During the long reign of Queen Victoria, Britain acquired unprecedented power and wealth. Her empire, political stability, revolutionary developments in transport and communications, and intellectual and cultural achievements, made Britain preeminent across the globe.
When the 18-year-old Victoria came to the throne in 1837, victories over Revolutionary and Napoleonic France had increased Britain’s influence and standing abroad.
Yet the intense pressures of a rising population, rural unemployment, and migration to the towns, together with the horrendous conditions in which many people lived and worked, meant that the country’s often archaic political system and ways of organising itself were coming under immense strain.
This conflict, between a small, conservative state and the explosive forces of change unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, continued throughout Victoria’s reign.
England was already in the throes of limited reform: of Parliament, the treatment of Catholics, the way poverty was addressed, and how the Church was run. To survive, the Tories reinvented themselves as Conservatives under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel. The Liberals gradually emerged from the old aristocratic Whig Party. For both parties, low taxation and minimal state interference were the watchwords.
Ever pragmatic, England thus avoided the turbulence that swept over the Continent during the ‘age of reform’ that culminated in the year of revolutions, 1848. By contrast, England saw only the Chartist movement – democratic in its aims for reforms to the electoral system, peaceable and moderate in its approach. Nevertheless it was ruthlessly quashed, and the extension of the right to vote beyond a small élite was achieved only slowly.
FAMINE AND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
The 1840s, which saw years of poor harvests, were known as the Hungry Forties. Most catastrophic of all was the Irish Famine of 1845–9, during which well over a million people died and some two million emigrated. Initially caused by potato blight, the famine was exacerbated by the British government’s policy of economic laissez-faire (non-interference).
It was particularly shocking that this could occur in a land governed by Britain, supposedly the most progressive and prosperous nation in the world.
At the same time the pace of change, already fast, was quickening thanks to a revolutionary expansion in communications. The growth, from the 1840s onwards, of railway and steamship networks – combined with the invention of the electric telegraph – underpinned Britain’s economic success.
In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London. The next two decades and beyond saw a tremendous economic upswing. For the first time in history, population growth and economic expansion went hand in hand.
The idea that Britain’s foreign policy during the period was one of ‘isolation’ is often misunderstood or overestimated. As the empire, supposedly ‘acquired in a fit of absence of mind’, expanded, British soldiers in fact fought wars in almost every year of Victoria’s reign.
The empire over which the sun never set consisted not only of the colonies of conquest and settlement – with India the jewel in the imperial crown – but also of a vast ‘informal’ empire of free trade, within which British investors and traders dominated foreign markets.
By the 1880s, when Britain responded to international competition by ‘scrambling’ for new colonies in Africa alongside its European rivals, imperialism had become a matter of national policy. In 1901 the British Empire extended over about one-fifth of the earth’s land surface.
At the same time, empire had become a source of pride for most British people, its influence felt in daily life in numerous ways: the increasing range of raw materials and foods available; the prevalence of members of the armed forces and colonial service in Victorian society; and the great many people who went to sea, emigrated, or had relations who did.
London loomed large in the Victorian imagination as a metropolis of vice. With its many newspapers, journals, periodicals and circulating libraries, it also became an inspiration for literature (most notably, of course, for the novels of Charles Dickens) as well as a place where it was created and consumed in vast quantities.
It was also the greatest city and port, not to mention centre of commerce and culture, in the world. As the seat of the court and of society, it was increasingly a magnet for the rich of Europe, and later North America.
Georgian and Victorian Britain saw, arguably, more extraordinary intellectual ferment than any previous age since ancient Greece. The advances achieved in science, technology, engineering and medicine were staggering.
This was an age that changed the way human life was perceived. Great scientific leaps precipitated a crisis of religious faith. Yet it was also an age that saw the greatest burst of church building and foundation of charitable institutions since the Middle Ages.
Victorian culture, particularly its art and architecture, was often rather conservative in its outlook – perhaps understandably. This was, after all, a society in the grip of more convulsive, complex and disturbing change than had been experienced by any previous culture in human history.