Britain in the 19th Century

It is not our task, impossible as that would undoubtedly be, to write an essay on Victorian life. The aim of this section is to sketch out those facets of the 19th century that have a bearing on the main subject of this book. The 19th century can generally be characterised by great social and economic change, tremendous energy and above all self-confidence, both in Britain’s role in the world and in a certain belief that anything and everything was possible. It was the age of the individual and of individual prowess. Looking back on the lives of some Victorian men and women, whether it be the massive output of Anthony Trollope, the work of Pugin, the reforms of Florence Nightingale or the visionary Brunel, we find ourselves asking: “Where did they find the time?” From where did their energy come?” We cannot help but admire also their moral courage. So many figures were heroic in the true sense of the word – Gladstone, Ruskin, Josephine Butler who bestrode their age like colossi.

Five years before the Queen came to the throne, the great Reform Act of 1832 had gone a long way to abolish the easy corruption of much of 18th century politics and to make Parliament more representative, especially in its enfranchisement of the middle classes. Although not democratic in any modern sense of the word, the Act did make the political system more responsive to changes in society and pave the way for further reform in 1867, which enfranchised the more respectable working class; 1871 when vote by ballot was introduced and further changes in 1884, bringing into the “pale of the constitution” the majority of males.

As the first and pre-eminent industrial nation, by 1851 Britain was reaching its economic zenith. The large industrial towns of the north were finally challenging the supremacy of London. British manufactured goods of a bewildering diversity had a ready market in the countries of the empire, which also provided so much of the raw materials. With the rise of industry went the rise of the new manufacturing classes, who built for themselves mansions which advertised their wealth in the same way that the old aristocracy’s country seats were symbolic of their power and influence.

The Ribblehead Viaduct; Victorian engineering at its best.

A most important feature of Victorian England was the rapid improvement in public and commercial transport. The canal system, which had provided England with its most important economic infrastructure in the 18th century, was largely superseded (but not entirely so, no matter what the school textbooks say) by a complex railway network. Not only did this help to break down social barriers but also, by providing cheap travel for working class people, encouraged the development of holiday resorts1.

It also had a unifying effect on the country, if only by introducing standard time. We are apt to forget that there is a twenty minute time difference between eastern and western Britain. The vast railway network gave us some of the finest engineering works of the 19th century such as Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge and the Ribblehead Viaduct; it also produced highly varied, distinguished and very often-powerful local station architecture. Although stations such as George Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras may be the most famous, there are numerous examples of vernacular architecture tucked away in the most unlikely places across the country.

Not only did the 19th century see rapid developments in national communications, it also saw the development of more sophisticated urban transport schemes, the most influential of these on the development of towns was the tram; these had first been introduced into Birkenhead by the inaptly-named George Francis Train. After the Tramways Act of 1870, local authorities were given the option to buy out private tramways after twenty-one years of operation. One effect of this urban transport was that it allowed people to commute, so encouraging the development of suburbs and the suburban villa on the outskirts of towns. Due to the vigorous activities of the council, Wolverhampton developed its own urban tramway system. This was the famous Lorain System, unique to Wolverhampton. This system was one of surface contact and it was seen as a way to “preserve the beauty of the streets and roads of the town, from the unsightly poles and wires of the overhead system of electric traction”.2  The ceremony of breaking the ground was in 1901, the end of our period.

In part due to the work of Sir Robert Peel during the 1840s, Britain enjoyed an enviable record of financial dealing and became the financial capital of the world. A stable currency largely backed by gold, and laws protecting investors, made Britain a popular place for foreign capital. The term “safe as the Bank of England” was far more than an empty phrase; it was a statement of fact. The change from small banking houses to the large firms went hand in hand with the development of bank architecture, solid buildings designed to show stability and strength, qualities upon which the banks prided themselves and which they wished to project to the customer.

Throughout the Victorian era, there were powerful forces at work to persuade people that they would be better off in the towns. 1851 marks a watershed in English and Welsh social history as, for the first time, the census recorded more people living in the towns than in the country. Agriculture was no longer the dominant employer of labour. Towns grew not just through people arriving from the countryside, but also from natural increase, although this was partly checked by an appalling mortality amongst babies and children. The growth of towns on this scale had been unknown and it caused problems that no one had had to face before. Previously towns had been small places; as they grew they overwhelmed the means of local authorities to control growth and living conditions. Overcrowded and unsanitary, the towns were unable to resist the spread of the deadly cholera that struck Wolverhampton in 1848. The change in the prevailing attitude from one of laissez-faire to intervention is one of the marked characteristics of the age. Dreadful epidemics brought energetic municipal government into being, but Acts enabling the control of towns were permissive rather than mandatory.

