British Empire—Height of Empire

1815 to 1902
Battle of Waterloo to Second Boer War

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Height of Empire

The years following the Napoleonic Wars were beset by domestic difficulties in Britain. The government had to raise taxes to pay off a massive war debt, and unemployment was a much greater problem than during the war time. Numerous domestic reforms had been put off during the war and the industrial revolution was wreaking havoc on traditional economies. Because of the shifting of wealth from the countries to the cities there was a great deal of pressure to reform Parliament in order to more fairly represent newly populated areas. This resulted in the Reform act of 1832, which enfranchised thousands of middle class citizens and better represented the new distribution of population. Other important reforms that were implemented after the war years were Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery in the colonies.

Victorian Era—The Victorian Era, lasting from 1837 to the close of the 19th century, was the heyday of the British Empire. The population of all of its colonies increased greatly during this time, both from indigenous growth, and the migration of Britain's own growing population. Land in Canada, Australia, and South Africa was cheap and any landless Englishman who could afford passage, could become established in the new colonies. Manufactured goods were becoming inexpensive, trade thrived, and a reasonably prosperous middle class was becoming a predominant political power for the first time in history. Rail travel was becoming widely available, making transportation to, and development of the interior regions of both Britain and its colonies much easier than before. Science and technology were yielding great discoveries during this time, increasing mankind's understanding of his physical world, and new ideas of change and progress were coming into conflict with traditional beliefs and ways of life.

During this same time however, some of the difficulties of governing such a large and diverse empire, were becoming apparent on both the domestic and international fronts. Although the decades following the Napoleonic War were relatively peaceful, by mid-century, Britain became involved in a series of wars, in China, Afghanistan, the Crimea, India, Burmah, Egypt, Soudan, Greece, West Africa, Abyssinia, and South Africa, that in many cases were required to maintain Britain's dominion over unruly native populations. These wars were not always popular either in Britain's colonial regions, or at home, and were the frequent cause of the collapse of whichever British governing party was currently in power.

Politics and Culture—In the realm of domestic politics, the commencement of the reign of Victoria coincided very nearly with the beginning of the new reformed parliament, which was at first dominated by Whigs. The reform-minded Whigs made many new laws which restricted the abuse of laborers in the factories, encouraged efforts applied towards public education, revised the poor-laws, and even abolished slavery in all of the colonies of the United Kingdom. Many of these laws, some of which required higher taxes, were contentious, and soon after the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne, the Tories, lead by Prime Minister Robert Peel, were back in power. The Tory (or conservative party) base however, had changed, and was increasingly sympathetic to the concerns of the middle classes, and was also known for lowering import and export duties, to encourage more trade. For most of the Victorian era power alternated between the domestic-reform minded Whigs, whose best known spokesman was William Gladstone, and the imperial-reform minded Tories, whose best known spokesman was Benjamin Disraeli.

In the fields of literature, arts, science, and invention, the Victorian age in Britain, was full of astounding genius. Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell, were all well known for their inquiries into electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics, while Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley put forth a theory of evolution that challenged accepted notions of Biblical Creation. Famous Victorian age poets include Rudyard Kipling, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and of course, Alfred Tennyson. Victorian age novelists included Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Jules Verne, and the Bronte sisters.

Commerce, Free Trade and Colonial problems—The ideas of Adam Smith had taken great hold of the commerce-minded middle class of Britain so free-market ideas which encouraged trade were becoming more prevalent in both parties. The reduction of import duties on manufactured goods, however, was not as controversial as the reduction of tariffs on food-stuffs (known as corn-laws), since the corn-laws protected the incomes on peasant farmers as well as the powerful landed squires. It was not until the crisis of the Irish potato famine in 1846, that the corn-laws, which raised the price of food for everyone, were abolished. This eased the crisis somewhat, but the grievances of the Irish peasants against their British overlords was very great and long-standing. Catholic Ireland had been oppressed by Britain since the time of the reformation, and now that the British middle classes had won some political rights there was a great movement afoot in Ireland to achieve self-government, that was opposed by those in Britain who feared the radical element. The "Irish Problem", continued to be a controversial political problem in Britain, throughout the reign of Victoria, in spite of the best efforts of some statesmen sympathetic to the Irish, including Daniel O'Connell, Charles Parnell, and William Gladstone.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain's international trade was the envy of the world, and it was by far the wealthiest and most powerful nation the world had ever seen. It had established trade, (sometimes forcibly, as in China), with almost every country on the globe and was actively trying to develop its colonies, by building railroads, encouraging commerce, and in some cases, supporting missionary activity. Its prestige however, took several blows, in the mid 1850's first with the Crimean War, when due to commercial concerns, she took the side of the degenerate Ottoman Empire against Russia. Soon after, the Indian Mutiny, a wide-scale rebellion against British authority, broke out and was only put down at great cost after a series of disturbing atrocities. Following shortly afterward were the infamous Opium Wars with China. While Britain achieved military victories in all these conflicts, the contention and controversies involved planted seeds of anti-imperialism both inside and outside British domains.

