For Queen Victoria’s bicentenary we’re looking at the biggest ways in which Britain transformed forever during her impressive 64 years as monarch.
Today, 24 May 2019, marks 200 years since the baby Alexandrina Victoria made her way into the world, born at Kensington Palace in 1819. Despite being only fifth-in-line for the throne, 18 years later she found herself being crowned Queen Victoria and went on to rule over Britain and its empire for a respectable 64 years.
The Victorian monarch is engrained in our minds as a humourless, elderly, mourning widow – can you say, ‘we are not amused’? This, however, is only one small, and somewhat fabricated, snapshot of an accomplished queen, a queen who ruled over Britain during a hugely defining era of transformation, urbanisation, and industrialisation. The country changed as much in the time between Victoria’s 1937 coronation to her death in 1901 as the queen herself.
In June 1842, a 23-year-old Queen Victoria hopped onto a steam train at Slough Station to ride the 25-minute journey to London Paddington. In doing so she became the first British monarch to ride a train – then an innovative new form of transportation.
Trains were born out of the coal-mining regions of northern England. The engineers James Watt and Matthew Boulton revolutionised the manufacture of steam engines in the late 18th century, clearing the way for steam-powered transport to take off. The first railway to welcome human passengers, not just freight, was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, launched in 1825 thanks to the ‘Father of Railways’ George Stephenson.
Following suite was his son Robert Stephenson, who carved miles of railroad and bridges, and a career for himself, to accommodate steam engines across the country. Rail transport boomed in Victorian Britain which, by 1870, boasted about 13,500 miles of railroad.
Then the industrious Victorians set their sights higher – or, technically lower – as they took transportation underground. Another famous father-son duo, Marc Isambard Brunel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, were responsible for the world’s first underwater tunnel, the Thames Tunnel, opened in 1843.
Following this feat of engineering, London achieved another world first, as it unveiled its underground railway in 1863. Passengers could now take the subterranean Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to Farringdon Street – the first strand of what became the elaborate maze of the modern London Underground.
Everything in Victorian Britain was booming – its transport, its empire, and even its people. In the six decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, the population of England and Wales more than doubled. But, more interesting than this populace growth is what this populace was up to.
The Industrial Revolution was well underway when Victoria was crowned in 1937. Despite this, the majority of British people still lived and worked in rural communities. Jump to the end of the 19th century and this was only true for about one-fifth of British people. Victorian Brits dropped their traditional agricultural work in huge numbers, flocking instead to the job opportunities that the newly industrial cities promised.
Cities expanded, factories flew up, cheap labour flooded in, and business for those on top – i.e. factory owners – flourished. It was different story, however, for the lower classes providing that cheap labour, who were often made to work long hours in unsafe conditions for little money, from a young age.
Poor wages and overcrowding meant living conditions weren’t any better. Diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rife among the working poor, living in packed housing and dealing with damp environments and polluted water. Charles Dickens was one author who used his writing to reveal the dark side of industrialisation and the struggles of those feeling the full force of Victorian ‘progress’.
It’s no surprise then that Queen Victoria saw plenty of protests and unrest during her reign. The monarch was born into a Britain reeling from the Luddites’ anti-industrial rebellions in Nottingham, as well as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where officials charged more than 60,000 unarmed demonstrators. They were protesting for parliamentary reform in the face of poverty, soaring food prices, and no voting power.
While the subsequent 1832 Reform Act gave middleclass men the right to vote, this only fuelled the working classes’ fight for suffrage and the 1830s, the decade of Victoria’s succession, welcomed the Chartism movement. The Chartists demanded greater political rights and representation for the everyday man – emphasis on ‘man’.
It was from the 1860s that the long struggle for women’s right to vote really began. The pacifist campaigners the Suffragists – later under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS – fought to push legislation through parliament by working with politicians. However, it wasn’t until 1918, and the radical campaigns of the Suffragettes, that the first women were granted voting rights.
The Victorian era was a time of radical changes in British politics. Initially run by, and for, society’s elite and aristocracy, it gradually, ever-so slowly, moved towards representing and considering a greater slice of the British population. This could be pinpointed to the birth of Liberalism in the 1850s or, perhaps, the 1860s and the famous power tussle between the Liberals’ William Gladstone and the Conservatives’ Benjamin Disraeli.
Either way, during the 64 years of her reign and the 81 years of her life Queen Victoria would have watched on as Britain changed at unprecedented rate, flying head-first into the future.
What do you think? What other important changes of Victorian Britain have we missed? We’d love to know what you so drop your thoughts in the comment box or tweet us at @historybombs.
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- ‘Queen Victoria’, Royal.uk. (https://www.royal.uk/queen-victoria)
- J A Banks, ‘Population Change and the Victorian City’, Victorian Studies Vol 11 No 3, (1968), 277-89. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3825147)
- ‘Eminent Engineers’, Network Rail. (https://www.networkrail.co.uk/who-we-are/our-history/eminent-engineers/)
- ‘What Was Chartism?’, The National Archives. (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/politics/g7/)