Saturday, 21 November 2015

The mid-Victorians: doubt

Title page of the
first edition of
Origin of Species (1859)
The mid-Victorian optimism, apparently showcased by the Great Exhibition, was offset by some troubling issues that arose in the 1850s. Key questions were raised.

  1. In view of the incompetence with which the Crimean War was waged, were the nation's institutions fit for purpose?
  2. Could Christianity retain its hold over the population in the wake of perceived working-class indifference and the findings of science?

War and nationalism

The panic of 1851: The talk of peace at the Great Exhibition was a little forced and throughout 1851 there was an undercurrent of vociferous nationalism. This nationalism came to the fore when on 2 December 1851, the anniversary of his uncle's victory at Austerlitz, Louis Napoleon, President of the Second Republic, mounted a coup, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested the Republican leaders. There was a brief war scare as the nation contemplated yet another Bonaparte in power in France. For once,  Palmerston did not reflect public opinion. He expressed approval of the coup without consulting either the Queen or his Prime Minister, and on the Queen’s insistence was dismissed on 19 December.

In the following year the Duke of Wellington died and his magnificent state funeral on 19 November 1852 reflected a general feeling that the nation had grown soft after a long peace.

The cort├Ęge passes Charing Cross
on its way to St Paul's
Lithograph by Emily S. Drummond 1852

The Crimean War: The long peace was soon to end. In 1854 Britain and France found themselves on the same side in the Crimean WarThe fundamental cause of the war lay in the fear of Russian encroachment into the declining Ottoman Empire. In January 1854 the British and French fleets entered the Black Sea. On 6 March they declared war on Russia and began the siege of the Black Sea fortress of Sevastopol.

When the war ended in 1856 it was seen as a victory for Britain and France, but it left Britain in a chastened mood.Two factors stood out: the torments of the soldiers during the harsh winter of 1854-5 and the grossly inadequate treatment of the wounded before the arrival of Florence Nightingale and her nurses at the end of 1854; and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 that was immortalised in Tennyson's poem.

William Howard Russell
the first war correspondent

The war was the first conflict to be observed by special correspondents (notably William Howard Russell of The Times) who were able to telegraph their stories back home - uncensored.
Russell observed every blunder. He sang the praises of the individual soldier (‘the thin red streak topped with a line of steel’) while accusing the commanders of incompetence. 

The war secured the return of Palmerston to office. In January 1855 the government of the Peelite Lord Aberdeen was brought down by a censure motion and on 4 February Palmerston became Prime Minister. 

Between 1855 and 1857 Dickens published Little Dorrit in serial form. It was a pessimistic novel, attacking debtors’ prisons, the class system, corrupt bankers, and government bureaucracy in the shape of the Circumlocution Office. The novel reflected the sober mood of a country that had become all too aware of the shortcomings of society.

A religious crisis?

The mid-Victorians believed that they were living through a time of religious crisis. The crisis had three aspects:

  1. denominational rivalry
  2. the absence of the working classes from church
  3. scientific discoveries that seemed to undermine a literal reading of the Genesis narrative.

'Papal aggression': The denominational rivalry surfaced in an anti-Catholic panic in 1850. Anxieties about Catholicism had ongoing in the first part of the nineteenth century. They were exacerbated by the rise in the number of Catholics caused by Irish immigration and by the High Church ('Oxford') movement in the Church of England. The belief that this was a front for Catholicism seemed to be confirmed by the  conversion of John Henry Newman in 1845. 

John Henry Newman in 1844
by Richmond

On 29 September 1850 the Pope Pius IX  issued a brief establishing thirteen new Roman Catholic dioceses (such as Westminster, Liverpool, Birmingham), the first to be seen in Britain since the Reformation. On the next day he made Dr Nicholas Wiseman a cardinal and archbishop of Westminster. On 7 October 1850 Wiseman issued a triumphalist pastoral letter ‘from out of the Flaminian Gate', announcing the hierarchy and his own elevation. He did not reckon with the outrage his letter would cause. By the end of October the press were up in arms and the bishop of London  requested his clergy to preach against ‘papal aggression’.

The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, persuaded his cabinet  to introduce the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill making all territorial titles illegal for Roman Catholic bishops. From February to July 1851 a vast amount of parliamentary time was taken up with the bill, in the course of which it was much modified.  It received the royal assent on 30 July 1851, but no-one was prosecuted under the law and it was repealed by Gladstone in 1871. In retrospect the whole affair was a storm in a teacup, but it highlighted religious anxieties and religious bigotry.

The census: On Sunday 30 March 1851 a religious census for England and Wales was undertaken, which attempted to count the number of ‘attendances’ at places of worship and the extent of the seating accommodation provided. The report generated great excitement at the time (21,000 copies were sold) and has provided great confusion ever since. In 1854 the statistician in charge, Horace Mann, published his tabulation of the results, which tried to make sense of the raw data and yet are agreed to have been unsatisfactory. This means that historians are still debating the usefulness of the census.

His formula calculated the number of attendants at worship as distinct from the total number of attendances to take account of the fact  It was agreed that some people attended worship more than once on census day but Mann was unable to find a satisfactory way of working out the relationship between the two.  

