Monday, 4 May 2009

The Victorians

I have always been fascinated by the Victorian era. Perhaps as a very young boy I was influenced by stories and images depicting the British Empire. I certainly remember being excited by pictures of places such as India and Arabia, and it was my first realisation that not everyone in the world were neither white nor English. The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). It was, in the main, a period of peace and prosperity. Abroad the British Empire flourished, whilst at home great industrial improvements were bringing a new wealth and well-being to the British people. As a result, in the fifty years between 1851 and 1901 the population of England almost doubled from just under 17 million to over 30 million, spawning the arrival of a large, better educated, middle class. It has to be remembered that this was achieved at a time when there was no Labour party to fight for workers rights. British politics at that time was dominated by the Whigs (Liberals) and the Tories (Conservatives).

Whilst times were still hard for the working classes, those who prospered enjoyed a good lifestyle, as reflected in the many large Victorian houses that can still be seen in most towns and cities today.

As education improved culture became more important. The first Worlds Fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, showcased the greatest innovations of the century. The Crystal Palace was built, considered to be the prototype of modern architecture, an enormous construction made of glass and iron. A great shift in Art occurred as new fangled photography challenged the artists of the period. Hand held cameras became available in 1900.
The creation of new wealth allowed many Victorians to turn their attention to leisure activities. There was a surge of interest in theatre, opera, music and drama. Entertainment varied by social class, gambling, drinking and prostitution were targeted by church and reform movements. It was at this time that casinos became wildly popular.

The Bandstand also became very popular, and would be found in most public parks as brass bands played to appreciative Victorians out for a stroll. The Victorians also had a fascination with things like hypnotism, conjuring, mediums and ghosts. Perhaps most popular of all were the many music hall theatres, providing a mixture of variety entertainment, consisting of popular song, comedy, and speciality acts, much like the old vaudeville theatres popular in America and Canada. I shall discuss Victorian entertainment further in future articles, along with other aspects of Victorian life, such as great feats of engineering, the Victorian seaside, and the seedier side of Victorian life, poverty, child labour, prostitution and debtor prisons.