Victorian Britain: a brief history (2024)

Victorian era | Questions | Industrial revolution | Social reforms | Empire | Teaching the Victorians | Citizenship | Victorian achievements | Key concepts


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The Victorian era

The 19th century was one of rapid development and change, far swifter than in previous centuries. During this period England changed from a rural, agricultural country to an urban, industrialised one. This involved massive dislocation and radically altered the nature of society. It took many years for both government and people to adjust to the new conditions.

Strictly speaking, the Victorian era began in 1837 and ended with Queen Victoria's death in 1901, but the period can be stretched to include the years both before and after these dates, roughly from the Napoleonic Wars until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Questions to discuss

  • Does technological advance mean the same thing as progress?
  • How does Victorian pollution compare with pollution in our own time?
  • What patterns of migration occurred – within, from, and to the UK?
  • Could the 19th century be called ‘The Age of Improvement'?
  • How does the British Empire compare with the Roman Empire?

Key themes and developments

Over the period there were changes and developments in every sphere of life. Key themes include the following:

The Industrial Revolution

This was made up of technological, scientific and industrial innovations (e.g. mass production, steam engines, railways, sewing machines, gas and electric light, the telegraph) that led to an enormous expansion of production, particularly through the factory system. There were huge social costs: the dehumanisation of work, child labour, pollution, and the growth of cities where poverty, filth and disease flourished. Child labour and poverty were also a feature of rural life, where farm work involved long hours, very low pay and exposure to all weathers.

See 'Children in Victorian Britain' (please note: these lessons pre-date the 2014 National Curriculum):

  • Down the mine
  • Textile mills
  • Slate mining
  • Victorian boarding-school

See also these articles from Primary History:

  • Using classic fiction to support the study of Victorian childhood
  • Local history unit – your local railway

Population growth and migration

Between 1801 and 1871 alone the population of the UK doubled. Migration in both directions was a feature of Victorian life. Many Britons left the UK for North America or the colonies in search of a better life. The Irish poor formed a large number of these migrants, especially after the Irish potato famine in 1845: the Irish moved in large numbers to England and Scotland, as well as abroad. Within the UK as a whole, people moved from the countryside into the new industrial cities to find work. Migrants from across the world also settled in Britain, notably Jews from Europe and Russia.

Social reforms

As a result of early campaigns by people such as Michael Sadler and the Earl of Shaftesbury, and reports by parliamentary commissions, legislation protecting child and adult workers began to be enacted. Important reforms included legislation on child labour, safety in mines and factories, public health, the end of slavery in the British Empire,and education (by 1880 education was compulsory for all children up to the age of 10). There was also prison reform and the establishment of the police.

See also:

  • One of my favourite history places – Saltaire
  • One of my favourite history places – Bournville
  • How cruel were the Victorians?(Secondary module on Victorian crime and punishment)

The rise of the middle classes

Society was hierarchical, yet there was much social and geographical mobility. Self-made entrepreneurs used their new wealth to rise in society, building large houses, educating their children and employing domestic servants (by the 1880s 1.25 million people were employed in domestic service more than in any other work category).

  • For more on the urban middle classes and their servants see Urban spaces
  • See alsoA Victorian Christmas

The growth of democracy

The franchise was gradually extended to the working classes, until by 1918there was universal suffrage for men. The fight for votes for women was in full swing, but it was not until 1930 that women achieved the same voting rights as men.

See also Ideas for Assemblies: Women in Parliament

Expansion of Empire

Before the start of the 19th century Britain had already lost her American Empire, and was acquiring another in India. Her accumulation of additional territory across the globe continued steadily. The Great Exhibition of 1851 displayed the wonders of both industry and Empire. Tied up with the Empire were Britain's trading dominance, naval and military strength, and competition for territory against other European nations. By the end of Victoria's reign imperialists could boast that the sun never set upon the British Empire.

