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Victorian era

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Victorian era
Queen Victoria - Winterhalter 1859.jpg
Queen Victoria in 1859 by Winterhalter
← Preceded by
Georgian era
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Edwardian era

In the history of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, the Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe.

There was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards led by the nonconformist churches, such as the Methodists and the evangelical wing of the established Church of England. Ideologically, the Victorian era witnessed resistance to the rationalism that defined the Georgian period, and an increasing turn towards romanticism and even mysticism in religion, social values, and arts.[1] This era saw a staggering amount of technological innovations that proved key to Britain's power and prosperity.[2][3] Doctors started moving away from tradition and mysticism towards a science-based approach; medicine advanced thanks to the adoption of the germ theory of disease and pioneering research in epidemiology.[4]

Domestically, the political agenda was increasingly liberal, with a number of shifts in the direction of gradual political reform, improved social reform, and the widening of the franchise. There were unprecedented demographic changes: the population of England and Wales almost doubled from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 million in 1901,[5] and Scotland's population also rose rapidly, from 2.8 million in 1851 to 4.4 million in 1901.[citation needed] However, Ireland's population decreased sharply, from 8.2 million in 1841 to less than 4.5 million in 1901, mostly due to emigration and the Great Famine.[6] Between 1837 and 1901 about 15 million emigrated from Great Britain, mostly to the United States, as well as to imperial outposts in Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.[7] Thanks to educational reforms, the British population not only approached universal literacy towards the end of the era but also became increasingly well-educated; the market for reading materials of all kinds boomed.[8][9][10]

Britain's relations with the other Great Powers were driven by antagonism with Russia, including the Crimean War and the Great Game. A Pax Britannica of peaceful trade was maintained by the country's naval and industrial supremacy. Britain embarked on global imperial expansion, particularly in Asia and Africa, which made the British Empire the largest empire in history. National self-confidence peaked.[11][12] Britain granted political autonomy to the more advanced colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.[13] Apart from the Crimean War, Britain was not involved in any armed conflict with another major power.[13][14]

The two main political parties during the era remained the Whigs/Liberals and the Conservatives; by its end, the Labour Party had formed as a distinct political entity. These parties were led by such prominent statesmen as Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Derby, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, 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 Ireland.

Terminology and periodisation

In the strictest sense, the Victorian era covers the duration of Victoria's reign as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from her accession on 20 June 1837—after the death of her uncle, William IV—until her death on 22 January 1901, after which she was succeeded by her eldest son, Edward VII. Her reign lasted for 63 years and seven months, a longer period than any of her predecessors. The term 'Victorian' was in contemporaneous usage to describe the era.[15] The era has also been understood in a more extensive sense as a period that possessed sensibilities and characteristics distinct from the periods adjacent to it, in which case it is sometimes dated to begin before Victoria's accession—typically from the passage of or agitation for (during the 1830s) the Reform Act 1832, which introduced a wide-ranging change to the electoral system of England and Wales. Definitions that purport a distinct sensibility or politics to the era have also created scepticism about the worth of the label "Victorian", though there have also been defences of it.[16]

Michael Sadleir was insistent that "in truth, the Victorian period is three periods, and not one".[17] He distinguished early Victorianism – the socially and politically unsettled period from 1837 to 1850[18] – and late Victorianism (from 1880 onwards), with its new waves of aestheticism and imperialism,[19] from the Victorian heyday: mid-Victorianism, 1851 to 1879. He saw the latter period as characterized by a distinctive mixture of prosperity, domestic prudery, and complacency[20] – what G. M. Trevelyan similarly called the "mid-Victorian decades of quiet politics and roaring prosperity".[21]

Political and diplomatic history


In 1832, after much political agitation, the Reform Act was passed on the third attempt. The Act abolished many borough seats and created others in their place, as well as expanding the franchise in England and Wales (a Scottish Reform Act and Irish Reform Act were passed separately). Minor reforms followed in 1835 and 1836.

