Victorian age summary




Victorian age summary


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Victorian Age

The reign of Queen Victoria is the longest one of English history (from 1837 until 1901) and it represents a period of expansion, prosperity, industrial development and scientific and technical progress. England enjoyed several decades of unequalled wealth and power, and a new wave of optimism began to sweep over the country.


An age of reforms

During his short reign (1832-37), King William IV started an age of reforms:

  • The Reform Act (1832) abolished rotten boroughs and changed the electoral system, in fact all male members of the middle classes had the right to vote;
  • The Factory Act (1833) forbade children exploitation: children couldn't be employed more then 48 hours a week. This law wasn't succesful to protect adult workers too, until the Ten Hours Act of 1847.

In 1837 William IV died and his young niece Victoria succeeded him to the throne. She became soon very popular because of her strong sense of duty and her simplicity. She was beloved expecially by the middle class, who shared her moral and and religious views and admired her respectable and decent code of behaviour, known as "Victorianism".
Queen Victoria led her reign to democracy: she reigned constitutionally and avoided the revolutionary movements that characterized the other European countries in 1848. Her inexperience facilitated the British two-party system. The reign was politically administered by a series of great Prime Ministers: Peel and Disraeli among the Tories (Conservatives), Palmerston and Gladstone among the Whigs (Liberals).
In 1867 the Liberals proposed the Second Reform Bill, who passed under Conservative Government, which gave the right of vote to the town labourers, but left the agricultural labourers and miners still enfranchised. Only in 1884, with the Third Reform Bill, the electorate was extended to all male workers. During 1892 the Independent Labour Party was founded and became in 1900 the Modern British Labour Party.
During the first decade of Queen Victoria’s reign there were two main political tendencies:


Freedom of trade

In the fist decade of Victorian age, a strong movement for complete freedom of trade mobilised public opinion in favour of the abolition of protectionist laws on imports and exports. In fact protectionism seemed to be out-of-date: English economy needed some reforms, as political institution before.
The movement of free trade asked also to repeal the Corn Laws, that had increased the price of corn. The reapel of the Corn Laws became reality with the Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel, who was forced by scarcity of food ("hungry forties") to abolish these laws.       

Peel had to resign and the Tory party was split (1846).



Chartism was a radical working-class movement, which expressed the popular discontent for the bad conditions of workers and the Reform Act, which had given the vote to so few.
This movement wanted to give the workers more importance in the social and political life of the reign and to alleviate their misery.
In fact, even if English economy had a leading position in the world economy, workers conditions had not improve. Factory legislation didn't protect workers and social evils, like child labour, had not disappeared.

The second half of 19th Century is dominated in English politics by three important figures: William Gladstone, who was a liberal, and Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, who were conservatives.
During his ministry, Gladstone tried to find a solution to the Irish question through the sanctioning of equality between all the religions present in the island and through a system of peasant proprietorship in order to prevent an agrarian revolt. However, a tide of Irish nationalism broke out and asked "Home Rule", an Irish indipent governement.
Also this period, from 1860 to 1901, is charactierized by social and political reforms:

  • In 1870, the Elementary Education Act recognized the importance of primary schooling;
  • In 1872, the Ballot Act secured secret vote at elections and the number of voters rose;
  • Some others reforms improved public health and protected trade unions, so workers began to organize themselves to protect their rights and to help each other.

The political tendences were turning into democratic and socialist ideas. In fact, with the "Labour Representation Conference" in 1900, trade unionists and socialists, with the Fabian Society (an association of middle class intellectuals) agreed to support the election of Labour members in Paliament.
In this period also the question of women's rights became important and some movements for women's emancipation and right to vote began to rise.


The British Empire

The loss of American colonies had made the idea of a futher Empire unpopular ontil the second half of XIX century.
In 1850s Britain began to face the expansion of Russia in Asia, which was breaking the Ottoman Empire and repersented a threat for Turkey and for England, too. The British support of Turkey led to the War of Crimea (1853-56) between Russia on one side and Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia on the other. The war ended with the defeat of Russia; however this last lost no territories and the only achievement of the allies was the preservation of Turkey.
Another element of danger broke out in 1857, when the native soldiers threatened British rule in India. The Indian Revolt was solved with difficulty and was followed by an Act of Parliament which abolished the governement of East Indian Company and put the Governement of India directly in the hands of the Queen (in 1877 Queen Victoria became Empress of India)
At the same time, Disraeli bought a large numer of shares of the Suez Canal to protect British routes to India. But when there sdtarted a political crisis because of the power of  Egyptian nationalists Britain invaded Egypt to protect its Imperial interests.
Britain began his expansion in Africa: in 1884 the Kingdom invaded the Sudan and during 1899-1902 British won with difficulty the war in South Africa against the Boers (Dutchs) for the control of gold and diamonds. The war made Britain unpopular in Europe abroad and divided theing  public opinion at home:

  • Many British citizen believed in th Empire and thought that imperial expansion would absorb excess goods, capital and population. Moreover they were proud of spreadindg thier civilized culture in the world.
  • Britain discovered that every area of the Empire represented a danger the imperial ambitions were in contast with liberal ideas of the reign.


England passed from an agricultural country to an industrial one: this caused a migration of rural people to the industrial areas in search of jobs. It, combined with a relentless rise in population, carried to the situation that population in industrial cities as London, Liverpool and Manchester doubled and more people lived in towns and cities than in the countryside.
People in cities lived in intolerable situation, in a bad sanitary condition that contributed to the diffusion of typhus and cholera. The city was associated with dirt, disease, unhealth, smells, noise, ...
The poor lived in the slums, appalling quartiers characterized by squalor, crime and disease. They lived in bad conditions and worked in a bad and dangerous atmosphere. After cholera and TB epidemies was indtroducted a campaign to improve workers' quarters conditions: cities had to be cleaned up and professional medical organisation to be found.
Victorian towns were also overcrowded (rented houses, row after row, no water, no light…)
The development of industry didn't brought only disease, but also material benefits for the middle and upper classes. Sometimes we have also the growth of lower middle class, linked to the new forms of economic activity in banking, insurace and public service. In the late-century public transports, like tram and trains, developped and other services like gas, water and lightening were introducted. Personal higiene was made possible when running water began to be pumped into many British cities.
Differences between middle classes and poor increased and children and woman continued to be expoilted. The conditions of life of the Victorian working people were still bleak, though varied foods and occasional pleasure.            In this period we have debates about poverty and the birth of social movements to protect working classes' conditions (denounce of inhumane workhouses).




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Victorian age summary



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Victorian age summary



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Victorian age summary