If you’re a new listener I’d recommend you listen to our intro cast just so you know what to expect.
I think that one of the first things to address is who or what is a Victorian? What is meant by the term? Is it just the people and things who lived between her birth and death? Was it just the period of her reign? Were Victorians just the people of the United Kingdom or were all imperial subjects Victorian? Does the term refer more to a period? After all, the influence of the British Victorians was felt globally, even in countries that weren’t part of the Empire. Is it just the people or do the art and artefacts count too?
It is actually a difficult thing to pin down. This podcast is about the Age of the Victorians. It is not the History of Victorian Britain. My brush is a lot broader. Luckily I’m not alone in this. Some historians have dated the start of the Victorian era as much earlier and ending much later. Historian G Price for instance argues that there wasn’t really an industrial revolution or a Victorian age. He argues that we should see the whole of the activity in Britain as a spectrum of continuity. In many ways this is obviously right; People didn’t wake up one day and say “Great the middle ages have now ended and I can stop living in a time of religious based superstition and poverty and move into the Renaissance era of increased religious and artistic freedom combined with improved social conditions.” People’s experiences are rooted in individual, but I think sometimes that there really is a sense of the end of an era and the start of the new one. The second world war really did draw a hard line between one era and another for example, as did the Mongol conquests.
From the podcast point of view we’re going to take the Victorian era as really starting at Waterloo. Waterloo seems a convenient bookend to the end of the Enlightenment and the start of the attitudes that really define the Age of the Victorians. It is easy to think of the Duke of Wellington as only the man who fought Napoleon at Waterloo, but he was also a Prime Minister shortly before Victoria became Queen, and some of his political actions would have significant influence on the early Victorian period, most especially his immense influence on the Victorian British Army. His organisation of the British Army in the Peninsular and at Waterloo set the pattern for the British Army till well into the C19th. It is thanks to his military legacy that Britain remained wedded to muzzle loading muskets, bright red coats and cavalry far past the point where they were militarily useful. Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli were all born before Waterloo but became key political figures in Victoria’s reign. Besides Queen Victoria herself was born in 1819, only four years after Waterloo so I haven’t started too early. It does mean we will sweep in the tail end of the regency and the reign of William IV but I think it is essential in understanding where the spirit of the age really evolved from.
There is another more important reason. After Waterloo there was a complex series of negotiations that set up the European order for the next 30 odd years. Without a background of where Europe stood before the settlement and what the settlement was designed to achieve, we won’t be able to understand the constant tension between the status quo seeking regimes in Europe, and the rising movements for reform in the United Kingdom and across Europe that eventually led to the year of revolutions of 1848.
When does the Age of Victoria really end? The Victorians didn’t just drop dead with Victoria. A person born in 1899 could claim to be a Victorian and live Again, the podcast will treat it as the time when the attitudes really died. Thatcher might have summoned the ghost of Victorian values in her speeches but she was not the product of the Victorian era. Instead I believe that the Victorian age died when the last great Victorian army led by the last great Victorian vintage generals died in the battle of the Somme. The great public school system, the emphasis on glory and dying for the country and the Empire and the playing fields of Eton really died on that battle field. Afterwards the realism of a post Victorian industrial world ushered in the poetry of the hard bitten cynics.
Now that’s fine as far as the podcast goes – it’ll give us a lot of time to cover in the episodes. I’m hoping that you’ll find that the Victorians packed more into a century than most countries have managed in an entire history. Unfortunately it doesn’t really fully answer the question of who the Victorians were.
Right then, you can close your eyes and see what a Victorian looks like to you. Chances are you might see Dick Van Dyke and Mary Poppins. Or perhaps you can see Iron Man Robert Downey Jnr as the ultimate Sherlock Holmes. Maybe you can see Mr Darcy. Perhaps the sad faced Oliver Twist springs to mind or the Christmas card perfect Victorian Family round the Christmas Tree? Maybe you see the downtrodden miners and workers in the factories in Lancashire? Quick note though, if you go strictly on dates you need to banish Mr Darcy from your imagination. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 so he is not actually a Victorian at all, though he would have lived into the Victorian era and his children would have been shaped by his attitude. Likewise on a strictly date format, the Mary Poppins film is set in 1910 and is Edwardian.