Although there had always been in England a feeling of attachment to one’s locality and customs, the growth in civic pride in the Victorian era is one of its most distinguished characteristics. Civic pride often manifested itself in parades and celebrations of national events and triumphs. This local pride was increased with the growth of a local press that gave much coverage to local civic events and actively encouraged local pride and interest in the activities of local groups and individuals. Attachment to locality was encouraged by compulsory education in which the virtues of civic pride were engendered.

Some of the most potent symbols of this growing pride were the new town halls which were built on an ever more lavish scale as the century progressed. Often they were built to emulate venerable buildings in older cities. To accompany these buildings there developed a tradition of civic pageantry when Alderman and Mayor, accompanied by bands and various societies, paraded through the town bringing a dash of colour and excitement to important civic occasions.

It is not our purpose here to discuss Victorian morality or social problems, as they are not within the scope of this book; for workhouses and asylums do not exist within our prescribed topography, though there are examples only a little way outside. Cannock’s workhouse, for example, has recently become luxury flats.

There are, unfortunately, many people who think of 19th century Britain as being a cultural desert. Whilst excepting the pre-eminent position of literature, they often point out that England was the “land without music”, content to pay second-rate musicians as long as they had a vaguely foreign name, rather than encourage native talent. Of course Britain welcomed and feted many of the great composers of the 19th century including Mendelssohn, Wagner, Tschaikovsky and Dvorak to name but a few.3 However there was a thriving musical life in the towns and cities of Victorian Britain. Music and choral societies flourished and although many of the composers who catered for this market have been forgotten (or overshadowed by foreign rivals) they did much to provide serviceable music to a public whose appetite for such was insatiable. In the second half of the 19th century, England produced in Edward Elgar a composer to rival any European master. Elgar’s music is redolent of his time but at the same time shot through with that native melancholy that is such a feature of much English music. Elgar had close connections with Wolverhampton for he stayed at the rectory when the Rev Penny occupied it and it was Penny’s daughter Dora that Elgar pictured in the stuttering 10th of his “Enigma” Variations. Sir Edward was also an ardent fan of Wolverhampton Wanderers and needed little persuasion to go and see them when visiting the town.4

However the Victorian contribution to Art and Architecture has only recently begun to be reassessed.

It has taken almost a century for Britain to emerge from their shadow and begin to be able to make a fair and objective assessment of their achievements. Although a number of re-assessments have appeared to coincide with the anniversary of Victoria’s death in 1901. Any book written before the late 1970's (and many are still in print) will doubtless be full of dismissive and patronising statements about Victorian style. Yet any citizen of Wolverhampton will already be aware that many Victorian buildings and decorations are extremely beautiful. So readers of this book are well placed to reconsider the Victorians.
Wolverhampton's Mander family were greatly inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, as can be seen in their grandest house, Wightwick Manor.

The Victorians brought their considerable energies to bear in the fields of both art and architecture. Architecturally, most of their buildings reflect their belief that they were the heirs to and inheritors of the great civilisations of the past. Hence we find buildings in the classical style, symbolising the Victorian’s view of themselves as the democratic successors of Greece and the Imperial successors of Rome.

The most popular building style from the middle of the 19th century onwards however was the Gothic. This style, an imitation of and homage to the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, represented the Victorians’ belief that they were continuing and spreading the Christian tradition through church building and missionary activity both at home and abroad. Originally used for church building, the Gothic style was energetically promoted by such men as John Ruskin, A.W.N. Pugin who believed that the Gothic style was the true “Christian” architecture, always superior to the classical style of “pagan” Greece and Rome, and Sir George Gilbert Scott who became popular for any building from Town Halls to private houses. Buildings in every possible permutation of the Gothic from medieval French chateaux to Scottish baronial halls sprang up. It is often commented that the Victorians had no original building style of their own. However their ingenuity in adapting and developing so many earlier styles has given diversity and interest to the streets of many towns.

All schools of English painting from the latter half of the 19th century were until recently effectively ignored by art historians who preferred European styles, particularly the French Impressionists. Yet Britain produced one of the finest schools of 19th century painting, the Pre-Raphaelites. Personally, beside the work of the Pre-Raphaelites the Impressionists seem insipid and amateur. Even so, the Tate Gallery has only recently seen fit to move its Pre-Raphaelite collection from the basement to the main galleries and the magnificent Turner bequest is still only partially displayed while Turner’s name is used for a prize that honours half a dead sheep in formaldehyde and unmade beds.

