This is perhaps one of the most fascinating times of our history full of conquests – scientific, territorial, social and intellectual – but, at the same time with many backdrops. However one may choose to view it, on the whole it has undoubtedly proven to be a time of great changes that affected the world then and still do today. Before tackling the specific British issues let’s briefly take a look at what it meant then and at what it means for us today. Very shortly indeed as it is a time so vast in implications and actual effects that it would be necessary to analyse it in depth in order to have a a full view of its true impact. Nevertheless, we can still get an overview by starting with stating for istance that all that began then has in fact developed into what we call today as globalisation and, even more so, what was laid out then caused the outbreak of the two World Wars: the first being main cause of the second which was in turn the direct consequence of the first and lastly, the world as we know and experience it today.

As Hannah Arendt explains in her Origins of Totalitarianism [1], a unique economic crisis occurred roughly between 1850/70 causing the European capitalist bourgeoisie to expand its influence in foreign territories where more wealth could be gained. The outburst of this crisis was due to an excess of capital in the hands of a very few bussinessmen whose line of intersts was internationally based and who had the need to reinvest it quickly lest it would vanish. This surplus of cash money was produced by incredibly high profits gained from buying and selling shares on the stock market, at the same time however the national markets were not as flourish as they had been therefore the industrial production was lacking buyers in traditional markets resulting in the expulsion of a great number of workers from the labour market thus producing high unemployment rates all over Europe. These two factors combined in the unique solution, at the time, that encouraged those businessmen with a surplus of cash flow to invest their capital in foreign ventures such as seeking raw materials, low costing labour and new markets where to sell their industrial goods in far away lands, namely in Africa and it is in this continent that a great number of European unemployed drifted seeking fortune and the social status they no longer had at home.

In order to have a clearer idea of the phenomenon that took place during this time H. Arendt gives us some significant numbers regarding a time frame that goes from 1871 to 1900: in less than two decades, she writes quoting from Carlton H. H. Hayes [2], the UK’s colonies reached  a territorial expansion of approximately 4.500.000 square miles with a population of 66 million, France’s expansion was of 3.500.000 square miles and a population of 26.000.000, Germany’s of 1.000.000 square miles with 13.000.000 locals and Belgium, with King Leopold’s personal enterprise, of 900.000 square miles with 8.500.000 inhabitants. What these figures will mean in the long run is explained thoroughly in literature and perhaps with greater impact than a list of historical facts might have.

This is to say that the Victorian Age is much more than what happened to the UK and that its influence spread throughout the world with long  lasting effects and that, as we will see, the key words are in the following order: Industrialisation, Capitalism, Imperialism, Social Reforms, that, as far as the Uk is concerned, can be all summed up by the expression: VICTORIAN COMPROMISE.

QUEEN VICTORIA (1819-1901)

Needless to say, the Victorian Age takes its name from the long reign of Queen Victoria that lasted 64 years from 1837 to 1901. She was only eighteen when she came to the throne and although she was never very much involved in the rule of the country relying for the most part on her statesmen she did indeed provide Britain with a steady moral guide and soon became a model for her people to follow and admire because of her reserved and respectful family life style. In 1840 she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha with whom she had nine children.
Young Queen Victoria


As already stated the Victorian Age was also a time of numerous scientific inventions many of which improved everyday life, although in some cases, they meant great sacrifices and hardships for the less fortunate population. The scientific discoveries that date back to this time developed a new way of thinking that, was at first, much debated due to the controversies that it brought about, it is in fact also defined as the age of contraddictions.


One of the most important changes was brought about by the London Underground built in 1854. The railway system allowed travellers to reach all parts of the country thus changing habits and scenery. It was extremely useful to transport all sorts of goods throughout the country, for the first time in history, for instance, perishable food was shipped in trains thanks to a mechanical cooler that preserved even fresh milk during the journeys from the countryside to the cities, the same happened with meat that could reach London from the distant Aberdeen in Scotland. It also proved advantageous for communication too, the printing industry which in the mean time had undergone mechanisation could decrease the prices of books, magazines and newspapers – thanks to the train through which it shipped ever increasing loads of copies all over the country and beyond –  this major change satisfied the population’s growing need to be informed about all the changes that were taking place and about the  increasing spread of knowledge. The Time, just to give an idea, in 1851 cost 4 pence and sold 40,000 copies, whereas by 1861 it cost 3 pence – the  introduction of advertising also contributed to lowering its price and increasing its circulation – while the copies sold went up to 70, 000 units. Reading, thus, began to entertain and not only inform a growing literate population and this also meant a flourishing of new literary genres, especially a variety of different types of novels. But the train also meant that the middle-class could move to suburbs and commute to the city for working purposes, moreover it also developed a higher amount of travel for leisure eventually encouraging mass tourism.


