15 6. Victorian Era – 1837-1901

Queen Victoria 1887.jpg
Queen Victoria, after whom the era is named

 

The Victorian era of British history (and that of the British Empire) was the period of Queen Victoria‘s reign from 20 June 1837 until her death, on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence for Britain. Some scholars date the beginning of the period in terms of sensibilities and political concerns to the passage of the Reform Act 1832.

Victoria became queen in 1837 at age 18. Her long reign until 1901 saw Britain reach the zenith of its economic and political power. Exciting new technologies such as steam ships, railroads, photography, and telegraphs appeared, making the world much faster-paced. Britain again remained mostly inactive in Continental politics, and it was not affected by the wave of revolutions in 1848. The Victorian era saw the fleshing out of the second British Empire. Scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with her coronation or the earlier passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency eraand succeeded by the Edwardian period.

Historians like Bernard Porter have characterized the mid-Victorian era, (1850–1870) as Britain’s ‘Golden Years.’. There was peace and prosperity, as the national income per person grew by half. Much of the prosperity was due to the increasing industrialization, especially in textiles and machinery, as well as to the worldwide network of trade and engineering that produce profits for British merchants and experts from across the globe. There was peace abroad (apart from the short Crimean war, 1854–56), and social peace at home. Opposition to the new order melted away, says Porter. The Chartist movement, peaked as a democratic movement among the working class in 1848; its leaders moved to other pursuits, such as trade unions and cooperative societies. The working class ignored foreign agitators like Karl Marx in their midst, and joined in celebrating the new prosperity. Employers typically were paternalistic, and generally recognized the trade unions. Companies provided their employees with welfare services ranging from housing, schools and churches, to libraries, baths, and gymnasia. Middle-class reformers did their best to assist the working classes aspire to middle-class norms of ‘respectability.’

There was a spirit of libertarianism, says Porter, as people felt they were free. Taxes were very low, and government restrictions were minimal. There were still problem areas, such as occasional riots, especially those motivated by anti-Catholicism. Society was still ruled by the aristocracy and the gentry, which controlled high government offices, both houses of Parliament, the church, and the military. Becoming a rich businessman was not as prestigious as inheriting a title and owning a landed estate. Literature was doing well, but the fine arts languished as the Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased Britain’s industrial prowess rather than its sculpture, painting or music. The educational system was mediocre; the capstone universities (outside Scotland) were likewise mediocre. Historian Llewellyn Woodward has concluded:

For leisure or work, for getting or spending, England was a better country in 1879 than in 1815. The scales were less weighted against the weak, against women and children, and against the poor. There was greater movement, and less of the fatalism of an earlier age. The public conscience was more instructed, and the content of liberty was being widened to include something more than freedom from political constraint…. Yet England in 1871 was by no means an earthly paradise. The housing and conditions of life of the working class in town & country were still a disgrace to an age of plenty.

Foreign policy

Free trade imperialism

The Great London Exhibition of 1851 clearly demonstrated Britain’s dominance in engineering and industry; that lasted until the rise of the United States and Germany in the 1890s. Using the imperial tools of free trade and financial investment, it exerted major influence on many countries outside Europe, especially in Latin America and Asia. Thus Britain had both a formal Empire based on British rule and an informal one based on the British pound.

Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire

Main articles: Eastern Question and Crimean War

One nagging fear was the possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was well understood that a collapse of that country would set off a scramble for its territory and possibly plunge Britain into war. To head that off Britain sought to keep the Russians from occupying Constantinople and taking over the Bosporous Straits, as well as from threatening India via Afghanistan. In 1853, Britain and France intervened in the Crimean War against Russia. Despite mediocre generalship, they managed to capture the Russian port of Sevastopol, compelling Tsar Alexander II to ask for peace. A second Russo-Ottoman war in 1877 led to another European intervention, although this time at the negotiating table. The Congress of Berlin blocked Russia from imposing the harsh Treaty of San Stefano on the Ottoman Empire. Despite its alliance with the French in the Crimean War, Britain viewed the Second Empire of Napoleon III with some distrust, especially as the emperor constructed ironclad warships and began returning France to a more active foreign policy. But after Napoleon’s downfall in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he was allowed to spent his last years exiled in Britain.

