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The Victorian Era of Great Britain marked the height of the British industrial revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Although commonly used to refer to the period of Queen Victoria's rule between 1837 and 1901, scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period.
Queen Victoria had the longest reign in British history, and the cultural, political, economic, industrial and scientific changes that occurred during her reign were remarkable. When Victoria ascended to the throne, England was essentially agrarian and rural; upon her death, the country was highly industrialized and connected by an expansive railway network. Such a transition was not smooth by any stretch of the imagination, nor were the early decades of the period without incident. The first decades of Victoria's reign witnessed a series of epidemics (typhus and cholera, most notably), crop failures and economic collapses. There were riots over enfranchisement and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had been established to protect English agriculture during the Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the 19th century.
Discoveries by Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin began to question centuries of assumptions about man and the world, about science and history, and, finally, about religion and philosophy. As the country grew increasingly connected by an expansive network of railway lines, small, previously isolated communities were exposed and entire economies shifted as cities became more and more accessible.
The mid-Victorian period also witnessed significant social changes: an evangelical revival occurred alongside a series of legal changes in women's rights. While women were not enfranchised during the Victorian period, they did gain the legal right to their property upon marriage through the Married Women's Property Act, the right to divorce, and the right to fight for custody of their children upon separation.
The period is often characterised as a long period of peace and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War, although Britain was at war every year during this period. 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 Tories. 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 Irish Home Rule played a great part in politics in the later Victorian era, particularly in view of Gladstone's determination to achieve a political settlement.
In May of 1857, the Indian Mutiny, a widespread revolt in India against the rule of the British East India Company, was sparked by sepoys (native Indian spies/soldiers) in the Company's army. The rebellion, involving not just sepoys but many sectors of the Indian population as well, was largely quenched after a year. In response to the Mutiny, the East India Company was abolished in August 1858 and India came under the direct rule of the British crown, beginning the period of the British Raj.
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.
In 1884 the Fabian Society was founded in London by a group of middle-class intellectuals, including Quaker Edward Pease, 27, 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.
This inescapable sense of newness resulted in a deep interest in the relationship between modernity and cultural continuities. Gothic Revival architecture became increasingly significant in the period, leading to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideals. Charles Barry's architecture for the new Palace of Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, built on the medieval style of Westminster Hall, the surviving part of the building. It constructed a narrative of cultural continuity, set in opposition to the violent disjunctions of Revolutonary France, a comparison common to the period, as expressed in Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Gothic was also supported by the critic John Ruskin, who argued that it epitomised communal and inclusive social values, as opposed to Classicism, which he considered to epitomise mechanical standardisation.
The middle of the century saw the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair and showcased the greatest innovations of the century. At its center was The Crystal Palace, an enormous, modular glass and steel structure -- the first of its kind. It was condemned by Ruskin as the very model of mechanical dehumanisation in design, but later came to be presented as the prototype of Modern architecture. The emergence of photography, which was showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl.
 Social Institutions
Prior to the industrial revolution, Britain had a very rigid social structure consisting of three distinct classes: The Church and aristocracy, the middle class, and the working poorer class.
The top class was known as the aristocracy. It included the Church and nobility, which had great power and wealth. This class consisted of about two percent of the population, but owned the majority of the land. These people were born into nobility. It included: the royal family, lords spiritual and temporal, the clergy, great officers of state, and those above the degree of baronet. These people were privileged and avoided taxes.
The middle class consisted of the bourgeoisie - the middle working class. It was made up of factory owners, bankers, shopkeepers, merchants, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, trader and other professionals. These people could be sometimes extremely rich, but in normal circumstances they were not privileged, and they especially resented this. There was a very large gap between the middle class and the lower class.
The British lower class was divided into two sections: “the working class” (labourers), and “the poor” (those who were not working, or not working regularly, and were receiving public charity). The lower class contained men, women, and children performing many types of labor, including factory workers, seamstresses, sweepers, miners, and others. Both the poorer class and the middle class had to endure a large burden of tax. This third class consisted of about eighty five percent of the population but only owned less than fifty percent of the land.
Industrialisation changed the class structure dramatically in the late 18th century. Hostility was created between the upper and lower classes. As a result of industrialisation, there was a huge boost of the middle and working class. As the Industrial Revolution progressed there was further social division. Capitalists, for example, employed industrial workers who were one component of the working classes (each class included a wide range of occupations of varying status and income; there was a large gap, for example, between skilled and unskilled labor), but beneath the industrial workers was a submerged "under class" sometimes referred to as the "sunken people"-- which lived in poverty. The under class were more susceptible to exploitation and were therefore exploited.
The government consisted of a “constitutional monarchy” headed by Queen Victoria. Only the royalty could rule. Other politicians came from the aristocracy. The system was criticised by many as being in favour of the upper classes and during the late eighteenth century philosophers and writers began to question the social status of the nobility.