Industrialisation also meant that Britain’s population had become well accustomed to cheap mass manufactured goods imported from the colonies or other countries, furthermore Britain controlled almost half of the world’s trade since masses of the world’s goods were transported on its merchant fleets and it had an incredibly world widespread market where to sell its products thanks to its many colonies of its vast Empire. The basis of its growing economy was made up of transport, coal, iron and steel. Yet, new materials such as rubber, aluminium, petroleum and celluloid were also being produced by Germany and the United States which began to compete with Britain on a large scale underlining the need for free trade to favour its biggest manufacturers. These consistent economic and industrial developments brought Britain to get involved in international affairs, especially those regarding increasing military conflicts, so she supported the Italian independence war against Austria, but never to the point of jeopardizing the balance of order. She also fought the Crimean War (1853-56) to hamper Russia’s growing supremacy over the crumbling Turkish Empire. Finally she insisted on Opium trade with China thus forcing the Far East to open a largely profiting trading activity with Britain.


The faith in unrelenting progress and the belief according to which the world was set up in an orderly manner all to the advantage of the white and prosperous individuals characterised by a clean cut definition of right and wrong, or, to use a symbolic expression, white and black, began to shake thanks to the new scientific discoveries  regarding geology and biology. The new emerging theories underlined that in reality much of the human progress Victorians praised was actually due to sheer chance and not produced, as it was normal for them to assume, by superiority and specific merits of one human race over another less advanced and less competent.


In this specific field Charles Darwin (1809-1882) with his theories that were published in his two main works, On the Origins of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), clearly shows that the human race was only one and that its evolution was affected by natural causes alone. He demonstrated that it was the effort to survive that pushed all living creatures – not only humans – to fight and learn to the best of their abilities to adapt to the surrounding environment; thus, he concluded, that if the environment offered good basic conditions the species would survive and evolve from the simplest form of life to more complex ones and humans were no exception, vice versa if the environment proved hostile to life its inhabitants would eventually perish.

His researches caused immediate religious opposition since they questioned a fundamental dogma, which, on the contrary, asserted undoubtedly that man was God’s creation in the Almighty’s shape and resemblance therefore superior to all other living creatures and their natural master, this was good enough then to justify any exploitation on the part of man over all those whom he believed as inferior and rightfully subdued. The British Catholics were obviously appalled by this new line of thinking but merely retreated to applying their old praying rituals; on the other hand the “Oxford Movement”, inspired by John Henry Newman (1801-1890) from the Oxford University did succeed in giving life to a new religious revival protesting against what became to be known as Darwinism.

Philosophical Movements


A maelstrom thus broke out once the main beliefs and certainties of Victorians were slowly shattered due to the new scientific discoveries of this time and the following philosophical and political theories that developed.

Darwin’s theories, in particular, also proved useful to support a new economic theory, in fact the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) took the scientist’s conclusions one step further by asserting that based upon given natural conditions only the strongest survive whilst the weakest, he continued, deserved to be defeated. Therefore, he believed it quite natural to apply this theory to social and economic order, he sustained that it was then perfectly natural to engage in economic competion and just as it was in natural selection the poorest individuals obviously lacked the necessary abilities to overcome hardships and their failure was solely due to their weakness and did not deserve compassion or help. In other words he implicitly conveyed the message that those who faced economic or social hardships were in fact themselves responsible for their fate and the government was in no way meant to intervene in their favour or for their support.

To counteract this convenient assumption that was also clearly meant to absolve all those that acquired huge amounts of wealth from the slave market or by the exploitation of the colonies of the British Empire that spread from Asia to Africa, Karl Marx elaborated a theory that accused industrialism and capitalism directly for the damages caused to human life and the environment. In his treatise divided in three volumes, Capital (1867, 1885, 1897) he analysed causes and effects of industrialism in England which, at the time, was the world’s most industrialised country.


Marx’s work influenced many English intellectuals among which there are William Morris and Matthew Arnold. The former supported a massive workers’ movement whose revolt alone, he believed, could defeat industrialism in favour of a simple life devoted to beauty and his idealised Middle Ages. The latter, on the other hand, felt that only literature could save and regenerate the English people. According to Arnold, in fact, people’s response to literature was closely connected to how people’s thought and behaviour.

The industrial progress then that spread to the entire country becoming a consolidated reality, contributed greatly to the debate that ensued regarding its overall benefits and disadvantages giving life to new perspectives that took into consideration the standpoint of workers and not only of businessmen and the upper classes in general and along with the already cited new stream of thoughts we can also include the ones that follow below.

