Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Victorian countryside: hardship, change and nostalgia

Myles Birket Foster, 'The Old Watermill'
Public domain

The population

The census of 1871 was the last to show that most of the inhabitants of Great Britain still lived in rural areas or in small towns. In the following ten years, while the urban population increased by over 25 per cent. Buckinghamshire, Huntingdonshire and Oxfordshire lost a quarter of their population. By 1914 only 8 per cent of the British population were employed in agriculture, compared with 27 per cent in Germany and 38 per cent in France. Daily commuting, not just from the suburbs but from the shires and the south coast had become common and rural England was beginning to acquire its role as a place for living and leisure rather than work. 

The agricultural depression

A whole combination of adverse circumstances combined to make the period 1877-1895 a dark time for British farmers, especially grain producers.

1. A series of wet summers, culminating in the wettest season in living memory in 1879 meant an alarmingly low yield in successive harvests.
2. Farmers could not raise prices because they could not compete against the produce of the American prairies where the McCormick reaper was cutting labour costs. By the 1870s American technology had advanced to the use of self-binders, while the new railroads and steamships were cutting transport costs.
3. The government refused to reintroduce agricultural protection - this was one of the reasons why Disraeli lost the election of 1880.
4. There was an outbreak of animal diseases: 1879 liver rot, 1880 foot and mouth.

The assault on ‘landlordism’

The political consequence was to strain relations between landowners and tenants, which led to widespread criticism of the whole landed order’ This was especially intense in Ireland and Scotland. In 1879 the Irish Land League was founded, its President Michael Davitt, its Secretary Charles Stewart Parnell.

The winter of 1881-2 was particularly severe, and many Highland crofters were so destitute that they could no longer pay their rents. When the factors of the great estates tried to evict them, they retaliated by taking back grazing rights of which they had been deprived and by rent strikes. This escalated into violence at the ‘Battle of the Braes’ on Skye in 1882 when Glasgow policemen clashed with crofters. For the rest of the decade their were disturbances throughout the Highlands and gunboats and marines were sent in to quell them. The Crofters' War was the most severe crisis in the Highlands since the heyday of Jacobitism’. The crofters were supported by the Irish Land League and by a great deal of public opinion in Scotland.

There were similar disturbances in Wales.

Hubert von Herkomer, 'Hard Times' (1885)
Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect it can be seen that some of the attacks on landlordism were unfair. In the Celtic fringes, the problem was poor soil and an adverse climate, which left the landowners often powerless to effect improvements. Aristocrats such as the dukes of Bedford and Argyll went into print to defend themselves. Others, such as the 9th duke of Marlborough, married American heiresses to revive the family fortunes. But the real point, which was a shift in political power. The widening of the franchise and the agricultural depression struck fatal blows at the aristocracy.

In England there was little rural violence, but the Liberal politician, Joseph Chamberlain delivered celebrated attacks on the aristocracy. On 30 March 1883:
Lord Salisbury constitutes himself the spokesman of a class - of the class to which he himself belongs, who toil not neither do they spin; whose fortunes - as in his case - have originated by grants made in times gone by for services which courtiers rendered kings, have since grown and increased, while they have slept, by levying an increased share on all that other men have done by toil and labour to add to the general wealth and prosperity of the country.

The agricultural worker

Agricultural workers were obvious sufferers from the depression and this lay behind much migration to the towns. However, as a group they were becoming more assertive.

In the 1870s they became unionized. At a meeting of Warwickshire labourers, a Primitive Methodist preacher, Joseph Arch, a labourer at Barford, made a revivalist speech calling for a farm workers’ strike, which raised him to the leadership of a movement. The strikers were given considerable publicity in the press, especially the Liberal Daily News, and on 29 March 1872 they founded at Leamington the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union. It spread rapidly and soon became a national union with a membership of nearly 100,000 at the end of 1872. But after a defeat over a Suffolk and Norfolk strike in 1874 membership fell rapidly, and with the decline in agriculture the union lost power.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Lily Maxwell: woman voter

Lily Maxwell, woman voter
Public domain

There is a fascinating post here about Lily Maxwell, who actually voted in a by-election in Manchester. She possessed the necessary property qualification and was included in the electoral register by mistake. She was encouraged to vote by Lydia Becker and Jacob Bright (brother of the more famous John), two prominent women's suffrage campaigners. Unfortunately, judges ruled in November 1868 that the 1867 Reform Act did not apply to women. A small number of women voted in the general in the following month were subsequently removed from the register. It's sad to note that Lily Maxwell died in a workhouse in 1876.