All of these images have a place, well except Dick Van Dykes accent. They are shades and reflections of the age. Even the most accurate images would only be a snap shot of a place and time. How a person dressed and behaved in 1840 depended very much on where they lived, social class, wealth, occupation but also the thousands of hidden individual quirks that make people chose this colour or style over another. A provincial solicitor in 1840 might look rather strange and old fashioned to his London counterpart in 1895. An American businessman might well have shared similar social attitudes to his London counterpart, and they may have had more in common with each other than with the poor factory workers they employed – which might hold true in today’s world too.
The artefacts and buildings of the Victorians have often outlasted their creators and the originally envisaged lifespan. That means if some building is particularly interesting, I’ll probably finish its story off if feasible.
What I’m trying to get across to you though is that there isn’t really a bright line “before this someone or something isn’t Victorian, and after is.” History can be categorised and tagged to make it easier to study but the reality was a lot more messy. There was more of a growing recognition that the country and the world was changing and a new age was under way.
For now I think we will have to accept that who or what is Victorian will remain in the eye of the beholder. So let’s start our journey. I thought it might help if we started with a mini sketch of the UK and Europe in the year 1815.
Important note to near in mind. The UK is different from Britain. Britain is the island containing England, Wales and Scotland. The Crowns of England & Scotland merged in 1707 to form Great Britain when the treaties of Union were ratified by Parliament in the Act of Union 1707. The United Kingdom was formed in 1801 when the Kingdom of Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form – wait for it, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This included the whole of Ireland. It wasn’t until after WW1 that Ireland succeeded from the United Kingdom and the name changed to the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s right, in our podcast the UK will have only been in existence for a very short period of time but it included the whole of Ireland. The Victorian age was as much a search for a unified national identity as anything else. National identity politics in the UK was, and still is, a complex issue as the 2016 EU membership referendum shows.
I will be talking about Scotland, Wales and Ireland a lot. We will need to bury the myth that Scotland was somehow a conquered country or junior partner in things and that any sins of Empire were uniquely English. The Scots were a huge, integral part of the Victorian age and so I won’t treat them as a “Scotcast special” because they are too central to the story as are the Irish and Welsh.
For those listeners who aren’t familiar with the UK, it is worth a quick look at a map of Europe. It can best be described as a small semi boot shaped blob with a smaller blob on one side, just north of France and what is now Belgium. The south coast of Britain touches what the English refer to as the English Channel. This stretch of sea separates the UK from Europe both physically and mentally. It also provides the main southern sea route from the North coasts of Europe to the Atlantic. A ship from the Baltic States, Russia, Central North Europe and the Low Countries can only access the Atlantic via the channel or by going up the North Sea and around the top of Scotland & Ireland. This position means that Britain is ideally placed to exercise strategic control over European trade, provided she has naval supremacy at the time in question. Remember though the map you look at now is very different from what you would have seen in 1815. Some of the great towns and cities of the United Kingdom would have appeared radically different. For example, Newport in Wales was a small town with a population of around 1,000 people in 1815. The locals main occupations were agriculture, salmon fishing at the mouth of the Usk, and work on the wharves, where a few ships put in from time to time. By 1900 coal, canals and Irish immigration had transformed it into one of the largest ports in Wales with a population of over 67,000. Similar transformation would occur across the whole of the UK and Europe.
The position of Ireland next to Britain made Ireland a site of strategic military importance as it was an easy staging post for an attack on Britain. Ireland had a long, complex history with Britain and the English. There were many Irish who loathed the English Crown & Government in particular and blamed them for local exploitation by Ango-Irish landowners, but there was also exploitation by absentee Scottish Landlords. There were also many Irish who were passionately pro-British.
Without the Irish, Welsh and the Scots, the British Empire and the United Kingdom absolutely could not have emerged as the world dominating force that it did.
