The Early Victorian Period
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In a constitutional monarchy the personality of the monarch, however striking it may be; is of less importance in the national history than in days and realms in which the Crown directly controls national policy. The dates of the accession of kings and queens are no more than convenient landmarks, in themselves signalising only minor events.
George III was the only one of the Hanoverian kings whose accession marked a departure from the normal lines of national development, excepting of course his great-grandfather.
The Reform Bill
Although Queen Victoria herself played no insignificant part on the stage of history, her succession rather ensured continuity of development than gave it a new direction. The characteristics of what we call the Victorian Era distinguished her second uncle's reign as well as her own. The epoch, the starting-point of the era, is marked by the Reform Bill, whether we consider its political or its social aspects, and we can legitimately apply the term Early Victorian to the twenty years which followed the passing of that measure.
Role of the Railway
During those twenty years the Industrial Revolution was carried to completion by the huge development of steam traffic both by land and by water. Passenger traffic by rail was in effect inaugurated by the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool railway in 1830; in 1850 all the main railway lines were at work.
The railroad carried goods in an hour perhaps as far as the old horse haulage conveyed them in a day, and in immensely greater quantities at a time. An Act of Parliament in 1844 required the railway companies to provide a sufficiency of trains with covered accommodation for passengers at the rate of a penny a mile - the origin of the term "Parliamentary Trains." Forced against their will to provide cheap fares, the railway managers very soon found that the innovation increased instead of diminishing their profits.
The trains were used by thousands of passengers, most of whom in the old days would have been obliged either to stay at home or to tramp on foot, helped forward by an occasional lift on a friendly waggon. The steam-engine drew, tons of goods where canals had carried them by the hundredweight.
The new traffic made its way in defiance of aesthetic and academic opposition, and in spite of the great financial panics which followed upon excessive inflation especially in I845.
The steamship established itself less rapidly. The first ocean line was only opened in 1839, the year after the first passage of the Atlantic completed under steam. It is to be remarked that even these first steamers covered the distance in only about thrice the time taken by the swiftest modern vessels, while the speed of George Stephenson's locomotive has hardly even been doubled.
The Penny Post
Out of the development of steam traffic came the creation in 1840 of the Penny Post, carrying with it an enormous increase in correspondence; and immediately after the establishment of the Penny Post came the Electric Telegraph. The first telegraphic line in England was set up between London and Slough in 1844, and seven years later came the laying of the first submarine cable between Dover and Calais.
It is a little difficult to realise that until Queen Victoria was seated on the throne the conveyance of a letter from London to Edinburgh took nearly as long as its carriage from London to New York fifty years later, and that the journey to India might take any time from six to eighteen months instead of something under three weeks.
The most prominent feature in the modern industrial world is Trade Unionism. The formation of trade unions, combinations of the workers, primarily for the purpose of collective bargaining with the masters, became temporarily active after the repeal of the Combination Laws in 1825. But the movement was checked by the repeated failure of strikes owing to lack of funds and inefficient organisation.
The political ideal, the demands formulated shortly afterwards in the People's Charter, seemed to the working man to promise better than local and sectional combinations. In the thirties, however, the movement took new shape.
Grand National Trades Union
In place of the simple idea of the trade union, the combination of the employees in a trade, came the idea of the trades union, the combination of workers in several trades. Such a combination was the Builders' Union, which sought to unite the workmen in all the diverse departments of the building trade, an aggressive body which increased the alarm created by its aggressiveness by adopting a fantastic and melodramatic ceremonial of initiation.
The masters began to announce that they would make the repudiation of this trades union a condition of employment. Another such union, more far-reaching in its conception, was the Grand National Trades Union devised by Robert Owen, who, having been an extremely successful and liberal employer of labour, developed into the champion of a reformed social order. Capitalism and competition were to disappear, and the workers were themselves to be the proprietors and controllers of all the materials and machinery of production and distribution.
These unions did in effect undoubtedly increase their power by means of intimidation. The accepted doctrine of laissez-faire, as understood by the masters, meant that the prosperity of trade depended on the masters having'an entirely free hand in the control of their business. If combinations could resist their dictation they had not a free hand, and if the workers were coerced against their will by the combinations an unmitigated tyranny would be established. In actual fact at this time the alarm of the masters was groundless.
The unions were invariably beaten if they attempted to fight, because the labour market was still largely overstocked and labour, doing battle with capital, requires a war chest which the unions did not possess. The masters were commonly strong enough to compel the men to renounce the unions as a condition of service by signing a declaration known as the Document.
But the masters also had the whole force of the Government on their side; the conspiracy laws could be applied so as effectively to paralyse the action of the unions, and the obviously unjust severity with which the law was applied in some particular instances only had the effect of embittering class hostilities. Trades Unionism and Trade Unionism were both beaten as aggressive methods of fighting capitalism, and from 1838 to 1848 Chartism held the field.
Amalgamated Society of Engineers on strike
But not altogether. Intelligent working-men saw the futility of wasting the union funds on hopeless battles with masters; but unions and funds could be turned to good service on the lines of benefit societies, and on those lines their organisation could be steadily and quietly strengthened. They ceased to be aggressive, and almost confined themselves to a defensive resistance to aggression on the part of the masters.