American Civil War

During the American Civil War (1861–1865), British leaders personally disliked American republicanism and favoured the more aristocratic Confederacy, as it had been a major source of cotton for textile mills. Prince Albert was effective in defusing a war scare in late 1861. The British people, who depended heavily on American food imports, generally favoured the United States. What little cotton was available came from New York, as the blockade by the US Navy shut down 95% of Southern exports to Britain. In September 1862, during the Confederate invasion of Maryland, Britain (along with France) contemplated stepping in and negotiating a peace settlement, which could only mean war with the United States. But in the same month, US president Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Since support of the Confederacy now meant support for slavery, there was no longer any possibility of European intervention.

Meanwhile, the British sold arms to both sides, built blockade runners for a lucrative trade with the Confederacy, and surreptitiously allowed warships to be built for the Confederacy. The warships caused a major diplomatic row that was resolved in the Alabama Claims in 1872, in the Americans’ favour.

Empire expands

In 1867, Britain united most of its North American colonies as the Dominion of Canada, giving it self-government and responsibility for its internal affairss. Britain handled foreign policy and defense.

The second half of the 19th century saw a huge expansion of Britain’s colonial empire in Asia. in the “Scramble for Africa” the boast was having the Union Jack flying from “Cairo to Cape Town.” Britain defend its empire with the world’s dominant navy, and a small professional army. It was the only power in Europe to have no conscription.

The rise of the German Empire after 1871 posed a new challenge, for it (along with the United States) threatened to take Britain’s place as the world’s foremost industrial power. Germany acquired a number of colonies in Africa and the Pacific, but Chancellor Otto von Bismarck succeeded in achieving general peace through his balance of power strategy. When William II became emperor in 1888, he discarded Bismarck, began using bellicose language, and planned to build a navy to rival Britain’s.

Ever since Britain had taken control of South Africa from the Netherlands in the Napoleonic Wars, it had run afoul of the Dutch settlers who further away and created two republics of their own. The British imperial vision called for control over the new countries and the Dutch-speaking “Boers” (or “Afrikaners”) fought back in the War in 1899–1902. Outgunned by a mighty empire, the Boers waged a guerrilla war, which gave the British regulars a difficult fight, but weight of numbers, superior equipment, and often brutal tactics eventually brought about a British victory. The war had been costly in human rights and was widely criticised by Liberals in Britain and worldwide. However, the United States gave its support. The Boer republics were merged into Union of South Africa in 1910; it had internal self-government but its foreign policy was controlled by London and was an integral part of the British Empire.

Free trade imperialism

Britain in addition to taking control of new territories, developed an enormous power in economic and financial affairs in numerous independent countries, especially in Latin America and Asia. It lent money, built railways, and engaged in trade. The Great London Exhibition of 1851 clearly demonstrated Britain’s dominance in engineering, communications and industry; that lasted until the rise of the United States and Germany in the 1890s.

In 1890–1902 under Salisbury Britain promoted a policy of Splendid isolation with no formal allies.

Ireland and Home Rule

Part of the agreement which led to the 1800 Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O’Connell, and the death of George III, led to the concession of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament. O’Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Relief efforts were inadequate and hundreds of thousands died in the Great Hunger.

Isaac Butt established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. It became the Irish Parliamentary Party, a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. It dominated Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell’s movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.

Parnell’s movement campaigned for ‘Home Rule’, by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O’Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Ewart Gladstone, but neither became law, mainly due to opposition from the House of Lords. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant unionist minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.

Leadership

Prime Ministers of the period included: Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Derby, Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli,William Ewart Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, and Lord Rosebery.

Queen Victoria

The Queen played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour. Her strength lay in good common sense and directness of character; she expressed the qualities of the British nation which at that time made it preeminent in the world. As a symbol of domesticity, endurance and Empire, and as a woman holding the highest public office during an age when middle- and upper-class women were expected to beautify the home while men dominated the public sphere, Queen Victoria’s influence has been enduring. Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.

