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Victorian era

The Victorian Era of Great Britain is considered the height of the British industrial revolution and the apex of the British Empire. It is often defined as the years from 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria reigned, though many historians consider the passage of the Reform Act 1832 to mark the true inception of a new cultural era. The Victorian era was preceded by the Georgian era and came before the Edwardian period.



The period is ostensibly characterized as a long period of peace and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War. Towards the end of the century, the policies of New Imperialism led to increasing colonial conflicts and eventually the Boer War. Domestically, the agenda was increasingly liberal with a number of shifts in the direction of gradual political reform and the widening of the franchise.

In the early part of the era the House of Commons was dominated by the two parties, the Whigs and the Conservatives. From the late 1850s onwards the Whigs became the Liberals. Many prominent statesmen led one or other of the parties, including Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Derby, Lord Palmerston, William Ewart Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. The unsolved problems relating to Ireland played a great part in politics in the later Victorian era, particularly in view of Gladstone's determination to achieve a political settlement.

In January 1858, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, responded 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, but the resulting uproar forced him to resign.

In July 1866, an angry crowd in London, protesting Russell's resignation as prime minister, was barred from Hyde Park by the police; it tore down iron railings and trampled the flower beds. Disturbances like this convinced Derby and Disraeli of the need for further parliamentary reform.

During 1875 Britain purchased Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal as the African nation was forced to raise money to pay off its debts.

In 1882 Egypt became a protectorate of Great Britain after British troops occupy land surrounding the Suez Canal in order to secure the vital trade route, and the passage to India.

In 1884 the Fabian Society was founded in London by a group of middle-class intellectuals, including Quaker Edward Pease, 17, Havelock Ellis, 25, and Edith Nesbit, 26, to promote socialism. George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells would be among many famous names to later join this society.

On Sunday, November 13, 1887, tens of thousands of people, many of them socialists or unemployed, gathered in Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against the government. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren ordered armed soldiers and 2,000 police constables to respond. Rioting broke out, hundreds were injured and two people died. This event was referred to as Bloody Sunday.


In 1851, the Great Exhibition (the first World's Fair) was held in Hyde Park, London with great success and international attention.

In 1888, the serial killer known as "Jack the Ripper" murdered and mutilated prostitutes on the streets of London, leading to world-wide press coverage and hysteria. Newspapers used the deaths to bring greater focus on the plight of the unemployed and to attack police and political leaders. Although the killer was never caught, the affair led to Sir Charles Warren's resignation.

Science, technology and engineering

The impetus of the industrial revolution had already occurred, but it was during this period that the full effects of industrialisation made themselves felt, leading to the mass society of the 20th century. The revolution led to the rise of railways across the country and massive leaps forward in engineering, most famously by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

During the Victorian era, science grew into the discipline it is today. In addition to the increasing professionalism of university science, many Victorian gentlemen devoted their time to the study of natural history.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and had a tremendous effect on the popular mindset.

In January 1863, Prime Minister Gladstone opened the first section of the London Underground.

In 1882, incandescent electric lights were introduced to London streets, although it took many long years before they were installed everywhere.


Notable cultural elements of the Victorian era include:

In literature:

Of particular interest is the decade of the 1890s, which saw the first attempts by English writers to adopt the methods and ideals of the French symbolists.

In drama:

  • Stage adaptions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and of the new genre of vampire novels. In 1849 The Frankenstein and Vampire stories are finally combined in Frankenstein; or The Vampire's Victim. In 1887, The Model Man, a stage play in which the Frankenstein monster and a vampire were tracked to the Arctic, appeared in London.
  • The wit and drama of Oscar Wilde.
  • Controversy over the plays of Henrik Ibsen on the London stage, with men such as James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw supporting the new dramatic style of the frosty Norwegian.

In music:

In the visual arts:

  • The Gothic revival movement in architecture
  • John Ruskin, the first major English art critic.
  • The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in art (partly inspired by Ruskin).
  • The Clique
  • William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement.
  • The influence of the aesthetic ideal of American painter James McNeill Whistler.
  • The reign of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, from 1837 to 1901, was Britain's Golden Age, and it was also the Golden Age of British Art. There was peace at home, and prosperity increased, leading to conditions in which painting flourished. The era produced Constable, Turner, Landseer, Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Watts and Whistler, all living in the reign of Queen Victoria (except for Constable who died in the year of Victoria's accession). There were some 11,000 recognized artists, many mediocre, but a great number with high talents and artistic accomplishment.

The period saw a huge amount of artistic production, and the public flocked to exhibitions, with the wealthy accumulating large picture collections. Queen Victoria patronized living British artists, and many artists occupied a place of honor mixing on equal terms with the aristocracy and high society. As a result Victorian Britain experienced a flowering of creativity, which compares favorably with any of the previous great ages of art.

The Victorian Age, for many, has connotations of sentimentality, prudery, and ornamental excess. However, the Victorian painters successfully illustrated the fruits of the unprecedented achievements of the industrial revolution and its profound social and moral challenges. The novels of Dickens and George Eliot, the plays of Oscar Wilde, and the poems of Tennyson and Browning, had their counterparts in Victorian paintings. The period saw the beginning of the split between establishment and progressive taste, which created the modern idea of an avant-garde. Artist's groups proliferated, with the best known being the Pre-Raphaelites, the Clique, the St.John's Wood clique, the Cranbrook Colony, and the Newlyn School. The Pre-Raphaelites believed that the particular and the truth was all important in both life and art. People and things in a painting should not be idealized but should reflect the reality of life, warts and all. Some artists simply preferred to be independent, and avoided joining any colony or group. In English art it is diversity and individualism that makes it fascinating.

Victorian painters chose to create art that could be understood by a population of widely contrasting social and educational backgrounds, so that they were offering entertainment as well as cultural improvement. Victorian art was popular art, and paintings were more widely discussed in society than they are even today when technology offers so many rival attractions. The extraordinary richness, variety and complexity of Victorian art reflect an equally rich and complex society. The paintings should be seen in the context of the ideas, social structure, and aspirations of Britain's heyday of wealth and power; a period that became known as the Victorian Age.The Industrial Revolution had a powerful impact on the arts. Romanticism and Realism are both seen as reactions to the powerful changes that took place during the era.

In religion:

The Victorian period is now often regarded as one of many contradictions. It is easy for many to see a clash between the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint, and the widespread presence of many arguably deplorable phenomena. These include prostitution, child labour, and having an economy based largely on what many would now see as the exploitation of colonies through imperialism and of the working classes. The expression Victorian values thus may be two-edged.

The term Victorian has acquired a range of connotations, including that of a particularly strict set of moral standards, often applied hypocritically. (See Victorian morality.)

Related topics

Sources and further reading

  • Altick, Richard Daniel. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature. W.W. Norton & Company: 1974. ISBN 039309376X.
  • Burton, Antoinette (editor). Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader. Palgrave Macmillan: 2001. ISBN 0312293356.
  • Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. W.W. Norton & Company: 2004. ISBN 0393052095.
  • Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. Greenwood Press: 1996. ISBN 0313294674.
  • Wilson, A. N. The Victorians. Arrow Books: 2002. ISBN 0099451867

External links and references

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