Exploration and Colonization of Africa—The colonization and exploration of Africa, particularly the regions of South Africa, was accomplished primarily during the Victorian era, much later than that of Asia, and it was desired to avoid some of the missteps that Britain had taken in Asia. Unquestionably, in Africa there was a more conscious effort to deal fairly with the native populations, and utilize missionary activities to help "civilize" the inhabitants. For most of the 19th century, for example, Britain worked actively against the slave trade, and tried to keep peace among warring tribes, when possible. However, their were, as always, great difficulties, and Britain was pulled into wars in South Africa, against both the Zulus and their enemies, the Boers, who had resisted British rule. Britain was also drawn into conflicts in West Africa, and the Egypt-Sudan region, where native war-lords rose against the Ottoman-Egyptian government, a British ally. The African interior, which was entirely unexplored by white men, was also tackled during this era, most notably by David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, but other British explorers included H. M. Stanley, Richard Burton, and John Hanning Speke.

Characters—Height of Empire

Character/Date Short Biography


Victoria I
Longest reigning English Monarch. Presided over the British Empire at its height.
Robert Peel
Important Victorian Era British prime minister who oversaw several free market and political reforms.
Benjamin Disraeli
Prime Minister, Author, and conservative rival of Gladstone.
William Gladstone
Prime minister and member of the Liberal Party. Opponent of Disraeli.
Charles Parnell
Irish Catholic politician who fought for home rule for Ireland.
Cecil Rhodes
Power broker in South Africa, tried to turn all provinces into a British Colony.


Lord Raglan
Field Marshall of English Forces during the Crimean War.
Henry Havelock
Led a division to relieve Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion. Died during the siege.
William Brydon
Surgeon in the Bengal army; sole surviver of the massacre at Khyber pass in Afghanistan.
Charles Gordon
General who defeated the Tai-pings in China, served as governor in Soudan and resisted the Mahdi in Khartoum.
Lord Roberts
Career officer, saw service in Indian Mutiny, Afghanistan, Abyssinia, India and South Africa.
Horatio Kitchener
Military hero of the late 19th century, first in Sudan, and later in the Boer Wars
John Franklin
Explorer of the Artic regions of Canada.

Art and Literature

Sir Walter Scott
Author best known for novels set in Scotland.
Elizabeth Browning
Eminent poet of the Victorian era. Married to Robert Browning.
Charles Dickens
Prolific novelist of the Victorian Era. Wrote David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and others.
Thomas Carlyle
Popular Victorian age essayist and historian.
Alfred Tennyson
Best known poet of he Victorian Age. Write Idylls of the King and many others.
Rudyard Kipling
Kipling's novel's and poetry are associated with British Imperialism, for good and ill.


Grace Darling
British heroine who saved sailors from a ship that crashed on her father's lighthouse.
Florence Nightingale
Nurse who reformed the care of wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

Timeline—Height of Empire

AD YearEvent

Domestic Politics

1829 Catholic Emancipation in Ireland—Catholics allowed to vote.
1832 First Reform Act—Whigs take control of Parliament.
1833 Abolition of Slavery in British colonies.
1837 Queen Victoria ascends to the throne of England.
1846 Potato Famine in Ireland; Repeal of the Corn Laws enhances Free Trade.
1851 The Great Exhibition opens in the Crystal Palace in London
1868-74 First Ministry of William Gladstone—promotes a liberal reform agenda.
1874-80 Second Ministry of Benjamin Disraeli—promotes a conservative imperial agenda.
1875 Egyptian Share of Suez canal is sold to Britain.
1887 Fiftieth year Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
1901 Death of Queen Victoria

Wars and Conflicts

1842 Retreat from Afghanistan—Massacre of British Army at Kyber Pass.
1854-56 Crimean War—Britain allies itself with Ottomans to oppose Russian expansion.
1857 Indian Mutiny —rebellion of Sepoys put down with great slaughter.
1879 Zulu Wars—British prevail over Zulus after suffering a massacre at Isandhlwana
1880 First Boer War—British concede to Boer demands after suffering serious defeats.
1882 Arabi's Rebellion put down at the Battle of Tel-al-Kebar.
1883-1904 Soudan Campaign—British quell a murderous Moslem fanatic cult in the Soudan.
1885 Death of Charles Gordon at the Siege of Khartoum—British relief fails to arrive in time.
1898 Horatio Kitchener defeats the rebel Madhists at the Battle of Obdurman.
1899-1901 Second Boer War—Hard fought victory forces the Boers to submit to British rule.

Exploration and Discovery

1852 David Livingstone begins his first expedition into Africa.
1858 The first trans-Atlantic cable is laid from Ireland to Newfoundland.

Arts and Culture

1870 Death of Charles Dickens, popular British novelist.

Recommended Reading—Height of Empire

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Marshall - Our Island Story   The First Gentleman in Europe to Boer and Briton (10)
Synge - The Reign of Queen Victoria    entire book

Supplemental Recommendations

Harding - The Story of England   A Period of Reform to British Empire under Edward VII. (5)
Gaskoin - The Hanoverians   Waterloo to Sevastopol to Justice, Defence, Taxation (2)
Marshall - English Literature for Boys and Girls   Byron—"Childe Harold" to Tennyson—Poet of Friendship (7)
Synge - Growth of the British Empire    entire book
Synge - Life of Gladstone    entire book
Richards - Florence Nightingale    entire book

Easy Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Modern Times   William Ewart Gladstone (1)
Sellar - The Story of Lord Roberts    entire book
Lang - The Story of General Gordon    entire book