Palmerston

Lord Palmerston (1784–1865) dominated foreign policy for decades, through a period when Britain was at the height of its power, serving terms as both Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. He became controversial at the time, and remains so today, for his aggressive bullying and his “liberal interventionist” policies. He was intensely patriotic; he used the Royal Navy to undermine the Atlantic slave trade. Historian A.J.P. Taylor has summarised his career by emphasising the paradoxes:

He became the most successful of Whig Foreign Secretaries; though always a Conservative, he ended his life by presiding over the transition from Whiggism to Liberalism. He was the exponent of British strength, yet was driven from office for truckling to a foreign despot; he preached the Balance of Power, yet helped to inaugurate the policy of isolation and of British withdrawal from Europe. Irresponsible and flippant, he became the first hero of the serious middle-class electorate. He reached high office solely through an irregular family connection; he retained it through skillful use of the press—the only Prime Minister to become an accomplished leader-writer.

Disraeli

Disraeli

Disraeli and Gladstone dominated the politics of the late 19th century, Britain’s golden age of parliamentary government. They long were idolized, but historians in recent decades have become much more critical, especially regarding Disraeli.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), prime minister 1868 and 1874–80, remains an iconic hero of the Conservative Party. He played a central role in the creation the Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal leader William Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or “Tory democracy”. He made the Conservatives the party most identified with the glory and power of the British Empire. He was born into a Jewish family, which became Episcopalian when he was 12 years old.

Disraeli fought to protect established political, social, and religious values and elites; he emphasized the need for national leadership in response to radicalism, uncertainty, and materialism. He is especially known for his enthusiastic support for expanding and strengthening the British Empire in India and Africa as the foundation of British greatness, in contrast to Gladstone’s negative attitude toward imperialism. Gladstone denounced Disraeli’s policies of territorial aggrandizement, military pomp, and imperial symbolism (such as making the Queen Empress of India), saying it did not fit a modern commercial and Christian nation.

In foreign policy he is best known for battling and besting Russia. Disraeli’s second term was dominated by the Eastern Question—the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire and the desire of Russia, to gain at its expense. Disraeli arranged for the British to purchase a major interest in the Suez Canal Company (in Ottoman-controlled Egypt). In 1878, faced with Russian victories against the Ottomans, he worked at the Congress of Berlin to maintain peace in the Balkans and made terms favourable to Britain which weakened Russia, its longstanding enemy.

Disraeli’s old reputation as the “Tory democrat” and promoter of the welfare state has faded as historians argue that he had few proposals for social legislation in 1874–80, and that the 1867 Reform Act did not reflect a vision for the unenfranchised working man. However he did work to reduce class antagonism, for as Perry notes, “When confronted with specific problems, he sought to reduce tension between town and country, landlords and farmers, capital and labour, and warring religious sects in Britain and Ireland—in other words, to create a unifying synthesis.”

Gladstone

Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) was the Liberal counterpart to Disraeli, serving as prime minister four times (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, and 1892–94). He was the moral compass of the Liberal Party and is famous for his oratory, his religiosity, his liberalism, his rivalry with Disraeli, and for his poor relations with the Queen. Gladstone’s first ministry saw many reforms including Disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland and the introduction of secret voting. His party was defeated in 1874, but made a comeback based on opposition to Turkey’s Bulgarian atrocities against Christians. Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign of 1879–80 was an pathbreaking introduction of many modern political campaigning techniques. His Liberal party was increasingly pulled apart on the Irish issue. He proposed Irish home rule in 1886; It failed to pass and the resulting split in the Liberal Party kept it out of office for 20 years (with only a short interruption).

Gladstone’s financial policies, based on the notion of balanced budgets, low taxes and laissez-faire, were suited to a developing capitalist society but could not respond effectively as economic and social conditions changed. Called the “Grand Old Man” later in life, he was always a dynamic popular orator who appealed strongly to British workers and lower middle class. The deeply religious Gladstone brought a new moral tone to politics with his evangelical sensibility and opposition to aristocracy. His moralism often angered his upper-class opponents (including Queen Victoria, who strongly favoured Disraeli), and his heavy-handed control split the Liberal party. His foreign policy goal was to create a European order based on cooperation rather than conflict and mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by the Germans with a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.