On 20 June 1837, Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom on the death of her uncle, William IV, just weeks after reaching the age of eighteen.[22] Her government was led by the Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne, to whom she was close.[22] But within two years he had resigned, and the Tory politician Sir Robert Peel attempted to form a new ministry. Peel said he was willing to become prime minister provided the Queen replaced her Whig ladies-in-waiting with Tory ones. She refused and re-appointed Lord Melbourne, a decision criticised as unconstitutional.[22] Britain sent Lord Durham to resolve the issue and his 1839 report opened the way for "responsible government" (that is, self-government).[13][14]

In the same year, a seizure of British opium exports to China prompted the First Opium War against the Qing dynasty. British defense of India initiated the First Anglo-Afghan War—one of the first major conflicts of the Great Game between Britain and Russia.[23]

In South Africa, the Dutch Boers made their "Great Trek to found Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State, defeating the Zulus in the process, 1835–1838; Britain annexed Natal in 1843 but recognized the independence of the Transvaal in 1852 in the Orange Free State in 1854.[13][14]

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and five of their children in 1846. Painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

In 1840, Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. It proved a passionate marriage, whose children were much sought after by royal families across Europe. An astute diplomat, the Queen was only too willing to arrange such marriages. Indeed, she became the "Grandmother of Europe" thanks to the nine children she had with Prince Albert in just sixteen years despite suffering from postnatal depression and her dislike of childbirth. Unfortunately, she carried the gene for haemophilia, which affected ten of her male descendants, including the heir apparent of Tsar Nicholas II.[22][24]

In Australia, new provinces were founded with Victoria in 1835 and South Australia in 1842. The focus shifted from transportation of criminals to voluntary immigration. New Zealand became a British colony in 1839; in 1840 Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Britain in Treaty of Waitangi. In 1841 New Zealand became an autonomous colony.[13][14] The signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 ended the First Opium War and gave Britain control over Hong Kong Island.[14] However, a disastrous retreat from Kabul in the same year led to the annihilation of a British army column in Afghanistan. In 1845, the Great Famine began to cause mass starvation, disease and death in Ireland, sparking large-scale emigration.[25] To allow more cheap food into Ireland, the Peel government repealed the Corn Laws. Peel was replaced by the Whig ministry of Lord John Russell.[26]

In 1853, Britain fought alongside France in the Crimean War against Russia. The goal was to ensure that Russia could not benefit from the declining status of the Ottoman Empire,[27] a strategic consideration known as the Eastern Question. The conflict marked a rare breach in the Pax Britannica, the period of relative peace (1815–1914) that existed among the Great Powers of the time, and especially in Britain's interaction with them. On its conclusion in 1856 with the Treaty of Paris, Russia was prohibited from hosting a military presence in Crimea. In October of the same year, the Second Opium War saw Britain overpower the Qing dynasty in China. Along with other major powers, Britain took steps in obtaining special trading and legal rights in a limited number of treaty ports.[14]

It was during the Crimean War that the Queen introduced the Victoria Cross, awarded on the basis of valour and merit regardless of rank. The first Crosses were handed out to 62 men in a ceremony at Hyde Park in 1857, the first time officers and men were decorated together.[22]

During 1857–58, an uprising by sepoys against the East India Company was suppressed, an event that led to the end of Company rule in India and the transferral of administration to direct rule by the British government. The princely states were not affected and remained under British guidance.[28] English was imposed as the medium of education.[14]


In 1861, Prince Albert died.[23] Queen Victoria went into mourning and withdrew from public life for ten years.[24]

Whilst the cabinet leaned toward

Fathers of Canadian Confederation by Robert Harris (1885).

Her diary entries suggest the Queen had contemplated the possibility of a union of her North American colonies as early as February 1865. She wrote, "...we must struggle for it, and far the best it would be to let it go as an Independent Kingdom, under an English Prince!" She also mentioned how her late husband Prince Albert had hoped that one day, their sons would rule over the British colonies. In February 1867, the Queen received a copy of the British North America Act (also known as the Constitution Act 1867). A fortnight later she hosted delegates coming to discuss the question of confederation "under the name of Canada," including the future Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. On 29 March 1867, the Queen granted royal assent to the Act, which became effective on 1 July 1867.[31]

Canada maintained strong ties with the Queen. Victoria in British Columbia and Victoria County in Nova Scotia were named after her, Regina in Saskatchewan in her honour, Prince Edward Island her father, and Alberta her daughter. Her birthday, Victoria Day, is an official public holiday in Canada. In addition, her daughter Princess Louise was chatelaine of Rideau Hall from 1878 to 1883 and her son the Duke of Connaught served as Governor-General of Canada between 1911 and 1916.[31]

In 1867, the second Reform Act was passed, expanding the franchise.