Idealisation of the family

The ideal of family respectable and loving dominated the Victorian period. The cult of the home grew steadily, with Queen Victoria and her family providing a role model for the nation.Women were expected to stay at home and bring up the family, but the reality for many poor families was that women had to work; and many single middle-class women also had to work.

The growth of leisure pursuits

The 19th century saw the beginning of mass leisure: seaside holidays, religious activities, and the development of public parks, museums, libraries, spectator sports, theatres and music halls.

Teaching the Victorians

For this period we have the voices of those not often heard: the poor, women and children, giving us areal insight into their thoughts and daily lives. The pictures and words of children working in mines and factories, recorded by parliamentary commissioners, are particularly evocative see the lessons on Lotte (Down the mine) and child labour in factories (Textile mills).

Books such as Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford and Mrs Beetons Household Management are treasure troves of information about domestic work and life that children can relate to (see for instance Blenheim Square). Henry Mayhew's graphic 1851 descriptions of London labour and the London poor illuminate the lives led by destitute people in Victorian cities.

Indeed, the whole period abounds in rich sources: buildings, canals, railways, documents (including statistics, censuses, trade directories, parish registers, evidence to parliamentary commissions), pictures, objects and music.

Films and television series of novels by Charles Dickens convey a particularly vivid sense of life at many levels of Victorian society. Good educational videos include Yorkshire Television's 'The way we used to live', and the BBC's 'Landmarks' series, both made in the early 1990s. There are also many internet sites covering all aspects of the Victorian era.

The period is particularly suited to local history studies, and your local studies library should hold a range of sources for studying events and developments in your area during Victorian times (such as school life through log books, shops and occupations through trade and street directories, who lived in the area through the census, a visit by Queen Victoria, mining disasters). For examples of local Victorian studies, see the Fulwell windmill and Mining disasters lessons; also Victorian school buildings and Reading trade directories teaching method exemplars.

  • The Victorians(article)
  • The Victorians(topic pack)

There are opportunities for cross-curricular teaching touching most subjects, but particularly strong are links with geography, design and technology, science and PSCHE and, as always, with literacy (speaking and listening, reading and writing).


Discussion about Empire and migration can help children to explore issues of identity and how the multicultural Britain of today came about. Particularly useful is to observe how Victorian attitudes towards immigrants have altered over the years, how these immigrants have become part of British society, and the conclusions we can draw from this process.

Victorian achievements

A danger is that children will view the Victorian era as one of unrelenting darkness, cruelty and poverty. So it is worth focusing, too, on the achievements of the Victorians.

What had the Victorians achieved by the end of the era that didn't exist before?

  • Scheme of work: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Comparing Victorians with the Romans, and with aspects of today's world, is a useful exercise.

Key concepts

  • Industrialisation
  • Urbanisation
  • Global Empire
  • Progress (this is contentious: progress for whom, and progress of what type?)
  • Respectability
  • Self-help
  • Suffrage (the vote: for both men and women)
  • Migration


  • The Victorians: HA articles and resources
  • Scheme of Work: Sarah Forbes Bonetta
  • Scheme of Work: Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  • Scheme of Work: Waterloo and the Age of Revolutions
  • Add to My HA
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Victorian Britain: a brief history (2024)


What is Victorian Britain a brief history? ›

Victorian era, in British history, the period between approximately 1820 and 1914, corresponding roughly but not exactly to the period of Queen Victoria's reign (1837–1901) and characterized by a class-based society, a growing number of people able to vote, a growing state and economy, and Britain's status as the most ...

What is Victorian Britain known for? ›

Victoria served as figurehead for the nation. The period saw the British Empire grow to become the first global industrial power, producing much of the world's coal, iron, steel and textiles. The Victorian era saw revolutionary breakthroughs in the arts and sciences, which shaped the world as we know it today.

Why was Britain so powerful during the Victorian era? ›

Overseas trade and an extensive commercial infrastructure made Britain in the 19th century the most powerful trading nation in the world.