Historian Walter L. Arnstein concludes:

Notable as the Gladstonian reforms had been, they had almost all remained within the nineteenth-century Liberal tradition of gradually removing the religious, economic, and political barriers that prevented men of varied creeds and classes from exercising their individual talents in order to improve themselves and their society. As the third quarter of the century drew to a close, the essential bastions of Victorianism still held firm: respectability; a government of aristocrats and gentlemen now influenced not only by middle-class merchants and manufacturers but also by industrious working people; a prosperity that seemed to rest largely on the tenets of laissez-faire economics; and a Britannia that ruled the waves and many a dominion beyond.

Salisbury

Historians portray Conservative prime Minister Lord Salisbury (1830–1903) as a talented leader who was an icon of traditional, aristocratic conservatism. Robert Blake considers Salisbury “a great foreign minister, [but] essentially negative, indeed reactionary in home affairs”. Professor P.T. Marsh’s estimate is more favourable than Blake’s, he portrays Salisbury as a leader who “held back the popular tide for twenty years.” Professor Paul Smith argues that, “into the ‘progressive’ strain of modern Conservatism he simply will not fit.” Professor H.C.G. Matthew points to “the narrow cynicism of Salisbury”. One admirer of Salisbury, Maurice Cowling largely agrees with the critics and says Salisbury found the democracy born of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts as “perhaps less objectionable than he had expected—succeeding, through his public persona, in mitigating some part of its nastiness.”

Timeline

1832
Passage of the first Reform Act.

The 1843 launch of the Great Britain, the revolutionary ship of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
1837
Ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne.
1838
Treaty of Balta Liman (Great Britain trade alliance with the Ottoman Empire)
1839
First Opium War (1839–42) fought between Britain and China.
1840
Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. He had been naturalised and granted the British style ofRoyal Highness beforehand. For the next 17 years, he was known as HRH Prince Albert.
1840
Birth of the Queen’s first child The Princess Victoria. Within months she was granted the title Princess Royal.
1840
New Zealand becomes a British colony, through the Treaty of Waitangi. No longer part of New South Wales

First Opium War: British ships approaching Canton in May 1841
1841
Birth of the Queen’s heir-apparent The Prince Albert Edward, Duke of Cornwall (Duke of Rothesay). He was swiftly madePrince of Wales. Sir James Brooke founds the White Rajah dynasty of Sarawak.

The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s 44th Foot at Gandamak, Afghanistan
1842
Treaty of Nanking. The Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army by the Afghans in Afghanistan results in the death or incarceration of 16,500 soldiers and civilians. The Mines Act of 1842 banned women/children from working in coal,iron, lead and tin mining.[40] The Illustrated London News was first published.
1843
Birth of The Princess Alice
1844
Birth of The Prince Alfred
1845
The Irish famine begins. Within 5 years it would become the UK’s worst human disaster, with starvation and emigration reducing the population of Ireland itself by over 50%. The famine permanently changed Ireland’s and Scotland’s demographics and became a rallying point for nationalist sentiment that pervaded British politics for much of the following century.
1846
Repeal of the Corn Laws.
1846
Birth of The Princess Helena
1848
Death of around 2,000 people a week in a cholera epidemic.
1848
Birth of The Princess Louise

The last of the mail coaches at Newcastle upon Tyne, 1848
1850
Restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales. (Scotland did not follow until 1858.)
1850
Birth of The Prince Arthur
1851
The Great Exhibition (the first World’s Fair) is held at the Crystal Palace, with great success and international attention. The Victorian gold rush. In ten years the Australian population nearly tripled.

The Great Exhibition in London. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to industrialise.
1853
Birth of The Prince Leopold
1854
Crimean War: The United Kingdom declares war on Russia.
1857
The Indian Mutiny, a widespread revolt in India against the rule of the British East India Company, is sparked by sepoys (native Indian soldiers) in the Company’s army. The rebellion, involving not just sepoys but many sectors of the Indian population as well, is largely quashed within a year. In response to the mutiny, the East India Company is abolished in August 1858 and India comes under the direct rule of the British crown, beginning the period of the British Raj. Prince Albert is given the title The Prince Consort
1857
Birth of The Princess Beatrice
1858
The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, responds to the Orsini plot against French emperor Napoleon III, the bombs for which were purchased in Birmingham, by attempting to make such acts a felony; the resulting uproar forces him to resign.
1859
Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, which leads to various reactions. Victoria and Albert’s first grandchild, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, is born — he later became William II, German Emperor. John Stuart Mill publishes On Liberty, a defence of the famous harm principle.