In 1871, just a year after the France expelled its emperor, republican sentiments grew in Britain. After Prince Edward recovered from typhoid, the Queen decided to give a public thanksgiving service and appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. This was the start of her return to public life.[22]


Key leaders included Conservatives Benjamin Disraeli, and Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, and Liberals William Ewart Gladstone, the Earl of Rosebery and William Harcourt.[32] They introduced various reforms aimed at strengthening the political autonomy of large industrial cities and increasing British involvement in the international stage. Labour movements were recognised and integrated in order to combat extremism. Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert favoured moderate improvements to conditions of workers.[24] Queen Victoria found in Disraeli a trustworthy adviser. She approved of his policies which helped elevated Britain's status to global superpower. In her later years, her popularity soared as she became a symbol of the British Empire.[22] The major new policies included rapid succession, the complete abolition of slavery in the African possessions, the end of transportation of convicts to Australia, loosening restrictions on colonial trade, and introducing responsible government.[14][13]

David Livingstone led famous expeditions in central Africa, positioning Britain for favourable expansion of its colonial system in the Scramble for Africa during the 1880s. There were numerous revolts and violent conflicts in the British Empire, but there were no wars with other major nations.[14][13] In South Africa tensions escalated, especially with the discovery of gold. The result was the First Boer War in 1880–1881 and the intensely bitter Second Boer War in 1899–1902. The British finally prevailed, but lost prestige at home and abroad.[13][14]

After weeks of illness, Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901. By her bedside were her son and heir Edward VII and grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II.[22] Despite their difficult relations, Edward VII never severed ties with the Queen. Like her, he modernised the British monarchy and ensured its survival when so many European royal families collapsed as a result of the First World War.[33]

Society and culture

Common culture

The rise of the middle class during the era had a formative effect on its character; the historian Walter E. Houghton reflects that "once the middle class attained political as well as financial eminence, their social influence became decisive. The Victorian frame of mind is largely composed of their characteristic modes of thought and feeling".[34]

Industrialisation brought with it a rapidly growing middle class whose increase in numbers had a significant effect on the social strata itself: cultural norms, lifestyle, values and morality. Identifiable characteristics came to define the middle-class home and lifestyle. Previously, in town and city, residential space was adjacent to or incorporated into the work site, virtually occupying the same geographical space. The difference between private life and commerce was a fluid one distinguished by an informal demarcation of function. In the Victorian era, English family life increasingly became compartmentalised, the home a self-contained structure housing a nuclear family extended according to need and circumstance to include blood relations. The concept of "privacy" became a hallmark of the middle-class life.

The English home closed up and darkened over the decade (1850s), the cult of domesticity matched by a cult of privacy. Bourgeois existence was a world of interior space, heavily curtained off and wary of intrusion, and opened only by invitation for viewing on occasions such as parties or teas. "The essential, unknowability of each individual, and society's collaboration in the maintenance of a façade behind which lurked innumerable mysteries, were the themes which preoccupied many mid-century novelists."[35]

— Kate Summerscale quoting historian Anthony S. Wohl

Evangelicals, utilitarians, and reform

The central feature of Victorian-era politics is the search for reform and improvement, including both the individual personality and society.[36] Three powerful forces were at work. First was the rapid rise of the middle class, in large part displacing the complete control long exercised by the aristocracy. Respectability was their code—a businessman had to be trusted and must avoid reckless gambling and heavy drinking. Second, the spiritual reform closely linked to evangelical Christianity, including both the Nonconformist sects, such as the Methodists, and especially the evangelical or Low Church element in the established Church of England, typified by Lord Shaftesbury (1801–1885).[37] It imposed fresh moralistic values on society, such as Sabbath observance, responsibility, widespread charity, discipline in the home, and self-examination for the smallest faults and needs of improvement. Starting with the anti-slavery movement of the 1790s, the evangelical moralizers developed highly effective techniques of enhancing the moral sensibilities of all family members and reaching the public at large through intense, very well organized agitation and propaganda. They focused on exciting a personal revulsion against social evils and personal misbehaviour.[38] Asa Briggs points out, "There were as many treatises on 'domestic economy' in mid-Victorian England as on political economy"[39]