Victorian civic pride

Birmingham Council House, Victoria Square
Public domain

The building of cities was a characteristic Victorian achievement, impressive in scale but limited in vision, creating new opportunities but also providing massive new problems. Perhaps their outstanding feature was hidden from public view - their hidden network of pipes, drains, and sewers, one of the biggest technical and social achievements of the age ... Yet their surface world was fragmented, intricate, cluttered, eclectic and noisy, the unplanned product of a private enterprise economy developing within an older, traditional society. …Economic individualism and common civic purpose were difficult to reconcile.… Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities.

Individualist preference for avoiding public enterprise whenever possible died hard. J.K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914.


The census of 1871 revealed that out of a population of 31 million nearly two thirds still lived in rural areas or in towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants. Apart from London only five cities housed more than a quarter of a million people. Heavy urbanization was physically confined to certain localities: London and Middlesex, Lancashire and Durham, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, west-central Scotland and parts of south Wales.  Suburbia was still limited and was unknown as a word. Most people still lived near their place of work. Farm labouring was the largest male occupation. Even in industrial areas many urban-dwellers lived within walking distance of green fields.

But this census was the last decennial survey for which this was true. The picture was irrevocably shattered by 

  1. the agricultural depression that drove many off the land 
  2. the gravitational pull of urban employment 
  3. the development of a cheap, suburban transport system. 

Writing in 1901 the novelist H. G. Wells envisaged the total breakdown of the traditional distinction between town and country. He predicted that by the start of the twentieth century the Londoner might ‘have a choice of nearly all England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as its suburb' (quoted G. R. Searle, A New England?, Oxford, 2004, p. 86).

The Victorians continually commented on the speed of urban development. A north London rector wrote,
I have tried to keep Hornsey a village, but circumstances have beaten me (quoted Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities, 1954, p. 31.)
The visitor to Birmingham could expect to find a street of houses in the autumn where he saw his horse at grass in the spring. In Victorian South London the houses could spring up in what seemed a single night (Briggs, p. 31).

Much of the effort went into church building, but particularly in the last quarter of the century there was a huge development of public offices, hospitals, schools, sewage farms, and water works.

These rapid changes meant that the late Victorians were subject to two conflicting ideas. On the one hand there was a flowering of civic pride, seen in the growing activism of the municipal corporations set up by the Act of 1835. On the other there was a deep rural nostalgia shown in the growing market for idyllic depictions of the countryside.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Gladstone, Disraeli, and the creation of a mass electorate

Gladstone in old age
Public domain

Politics in the 1870s and early 1880s was dominated by the figures of William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Both rose from middle-class backgrounds to lead their respective parties, and both presided over major reforms to the electoral system. In 1832 the Great Reform Act had increased the electorate, disenfranchised some pocket boroughs, and secured parliamentary representation for the new industrial towns. 

However, the Reform Act had not given the vote to the great majority of the working classes, even though many of them had campaigned for reform. The vote was still seen, not as a right, but as a privilege attached to the ownership of property. However, thanks to two further reform acts, by the time Gladstone finally left office in 1894, a mass electorate had come into being - though even then, not all men had the vote.

The Second Reform Act

Gladstone began his political career as a Tory, but following the repeal of the Corn Laws, became a Peelite. In 1859 he  joined Palmerston’s Liberal government as chancellor of the exchequer. By the mid-1860s he had come to accept the necessity of further political reform that would extend the right to vote, but everyone knew that this could not happen while Palmerston was still alive. The old man had set his face against further reform and as long as he was Prime Minister there would be no changes to the Reform Act of 1832.

Palmerston died in October 1865, shortly after winning another election for the Liberals, and he was succeeded by Earl Russell (the former Lord John Russell). Gladstone remained chancellor of the exchequer, but also became leader of the Commons. Because the Conservative leader, the earl of Derby was in the Lords, Disraeli was the Tory spokesman in the Commons.

Benjamin Disraeli
Public domain

The Liberal bill: In March 1866 Gladstone introduced a bill for modest electoral reform, designed to enfranchise the ‘respectable’ working class by giving the vote to those with a £7 rental qualification in the boroughs and £10 in the counties. This would have enfranchised some 400,000 men, but the vote was still to be attached to the ownership or occupation of property. 

The bill was immediately opposed by the Conservatives and some anti-reform Liberals, notably Robert Lowe, and its opponents were derisively called the 'Cave of Adullam' by the radical Liberal, John Bright.  The bill was passed but by a very narrow majority. In June it was defeated on an Adullamite wrecking amendment and Russell resigned. The Liberals were now out of office only a year after winning a convincing electoral victory. The queen then sent for the Conservative leader.