The low countries would also be a key strategic concern for successive British governments. Napoleon deemed Antwerp, [quote]”a pistol pointed at the heart of England,”[end quote]. Antwerp had the potential to have a large naval base built by Napoleon to support an invasion. The distance from Antwerp the Southern Coast is Britain is very short, but the British also constantly fretted about naval bases on the North European shoreline.
Since the gifting of Gibraltar to the UK in perpetuity, the UK has also maintained a strategic grip on the Mediterranean sea routes as well. In the Victorian period, this grip on access to the Atlantic and Mediterranean is key to understanding Britain’s growth, her Empire and her international relations. In many ways you will come to see how the Victorians in Britain were defined by the geography and the constraints of being the premier naval power. The position of Britain outside Europe raised a paradox. On the one hand the nature of being an island made the prospect of a land invasion unlikely and allowed the British to maintain a small standing army relatively free from the risk of invasion. But this depended utterly on the British maintaining complete control of the home waters. If an enemy, or worse still, a coalition of enemies could seize control of the home waters, or if the British allowed their fleet to weaken and decay as they did during the Anglo-Dutch wars, then the protective seas around Britain would become highways for the enemy. It would give enemies almost unlimited freedom to choose when and where to attack with impunity. Britain simply couldn’t compete with European coalitions in terms of man power if the battles were fought on British soil.
The upshot of this is that for almost the entire of Britain’s post medieval history her entire strategic and diplomatic approach was bent to maintaining naval supremacy and preventing any one European power from dominating the balance of power in Europe, or forming a grand coalition against her. It is something to bear in mind as we discuss “Perfidious Albion” and some of the twists and turns of Victorian diplomacy and international relations. The incessant meddling that Britain often engaged in was often necessitated by this overarching imperative.
Britain is also extremely well placed in terms of climate. Now I know that some of you are probably thinking “Really? I thought it rained all the time” Well yes, it rains a lot. I admit that I’ve often had to have an umbrella at my summer BBQ but honestly it really doesn’t rain all the time. In fact, Britain has a mild Atlantic climate due to the North Atlantic Current. Considering how far north Britain actually is, we should have had Reindeer pulling sleds full of Anglo Saxon warriors rather enjoying a climate that made agriculture and commerce some of the most productive in the world.
It is worth bearing in mind that Britain has a wide range of weather and climate. Southern England is probably the warmest and driest part of Britain. Overall the UK has an immense range of variety in weather depending on location, local geography and the influence of Atlantic, Artic or European weather fronts. To my astonishment when I was researching this podcast, I found that the UK has the highest number of Tornado’s relative to its land area of any country in the world. On 28 December 1879 for instance a Tornado derailed a passenger train from the Tay Bridge, causing it to plunge into the Tay Estuary killing 74 people.
We will have to account for the fact British climate has changed dramatically over time. Britain, like much of Europe was still coming out of what is known as the “Little Ice Age” until around the 1850’s. This means that food production has been heavily impacted by changing climate. Some of those picture postcard White Victorian Christmas’s you may have pictured might well have been the result of the ending of the Little Ice Age. Rapid industrialisation was also beginning to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, kick starting the process of man made global warming.
England has a range of environments from chalk grasslands to rolling farm lands to woodland, to the more valleyed South West down into the moors and bogs of Dartmoor and the rough Cornish coast. The north of the country also has excellent farmland, more valleys and gorges, a rougher climate with certain area’s more prone to storms. The centre of the country has a spine of mountains running up it and no part is very far from the sea. Wales and Scotland have their own unique climate and geography that we will look at when we look at the Highland Clearance and their Great Famine. We will also look at the climate and geography of Ireland in more detail when we get to what is known as the “Potato Famine” in Ireland.
At the beginning of our period, the climate and geography had much more of a day to day impact than it does today. The fastest methods of travel were the horse or a boat. The main forms of power were human muscle, the horse, ox or water mill. Troop movement especially remained tied to the rate of march of the infantry and is little different from Roman times.
The bulk of jobs were done by human labour with watermills and windmills being a useful supplement for key tasks especially grinding corn and wheat. The principle occupations were agrarian. There were some towns beginning to industrialise. The consumer market barely existed. Most, but not all, shops were local although Wedgewood china was beginning to create an international mass market. Britain could clearly be seen as at the start of its industrial revolution.