The third effect came from the liberalism of philosophical utilitarians, led by intellectuals Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), James Mill (1773–1836) and his son John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).[40] They were not moralistic but scientific. Their movement, often called "Philosophic Radicalism," fashioned a formula for promoting the goal of "progress" using scientific rationality, and business-like efficiency, to identify, measure, and discover solutions to social problems. The formula was an inquiry, legislation, execution, inspection, and report.[41] In public affairs, their leading exponent was Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890). Evangelicals and utilitarians shared a basic middle-class ethic of responsibility and formed a political alliance. The result was an irresistible force for reform.[42]

Social reforms focused on ending slavery, removing the slavery-like burdens on women and children, and reforming the police to prevent crime, rather than emphasizing the very harsh punishment of criminals. Even more important were political reforms, especially the lifting of disabilities on nonconformists and Roman Catholics, and above all, the reform of Parliament and elections to introduce democracy and replace the old system whereby senior aristocrats controlled dozens of seats in parliament.[43]

The long-term effect of the reform movements was to tightly link the nonconformist element with the Liberal party. The dissenters gave significant support to moralistic issues, such as temperance and sabbath enforcement. The nonconformist conscience, as it was called, was repeatedly called upon by Gladstone for support for his moralistic foreign policy.[44] In election after election, Protestant ministers rallied their congregations to the Liberal ticket. In Scotland, the Presbyterians played a similar role to the Nonconformist Methodists, Baptists and other groups in England and Wales.[45] The political strength of Dissent faded sharply after 1920 with the secularization of British society in the 20th century.[46][47][48]


The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 provoked a strong reaction. This sketch is from an issue of Punch
, printed in November that year.

Religion was a battleground during this era, with the Nonconformists fighting bitterly against the established status of the Church of England, especially regarding education and access to universities and public office. Penalties on Roman Catholics were mostly removed. The Vatican restored the English Catholic bishoprics in 1850 and numbers grew through conversions and immigration from Ireland.[49] The Oxford Movement was also occurring around this time, which would draw in new converts to the Catholic Church; among these was John Henry Newman. Secularism and doubts about the accuracy of the Old Testament grew as the scientific outlooked rapidly gained ground among the better educated. This doubt made them receptive to German idealism, which was imported to England principally by Thomas Carlyle and, before him though less successfully, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.[50] Coleridge resisted the empirical legacy of the Age of Enlightenment, while Carlyle, a Scotsman, critiqued utilitarianism from within the tradition of Scottish metaphysics.[51] Walter E. Houghton argues, "Perhaps the most important development in 19th-century intellectual history was the extension of scientific assumptions and methods from the physical world to the whole life of man."[52]

During the mid-nineteenth century, there were two distinct religious mentalities among British academics. The North British school was religiously conservative and commercially engaged thanks to the influence of Presbyterianism and Calvinism. Northern English and Scottish researchers played a key role in the development of thermodynamics, which was motivated by the desire to design ever more efficient engines. By contrast, in the South, mentalities of Anglicanism, agnosticism, and even atheism were more common. Academics such as the biologist Thomas Huxley promoted "scientific naturalism."[53]

