List o’ 10 Contributions of the Victorian Era


The Victorian Era is defined, quite literally, as the time of the reign of Queen Victoria in England, a period covering June 1837 to January 1901. Victoria was the grandmother of the current Queen Elizabeth. Due in large part to the power of the British empire and its military, and to the relative modernity of society in the 19th century, the reign of Victoria was the longest in British history, and will be exceeded only if Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne to 2017. However, aside from the term “Victorian” being used to define something as prudish or highly conventional and conservative, the era had many contributions and defining moments, many of which are still present today. Through the realms of architecture, art, science, economy and politics this list will review ten of the best contributions of the period.

10. Architecture: Gothic Revival

Victorian Architecture- westminister wall

Also known as Victorian Gothic or Neo-Gothic this style began 100 years before Victoria took the throne, but achieved its peak and greatest use during her reign. This style was a resurrection of the medieval style of building and adorning structures, such as spires, turrets, arches and gargoyles, in something of a rebellion against the Greek-classic style that had become popular, which featured columns and large buildings.The frequent presence of ostentatious ornamentalism also marked a start to architectural romanticism of the Baroque and Gothic styles with its heavy carved ornament, elaborate moldings, by the use of strong and generally dark colors, by the frequent use of dark varnished woodwork, by the emphasis on geometrical form rather than on textural effects, and frequently by an effect of harshness and seriousness. One of the best known examples of this is The Royal Palace at Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, and was rebuilt in the medieval Gothic style of Westminster Hall.

9. Literature: Novelists and Poets


The 19th century saw the novel become the leading form of literature in English. Its importance to the era could easily be compared to the importance of the plays of Shakespeare for the Elizabethans, while writers of the Victorian era began to move away from the stiffer social conventions of the romanticists, and entered the realm of satire and commentary. Some of the great novelists of the time were: Sir Walter Scott, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Bronte, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and, of course, Charles Dickens. That is not to say that poetry did not thrive – it did with the works of the Brownings, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the verse of Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling.

8. Pax Britannica

Pax Britannica map

Victoria took an active involvement in the affairs of state, and was far from being a figurehead as queen. She strongly believed that Britain should rule much of the world as an empire and she worked with two prime ministers to achieve this – Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Within her political legacy is the Pax Britannica, a British Peace that resulted from the foreign policy goals of the time. The terms is loosely defined as “a period of peace imposed by Great Britain upon nations during the 19th century”, the period of relative peace in Europe when the British Empire controlled most of the key naval trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power. It refers to a period from 1815 (Battle of Waterloo) to roughly 1914 (WWI), when the military dominance of England was no longer unmatched. This era led to a period of overseas British expansionism during which Britain dominated foreign markets, resulting in the spread of the English language, the British Imperial system of measures and rules for commodity markets based on English common law. The influence of this situation was truly international and saw a global expansion of British influence that still today defines many facets of life across the globe.

7. Development of the middle class

middle class

In the late eighteenth century, when the term “social class” first entered the English lexicon, the concept of a “middle class” within that structure was also becoming important. The Industrial Revolution was allowing a much greater portion of the population to have time for the kind of education and cultural pursuits once restricted to the European feudal division of aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and peasantry which in that period would have included what later became the industrial proletarians of the towns and cities. The social classes of England were newly reforming in an upheaval of the old hierarchical order, and the middle class was steadily growing. Added to that, the upper classes’ composition was changing from simply hereditary aristocracy to a combination of nobility and an emerging wealthy commercial class. The definition of what made someone a gentleman or a lady was, therefore, changing at what some thought was an alarming rate. By the end of the century, it was silently agreed that a gentleman was someone who had a liberal public (private) school education (preferably at Eton, Rugby, or Harrow), no matter what his antecedents might be. There continued to be a large and generally disgruntled working class, wanting and slowly getting reform and change. The House of Commons until the early 20th century represented the industrialist and landed classes, but the passing of the First and Second Reform acts increased the accessibility of government for the people and began to see the middle class emerge as a growing influence in politics as well as society in general.

6. Extension of the popular vote to the people

1867 Reform Act cartoon

England had traditionally been composed of a rigid class based society, with land owners and workers being quite distinct. With the coming of industrialization and the formalization of a social economy, Queen Victoria ensured that the evolution to a modern society, in part defined by a democratized economy and relatively equal access to success, was nurtured under her rule. The Second Reform Act of 1867 gave the middle class the political power it needed to consolidateand to holdthe socioeconomic position it had already achieved during the period of the Industrial Revolution. Though the initial Reform Bill of 1832 officially put the wheels in motion within parliament to expand the vote, it was not until the Second Act under Victoria, some 45 years later, that the franchise of voting in elections – having a say in who represented them from their district in parliament – was truly given to the working class. The unprecedented extension of the franchise to all householders effectively gave the vote to the working classes, a quite considerable change. From this ‘borough franchise revolution’, the traditional position of the landed gentry in parliament would no longer be assured by money, bribery and favours; but by the whims and wishes of the public. However, the reality was not without its shortcomings. The franchise provisions were flawed in that the act did not address the issue of compounding (PM Gladstone had to remove this practice in 1868) and the preparation of the register was still left to easily manipulated party organizers who could remove opponents and add supporters at will. The sole qualification to vote was essentially being on the register itself. Although there were admittedly still many problems remaining to be solved with the poorer class being better integrated into the social thread, it was during the reign of Victoria that participation in representative government began, with an economic and political environment that supported this change in the traditional social structure.