Edward Stanley-Smith, 14th earl of Derby
Public domain

The Conservative bill: Twice in the 1850s Derby had headed a minority Conservative government, and now for the third time he found himself prime minister without a Commons majority. Disraeli was now chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House. But the change of government did not mean that the reform issue was going away. With this in mind, Derby wrote to Disraeli: 
I am coming reluctantly to the conclusion that we shall have to deal with the question of reform.
A new urgency was given to this by threats to law and order. In July 1866 a rally planned by the Reform League in Hyde Park was banned by the police. Defying the authorities, the League marched from Trafalgar Square and skirmished with the police in Park Lane. For two days Hyde Park was the scene of disorder and riots. The railings were torn down and the home secretary, Spencer Walpole, was in tears. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Victorian servants

Women and work

Some of the standard images of Victorian women are the 'angel in the house' of Coventry Patmore's poem, the factory girl, and the domestic servant (and possibly Florence Nightingale's nurses). In fact, more women worked in the various dressmaking trades than in factories, and until the end of the nineteenth century the numbers of women in paid work was declining. Women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives subordinate to their husbands and rarely in paid employment. This owed a great deal to ideology but was also based in fact. With the advance of industrialisation and the shift to heavy industry, the incomes of most families were restricted to those of the male breadwinner - a circumstance that owes as much to trade union pressure as to middle-class ideology. A great deal of casual female labour went unrecorded in the censuses but even allowing for this, probably no more than ten per cent of married women were in paid employment. The great majority of women who worked full-time were young and/or single.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Victorians in love

The Victorians: prudes and hypocrites?

The Victorian period is often associated with doctrines of sexual self-restraint and an accompanying hypocrisy. It is often said that they were so prudish that they covered piano legs with pantaloons and spoke of white meat rather than chicken breast. In their hypocrisy they ignored the dark reality - the prevalence of prostitution was high and the practice of incest among the urban and rural poor

The late-Victorian and Edwardian periods saw attacks on Victorian hypocrisy and repression - for example in  Hardy’s Tess of the D'urbervilles and H. G. Wells’s daring Ann Veronica.

There is certainly considerable literary evidence for Victorian prudishness. In Our Mutual Friend Dickens mocked the figure of Mr Podsnap, who did not wish a book to contain anything that ‘might bring a blush to the cheek of a young person’. This suggests that novelists, perhaps Dickens in particular,  felt frustrated at the limitations imposed by the conventions of propriety.

The Victorian novel can leave key questions unanswered. Is the marriage of Dorothea and Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch consummated? Is Hardy's Tess raped or seduced? The reader is led to infer that Nancy in Oliver Twist is a prostitute, but it is not made explicit. No British novel of the period has the frankness of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856).

However, this prudishness can be exaggerated. If the Victorians put pantaloons on piano legs it was probably to protect the furniture! British Victorians mocked the prudery of  Americans because they talked of ‘dark’ and ‘white’ chicken and called cockerels roosters. Pruder and censoriousness was personified in the much-mocked person of ‘Mrs Grundy’ - seen below confronted by Oscar Wilde who is showing her his Picture of Dorian Gray. By the end of the century a reaction had set in against the sexual reticence of the high Victorian period. 

And even at the height of so-called Victorian prudery, marital sex was praised and the 'unnatural' celibacy of Roman Catholic and some Tractarian clergy was condemned.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Exploration and evolution: Darwin and Wallace

Here is the most fabulous site, with all Charles Darwin's works available online. There is no end to research on Darwin and a recent set of book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement give a clue to some of the latest thinking.

Darwin in 1854
Public domain

The context

Science is not value-free, and the language and concepts of Darwinism are those of the economic and social doctrines of the time. Darwin's Origin of Species was published at a particularly sensitive time, when scientists were making a bid for cultural supremacy.

The keystone of traditional naturalism was Archdeacon William Paley’s Natural Theology, which Darwin studied at Cambridge. The argument was simple and apparently convincing:
  • Life was good because through the kindness of God, all human beings were adapted to their surroundings;
  • Animals, including humans, are complex beings from the divine workshop, exquisitely fitted to their place in the world.
  • This proves there must be a designer.
Paley was writing during the wars with France, at a time of great social and political upheaval, his science legitimized the existing social order, and his conservative politics were unacceptable to radicals and to rationalist Unitarians such as Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. But Paley’s followers included not merely naturalists at the university, but also scores of vicar-naturalists working in their parishes.