Characteristics of Victorian Britain

Britain transformed

Victorian BritainAs seen in Victorian literature, from the 1830s to the 1870s, Britain underwent changes that transformed the lives of its people:

  • British manufacturing became dominant in the world and trade and the financial sector also grew significantly

  • The rail network, begun in the 1830s, was largely completed by the 1870s and had a great effect not only on the accessibility of travel and speed of movement but also on the appearance of the countryside

  • British power and influence overseas expanded and seemed to be permanent

  • The population grew enormously, from around 12 million in 1812 to 25 million by 1870

  • This period also saw a significant shift of population from the countryside to the towns and the consequent growth of large cities.

An age of optimism

The Victorian age was a turbulent period which, in many ways, saw itself as a time of confident progress. Many people believed that Britain was leading the world into a new and better age:

  • More enlightened laws

  • The benefits of wealth created through industrial development

  • Greater political stability than in the rest of Europe.

Other important beliefs included:

  • Deference to class and authority

  • Respect for the law

  • The conviction that work is a duty which is good for the soul.

Social concern

A poor Victorian woman with young babyHowever, these changes were not always positive.  The daily needs and problems of ordinary people included: poverty, poor housing, ill health, a horrifying level of child mortality, hunger, long hours of grinding labour.

The rapid changes of the time benefited some people long before others. The social focus of many Victorian novels posed key moral and social questions about issues such as:

  • The need for schooling and the care of orphans and other deprived children
  • Cruelty to children and the corruption of children by criminals
  • The problems created by emphasis on social class and newly acquired wealth
  • The problems created by rapid industrialization and urbanization and the conflict between employers and workers.

The case for change

Strong moral and religious reasons were put forward in favour of legal changes to improve society:

  • Perhaps the most important moral argument came in Jeremy Bentham's writing on the principle of utilitarianism. He argued that the rightness of laws should be tested by the extent to which they promoted the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number.

More on utilitarian ‘happiness': ‘Happiness' was difficult to define in this context:

  • It did not mean a temporary personal emotion but people's well-being or advantage

  • It was argued that obeying laws brought happiness, and therefore to obey laws welcomed by a large number of people was to multiply happiness

  • The utilitarian principle still underlies all democratic law to some extent, insofar as laws reflect the will of Parliament, which represents the people and therefore can claim to enact laws that promote the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number

  • This idea (and its development later in Mill's book Utilitarianism, 1863) was a relatively new way of deciding what was right politically.

Political reform

The desire for change was reflected by the activity of Parliament in the second quarter of the 19th Century:

  • The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 removed most of the legal disadvantages suffered by Roman Catholics

  • The 1832 Reform Act enabled more men to vote but electors still had to possess a minimum amount of property before they could exercise this right

  • There were several Factory Acts that - among other things - limited the hours children were allowed to work

  • In 1834, the new Poor Law set up the notorious workhouses, where the poor were sent to work for their board and lodging

  • In 1846, the Corn Laws, which kept the price of wheat artificially high, were repealed, and the price of bread fell.

      See our other articles on the world of Victorian writers, such as this one on education in Victorian England.    
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