5. Operational Efficiencies: The Work Week

work week calendar

Nineteenth century Victorian England was marked by increasing industrialism, where time was money and efficiency became increasingly important. Specialization in production and individualization of labour became as common as the rural means of production, in which the family was the means of production, consumption and socialization. Gone were the days when work was dictated by natural forces: steam engines were servant to neither season nor sunshine. Factories had foremen and life became correspondingly more regimented. The clocking-on machine was invented in 1885 and time and motion studies to increase efficiency would be introduced only some twenty years later.

Working life was becoming increasingly regulated, and the working week was reorganized to promote ever-greater efficiency. The old custom of St. Monday – when no work was done – was gradually phased out and to compensate, work stopped around midday on Saturday and did not resume until Monday morning. A new division between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ emerged, and this new block of weekend leisure time coincided with the development of spectator sports like cricket and football, and the rise of music hall entertainment for the new working classes.

4. Darwinism and the Origins of the Species

Darwinism and the Origins of the Species

It was during the Victorian Era that Charles Darwin set sail aboard the Beagle. While Darwin’s findings and the resulting theory can certainly not be ascribed to Queen Victoria or her rule directly, there was an indirect influence from the general social direction of the day. Evolutionary ideas such as common descent and the transmutation of species have existed since at least the 6th century BCE, when they were expounded by the Greek philosopher Anaximander. Charles Darwin formulated his idea of natural selection in 1838 and was still developing his theory in 1858 when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a similar theory, and both were presented to the Linnean Society of London in separate papers. At the end of 1859 Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species explained natural selection in detail and presented evidence leading to increasingly wide acceptance of the occurrence of evolution. Several elements of Victorian times that created the dynamic of individualism, such as the Reform Act, factory production, entrepreneurial economy and access to education, laid the foundation for acceptance of new scientific theories that spoke to individualistic secular theories. The growing support for free trade and laissez-faire markets created an entropy that was ready to listen to, if not fully accept at the outset, a theory of natural selection that spoke to the survival of the fittest.

3. First Illustrated Weekly Newspaper

Illustrated London News

The Illustrated London News was founded in 1842 as the worlds first weekly illustrated newspaper. This had tremendous impact on becoming the first regular source of news and information to the people at large, essentially making this the first technology of mass communication to make news accessible. The first edition of the paper was 16 pages long, featured 32 illustrations and covered news of the current war in Afghanistan, a train crash in France, a steam-boat accident on the Chesapeake, a survey of the candidates for the US presidential election, as well as human interest and lifestyle sections covering crime reports, stage and book reviews and three pages of advertisements. By the paper’s 20th anniversary circulation had reached 300,000 copies per week and featured writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, George Augustus Sala, J. M. Barrie, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, G. K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie. The Illustrated London News was published weekly until 1971, when it became a monthly. From 1989, it was bimonthly, and then quarterly. The magazine is no longer published, but the Illustrated London News Group still exists. It produces in-house magazines and websites, and offers consultancy services, in addition to owning the archive of the Illustrated London News.

2. Universal Suffrage

Suffrage -womens-voting-rights

The First and Second Reform Acts in England together extended the vote to all males in the country, removing property restrictions that previously set the eligibility criteria, while the Representation of the People Act in 1884 further extended these rights to include rural areas. Although these moves toward a more popular democracy included only men there was an active suffrage movement on the rise. In fact the organized efforts of women’s groups to gain the right to vote were so prevalent that the term “suffrage” was first coined in Victorian England by the Daily Mirror newspaper. The vote was first given to women in the 1918 general election, which effectively increased the size of the electorate from 7.7 million to 21.4 million, with women making up 40% of the total eligible vote. This first wave came with some restrictions based on property ownership, but became truly universal with the passage of the Representation of the People Act, which received Royal Assent in 1928.

1. Free Education for All


In 1870 the Elementary Education Act brought into English law that basic State Education would be provided for free for every child under the age of 10, followed by an act of Parliament four years later which made school attendance mandatory for children. In a future seeing vision, the Act was a perceived need for Britain to remain competitive in the world through its ability to compete in the knowledge economy through training its population and ensuring that the English worker was more than just a laborer. A well educated and literate population would allow England to be at the forefront of manufacture and improvement in the industrial economy. The Act was passed also partly in response to realistic political factors, specifically to address the need to educate the citizens recently enfranchised by the Reform Act 1867 to vote wisely. Initial resistance was short lived, since with the simple mathematics and English that were being taught, factory owners now had workers who could read and make measurements. Today England is a world leader in knowledge based industries and has one of the best educated workforces in the world.

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  7. Benjamin June 27, 2010 at 17:21

    Hi List O Plenty,

    Fascinating blog, it really is weird and wonderful!

    I’m passionate about the Victorian Era especially Victorian Lampposts and Victorian lighting, I couldn’t help but pass by and comment. If there is an opportunity for me to write a guest blog please let me know, I’m sure I could come up with an excellent list on the 19th Century.

    Keep up the good work!

    Thanks Benjamin!

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