The 19th century also produced great painters of nature, such as Samuel Palmer of social realism and artists inspired by the classical world such as Leighton, Alma-Tadema and aesthetic painters like Albert Moore. Wolverhampton Art Gallery has an interesting Victorian collection. As well as Historical and Pastoral scenes, there are two paintings by Landseer, the treat animal painter, and a large classical scene, “The Champion Swimmer”, by Sir Edward Poynter, brother-in-law of the Pre-Raphaelite genius Edward Burne-Jones.

None would deny the technical skills of the Victorians, perhaps exemplified by the Forth Bridge and other great engineering works. However these were not viewed with universal approbation at the time. Men like the great William Morris hated the materialism and mass production of the age which, although they brought increased prosperity and comfort to the many, also led to the rapid growth of towns and cities and the speculative building of terrible slums to house a working population who spent long hours earning a pittance at repetitive and soul destroying tasks. Morris set up his own firm as a reaction against this system, hoping to return to a pre-industrial ideal where every worker was responsible for the fruits of his or her own labour from start to finish. Ironically, because of his rejection of mass-production, Morris and Company’s furniture, fabrics and glass could only be afforded by the wealthy; an irony of which Morris himself was well aware, but many people were influenced by his example, which led to the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, aiming to return to the world of the skilled craftsman in his small workshop. The Arts and Crafts movement was particularly influential in Birmingham and the Black Country, thanks largely to the Birmingham Municipal School of Art of which Burne-Jones, born on Bennetts Hill, just off Corporation Street, was a patron5. Wolverhampton is fortunate in having a superb Morris and Company collection on its doorstep at Wightwick Manor.6

The Victorian belief in self-improvement is an attitude that still divides its adherents and critics alike. The benefits of hard work, thrift, honesty and obedience, as exemplified in the works of Samuel Smiles, made the Victorians eager to encourage those who practised them and to castigate those who were deemed indolent or unworthy. The drive for improvement and education, especially amongst the better off working class is manifest in the number of institutes, evening classes and reading rooms that exist in many industrial towns; in this Wolverhampton was no exception. In 1835 £1,000 was raised by public subscription to build a Mechanics’ Institute in Queen Street as a library and lecture hall. Its avowed aim was to spread knowledge amongst such people as clerks and shop assistants. One of the first students was Mr. George Wallis who by the aid of the Mechanics’ Institute became an authority on art and was appointed keeper of art treasures at South Kensington Museum now the V and A. It was from the Mechanics’ Institute that the first attempts were made to provide technical education for artisans.

To conclude, the 19th century was a time of great vigour when all things appeared possible. However all was not well. After 1870 a slump in agriculture coincided with a decline in industry. Countries such as Russia, Germany, France and above all the U.S.A. were overtaking the industrial production of Britain, for we were paying the price for being the first industrial nation. Much industrial plant was obsolete and raw materials, wastefully worked because of their very abundance, were running out. It is no coincidence that Royal fervour, Jubilees and newly emerging imperial rhetoric acted as a smoke screen for realities that were hard to accept.


1. This was not though without protest from the resorts themselves for as they developed then felt that they were becoming playgrounds for the masses.
2. W.H. Jones. op cit.
3. One truly great musician who visited Wolverhampton was the noble Hungarian Franz Liszt, who came to the town in 1831 whilst on a concert tour of Britain. He can be seen (rather inaccurately portrayed as an old man) in the murals in Wolverhampton Railway Station.)
4. Elgar often went to see the Wolves play and was particularly impressed with the skills of a player called Bill Malpass. Elgar composed a few bars of music in his honour, which were contained in a letter to Dora Penny.
5. Both artists have a link with the town as they married daughters of the Rev. George MacDonald, minister of a Methodist Chapel on Waterloo Road from 1862-65. A fine villa near the junction with Darlington Street carries a blue plaque commemorating the MacDonald sisters: Georgiana, wife of Burne-Jones; Agnes, wife of Edward Poynter, President of the Royal Academy; Alice, mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa, mother of the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
6. Unfortunately this treasure house is beyond the range of this book though there are many references to it.

Return to
the Prologue
Return to
the contents
Proceed to 19th Cent.