe; Darwin's theory of evolution was quickly accepted by the general public. Accepting natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution took longer and the debate over the role of chance in evolution remains open. (See the very complete account in Wikipedia)

Between 1875 and 1914 the condition of the poor in most of Britain greatly improved as prices fell by 40 per cent and real wages doubled. Life at home was made more comfortable. Most homes now had gas both for heating and lighting. As a result of falling prices and increased wages, poor families could eat better food, including meat, fresh milk (brought from the countryside by train) and vegetables. This greatly improved the old diet of white bread and beer.

In 1870 and 1891 two Education Acts were passed. As a result of these, all children had to go to school up to the age of thirteen, where they were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The later 19th century saw the foundation of new ("red-brick") universities with a focus on science and technology. With growing prosperity, spectator sports (soccer, rugby and cricket) became popular among the working class. The literature of the 19th century grows out of the poetry and novels of the Romantic period but is marked by a growing seriousness of moral purpose. The culture of the Victorian period is too cast a topic to be covered here. By the end of the century, England was already being challenged by the new industrial might of Prussia-led Germany.

Victorian novels

(Those writers bolded remain popular today)

William Makepeace Thakery  (1811-1863): 1847 Vanity Fair; 1852 Henry Esmond; 1848 Pendennis

Charles Dickens   (1812-1870): 1835 Sketches by Boz; 1836 Pickwick Papers; 1837 Oliver Twist; 1838 Nicholas Nickleby; 1840 Barnaby Rudge, The Old Curiosity Shop; 1843 Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol; 1844 The Chimes; 1845 The Cricket on the Hearth; 1846 The Battle of Life; 1847 The Haunted Man, Dombey and Son; 1849 David Copperfield; 1852 Bleak House; 1854 Hard Times; 1857 Little Dorrit; 1859 A Tale of Two Cities; 1861 The Uncommercial Traveller; 1860 Great Expectations; 1864 Our Mutual Friend; 1870 The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished).

Anthony Trollope  (1815-1882)-wrote 60 novels- 1855 The Warden; 1857 Barchester Towers;  1861 Framley Parsonage; 1864 The Small House at Allington; 1867 The Last Chronicles of Barset; 1869 Phineas Phinn....

Charlotte Bronte  (1816-1855) 1847 Jane Eyre; 1849 Shirley; 1853 Villette

Emily Bronte  (1818-1848) Wuthering Heights.

Mary Ann Evans - George Eliot  (1819-1881): 1857 Mr Gilfill’s Love Story; 1859 Adam Bede;  1860 The Mill on the Floss; 1861 Silas Marner; 1863 Romola; 1866 Felix Holt; 1871 Middlemarch; 1876 Daniel Deronda.

Benjamin Disraeli  (1804-1881); 1844 Coningsby; 1845 Sybil; 1847 Tancred.

Mrs. Gaskell  (1810-1865): 1853 Cranford; 1855 North and South; 1863 Sylvia’s Lovers; 1865 Cousin Phillis.

Lewis Carroll  (1832-1898) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Alice Through the Looking Glass; The Hunting of the Snark.

Wilkie Collins  (1824-1889) The Dead Secret, 1860 The Woman in White; 1868 The Moonstone;

Thomas Hardy  (1840-1928) 1871 Desperate Remedies; 1872 Under the Greenwood Tree; 1873 A pair of Blue Eyes; 1874 Far from the Madding Crowd; 1878 The Return of the Native; 1880 The Trumpet Major; 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge; 1891 Tess of the D’Urbervilles; 1896 Jude the Obscure; 1897 The Well-Beloved;

George Meredith  (1829-1909) 1859 The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; 1861 Evan Harrington; The Adventures of Harry Richmond; 1865 Rhoda Fleing; 1867 Vittoria; 1879 The Egoist; 1885 Diana of the Crossways; 1891 One of our Conquerors; 1895 Lord Ormont and his Aminta; The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James  (1843-1916) born in New York. 1875 A Passionate Pilgrim; 1876 Roderick Hudson; 1881 Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady; 1877 The American; 1878 The Europeans; 1879 Daisy Miller; 1886 The Bostonians; The Princess Casamassima: 1897 The Spoils of Poynton; 1898 What Maisie Knew; 1898 The Turn of the Screw; 1902 The Wings of the Dove; 1903 The Ambassadors; 1904 The Golden Bowl;.


Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

    After becoming a Catholic at Oxford in 1866, under the influence of John Henry Newman, Hopkins decided to become a Jesuit in 1868. He had already written some poems but felt that writing poetry was not suitable for someone intending to become a priest. In 1876 he returned to poetry-writing and many of his best poems were written in 1877 while he was preparing to be ordained a priest. He found life in the poor areas of Liverpool in 1880 a great challenge. In 1884 he was sent to Dublin as professor of Greek and Latin at University College. He fell into deep depression, and wrote some very dark sonnets. This passed and he was able to write some more positive poems before dying suddenly of typhoid. In his lifetime he published almost nothing. His friend, the poet Robert Bridges, preserved his papers and it was only in 1918 that he finally published a collection of Hopkins’ poems. He had not been sure that the English public could accept such “oddity”!

God's Grandeur

     THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
       It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
       It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
     Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
     Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
       And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
       And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
     Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

     And for all this, nature is never spent;
       There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
     And though the last lights off the black West went
       Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
     Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
       World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The Windhover:       To Christ our Lord

     I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion, king-
       dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
       Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
     High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
     In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
       As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
       Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
     Stirred for a bird,--the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

     Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
       Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
     Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

       No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
     Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
       Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

    Hardy was born in Dorchester, in the county of Dorset, and that region, which he called “Wessex” dominates his fiction. He first published a series of novels that were increasingly attacked by critics for their pessimism.

1871 Desperate Remedies; 1872 Under the Greenwood Tree; 1873 A pair of Blue Eyes; 1874 Far from the Madding Crowd; 1878 The Return of the Native; 1880 The Trumpet Major; 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge; 1891 Tess of the D’Urbervilles; 1896 Jude the Obscure; 1897 The Well-Beloved;

After Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895) he stopped writing fiction and for the rest of his life published only poetry. The death of his wife in 1912 provoked some very powerful poetry, as he struggled to come to terms with the end of their very difficult relationship. In his lifetime, his poetry was not widely admired but the plain style and rhythmic subtlety he cultivated have been very important models for the British poets of the generations following T. S Eliot.

The Darkling Thrush

1     I leant upon a coppice gate
2         When Frost was spectre-gray,
3     And Winter's dregs made desolate
4         The weakening eye of day.
5     The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
6         Like strings of broken lyres,
7     And all mankind that haunted nigh
8         Had sought their household fires.

9     The land's sharp features seemed to be
10       The Century's corpse outleant,
11   His crypt the cloudy canopy,
12       The wind his death-lament.
13   The ancient pulse of germ and birth
14       Was shrunken hard and dry,
15   And every spirit upon earth
16       Seemed fervourless as I.

17   At once a voice arose among
18       The bleak twigs overhead
19   In a full-hearted evensong
20       Of joy illimited;
21   An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
22       In blast-beruffled plume,
23   Had chosen thus to fling his soul
24       Upon the growing gloom.

25   So little cause for carolings
26       Of such ecstatic sound
27   Was written on terrestrial things
28       Afar or nigh around,
29   That I could think there trembled through
30       His happy good-night air
31   Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
32       And I was unaware.