The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

In Living Memory

What does the word Victorian mean? Clearly it's more than just the time when Victoria reigned, otherwise the phrase 'Victorian values' would make little sense. Ragged children, thundering mills, fog, dark clothes, oppressive morals, unquestioning deference; cold, misery, over-crowding, gaslight; Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Florence Nightingale; operations without anaesthetic or antiseptic; explorers and missionaries, machine guns and Zulus, Darwin, Brunel and the railway; corsets, top hats and the Music Hall: all these are aspects of Victorian Britain and they all have one thing in common. Though familiar, they seem very strange, cut off from us by the mobile 'phone, the internet and television. The Victorians are now like distant relatives, people we feel we ought to know but who are actually harder to talk to than complete strangers.

Let's begin by remembering just how close in time they really are. The family photograph shown at the start of the module was taken about 1895. Daniel and Bessie Burnett were the author's great-grandparents. She was a nanny and he was an engine-driver. Their second daughter was called Edith. Not long before she died in 1990 Edith shared some of her early memories with her great grand-daughter, who wrote them down. How did Edith's childhood differ from the present day? Firstly there is a strong sense of pride in survival, a robust self-sufficiency, the expectation of hard work. There is a feeling that people were prepared for the ups and down of life and that they were either possessed of the inner strength to get through or they were not.

It's hardly surprising therefore that one of the most popular books published during Victoria's reign was called Self Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles. Smiles aimed to encourage initiative and determination by telling the stories of famous men and women in history who had triumphed against the odds. His book illustrates one of the central contradictions of the Victorian Age, one which is really the theme of this module. Despite enormous achievements in almost every field of human endeavour, Victorian society looked backwards rather than forwards for inspiration. At the time when the modern world was coming into existence it was the old world that drew feeling men and women to it.

In his 1841 book 'True Contrasts' the architect Augustus Welby Pugin, one of the designers of the Houses of Parliament attempted to highlight the difference between the treatment of the poor in his own time and that of the Middle Ages. The message of the book is clear: the new Victorian era was ugly and heartless.

Pugin was a high Tory and a Catholic convert who died insane. William Morris was an early Socialist who wanted to build a new commonwealth based on honest craftsmanship. In 'News from Nowhere' (1890) he has a vision of what can only be called a 'post-modern' society:

England was once a country of clearings amongst the woods and wastes, with a few towns interspersed which were fortresses for the feudal army, markets for the folk and gathering places for the craftsmen. It then became a country of huge and foul workshops and fouler gambling dens, surrounded by an ill-kept, poverty stricken 'farm', pillaged by the owners of the workshops. It is now a garden where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt, with the necessary dwellings, sheds and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty. For indeed, we should too much ashamed of ourselves if we allowed the making of carry with it the appearance of desolation and misery.

Pugin and Morris shared a hatred of the factory system of manufacture which degraded human beings into mere 'hands'. On the one hand it had created a rootless proletariat and on the other a new class of super-rich industrialists. Between these two extremes there seemed little contact.

Not too different from today, you might say, but what has altered completely is the position of the state.

In the space of sixty years government would assume greater and a greater responsibility for the welfare of ordinary citizens: self help would give way to state help. It would be a slow change, fought off a) because it was expensive and b) because it seemed to reduce individual freedom and responsibility. Often it was catastrophe that moved minds forward: the cholera epidemics of the 1830's and 40's; the Irish Famine; the Indian Mutiny; the terrible waste of life in the Crimea; the 'Great Stink' of 1855...

The Agricultural Revolution

But first we need to go back in time. You might remember how the Reformation led to science replacing religion as a way of explaining things. It wasn't an easy or straightforward development. Most early scientists were committed Christians who tried to reconcile a faith whose truths had been established hundreds of years previously with the new truths that their observations were revealing. Nevertheless a new, pragmatic approach to problem-solving emerged which took reality as its starting point. This is seen most clearly in the response of landowners to the steep rise in Britain's population which first became noticeable in the mid-18th century. Instead of throwing up their hands in horror at the extra mouths to feed they looked for ways of increasing the productivity of their estates, including the planting of new crops and the use of fertilizers.

In many parts of England fields were still divided into strips in the medieval way. This was a major obstacle to improvement as no change could be brought about without the total co-operation of all the strip owners. The solution, at least for the majority land-holders, was enclosure. Opposite there is a map of an unenclosed parish. Imagine you are an enclosure commissioner charged with the task of creating compact holdings matching the number of each owner's strips. Who loses out, especially if the common land is also enclosed? In fact the result was a large class of landless labourers who had to hire themselves out to the richer farmers in order to survive. Fine, if there's plenty of work, but what if someone invents a machine that will save on labour? This is what brought about the Agricultural Labourers' Revolt of 1830.

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The Industrial Revolution

The same growth in demand which led to the Agricultural Revolution created an expanding market in all the other necessities of life as well, especially clothes. Until the 18th Century the basic processes of cloth manufacture were all done by hand, essentially in the same way as in the Stone Age. By 1800 however, spinning and weaving machines had been invented which were run from belts driven by water wheels or steam engines. These machines could do the work of many people, yet paradoxically many more people were needed to operate them. Factories had to be near sources of power so the centres of manufacturing grew into huge new cities, just as William Morris described. No infra-structure existed to support such enormous concentrations of population; nor at the outset was there any system of local government capable of providing the necessary services. Disease and crime flourished in the overcrowded slums on a scale never seen before. Contemporary engravings, especially those by Gustav Dore, tell the story in graphic detail.

A feature of industrialization is that from time to time the market for a particular kind of product becomes saturated, so leading to a temporary fall in demand and the loss of jobs. The unemployed workers are unable to buy other kinds of goods, increasing the effect still further, resulting in the 'boom-bust' economic cycle we are all too familiar with today. Consequently there was always a background of insecurity to the prosperity of Victorian Britain: even those who were comfortably off lived in fear of losing their livelihood through some terrible accident or illness, or some unwise investment. Slums like John Street in Manchester (see section 3) were home to a permanent under-class of those who lived on the margins of society, scraping a living through charity or crime. This is the world of Jo the Crossing Sweeper in Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House.

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