Status of Nonconformist churches

Nonconformist conscience describes the moral sensibility of the Nonconformist churches—those which dissent from the established Church of England—that influenced British politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[54][55] In the 1851 census of church attendance, non-conformists who went to chapel comprised half the attendance of Sunday services.[56] Nonconformists were focused in the fast-growing urban middle class.[57] The two categories of this group were in addition to the evangelicals or "Low Church" element in the Church of England: "Old Dissenters," dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, included Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Presbyterians outside Scotland; "New Dissenters" emerged in the 18th century and were mainly Methodists. The "Nonconformist conscience" of the Old group emphasized religious freedom and equality, the pursuit of justice, and opposition to discrimination, compulsion, and coercion. The New Dissenters (and also the Anglican evangelicals) stressed personal morality issues, including sexuality, temperance, family values, and Sabbath-keeping. Both factions were politically active, but until the mid-19th century, the Old group supported mostly Whigs and Liberals in politics, while the New—like most Anglicans—generally supported Conservatives. In the late 19th century, the New Dissenters mostly switched to the Liberal Party. The result was a merging of the two groups, strengthening their great weight as a political pressure group. They joined on new issues especially regarding schools and temperance, with the latter of special interest to Methodists.[58][59] By 1914 the linkage was weakening and by the 1920s it was virtually dead.[60]

Parliament had long imposed a series of political disabilities on Nonconformists outside Scotland. They could not hold most public offices, they had to pay local taxes to the Anglican church, be married by Anglican ministers, and be denied attendance at Oxford or degrees at Cambridge. Dissenters demanded the removal of political and civil disabilities that applied to them (especially those in the Test and Corporation Acts). The Anglican establishment strongly resisted until 1828.[61] Dissenters organized into a political pressure group and succeeded in 1828 in the repeal of some restrictions. It was a major achievement for an outside group, but the Dissenters were not finished and the early Victorian period saw them even more active and successful in eliminating their grievances.[62] Next on the agenda was the matter of church rates, which were local taxes at the parish level for the support of the parish church building in England and Wales. Only buildings of the established church received the tax money. Civil disobedience was attempted but was met with the seizure of personal property and even imprisonment. The compulsory factor was finally abolished in 1868 by William Ewart Gladstone, and payment was made voluntary.[63] While Gladstone was a moralistic evangelical inside the Church of England, he had strong support in the Nonconformist community.[64][65] The Marriage Act 1836 allowed local government registrars to handle marriages. Nonconformist ministers in their chapels were allowed to marry couples if a registrar was present. Also in 1836, civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages was taken from the hands of local parish officials and given to local government registrars. Burial of the dead was a more troubling problem, for urban chapels had no graveyards, and Nonconformists sought to use the traditional graveyards controlled by the established church. The Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 finally allowed that.[66]

Oxford University required students seeking admission to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England. Cambridge required that for a diploma. The two ancient universities opposed giving a charter to the new University of London in the 1830s because it had no such restriction. The university, nevertheless, was established in 1837, and by the 1850s Oxford dropped its restrictions. In 1871 Gladstone sponsored the Universities Tests Act 1871 that provided full access to degrees and fellowships. Nonconformists (especially Unitarians and Presbyterians) played major roles in founding new universities in the late 19th century at Manchester, as well as Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds.[67]

Agnostics and freethinkers

T. H. Huxley's famous debate in 1860 with Samuel Wilberforce was a key moment in the wider acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution

The abstract theological or philosophical doctrine of agnosticism, whereby it is theoretically impossible to prove whether or not God exists, suddenly became a popular issue around 1869, when T. H. Huxley coined the term. It was much discussed for several decades, and had its journal edited by William Stewart Ross (1844–1906) the Agnostic Journal and Eclectic Review. Interest petered out by the 1890s, and when Ross died the Journal soon closed. Ross championed agnosticism in opposition not so much to Christianity, but to atheism, as expounded by Charles Bradlaugh[68] The term "atheism" never became popular. Blasphemy laws meant that promoting atheism could be a crime and was vigorously prosecuted.[69] Charles Southwell was among the editors of an explicitly atheistic periodical, Oracle of Reason, or Philosophy Vindicated, who were imprisoned for blasphemy in the 1840s.[70]

Disbelievers called themselves "freethinkers" or "secularists". They included John Stuart Mill, George Eliot and Matthew Arnold.[71] They were not necessarily hostile to Christianity, as Huxley repeatedly emphasized. The literary figures were caught in something of a trap – their business was writing and their theology said there was nothing for certain to write. They instead concentrated on the argument that it was not necessary to believe in God to behave in moral fashion.[72] The scientists, on the other hand, paid less attention to theology and more attention to the exciting issues raised by Charles Darwin in terms of evolution. The proof of God's existence that said he had to exist to have a marvellously complex world was no longer satisfactory when biology demonstrated that complexity could arise through evolution.[73]