Governor-General of India Lord Canning meets Maharaja Ranbir Singhof Jammu and Kashmir, 1860
1861
Death of Prince Albert; Queen Victoria refuses to go out in public for many years, and when she did she wore a widow’s bonnet instead of the crown.
1863
The Prince of Wales marries Princess Alexandra of Denmark at Windsor.
1865
Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is published.
1866
An angry crowd in London, protesting against John Russell‘s resignation as Prime Minister, is barred from Hyde Park by the police; they tear down iron railings and trample on flower beds. Disturbances like this convince Derby and Disraeli of the need for further parliamentary reform.
1867
The Constitution Act, 1867 passes and British North America becomes Dominion of Canada.

The defence of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879
1875
Britain purchased Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal as the African nation was forced to raise money to pay off its debts.
1876
Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.
1877
The Princess Alice becomes Grand Duchess of Hesse when her husband succeeds as Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse
1878
Treaty of Berlin (1878). Cyprus becomes a Crown colony. The Princess Alice dies. Princess Louise‘s husband The Marquis of Lorne is appointed Governor-General of Canada. First incandescent light bulb by Joseph Wilson Swan.
1879
The Battle of Isandlwana is the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War. Victoria and Albert’s first great-grandchild, Princess Feodora of Saxe-Meiningen, is born.

Following the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War in 1896, the British proclaimed a protectorate over the Ashanti Kingdom.
1881
The British suffer defeat at the Battle of Majuba Hill, leading to the signing of a peace treaty and later the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the reinstated South African Republic, ending the First Boer War. Sometimes claimed to mark the beginning of the decline of the British Empire.
1882
British troops begin the occupation of Egypt by taking the Suez Canal, to secure the vital trade route and passage to India, and the country becomes a protectorate.
1883
Princess Louise and Lord Lorne return from Canada
1884
The Fabian Society is founded in London by a group of middle class intellectuals, including Quaker Edward R. Pease, Havelock Ellis, and E. Nesbit, to promote socialism. Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany dies.
1886
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and the Liberal Party tries passing the First Irish Home Rule Bill, but the House of Commons rejects it.

Daimler Wagonette, Ireland, c. 1899
1888
The serial killer known as Jack the Ripper murders and mutilates five (and possibly more) prostitutes on the streets of London. Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, becomes German Empress when her husband succeeds asFrederick III, German Emperor. Within months, Frederick dies, and their son becomes William II, German Emperor. The widowed Vicky becomes the Dowager Empress as is known as “Empress Frederick”.
1889
Emily Williamson founds the Society for the Protection of Birds

British and Australian officers in South Africa during the Second Boer War
1870 – 1891
Under the Elementary Education Act 1870, basic State Education becomes free for every child under the age of 10.
1891
Victoria and Albert’s last grandchild, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, is born.
1892
The Prince of Wales’ eldest son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence dies of influenza.

Workmen leaving Platt’s Works, Oldham, 1900
1893
The Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh succeeds as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha when his uncle dies. The Duchy skips over The Prince of Wales due to his renunciation of his succession rights to that Duchy.
1898
British and Egyptian troops led by Horatio Kitchener defeat the Mahdist forces at the battle of Omdurman, thus establishing British dominance in the Sudan. Winston Churchill takes part in the British cavalry charge at Omdurman.
1899
The Second Boer War is fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics. The Boers finally surrendered and the British annexed the Boer republics.
1900
Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha dies. His nephew Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany succeeds him, because his brother Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and nephew Prince Arthur of Connaught had renounced their rights.
1901
The death of Victoria sees the end of this era. The ascension of her eldest son, Edward, begins the Edwardian era; albeit considerably shorter, this was another time of great change.

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