Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

A Sketch of Britain in 1837

To understand the wonderful achievements of the Victorian age, let us glance for a moment at the condition of the country when the young Queen came to the throne.

It was a very different Britain at that time—a Britain without any rapid means of communication, without trains or steamers, motors or bicycles, without telegrams, telephones, postage stamps, envelopes, postcards—a Britain without gas or electric light or even matches.

Victorian Britain


The people looked quite different too. They wore clothes of brighter colours; men wore gay coats and waistcoats, they wound thick cravats round their necks, and wore whiskers and long hair. Women wore their hair divided in the middle and brushed smoothly down over their ears; they wore full skirts with high waists, and large bonnets trimmed with light ribbons. Children were not dressed in warm clothes, they went about in winter and summer alike with low-necked frocks and short sleeves, with socks on their legs instead of stockings. They were very strictly brought up, the stick was freely used, and they addressed their parents as "sir" and "madam". Girls were taught by their mothers to sew, cook, and to wash, though few of them could read and write.

Indeed there were few enough books to read, and these were expensive. There were no free libraries and no swimming baths. Baths were not considered necessary. Eton boys had one bath a term, and that was the night before they returned home for the holidays! The importance of cleanliness was not realized.

Beer was the universal drink for rich and poor: spirits were hardly used as yet. There was no five o'clock tea, for tea itself was expensive. On the other hand, all food was home grown; bread was made from home-grown corn, beef and mutton from home-fed oxen and sheep, butter was churned in the country farmsteads by the farmer's wife and daughters, home-cured bacon was the cheapest food for the working man.

But wages were low, and the working man was badly housed. He had as yet no voice in the government of his country, no newspaper to tell him what was going on elsewhere. Many more people lived in the country than at the present day, for migration to the large towns had but lately begun. Life was altogether less restless, if more monotonous. There was no annual outing to the seaside; people were hopelessly separated one from another, for travelling by stage coach was an expensive luxury.

Medicine, too, was in a backward condition. Many a valuable life was lost, because surgical operations, that are now quite common, were almost impossible before the days of chloroform. Women were little educated, there were no hospital nurses, no women doctors. Instead of seeking professions, they worked at home, they wove their own linen, they took little part in public life. They married young, and devoted themselves to their households.

There was very little emigration at this time; the young men could find plenty of occupation at home. Great Britain had work for all her sons and daughters, and there was no British Empire as there is to-day. Canada was our oldest and nearest colony. Australia was a convict station, South Africa a little territory about the Cape of Good Hope, New Zealand was inhabited by natives only. Few people thought much of these scattered possessions, some did not even know where they lay on the map. And it was not till communication became more rapid all over the world, that these distant possessions grew into importance.

In 1830 the first passenger train had been driven between Liverpool and Manchester at the rate of twelve miles an hour by the inventor, George Stephenson himself. In the year of the Queen's coronation this pace was increased to twenty-one miles an hour, and the distance from Liverpool to London, 210 miles, was accomplished in ten hours. Lines were rapidly laid down all over the country, connecting the few large towns one with another, and every month found new trains cautiously running over them.

The danger of travelling was still great, and few passengers took their seats in the rough carriages of those early days without wondering whether or not it might prove a last venture. Stations were few and far between, no smoking was allowed for fear of fire, signalling was yet in its infancy, and the now familiar Bradshaw's Guide, with its thousand pages, consisted of six pages in the year of its birth, 1839.

As to the third-class passengers, they were packed into open cattle trucks; railway servants were forbidden to attend to them; the pace of their trains might not exceed twelve miles an hour, and for this they had to pay at the rate of 1d a mile.

The same rapid progress was taking place with regard to steamers. The first steamer had made its way across the Atlantic in 1819, the very year of the Queen's birth. Improvements in engines had been taking place all through her childhood, until in the year after her accession, the Great Western, with sixty-five passengers and twenty thousand letters, crossed the Atlantic in fifteen days from Bristol to New York. Henceforth a regular service of steamers plied between England and America, Liverpool springing into fame as a port.

Another change of far-reaching importance was the introduction of the penny post throughout Britain. In 1837, Rowland Hill had advocated uniform postage, which had already existed in London, but beyond this area postal rates were very high, often over a shilling, which sum was paid by the recipient of the letter, and not by the writer. The fast-growing trade of the British Isles had suffered severely from the delays and expense of the post. And although the population of the country was increasing rapidly, yet the money taken by the General Post Office had not increased. A penny post was now planned for the whole country, and in 1840 anybody could send a letter, bearing a stamp, to any part of the British Isles for one penny, so long as it was under half an ounce, a limit which twenty-five years later was raised to one ounce. Before the Great War four ounces could be sent for a penny.

Sir Roland Hill


Yet quicker communication was established by the invention of the electric telegraph in 1837. It was the result of patient toil, the final triumph of which was shared by Britain and America. The telegraph was first used along the railway lines of the Great Western Railway, but its real value was not realized till ten years later, when the importance of the new invention dawned on the public mind.