Because of these developments in science, the emergence of higher criticism of the Bible, and the appeal of freethinkers, historians refer to a "Victorian Crisis of Faith" — a period of painful adjustment in family relationships and public morality resulting from shifting religious views.[74]

Marriage and family

The centrality of the family was a dominant feature for all classes. Worriers repeatedly detected threats that had to be dealt with: working wives, overpaid youths, harsh factory conditions, bad housing, poor sanitation, excessive drinking, and religious decline. The licentiousness so characteristic of the upper class of the late 18th and early 19th centuries dissipated. The home became a refuge from the harsh world; middle-class wives sheltered their husbands from the tedium of domestic affairs. The number of children shrank, allowing much more attention to be paid to each child. Extended families were less common, as the nuclear family became both the ideal and the reality.[75]

In Great Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and in the United States, the notion that marriage should be based on romantic love and companionship rather than convenience, money, or other strategic considerations grew in popularity during the Victorian period. Cheaper paper and printing technology made it easier for humans to attract mates this way, hence the birth of the Valentine card.[76]

Status of Women

The emerging middle-class norm for women was separate spheres, whereby women avoid the public sphere – the domain of politics, paid work, commerce, and public speaking. Instead, they should dominate in the realm of domestic life, focused on the care of the family, the husband, the children, the household, religion, and moral behaviour.[77] Religiosity was in the female sphere, and the Nonconformist churches offered new roles that women eagerly entered. They taught in Sunday schools, visited the poor and sick, distributed tracts, engaged in fundraising, supported missionaries, led Methodist class meetings, prayed with other women, and a few were allowed to preach to mixed audiences.[78]

The long 1854 poem The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore (1823–1896) exemplified the idealized Victorian woman who is angelically pure and devoted to her family and home. The poem was not a pure invention but reflected the emerging legal economic social, cultural, religious and moral values of the Victorian middle-class. Legally women had limited rights to their bodies, the family property, or their children. The recognized identities were those of daughter, wife, mother, and widow. Rapid growth and prosperity meant that fewer women had to find paid employment, and even when the husband owned a shop or small business, the wife's participation was less necessary. Meanwhile, the home sphere grew dramatically in size; women spent the money and decided on the furniture, clothing, food, schooling, and outward appearance the family would make. Patmore's model was widely copied – by Charles Dickens, for example.[79] Literary critics of the time suggested that superior feminine qualities of delicacy, sensitivity, sympathy, and sharp observation gave women novelists a superior insight into stories about home family and love. This made their work highly attractive to the middle-class women who bought the novels and the serialized versions that appeared in many magazines. However, a few early feminists called for aspirations beyond the home. By the end of the century, the "New Woman" was riding a bicycle, wearing bloomers, signing petitions, supporting worldwide mission activities, and talking about the vote.[80]

Status of children

Illustration of Children playing in their nursery by Alice Havers

Throughout much of the 19th century parents and guardians held almost unlimited authority over children. The rights of parents to raise their children as they wished as well as the ability of adult authority figures to establish obedience in their charges through corporal punishment was given priority over concerns about children's safety. As social reformer Whatley Cooke-Taylor wrote:[81]

I would far rather see even a higher rate of infant mortality prevailing.... than intrude one iota on the sanctity of the domestic hearth

Attitudes were shifting by the 1880s, beginning in 1883, local societies focused on child welfare began to be established across the country which had developed by the end of the decade into the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Children's Charter which came into law in 1889 gave the state the ability to intervene in the parent-child relationship in order to prevent mistreatment for the first time. The rights of children were again extended five years later.[81]

Education and literacy

Mass Education

"The truant's log" (1899) painting by Ralph Henley depicts a schoolboy being punished for truancy

The Industrial Revolution incentivised people to think more scientifically and to become more educated and informed in order to solve novel problems. As a result, cognitive abilities were pushed to their genetic limits, making people more intelligent and innovative than their predecessors.[82][83] Formal education thus became vital. According to intelligence researcher James R. Flynn, these changes echoed down to the twentieth century before leveling off in the early twenty-first.[83]