Utilitarianism was a philosophical theory of the 18th century developed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who had taken inspiration from the works of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC). The main idea is that if an action brings happiness to a consistent number of individuals then it can be considered morally right whereas it was to be considered wrong in its opposite case. Therefore, Bentham believed that all institutions should pursue material happiness for the greatest number of people through reason and common sense. A champion of these theories was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who, in a booklet he wrote, Utilitarianism, claimed the superiority of cultural, intellectual or spiritual pleasures over physical ones, in fact, to support his “liberty principles” he stated that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

But the material happiness based solely on reason and common sense as that advocated by Utilitarianism disregarded human cultural values and it was attacked by many intellectuals of the time such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and especially by John Stuart Mill himself who, though he at first had favoured Bentham’s ideas he, later, found Bentham’s teaching inadequate mostly due to the rapid changes of his time, furthermore, he thought that man’s happiness depended greatly on the individuals intellectual and spiritual wellbeing and was not so much related to a materialistic personal satisfaction, so in order to achieve such a state of mind society was to be the setting where human diversity could freely develop its creativity in a beneficial interaction that is why Mill advocated laws that would help the individuals to develop their natural talents and personalities; other important elements to favour this development were undoubtedly education and art that could boost progress as a result of mental energy. So, according to Mill, society’s responsibility was to guarantee education for all, it was to favour trade Unions organisations, the developments of co-operatives, and the right to vote to all citizens and women’s emancipation.



The Victorian Age was a time then not only of profound cultural changes as shown, but of important political reforms as well that ranged from laws that improved working conditions in factories to more widespread rights to vote and even the opportunity for many to have an education. The Whig party was successful in maintaining power for the better part of the period, while the political competition that ensued with the Tories also contributed to implement the changes mentioned above. To be more specific a list of laws might prove helpful:

The First Reform Act (1832) – it was advocated by Whig aristocratic politicians and gave the right to vote to middle class male citizens. Till then the political power had been exclusevely detained by aristocrats or large land-owners.

The Factory Act (1833) employers were not allowed to have children work more than 48 hours a week and all workers under 18 more than 69 hours per week. This was the first official provision to protect the working class till then increasingly exploited by employers and factory owners.

The Poor Law Amendment Act  (1834) perfectly in line with what was advocated by Spencer in his personal interpretation of Darwinism it established workhouses where poor people could seek shelter and food but where families lived separately and were not allowed to share the same lodgings. Condemning them, on the one hand, to carry the burden and the social stigma of economic failure and, on the other, forcing them to do anything and everything in their powers to be free of such dire straits, although many times it meant being complete destitutes.


The Irish Potato Famine (1845) – forced Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, to free the price of corn as strongly requested by the “Corn Law Movement” favoured by the middle class industrialists who, through free trade, hoped to gain more political power over  the long lasting one detained by the land-owners and agriculture.

The Ten Hours Act (1847) was passed enforcing for all workers a ten hour working day.

The Second Reform Act  (1867) gave the right to vote to skilled working men.

In 1870 a state education system was implemented providing widespread literacy to meet the new economic and industrial needs. For the first time in history children were not allowed to work but had to attend some years of schooling, including girls and this last fact proved of invaluable support for the women’s emancipation movement and eventually for actual political and social conquests.

The Trade Union Act (1871) –  legalised all Trade Unions which not only fought for the workers’ rights to obtain higher wages and a more efficient welfare system through many successful strikes, but they also provided education for their associates.

The Public Health Act  (1875) due to the high mortality of epidemics such as the cholera and the typhoid, the growing cities’ municipalities developed an efficient organization that was able to provide to its inhabitants clean water and sanitation; but, it must be added that Victorian cities already had gas lighting and the rubbish was collected regularly; they also had town halls, railway stations, public libraries, museums, music halls, boarding schools, hospitals, police stations and prisons.

1884 – all male householders could now vote, the secret ballot and payment of MPs were also introduced thanks to which, on the one side politicians’ corruption was put to an end, and on the other even less privileged individuals could have a political career. This act of Parliament was due to the successful and unrelentess campaign carried on by the Chartist Movement (1838-48) which took inspiration from the “People’s Charter”, a document signed in 1838 with the intention to improve working people’s living conditions in their work settings and outside of them favouring social mobility as well.


The Victorian Compromise

This was a concept through which the White conquerors or invaders tried to justify their deeds in the conquered lands. They sustained that the White man’s burden was to export, to what they considered inferior forms of civilisations, their superior one founded on religion and wealth. They tried to convince themselves and others that it was their duty to civilise the backward blacks, hence the expression: White man’s burden; in fact, far from being enthusiastic of this challenge, so they underlined, they nevertheless accepted it and did their best to succeed regardless of the violence they used on locals, regardless of the violations perpetrated to the identity of locals, regardless of the exploitation they exercised on territories and, above all, on people. As a superior human race it was their utmost duty to bring civilisation and progress abroad, no matter what.

Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism

Often the two terms are used as synonyms, however there is an underlying and not too subtle difference between the two. Hannah Arendt helps us, once again, in trying to understand where the difference lays [3]. She relates that a successful empire,  like that of the Roman Republic, is founded basically on the supremacy of law, it is through the implementation of the law imposed by the conquering power that it is possible to obtain the necessary integration for populations so heterogeneous to eventually become one and united. On the other hand, underlines Arendt, the legitimacy of a national state was based on a single population’s active consensus which lacked then the previously outlined unifying principle in case of diversity, therefore when it conquered other lands and people it was forced to assimilate rather than integrate them, it was forced to impose consensus rather than justice and this inevitably led to tyranny. Still according to Arendt, the first one to use the term “imperialism” to differentiate it clearly from the idea of Commonwealth, was J. A. Hobson [4], who believes that the principle of colonial freedom was so if the colony was formed by a population of British heritage or if the blend was such that the British prevailed in order to be almost natural to introduce the so-called democratic institutions. In the 19th century the British Empire was formed by plantations or colonies as those of Australia and Canada; the trading landmarks such as the ones in India and the military installations such as those of the Cape of Good Hope that were important to safeguard the trading routes. In the 19th century imperialism was a necessity, the territorial expansion became essential for the survival  of capitalism because it meant new raw materials for their industrial production, new and cheap labourers and new markets. It was the expansion of industrial productions and of the commercial transactions that so strongly characterised the 19th century.

Women’s Emancipation


The economic advancement that spread through many strata of society, the social and political reforms too, largely contributed to women’s emancipation that does indeed start during this time and vigorously moves on in the decades ahead. The industrial revolution if on the one side emphasized women’s exploitation and, at first, reaffirmed their political and legal subordination to man, it is one of the reasons that brought women out of their private nests and to claim equal rights. It took quite some time and strong battles, at times even violent as shown by the Suffraggette Movement, however it did reach the expected reforms in the long run. Much of this success is due to economic reasons, their work in factories became slowly an important factor in household budget, in most cases working in factories was not a choice but a necessity as men’s salaries did not guarantee the family’s livelihood. Little by little men began to lose the role of sole bread-winners. Another important factor was contraception which allowed women to be more active in the choice of motherhood allowing them to be freed of a burden, at the beginning a choice to reduce the number of children to support considering the hardships that many families faced, slowly it became a sign of women’s emancipation. Furthermore breaking the ties with farming was still another reason to bear less children, in the past they had been a family resource in farming, but in the new industrial society things suddenly changed and shook at their base the structure of patriarchal society. Still another factor in favour of women’s emancipation was the growing literacy among them that enabled them to conquer self-awareness and an increased self-esteem along with greater professional competency and expertise. In many cases office employees were for the majority women, just as they began to be prominent as shop assistants and even teachers. Albeit their still lower wages if compared to men in the same professional positions, it is undeniable that their freedom increased including that of movement thanks to the widespread of the train.


Women in Great Britain, and especially those belonging to the upper classes, began to enjoy personal freedom and economic Independence, this allowed many to stay single refusing marriage as a means to support themselves. Something unheard of only a few decades prior. The progress was slow, and still is an ongoing process for many aspects, yet it was finally underway and it was a widspread feeling that it was hardly possible to go back to past conditions.


Scientific discoveries, moreover, applied to technology also contributed greatly to this radical change, electrical appliances in the household have become since of everyday use and taken for granted by all, nevertheless the first washmachines or dishwashers were saluted as the greatest inventions for women’s freedom of domestic time-consuming and tiring activities.


All these changes though, despite their slow advancement, found great resistance not only among men, which would be quite obvious, but especially among some other women and especially among catholic or strongly religious women. Religion has always relied on the women’s conservative role in society to safeguard its standpoint and to protect the traditional family values. These female exponents then saw their influential positions within the private setting of their household threatned by the new female role rising in society and have ever since done everything in their power to safeguard their position by fighting against women’s emancipation through moral and ethical issues that continue to have, even at present, a strong hold on public debate, opposing the moral patronising virtues of womanhood against the corrupted ones of the modern times that champion women’s emancipation, not yet fully acquired [5].



Daiches, D.  A Critical History of English Literature, Garzanti, Milano, 1982; Vol. III,  From the Victorian Age to Our Times.

K. O. Morgan, The Illustrated History of Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1984

[1] Hannah Arendt, Le origini del totalitarismo, Edizioni Comunità, Milano, 1967; pp. 172-188

[2] ibidem;

[3] ibidem;

[4] ibidem;

[5] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, Abacus, London, 1994; pp. 192-218

Images taken from Google Search

© L. R. Capuana

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