The 19th century, also referred to as the Victorian Era, ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity to England. This lesson touches on 19th-century English society, its social values and class divisions, the Industrial Revolution, and the British Empire.
You’re probably familiar with 19th century England, while not realizing it. The 19th century provided the backdrop for the engaging worlds written by some of England’s most prolific authors, including Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. While Jane Austen depicted idyllic romantic scenes among the English nobility, Charles Dickens showed the gritty realities of 19th-century life for many people. Throughout this lesson, you will see how class divisions mixed with a new economic prosperity defined 19th-century life in England.
The Victorian Era and the Industrial Revolution
Queen Victoria ruled over England for a large part of the century, from 1837 to 1901. For this reason, the period is often known as the Victorian Era. This was also a time that Britain saw tremendous economic and industrial growth due to the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. The Industrial Revolution prompted a large segment of the British population to shift from agricultural to manufacturing careers, as job opportunities moved to the cities. People flocked to urban areas like London and Birmingham for work in factories, especially in the textile industry.
Class Divisions in 19th-Century England
New economic opportunities during this time helped to boost life expectancy and quality of life, but they also reinforced class divides that had existed in Britain for centuries. Previously, England was controlled by the landed gentry, or wealthy land holders who gained their status through family lineages. During Victorian times, the landed gentry became wealthy business owners who still controlled politics and the economy.
One positive social outcome of the Industrial Revolution was the development of skilled labor, which led to the rise of a middle class. The middle class consisted of newly educated experts in industrial technologies, along with other college-educated professionals like doctors, engineers, and lawyers. It also included people who worked as teachers, governesses, clerks, and other white-collar workers who were not paid as much but still saw a distinction between themselves and the lower classes.
The rise of the middle class put pressures on the upper classes for increased representation, which resulted in a series of reform acts giving commoners increased representation in parliament.
Although the middle class was gaining real traction in 19th-century England, a third class of unskilled laborers, known as the underclass, were a blemish on all of Victorian society. The British underclass worked menial jobs when they were available, and there were no labor laws to protect them from abuses. Child labor was prevalent; children were used to crawl into small work spaces in jobs such as mining and chimney sweeping. Many women turned to prostitution, which was considered to be a horrible crime under Victorian values, which called for dignity and restraint, especially when it came to sexuality. Prostitution and child labor showed clear contradictions by the ruling class of claiming propriety on the one hand but showing a total lack of regard for human welfare on the other.