Enrollment at Sunday schools all of which taught children to read and some of which provided lessons in writing and arithmetic increased sharply during the first half of the 19th century from about 10% of five to eighteen-year-olds in 1800 to approximately 55% in 1851. 3/4 of working-class children were estimated to have attended Sunday school at some point in their childhood. Various religious organisations began to establish "voluntary" fulltime schools and a growing number of private schools developed including ones aimed at the working-classes. However, in 1850s around half of children in England and Wales were not in school during the working week. The quality of provision varied significantly, and the average length of attendance was only three years.[84]

In England and Wales, the government began to provide state-funding to schools shortly before Victoria came to the throne which increased during the early decades of her reign, the degree of government oversight these schools were under also increased. The 1870 Elementary Education Act was intended to establish universal access to state-funded schools and the state began to run schools directly for the first time through a system of local governance. Education became compulsory for five- to ten-year-olds in 1880 and fees abolished in 1891.[84] Compulsory education was expanded to deaf children, blind children and children up to the age of twelve in the 1890s.[85] Scotland had a longer tradition of state-funded education dating back to the 17th century.[86] The system which made school provision the responsibility of parishes generally led to better outcomes than elsewhere in Great Britain but struggled to cope with the pressures of industrialisation and standards began to slipe. A similar kind of grant system to voluntary schools was used in Scotland as in England. The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 introduced many of the same kinds of reforms as were taking place in England and Wales during the later 19th century. Education was made compulsory for five to thirteen-year-olds, the structure of the system was simplified, and many new schools were built.[84]

As a consequence of various education reforms, literacy rates steadily rose. One way to determine the literacy rate is to count those who could sign their names on their marriage registers. Using this method, it was established that literacy in England and Wales reached roughly 90% by the late nineteenth century. Statistics of literacy from this era are likely underestimates because they were based on the number of people who could write, but throughout most of the nineteenth century, people were typically taught to read before they were taught to write. Literacy rates were higher in urban than rural areas. Rising literacy and urbanization provided an expanding market for printed materials, from cheap books to magazines.[9] Literacy rates were generally higher in Scotland throughout much of the 19th century but the gap between the nations of Great Britain had closed by the century's end. By 1900, only around 3% of people in England and Wales were illiterate with a similar rate in Scotland.[84]

Elite Education

During the first half of the 19th century, formal schooling became the norm for boys from wealthier families seen as necessary for future businessmen and increasingly professionals. Some were tutored at home or sent to

An 1884 cartoon from the humorous British magazine Punch lampooning a romance between a former Cambridge University Senior Wrangler and a former Girton College student

A key component of the curriculum at Cambridge since the mid-eighteenth century had been the "Mathematical Tripos," providing not just intensive training for mathematicians and scientists but also general education for future civil servants, colonial administrators, lawyers, and clergymen.[53] Named after the three-legged stool students had been sitting on since the fifteenth century, the Tripos included extremely challenging and highly prestigious exams whose most successful candidate for a given year was called the "Senior Wrangler." Below the Senior and Second Wranglers were the Optimes.[88] The exams concerned not just pure but also "mixed" or applied mathematics. Starting from the 1830s, under the influence of Master of Trinity College William Whewell, the "mixed" portion included only branches of applied mathematics deemed stable, such as mechanics and optics, rather those amenable to mathematical analysis but remained unfinished at the time, such as electricity and magnetism. Following recommendations from the Royal Commission of 1850–51, science education at Oxford and Cambridge underwent significant reforms. In 1851, a new Tripos was introduced, providing a broader and less mathematical program in "natural philosophy," or what science was still commonly called back then.[53] By 1890, the Tripos had evolved into a rigorous test of not just mathematical ingenuity but also mental stamina. Topics ranged widely, from number theory to mathematical physics. Candidates needed to have a firm grasp of the works of Sir Isaac Newton and Euclid of Alexandria, trigonometric identities, conic sections, compounded interest, eclipses and more. They usually sat for five and a half hours each day for eight days for a total of a dozen papers featuring increasingly difficult questions.[88]