Heavy goods were still moved by horse, cart, barge or ship. The fastest messages were still sent by fast horse or by semaphore. There has been some historical debate about whether some messages were flashed like a Heliograph but I can’t find an accepted verified use of this method of communication before the invention of the Mance Heliograph in the 1869 by Sir Henry Christopher Mance.
Clothes were mainly from natural sources, and were not very well weatherproofed. Staying warm and dry was a key challenge in northern climates, especially at sea. Staying cool in warmer climates was difficult without modern cooling clothes and plentiful water. Add to this the fact that clothing was very fashion dependent and for the poor heavily price constrained. The lack of suitable clothing could be lethal in some circumstances, not just on difficult expeditions, but in day to day life.
This was the world of 1815. It was rooted in the local. It was mostly agrarian. The industrial revolution was barely under way, but some towns like Manchester were noticing the first massive changes of industrialisation and expansion. Life in some rural communities was little changed since the Renaissance, with traditions that might have stretched back to the middle ages. Disease was rampant. Cholera hadn’t yet reached Europe but by 1817 the first great pandemic would break out in India. Other great killers like Tuberculosis, Small Pox, Typhus and Dysentery ravaged Europe but medical science was still exceptionally primitive. Death could strike quickly and the Reaper extracted a huge toll. To live in 1815 was to live in an age which was at its heart little advanced from the middle ages. Superstition was still rampant and Europe was not as far ahead in terms of technology from many of its neighbours. Across Europe the accepted form of government was the hereditary monarchy. The only real exception was revolutionary France, which challenged the old order.
By the end of the Victorian Age, Western Nations had been utterly transformed. Public health measures, germ theory, mass vaccinations, plumbing, rubber, electricity and refrigeration fundamentally changed the world. Death rates dropped and populations had vastly swollen. In 1800 a fifth of the worlds population lived in Europe. By 1914 it was a third. These staggering demographic pressures would shape the Victorian age, forcing mass migrations. When combined with increased technological development and production, Imperial expansionism became almost inevitable. An Englishman or woman from 1815 might have an easier time understanding Renaissance England than he or she would of understanding the world and technologies of 1915.
Unlike today, the world of 1815 did not have a single hyper power. Instead there were a number of great powers. Great power status was important. It not only conferred prestige on a nation, but also increased the influence they could exert over other nations during treaty negotiations and trade. Great power status was also considered a mark of civilisation. Austria, Russia, Spain and Prussia were all considered great powers in 1815 but only Britain and France could claim to be international powers as well. The others were essentially regional powers, except the declining Spanish Empire. The Victorians would go on to make Britain the first truly global super power. Not until the rise of the United States in the early C20th was Britain’s international superpower status really challenged.
I’m going to give us a run through Europe as it stood in 1815 in the run up to Waterloo. I won’t go into depth on the background of each nation. It is just important that I give you an idea of how the main powers of Europe stood. Please remember that nation states were not the centralised powerhouses they would become in the C20th. Nationalism was on the rise but the world view of most of the population would be local, and rulers still claimed territory by hereditary right or marriage or treaty rather than in terms of strictly delineated ground on a map.
I’m not going to deal with the smaller nations of Europe in 1815. Firstly it is too much to cover in a summary, and secondly territories, duchies, vassal states, confederacies and principalities would shift about endlessly. Also I’m not going to do a summary of the world outside Europe. We will deal with the United States, Canada, Australia, China, India and many others during the podcast and I think that these countries will be better dealt with in depth later.
Our first great power, Spain, was one of the oldest. The high water mark of her empire had long passed, but she remained a powerful, proud nation. Spain is on the south west of Europe with Atlantic and Mediterranean seaboards. She was agriculturally rich, but frequently disorganised and corrupt with entrenched nobility who were ridiculously conservative even by the standards of the 19th Century. Despite her geographical riches, wealth in Spanish society was colossally unequally distributed. The bulk of the population were uneducated and the country had been ravaged by years of war during the French invasion and the British retreat then counter invasion. Her climate was often harsh and feeding campaigning armies in the country was difficult.