Which was the only major conflict that Britain was involved in during the Victorian period? ›

By contrast, only one war was fought in Europe during Victoria's reign: the Crimean War of 1854–6. It dramatically exposed the weakness of an army mainly led by amateur officers. So many soldiers died of disease and neglect that the army was rendered largely ineffective.

What is the moral code of the Victorian era? ›

Elements of Victorian morality explained. Although truthfulness, economizing, duty, personal responsibility, and a strong work ethic were strongly regarded as morals of the Victorian era, the years between 1837 and 1901 involved much more.

What were the gender norms in the Victorian times? ›

Victorians believed that a woman's proper and only place was to be within a household environment. The women were expected to marry, have children, and keep a nice household. Those were the only acceptable roles for women during that era.

How were children treated in the Victorian era? ›

The children of the poor were not thought to be a blessing, but often a burden on the family. With no laws to protect children, this meant they had few rights and were badly treated. Seen as simply the property of their parents, many children were abandoned, abused and even bought and sold.

What was life like in Victorian times? ›

If you're wondering what was life like in the Victorian era, then social inequality and changes are important points to consider. Poor people often lived in very crowded and unhealthy conditions. They often had to share a small room with many other people, and there was no indoor plumbing.

Was the Victorian era good or bad? ›

Although the Victorian era was a period of extreme social inequality, industrialisation brought about rapid changes in everyday life that affected all classes. Family life, epitomised by the young Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children, was enthusiastically idealised.

What did the Victorians do for us? ›

There were many important Victorian inventions that we still use today! These included the invention of safe, electric light bulbs, public flushing toilets and the phonograph (which recorded the human voice for the first time). Many of the Victorians inventions still have a big impact on the world today.

What was invented in Victorian times? ›

10 household inventions that transformed Victorian life
  • The telephone (1876) The word “telephone” was first coined in 1844. ...
  • The light bulb (1870s) ...
  • The flushing toilet (1845) ...
  • The computer (1833-1871) ...
  • The gramophone (1887) ...
  • The lawnmower (1830) ...
  • The electric kettle (1891) ...
  • The vacuum cleaner (1901)

What was the dark side of the Victorian era? ›

The most familiar images of Victorian life are bleak indeed: impoverished children working long hours in factories and mines; blankets of smog suspended above overcrowded cities; frightening workhouses run by cruel governors; violent criminals lurking in the shadows.

What was the religion in the Victorian era? ›

Throughout the 19th century England was a Christian country. The only substantial non-Christian faith was Judaism: the number of Jews in Britain rose from 60,000 in 1880 to 300,000 by 1914, as a result of migrants escaping persecution in Russia and eastern Europe.

Which diseases did Victorian England witness severe outbreaks of? ›

Are Victorian diseases making a comeback?
  • Typhoid. Typhoid during the Victorian era was incredibly common and remains so in parts of the world where there is poor sanitation and limited access to clean water. ...
  • Scarlet fever. ...
  • Tuberculosis. ...
  • Cholera. ...
  • Whooping cough. ...
  • So, are 'Dickensian diseases' making a comeback?
Mar 28, 2019

What is the brief description of Victorian period? ›

The Victorian era spans the 63 years of Queen Victoria's reign over Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 until her death in 1901. It was a time of great power and wealth for Britain as it expanded its empire across the globe.

What is the brief history of Victorian literature? ›

Victorian literature is English literature during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). The 19th century is considered by some to be the Golden Age of English Literature, especially for British novels. It was in the Victorian era that the novel became the leading literary genre in English.

What does Victorian mean in world history? ›

1. : of, relating to, or characteristic of the reign of Queen Victoria of England or the art, letters, or tastes of her time. 2. : typical of the moral standards, attitudes, or conduct of the age of Victoria especially when considered stuffy, prudish, or hypocritical.

What is Victorian age in English literature short note? ›

The Victorian period of literature roughly coincides with the years that Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain and its Empire (1837-1901). During this era, Britain was transformed from a predominantly rural, agricultural society into an urban, industrial one.

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