Sunday, 15 November 2015

The mid-Victorians: optimism and liberalism

The interior of the Crystal Palace
The early nineteenth century was marked by economic hardship and turbulent politics. The ‘Hungry Forties’ saw widespread suffering (most notably in the Irish potato famine) and political challenges from the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists. As a result of the downfall of Sir Robert Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws, the Conservatives (now known as the Protectionists) failed to form a majority government for twenty-six years.

By contrast, the period from about 1850 to the mid-1860s saw rising prosperity and calmer politics as the economy improved and working-class agitation died down. With the Conservatives divided, the dominant party were the Whigs, who renamed themselves Liberals. The Liberal party finally came together on 6 June 1859 at Willis’s Rooms (the former Almack’s Club) as a fusion of Whigs, Peelites and Radicals. The most notable Peelite recruit was William Ewart Gladstone.  

The dominance of Palmerston

The dominant politician from the early 1850s until his death in 1865 was Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), who was appointed Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s  government in 1846 and was Prime Minister from 1855 until his death ten years later. 

Palmerston was a Whig who reinforced his political allegiance when in 1839 he married the widowed Emily Cowper, born Emily Lamb, the sister of Lord Melbourne.  (She had previously been his mistress, and he may have been the father of her daughter, Emily, who married the Earl of Shaftesbury.) But he was never really a party animal, and his Whiggism was of the most conservative kind. The Reform Act of 1832 was too radical for his taste and he took care to stress its finality, proclaiming his confidence that the landed interest would continue to prevail in politics. He was convinced that 1832 had prevented social revolution and created social peace – and that this gave him the right to lecture less enlightened foreign autocrats in order to persuade them to behave like sensible Whigs.

More importantly, Palmerston was a nationalist. Towards the end of his life Gladstone told this story:

‘A Frenchman, thinking to be highly complimentary, said to Palmerston, “If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman”: to which Pam replied, “If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman”.’  
Palmerston declared that Britain had no permanent allies, only permanent interests. For example, he supported Greek independence partly because it would weaken Turkey, and Belgian independence so long as it did not strengthen France. He was lukewarm about Italian and Hungarian nationalism because he believed it was important to maintain Austria as a great power.

Of the great powers he felt that only Russia and France might directly threaten British interests. It was his objective never to find France and Russia arrayed together against Britain. 

The Don Pacifico case

Don David Pacifico, who called himself the Chevalier Pacifico, was a Jewish merchant whose family had Spanish origins. He was born in Gibraltar, and had a British passport, but he had lived all his early life in Portugal. In 1839 he had been appointed Portuguese honorary consul in Athens. In Easter 1847 his house was ransacked by an anti-Semitic mob, and his wife’s jewellery stolen – with the police looking on all the while. 

The case was taken up by British officials, who on his behalf claimed financial compensation from the Greek government. When the government refused to give satisfaction, Pacifico wrote to Palmerston:
‘I am an English subject and of the Jewish religion.’
On 11 May 1847 Palmerston wrote to the Greek government warning them that if compensation were not paid to Pacifico, the British government would be reluctantly compelled to use force. But nothing happened and no action was taken for two years.

At the end of 1849 a British fleet was in the eastern Mediterranean because of British fears about Turkey. This enabled Palmerston to revive the claims for Don Pacifico to be compensated. In January 1850 the fleet arrived off Piraeus and a note was sent to the Greek foreign minister telling him that unless compensation was paid the British Navy would act against Greek shipping. When the Greeks continued to refuse, the port was blockaded and Greek ships were seized. In spite of protests from Russia and France (they were co-protectors of the Greek state and their offer of mediation was ignored), the Greeks had to surrender in April. Don Pacifico then paid compensation to the individual Greeks who had suffered loss through the British action, and the blockade was called off.

The Pacifico affair was debated in the Commons over four nights in June 1850 and represented the greatest victory of Palmerston’s political career. The political heavyweights, Gladstone, Cobden, Disraeli and Peel spoke against what they saw as his bullying of a small country. Gladstone accused him of
‘a rash desire, a habitual desire of interference’;
Peel (a few days before his death) accused him of converting diplomacy from a ‘costly engine for maintaining peace’ into an agency of ‘angry correspondence’. But Palmerston won by 310 votes to 264 after his remarkable civis Romanus sum speech delivered on 25 June. He had become the most popular man in England. 

The Great Exhibition

This is a summary of a more detailed post to be found here. The V & A site on the Exhibition is here.

The 'Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ opened in Hyde Park on 1 May 1851. This showcase of manufacturing inventiveness and ingenuity presented the mid-Victorians with a flattering image of themselves as a nation of inventors and entrepreneurs. It was, as Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, 
‘the greatest day in our history, the most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen, and the triumph of my beloved Albert…the happiest, proudest day in my life.’

Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition
1 May 1851.
The Exhibition lasted from May to October 1851 and received 6 million visitors (out of a population of 27million). It was a tribute to the country that had created the Industrial Revolution. By coincidence it took place in the same year as the census that revealed that for the first time more people were living in the town than the country. At this period, Britain was the world’s shipbuilder, the world’s carrier, the world’s banker, and the world’s clearing-house.

The Exhibition was the brainchild of the civil servant Henry Cole.  
Henry Cole
He had visited an exhibition of manufactured goods in Paris and persuaded Prince Albert to support a similar exhibition in Britain. When the Commissioners for the Exhibition met for the first time in January 1850, Albert was President and Cole the chief organizer.

The centrepiece of the Exhibition was an enormous glass and cast-iron edifice, more than a third of a mile long, 408 feet broad, and 66 feet high - with transepts108 feet high, perhaps the world’s first, and certainly the world’s largest prefabricated building. The designer was Joseph Paxton (1803-65), gardener of Chatsworth, who had taught himself biology and engineering.  He produced the design, based on the glass lily house in the Chatsworth garden over which he presided.  It triumphed over 233 designs, and was completed in nine days.

The speed with which it was erected was remarkable. It took Paxton just a month to draw up the blueprints (11 June - 15 July 1850). The ground was handed over to the contractors on 30 July. The first of the cast-iron columns was raised on 26 September. The building was completed in six months. The secret was prefabrication. All the material was interchangeable: girders, columns, gutters, and sash bars were identical throughout the whole building.

The Crystal Palace

The building was immediately thought of as a palace. It was thought to offer a solution to the difficult problem of finding a distinctive 19th century architectural style. The brilliantly apposite term ‘crystal palace’ was coined by Douglas Jerrold, the former editor of Punch

There were over 13,000 exhibitors, one half of the total Exhibition being occupied by Great Britain, the other half by foreign states, of which France and Germany were the most important.  The foreign exhibits were placed in the eastern half of the building and classed under their respective countries. British exhibits filled the western end.

The prime reason for the Exhibition’s success was that it took place at a time of peace and relative prosperity. But the memory of a series of disturbances going back to Peterloo led to some apprehension before it opened. Would there be mob action on the lines of the Chartist demonstration?

When the Exhibition opened, the entry fee was 5/-, but after the first few weeks, admission prices were reduced to 2/6 on Friday and 1/- from Monday to Thursday. (There was no Sunday opening because of Sabbatarian pressure on the Prime Minister.) With the onset of the ‘shilling day’ a different sort of visitor arrived at the Exhibition. 4.5 million (three quarters of the total attendance) came on the shilling days, and behaved very well. During the whole period, there were only twenty-five prosecutions for offences committed inside the building. Had Britain now obtained a lasting social peace? Newspapers thought working men had become 
‘more intelligent, more self-reliant, more energetic… ashamed of their former prejudices’.   
Had the ‘dangerous classes’ disappeared from the scene, to be replaced by the ‘labouring classes’? Had the working classes become respectable?

The Exhibition showed that the railway age had arrived and that cheap seats meant that the relatively poor could travel to a degree that had been impossible in previous generations. The London and North Western Railway carried three quarter of a million people to the Exhibition while the shilling days were in force. Thomas Cook negotiated with the Midland railway for reduced rail fares with accommodation in London.  Some employers allowed time off work, others paid for the cost of the trip. This was the beginning of the leisure industry.


The mid-Victorian period saw the Liberals as the ruling party, and also saw Liberalism as the dominant ideology, though Palmerston’s muscular Liberalism was not necessarily typical. The Great Exhibition represented the Liberal belief, exemplified above all in Richard Cobden, that if nations traded freely with each other they would not go to war. As well as being an idealistic creed, Liberalism promoted the belief in free speech and the free interchange of ideas. In its mid-Victorian form Liberalism was suspicious of state action and instead put faith the ability of the individual to rise in society through sheer hard work; it was not a life-sentence to be born poor.

In 1859 two important works were published that encapsulated these aspects of Liberalism: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help. Mill argued for the free exchange of ideas, Smiles for a relentless quest for individual self-improvement. Both books were enormously influential.

John Stuart Mill

‘The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest. ... If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.' From On Liberty

Samuel Smiles

‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’ is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience. The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.…
Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.…National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice.’ From Self-Help


  1. The mid-Victorian period has been seen as a time of optimism and self-confidence, with individualistic Liberalism as the dominant ideology.
  2. Palmerston’s aggressive Liberalism made him a hugely popular Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister. 
  3. The Great Exhibition showed that, for the time being at least, protectionism was dead. Britain believed it could only increase its prosperity by freely trading with the rest of the world.
  4. Samuel Smiles and John Stuart Mill represented complementary aspects of mid-Victorian Liberalism.