Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.
You're probably familiar with 19th century England, while not realizing it. The 19th century provided the backdrop for the engaging worlds written by some of England's most prolific authors, including Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. While Jane Austen depicted idyllic romantic scenes among the English nobility, Charles Dickens showed the gritty realities of 19th-century life for many people. Throughout this lesson, you will see how class divisions mixed with a new economic prosperity defined 19th-century life in England.
The Victorian Era and the Industrial Revolution
Queen Victoria ruled over England for a large part of the century, from 1837 to 1901. For this reason, the period is often known as the Victorian Era. This was also a time that Britain saw tremendous economic and industrial growth due to the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. The Industrial Revolution prompted a large segment of the British population to shift from agricultural to manufacturing careers, as job opportunities moved to the cities. People flocked to urban areas like London and Birmingham for work in factories, especially in the textile industry.
Class Divisions in 19th-Century England
New economic opportunities during this time helped to boost life expectancy and quality of life, but they also reinforced class divides that had existed in Britain for centuries. Previously, England was controlled by the landed gentry, or wealthy land holders who gained their status through family lineages. During Victorian times, the landed gentry became wealthy business owners who still controlled politics and the economy.
One positive social outcome of the Industrial Revolution was the development of skilled labor, which led to the rise of a middle class. The middle class consisted of newly educated experts in industrial technologies, along with other college-educated professionals like doctors, engineers, and lawyers. It also included people who worked as teachers, governesses, clerks, and other white-collar workers who were not paid as much but still saw a distinction between themselves and the lower classes.
The rise of the middle class put pressures on the upper classes for increased representation, which resulted in a series of reform acts giving commoners increased representation in parliament.
Although the middle class was gaining real traction in 19th-century England, a third class of unskilled laborers, known as the underclass, were a blemish on all of Victorian society. The British underclass worked menial jobs when they were available, and there were no labor laws to protect them from abuses. Child labor was prevalent; children were used to crawl into small work spaces in jobs such as mining and chimney sweeping. Many women turned to prostitution, which was considered to be a horrible crime under Victorian values, which called for dignity and restraint, especially when it came to sexuality. Prostitution and child labor showed clear contradictions by the ruling class of claiming propriety on the one hand but showing a total lack of regard for human welfare on the other.
Victorian values were further challenged when Charles Darwin published his revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species, in 1864. Darwin's theories of evolution challenged the power of the church, leading to what was known as a 'Crisis of Faith' in 19th century England and boosting the secular movement throughout western Europe. In many places, including the United States, debates over evolution and religion in society that began during the Victorian era still rage on today.
The British Empire
Finally, the Victorian Era is probably best known for its expansion of England as a global power into what became known as the British Empire. Despite being a tiny island with an area less than a third of Texas, England was the most powerful country on Earth during the 19th century.
While the United States was set back with its brutal Civil War, England was consolidating its power throughout the globe. Britain established colonies on every inhabited continent, down to remote Pacific archipelagos such as Fiji. This allowed the British to expand their wealth, gain resources, and establish networks. Its most prized colony was India, which was referred to as the 'crown jewel' of the British Empire because of its large population, spice wealth, and land mass.
Although the British Empire brought untold power, riches, and influence to England, it also promoted brutal colonial repression. A dark turn in social science known as social Darwinism tried to apply Darwin's theories of evolution to cultures around the world. Social Darwinist views of the 19th and early 20th centuries theorized that humans had evolved at different rates. Social Darwinists believed that technological societies, like Western Europe, were intellectually superior to the smaller scale societies they encountered during colonial exploration. This belief gave them justification to treat colonial subjects poorly. For instance, colonial massacres in India inspired Mahatma Gandhi and the independence movement in India.
Legacy of the Victorian Era
Queen Victoria died in 1901, ushering in a new century and a new era. Many patriotic English still look back fondly at the Victorian Era with pride. However, even though England enjoyed prosperity that the nation had never known, it still could not adapt its society to bring that prosperity to those most in need. As the globe becomes more industrialized and connected, we still deal with similar questions of balancing progress and equality in Western society today.
19th-century England, usually referred to as the Victorian Era, was a time of rapid economic development in England due to the Industrial Revolution. The country shifted from an agrarian focus to an industrial focus as people flocked to cities in search of manufacturing jobs.
England's class system moved from landholding elites and their peasants to wealthy businessmen, the working/middle class, and the underclass. Despite Victorian values that espoused dignity and social responsibility, England's underclass was exploited through child labor and prostitution. At the same time, the middle class was growing and earning increased government representation through reform acts.
The British Empire expanded to its largest and most powerful level in history during the 19th century. The empire made England the most powerful nation on Earth, but did so on the backs of the colonized peoples England conquered.
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