In 1842 a law was passed to ban women and children working in mines.
In 1849 two thousand people a week died in a cholera epidemic.
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. The killer was never caught, and the affair contributed to Sir Charles Warren's resignation.
In 1891 education becomes free for every child.
 Victorian Entertainment
Brass bands and 'The bandstand' became popular in the Victorian era typically associated with the British brass band. The band stand is a simple construction which not only creates an ornamental focal point, it also serves acoustic requirements whilst providing shelter for the changeable British weather. It was common to hear the sound of a brass band whilst strolling through parklands. At this time musical recording was still very much a novelty.
Another form of entertainment involved 'spectacles' where paranormal events, such as hypnotism, communication with the dead (by way of mediumship or channelling), ghost conjuring and the like, were carried out to the delight of crowds and participants. Such activities were very popular during this time compared to others in recent Western history.
 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 great leaps forward in engineering, most famously by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Another great engineering feat in the Victorian Era was the sewer system in London. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette in 1858. He proposed to build 82 miles of sewage superhighway linked with over 1,000 miles of street sewers. Many problems were found but the sewers were completed. After this Bazalgette designed the London Embankment which housed sewers, water pipes and the underground railsystem.
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.
In 1882, incandescent electric lights were introduced to London streets, although it took many long years before they were installed everywhere.
Beginning in the late 1840s, major news organizations, clergymen and single women became increasingly interested in prostitution, which came to be known as "The Great Social Evil." Although estimates of the number of prostitutes in London by the 1850s vary wildly (in his landmark study, Prostitution, William Acton estimated 40,000 in London alone), it is enough to say that the number of women working the streets became increasingly difficult to ignore.
When the 1851 census publicly revealed a 4% demographic imbalance in favor of women (i.e. 4% more women than men), the problem of prostitution began to shift from a moral/religious cause to a socio-economic one. The 1851 census showed that the population of Great Britain was roughly 18 million; this meant that roughly 750,000 women would remain unmarried simply because there were not enough men. These women came to be referred to as "superfluous women" or "redundant women," and many essays were published discussing what, precisely, ought to be done with them.
While the Magdalen Hospital had been "reforming" prostitutes since the mid-18th century, the years between 1848 and 1870 saw a veritable explosion in the number of institutions working to "reclaim" these "fallen women" from the streets and retrain them for entry into respectable society—usually for work as domestic servants. The theme of prostitution and the "fallen woman" (an umbrella term used to describe any woman who had had sexual intercourse out of wedlock) became a staple feature of mid-Victorian literature and politics. In the writings of Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth and others, prostitution began to be seen as a social problem, rather than just a fact of urban life.
When Parliament passed the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864 (which allowed the local constabulary to force any woman suspected of venereal disease to submit to its inspection), Josephine Butler's crusade to repeal the CD Acts yoked the anti-prostitution cause with the emergent feminist movement. Butler attacked the long-established double standard of sexual morality.
Prostitutes were often presented as victims in sentimental literature such Thomas Hood's poem The Bridge of Sighs, Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton and Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The emphasis on the purity of women found in such works as Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House led to the portrayal of the prostitute and fallen woman as soiled, corrupted, and in need of cleansing.
This emphasis on female purity was allied to the stress on the homemaking role of women, who helped to create a space free from the pollution and corruption of the city. In this respect the prostitute came to have symbolic significance as the embodiment of the violation of that divide. The double standard remained in force. Divorce legislation introduced in 1857 allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce if adultery was accompanied by cruelty. The anonymity of the city led to a large increase in prostitution and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Dickens and other writers associated prostitution with the mechanisation and industrialisation of modern life, portraying prostitutes as human commodities consumed and thrown away like refuse when they were used up. Moral reform movements attempted to close down brothels, something that has sometimes been argued to have been a factor in the concentration of street-prostitution in Whitechapel by the late 1880s.
By the time the CD Acts were repealed in 1886, Victorian England had been completely transformed. This era, which at its outset looked no different from the century before it, would end resembling far more the era that would follow.
 See also
- Victorian architecture
- Victorian fashion
- Victorian morality
- Victorian literature
- History of British society
- Horror Victorianorum
- Women in the Victorian era
 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 0-393-09376-X.
- Burton, Antoinette (editor). Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader. Palgrave Macmillan: 2001. ISBN 0-312-29335-6.
- Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. W.W. Norton & Company: 2004. ISBN 0-393-05209-5.
- Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. Greenwood Press: 1996. ISBN 0-313-29467-4.
- Wilson, A. N. The Victorians. Arrow Books: 2002. ISBN 0-09-945186-7
 External links and references
- The Victorian Web
- The Victorian Dictionary
- Lavender Hall
- Victorian Links Compiled by a retired librarianda:Klunketiden
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