Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The latter half of the Victorian era was a liberal and outspoken time – its most representative people were not the aristocrats or the shopkeepers, but men with university education, says George Trevelyan in his book English Social History. These were “gentlemanly, bearded intellectuals, reader of John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Aldous Huxley, Matthew Arnold, George Eliott and Robert Browning.”

The impact of Darwinism was not yet universally felt.

An important development at the time was the opening of Oxford and Cambridge to all students irrespective of religious beliefs. Science and history were taking their place beside classics and mathematics in the academic world. In 1870 competitive examinations were set for entrance to the civil service. And limited-liability companies were replacing family concerns.

Trevelyan says equality of the sexes was “finding its way” into all social classes. An important offshoot of this development was The Married Woman’s Property Act. It released women who owned their own property from “economic bondage to their husbands”.

What Trevelyan sees as the greatest single event of the 187Os was the sudden collapse of English agriculture. The cause of this collapse was the development of the American prairies, which brought produce from the grain fields of the US and Canada within reach of the English market. Also, the “new railway system transported the produce of these parts to [a] port, where the steamers bore the grain across the Atlantic to Britain”.

A further development, Trevelyan points out, was that American mass production led to the overthrow of the English landed aristocracy.

According to Trevelyan, UK prime minister Benjamin Disraeli had warned of the ruin of agriculture as “an inevitable result of the free trade in corn.” And yet, as the author says, though he was prime minister he did nothing about it. Landlords and farmers complained in vain, for “their day as political rulers of England had gone by”. Besides, it was also the age of the “free trade doctrine”.

The first decade of the decline in agriculture began in 1875 when, according to Trevelyan, the acreage of wheat fell by nearly 1-million. By 1881 there were about 100,000 fewer farm labourers than 10 years before. But that was “only the beginning of the exodus”.

Whole regions of corn land in the west, the Midlands and the north “were laid down in grass’’. However, this happened “without a corresponding rise in the number of livestock”. The introduction of frozen meat from Australia, New Zealand and South America played an important role, the author says.

Forestry was also affected.  England no longer planted great oaks to build battleships. Besides, timber was being imported from Scandinavia and North America, which discouraged the growing of it in Britain.

Trevelyan points out that agriculture was only one example of the short-sightedness of English state policy. The later Victorians had no long-term plans for the future. However, the civil service was brought up to date, as well as local government, education, universities and, to a lesser extent, the army.

Yet Trevelyan believes that by this time the English had already “lost some of the complacency and cocksuredness of the 1850s and 1860s, when England supplied goods to a world that was still lagging by at least a generation. There was no formidable military power that was hostile to the country.”

In wealth England was ahead of her rivals in wealth, liberty and order.

Trevelyan sees the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 “as the first shock”. During the next three decades America and Germany became manufacturing powers that rivalled Britain. Also, they had far greater natural resources. Germany had by that time introduced scientific and technical education.

But as Trevelyan says, until 1870 Britain ignored Germany. However, English writers such as Matthew Arnold and George Meredith were already warning England that “national education and discipline in the Teutonic heart of Europe were creating a new kind of power that had a jealous eye on Britain’s wealth”.

There was “a concerted rise in socialism among the working class until the latter years of the century. And there was rising discontent with the spirit of laissez-faire.”

The last years of Victoria’s reign were “on the whole years of great prosperity and increased wealth, which spread to most sections of the community.  The queen’s jubilees were celebrated by all classes. Streets were safe, life more humane, sanitation was improving and working-class housing was less bad than before.”

Also, working conditions had improved and real wages had risen. But as Trevelyan points out unemployment, sickness and old age “still held terrors for the workman”.

On the credit side, Trevelyan says income tax in the 1880s varied from “two pence in the pound to a mere sixpence halfpenny”.

Seaside holidays had become affordable to the lower middle class and even large sections of the working class. And the weekend “out of town”, “once the preserve of the owners of big country homes” would later also involve the week-end cottage.

Already society was becoming mixed, and, as Trevelyan remarks, and “men of mere wealth were becoming prominent in London’s drawing- rooms”.     

Oxford and Cambridge were freed from bondage of Church monopoly by the Test Act of 1871. Trevelyan regards the Dictionary of National Biography as the “most characteristic achievement of the time.” He calls it the “best record of the nation’s past that any civilisation has produced”.

The evangelical revival of the Salvation Army, founded by Gen William Booth, brought conversion after John Wesley’s original fashion to the army of “the homeless and the unfed, to the drunkard, the criminal and the harlot”.

Trevelyan believes that the introduction of sixpenny photograph “did more for the poor than all the philanthropists in the world”. It established a link with the son who had emigrated to America, Canada or other British dominions and colonies.