For all its methodological flaws, the census dealt two shocks to the mid-Victorian psyche. It was revealed that:
  • half the population (18 million) had stayed at home
  • just under a quarter of the population worshipped with the Church of England
Mann’s pessimistic analysis (‘a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion’) was accepted by contemporaries and has coloured much of the historical treatment. But compared with parts of continental Europe the proportion of church-goers was high.

The Index of Attendance reveals distinct regional, denominational and class differences. It is not always easy to correlate the figures with class, as the occupations of churchgoers were not included in the census. The Primitive Methodists had a large working-class following; the Congregationalists and Baptists mainly middle-class. But only the Roman Catholics attracted solid working-class support. The census showed (predictably) that they were strongest in Lancashire.

Faced with a perceived crisis of faith, Victorian church people redoubled their efforts to reach the population, in particular the apparently estranged working classes. New churches were built, Sunday schools grew in number and a new denomination, the Salvation Army, was founded to reach the parts of the population resistant to the more established churches. 

The findings of science: The early nineteenth century saw the development of the new science of geology, exemplified in the Scotsman, Charles Lyell's multi-volume Principles of Geology (1830-33).  His book put forward the idea of uniformitarianism, that the earth was shaped entirely by slow-moving forces still in operation today, acting over a very long period of time. This left no room for catastrophic events such as the biblical flood and contradicted the previously accepted view that the earth was only 6,000 years old. 

Sir Charles Lyell

Scientific debates reached a more popular audience when the Scottish journalist Robert Chambers published anonymously Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). He argued that organic forms had not been created in fixed groups at the beginning of the world but had chronologically progressed: 
‘man, considered zoologically, and without regard to the distinct character assigned to him by theology, simply takes his place as the type of all types in the animal kingdom’.
Fifteen years before Origin of Species, Chambers anticipated some of Darwin's findings. 

This is the time that the  great lizards, named dinosaurs by the anatomist, Richard Owen from the Homeric word deinos, terrible, and sauros  lizard), were entering the popular imagination. In 1850 Owen was presented to Prince Albert and served on the Great Exhibition Committee. When the Great Exhibition was relocated at Sydenham, models of dinosaurs were displayed. 

Woodcut of the famous  banquet in
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' s
tanding Crystal Palace Iguanodon

At this stage many people believed that the dinosaurs must have been exterminated in the Flood - there was great reluctance to consider that they were much more ancient.

In 1850 Alfred Tennyson eloquently expressed the anxieties aroused by these new findings in his poem In Memoriam, the first poem to mention the dinosaurs, who are described as 'dragons of the prime/That tare each other in the slime'. If they could mysteriously disappear, then could not man go the same way?

In November 1859 John Murray published Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 

Darwin in 1854
The key novelty was not so much the idea of the evolution of species, which had been hinted at already by Chambers, but the concept of natural selection. It is this that marks out Darwin from his fellow-naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. His studies in the East Indies had convinced Wallace of the fact that 'every species has come into existence coincident in both Space and Time with a Pre-existing closely allied Species'. But, as he was the first to admit, he did not come up with the concept of natural selection to explain the mechanism of evolution.

Alfred Russel Wallace
the unsung hero of evolution

In his conclusion, Darwin summed up his key argument 
'that species have changed and are slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favourable variations'. (The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle, New York and London: Everyman, 2003, p. 906)
He predicted correctly that 
'we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history'. (Ibid, p. 909)
And he hinted - though no more - at the full implications of this theory when he wrote 
'Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.'(Ibid, p. 912)
[He was to set out his theory of human evolution more explicitly in his Descent of Man (1871).]

The overall message was arguably grim, but the final paragraph was lyrical. 
'Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.' (Ibid, p. 913)

The book sold well, though not on the scale of  Vestiges of Creation or even of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help. It was very useful that Mudie’s Circulating Library agreed to distribute it. Darwin received a letter of approbation from Charles Kingsley, who was the first churchman publicly to endorse evolution, though other clergy were deeply distressed. 

In the following year a celebrated (and much mythologised) debate on Origins took place at Oxford between T. H.Huxley ('Darwin's bulldog) and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford. It is now assumed that Huxley won the debate hands-down, though contemporaries were not so sure.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
the site of the Huxley/Wilberforce debate
June 1860
Though Bishop Wilberforce remained a fierce opponent of the theory of evolution, many in the Anglican hierarchy were prepared to accept it. When Darwin died in 1882 he was buried in Westminster Abbey under the statue of Newton. In 1885  his statue was unveiled in the Natural History Museum, and the Prince of Wales was present. Darwin had become part of the Establishment!


  1. The Victorians have often been seen as complacent but they were their own severest critics. The mid-1850s saw a crisis of confidence in the ability of the British establishment to conduct a successful war.
  2. The nineteenth century has been seen as an age of religious doubt. Many, notably Darwin and George Eliot, lost their faith, but more did not. Church attendance went up after the census and Christianity showed, in the main, that it could adapt to the findings of science. The Victorian period was the last great age of faith in Britain.