The Industrial Revolution in Victorian England
By Christopher Baker
The Victorian Era (1837–1901) is defined by the reign of Queen Victoria, who ascended to the throne at the age of 18 and ruled during the industrialization of England, encouraging tremendous change and expansive growth of England’s domestic and foreign power. The Victorian period in England’s history is a case study in stark contrasts: the beauty and richness of the aristocracy versus the poverty and depression of the poor working class. The middle class was essentially nonexistent, but the Industrial Revolution meant that the balance of power shifted from the aristocracy, whose position and wealth was based on land, to the newly rich business leaders. The new aristocracy became one of wealth, not land, and often bought themselves titles, which remained important in British society.
Until the reign of Queen Victoria, England’s populace was primarily rural. The explosion of the Industrial Revolution accelerated the migration of the population from the country to the city. The result of this movement was the development of horrifying slums and cramped row housing in the overcrowded cities. By 1900, 80% of the population lived in cities. These cities were “organized” into geographical zones based on social class—the poor in the inner city, with the more fortunate living further away from the city core.
In an age of burgeoning technology and industry, the common working man suffered what to the modern reader would seem brutal, degrading, and almost unimaginable conditions with a patient resignation and the sense that survival is its own end. Industrial workers labored from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, without health benefits, bonuses, or vacation. Adult factory workers were forced to leave their children with little to no supervision in drafty homes with inadequate septic systems, no running water, toilets, and little ventilation. Half of all children died before the age of five due to neglect and malnourishment. By 1839, nearly half of all funerals were for children under the age of ten.
The overcrowded shanty homes were built within walking distance of the factories. The houses were “back to backs,” often sharing a wall without windows in the front of the homes, and no backyards. In London and other large towns, the waste from houses drained into the sewers that ran down the center of the street, tainting the air with the smell of human and animal waste. Due to these conditions and mountains of animal filth and feces that filled the London streets, disease ran rampant, quickly sweeping through neighborhoods and factories. More than 31,000 people died from an outbreak of cholera in 1832; typhus, smallpox, and dysentery were also common diseases.
The Victorian Age was characterized by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere – from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. Over time, this rapid transformation deeply affected the country’s mood: an age that began with a confidence and optimism eventually gave way to uncertainty and doubt and grievous conditions for the common man.