In those employments especially where skill and higher intelligence are demanded, the unions set themselves to educate their own members and to study the problems with which they had to deal in a scientific spirit. Such unions were no longer aggregations of unreasoning and hot-headed men, but bodies of intelligent persons who knew what they wanted and had at least a rational idea of how it was to be obtained.
The new spirit which made trade unionism an effective force in the country found its most convincing expression in the carefully organised Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which, in 1850, brought into a single combination a number of the separate societies then existing in Lancashire and in London.
The great strike of the engineers in 1852 on the questions of piece-work and overtime produced an immense impression on the public mind, because of the sobriety and discipline with which it was conducted. The men were beaten; they were obliged to return to work without gaining what they had demanded; but they had won public sympathy; their union had not been broken up, and they had given the industrial world an invaluable lesson in organisation.
If the working-men were beginning to realise their own need of education, the country was also slowly beginning to realise that education was becoming a national concern. Hitherto it had been left entirely to private enterprise. The schools in which the children of the poor were taught were maintained chiefly by the National Church and occasionally by other religious bodies, supported by voluntary contributions.
England before the Reform Bill, very unlike Scotland, was one of the worst educated countries in Europe. The spirit of reform then touched education so far that in 1833 the Government ventured upon a grant of £20,000 in its aid, to help in the building of a few more schools. Five years later came proposals for the formation of a Board or Committee of Education.
The role of Religion in education
But from the moment when the application of public funds to education became a matter of debate the religious difficulty presented itself. It appeared to one side that public funds must be distributed and applied irrespective of the religious opinions of teachers or pupils.
To the other side it appeared imperative that the Church should retain its effective control, since the teaching of religion was of the essence of education, and no teaching could be called religious which was not, in modern phrase, denominational. Neither side was prepared, even to consider an educational system from which religion was omitted.
The Liberal Government only so far got its way that its committee was appointed for the distribution of a slightly increased grant, which was not actually monopolised as hitherto by the Church schools. The subject continued to engage attention periodically, and another bill was brought in in 1843 as part of a Factory Bill.
It was wrecked on the usual rock, Dissenters and Roman Catholics finding it too favourable to the Anglicans, and Anglicans finding it too favourable to Dissent. In 1847, however, the government grant was increased to ?100,000, of which the benefit was still withheld from Roman Catholics, and for fifteen years no further steps were taken.
The Oxford Movement - Tractarianism
Both in England and in Scotland religious movements were extremely active during this period. The moderation, indifferentism, or rationalism prevalent in the eighteenth century had been disturbed by the Wesleyan revival and the growth of a more vigorous Evangelicalism in the English Church.
But now a new fervour of Churchmanship arose within the Anglican communion, known as the Oxford or Oriel movement because it took its rise in Oxford and especially in Oriel College, or as Tractarianism because it found its literary expression in a series of publications called Tracts for the Times. The most spiritual of its exponents was John Henry Newman, who, with many of his followers, ultimately found refuge and rest in the Church of Rome. But in the eyes of the public its most prominent figure was that of Dr Pusey.
Essentially it was a re-assertion of the Divine authority of the Catholic Church, the Church to whose priesthood the apostolic authority had been transmitted in unbroken continuity through the centuries by the rite of ordination. That authority could not be overridden by the state, and no lay jurisdiction could be recognised.
The sanction for its doctrines and ritual was to be found in the decisions of the General Councils of the Church, in the teaching of the early fathers and in the practice of the Church Universal. On this basis doctrines and practices which had been condemned as papistical were revived.
Whatever views may be held with regard to those doctrines and practices the essential fact must be recognised that the movement brought a new intensity of spiritual life into the Church, while it challenged the essential doctrine of Protestantism by claiming not only that the Church was independent of the state but that the priesthood were the authoritative intermediaries of Divine Grace.
The state declined to recognise the claims of the new school and continued to assert its own authority; but the Tractarians did not adopt the solution of seceding from the establishment and surrendering endowments for the sake of spiritual independence.
This, however, was the more heroic course adopted in Scotland. In that country also there was a revival of religious energy, but there was no question of dogma or ritual or priesthood. The question was that of the right of the state to control the spiritual independence of the congregation. The spiritual independence claimed was the right of the congregation to choose its own minister, whereas the state, that is to say the law, had placed the patronage in private hands.
The legal question was carried to the highest court of appeal, the House of Peers, and the House of Peers upheld the rights of the patrons. Thereupon the party of spiritual independence separated itself from the establishment; a host of ministers resigned their livings, departed from their manses, and formed a church free from state control - the Free Kirk - whose clergy depended for their emoluments entirely upon stipends provided by voluntary contributions.
The splendour of the last literary period was maintained by new writers. Before 1840 Tennyson and Browning had begun to publish poetry, before 1850 Tennyson's fame was securely established, though many years were to pass before his great rival had won popular recognition. Charles Dickens gave a new joy to life with the appearance of the Pickwick Papers in the year of Queen Victoria's accession.
Thackeray achieved a triumph with Vanity Fair eleven years later. Disraeli revealed himself' to the world in a series of novels before he entered Parliament. Macaulay created a prose style which became the model of half the writers in England, while Carlyle, Newman, and John Ruskin began to be numbered among the prophets.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.
Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age