Spain had also suffered a number of naval defeats at the hands of the British, notably at Trafalgar. Their grip on their colonial empire was shaky to say the least. The country as a whole didn’t court modernisation or innovation, leaving them progressively weaker against the rapidly industrialising northern European nations.
Austria was Frances principle enemy of the Napoleonic wars along with Britain. It is probably better not to think of Austria as a nation like France or Britain. It was more a collection of political entities that came under the sway of the Hapsburg dynasty. The Austrian Empire was officially created in 1804 out of the personal holdings of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II as a result of defeats against the French, but obviously including the core Austrian territory itself, along with Bavaria. It was held together mainly by loyalty to the Hapsburg kings and Roman Catholicism. The ideals of the French Revolution were in many ways a direct strike against the threads that held the Austria and the Holy Roman Empire together. Its shape would be largely determined by one of the great figures of the period 1815-1848 Clement Lothar von Metternich-Winneburg-Beilstein fortunately better known to history as just Metternich, which is what I’ll be call him from here onwards. In 1815 Austria was still at the height of its power with territories in Italy, Poland and the Balkans. It had suffered serious and sustained defeats at the hands of Napoleon but thanks to Metternich would emerge into the post Napoleonic world even stronger and larger after the 2nd Congress of Paris. It was a conservative, reactionary entity that would come into conflict with emerging German and Italy. We will re-visit Austria and the Habsburgs more than once during the podcast as undergoes revolutions and wars against Prussia, setting the stage for the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Russia particularly craved international esteem. She was constantly torn between much needed internal reform, and lurches to autocracy. Until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, Russia’s principle enemy was the Ottoman empire. Russia became a key part of the coalitions against France, and was instrumental in the campaigns against Napoleon in 1813-1814. Russia’s claim to great power status was fragile throughout the Victorian age. Her self confidence was sometimes brittle and she remained only superficially modern. After Napoleon’s defeat (come on, this really can’t be a spoiler), the other Western powers pulled well away from Russia in terms of industrial power, economic performance and social liberalism. The failure to introduce liberal forms of government made Russian’s claim to Great Power status precarious in the eyes of the rest of Europe. Military power alone was not enough to confer such status.
The great military power of the age was supposed to be Prussia. Before we start, can we please please get the idea that Prussia and German are the same thing out of our heads. Prussian and German unification will come about and Bismarck will use his immense genius to reshape them into a unified and coherent identity but they weren’t the same. Also there seems to be a tendency in modern culture to read Nazi influences and designs into early Prussia and Germany. Please don’t do it. Seriously, Nazi German borrowed images, themes and music from their past like magpies. The Prussians of 1815 were much of a creation of the Federick Kings and the infamous Frederick the Great. So successful were Frederick the Great’s military achievements that in the early days of the French revolution it was assumed that the Prussian army would sweep into France and stamp it out for good. Napoleon shocked the world by his constant humbling of Austria and Prussia. Ironically Prussia was often at war with Austria but after the crushing defeat it suffered against Napoleon & Marshal Davout at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806
The main event of 1815 as far as anglo centric history is concerned was Waterloo. That great British legend, of the Iron Duke and the stiff upper lips beating the evil military pint sized tinpot dictator Napoleon. The charge of the Greys, the Squares standing firm, and the unflappable Wellington yelling “up guards and at em”
The reality is very different from the legend and the Victorians had a very large part in shaping this legend. Their attitude to it, and the art work they produced has created a lasting and deeply misleading understanding of Waterloo even to this day.
I hope you’ll join me next week as we explore more about the Waterloo campaign and begin separating the facts from the legend.
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoy. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com, follow me on twitter @ageofvictoria, visit the website at www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com. The show also has a facebook page and group. Just search for Age of Victoria. Don’t forget to leave a review on Apple Podcasts, it takes less time than making a coffee. If you want to support the show on patreon, just click here or you can go to Patreon and search for age of victoria podcast or my name.