Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Lily Maxwell: woman voter

Lily Maxwell, woman voter
Public domain

There is a fascinating post here about Lily Maxwell, who actually voted in a by-election in Manchester. She possessed the necessary property qualification and was included in the electoral register by mistake. She was encouraged to vote by Lydia Becker and Jacob Bright (brother of the more famous John), two prominent women's suffrage campaigners. Unfortunately, judges ruled in November 1868 that the 1867 Reform Act did not apply to women. A small number of women voted in the general in the following month were subsequently removed from the register. It's sad to note that Lily Maxwell died in a workhouse in 1876.

Victorian civic pride

Birmingham Council House, Victoria Square
Public domain

The building of cities was a characteristic Victorian achievement, impressive in scale but limited in vision, creating new opportunities but also providing massive new problems. Perhaps their outstanding feature was hidden from public view - their hidden network of pipes, drains, and sewers, one of the biggest technical and social achievements of the age ... Yet their surface world was fragmented, intricate, cluttered, eclectic and noisy, the unplanned product of a private enterprise economy developing within an older, traditional society. …Economic individualism and common civic purpose were difficult to reconcile.… Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities.

Individualist preference for avoiding public enterprise whenever possible died hard. J.K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914.


The census of 1871 revealed that out of a population of 31 million nearly two thirds still lived in rural areas or in towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants. Apart from London only five cities housed more than a quarter of a million people. Heavy urbanization was physically confined to certain localities: London and Middlesex, Lancashire and Durham, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, west-central Scotland and parts of south Wales.  Suburbia was still limited and was unknown as a word. Most people still lived near their place of work. Farm labouring was the largest male occupation. Even in industrial areas many urban-dwellers lived within walking distance of green fields.

But this census was the last decennial survey for which this was true. The picture was irrevocably shattered by 

  1. the agricultural depression that drove many off the land 
  2. the gravitational pull of urban employment 
  3. the development of a cheap, suburban transport system. 

Writing in 1901 the novelist H. G. Wells envisaged the total breakdown of the traditional distinction between town and country. He predicted that by the start of the twentieth century the Londoner might ‘have a choice of nearly all England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as its suburb' (quoted G. R. Searle, A New England?, Oxford, 2004, p. 86).

The Victorians continually commented on the speed of urban development. A north London rector wrote,
I have tried to keep Hornsey a village, but circumstances have beaten me (quoted Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities, 1954, p. 31.)
The visitor to Birmingham could expect to find a street of houses in the autumn where he saw his horse at grass in the spring. In Victorian South London the houses could spring up in what seemed a single night (Briggs, p. 31).

Much of the effort went into church building, but particularly in the last quarter of the century there was a huge development of public offices, hospitals, schools, sewage farms, and water works.

These rapid changes meant that the late Victorians were subject to two conflicting ideas. On the one hand there was a flowering of civic pride, seen in the growing activism of the municipal corporations set up by the Act of 1835. On the other there was a deep rural nostalgia shown in the growing market for idyllic depictions of the countryside.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Gladstone, Disraeli, and the creation of a mass electorate

Gladstone in old age
Public domain

Politics in the 1870s and early 1880s was dominated by the figures of William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Both rose from middle-class backgrounds to lead their respective parties, and both presided over major reforms to the electoral system. In 1832 the Great Reform Act had increased the electorate, disenfranchised some pocket boroughs, and secured parliamentary representation for the new industrial towns. 

However, the Reform Act had not given the vote to the great majority of the working classes, even though many of them had campaigned for reform. The vote was still seen, not as a right, but as a privilege attached to the ownership of property. However, thanks to two further reform acts, by the time Gladstone finally left office in 1894, a mass electorate had come into being - though even then, not all men had the vote.

The Second Reform Act

Gladstone began his political career as a Tory, but following the repeal of the Corn Laws, became a Peelite. In 1859 he  joined Palmerston’s Liberal government as chancellor of the exchequer. By the mid-1860s he had come to accept the necessity of further political reform that would extend the right to vote, but everyone knew that this could not happen while Palmerston was still alive. The old man had set his face against further reform and as long as he was Prime Minister there would be no changes to the Reform Act of 1832.

Palmerston died in October 1865, shortly after winning another election for the Liberals, and he was succeeded by Earl Russell (the former Lord John Russell). Gladstone remained chancellor of the exchequer, but also became leader of the Commons. Because the Conservative leader, the earl of Derby was in the Lords, Disraeli was the Tory spokesman in the Commons.

Benjamin Disraeli
Public domain

The Liberal bill: In March 1866 Gladstone introduced a bill for modest electoral reform, designed to enfranchise the ‘respectable’ working class by giving the vote to those with a £7 rental qualification in the boroughs and £10 in the counties. This would have enfranchised some 400,000 men, but the vote was still to be attached to the ownership or occupation of property. 

The bill was immediately opposed by the Conservatives and some anti-reform Liberals, notably Robert Lowe, and its opponents were derisively called the 'Cave of Adullam' by the radical Liberal, John Bright.  The bill was passed but by a very narrow majority. In June it was defeated on an Adullamite wrecking amendment and Russell resigned. The Liberals were now out of office only a year after winning a convincing electoral victory. The queen then sent for the Conservative leader.

Edward Stanley-Smith, 14th earl of Derby
Public domain

The Conservative bill: Twice in the 1850s Derby had headed a minority Conservative government, and now for the third time he found himself prime minister without a Commons majority. Disraeli was now chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House. But the change of government did not mean that the reform issue was going away. With this in mind, Derby wrote to Disraeli: 
I am coming reluctantly to the conclusion that we shall have to deal with the question of reform.
A new urgency was given to this by threats to law and order. In July 1866 a rally planned by the Reform League in Hyde Park was banned by the police. Defying the authorities, the League marched from Trafalgar Square and skirmished with the police in Park Lane. For two days Hyde Park was the scene of disorder and riots. The railings were torn down and the home secretary, Spencer Walpole, was in tears. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Victorian servants

Women and work

Some of the standard images of Victorian women are the 'angel in the house' of Coventry Patmore's poem, the factory girl, and the domestic servant (and possibly Florence Nightingale's nurses). In fact, more women worked in the various dressmaking trades than in factories, and until the end of the nineteenth century the numbers of women in paid work was declining. Women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives subordinate to their husbands and rarely in paid employment. This owed a great deal to ideology but was also based in fact. With the advance of industrialisation and the shift to heavy industry, the incomes of most families were restricted to those of the male breadwinner - a circumstance that owes as much to trade union pressure as to middle-class ideology. A great deal of casual female labour went unrecorded in the censuses but even allowing for this, probably no more than ten per cent of married women were in paid employment. The great majority of women who worked full-time were young and/or single.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Victorians in love

The Victorians: prudes and hypocrites?

The Victorian period is often associated with doctrines of sexual self-restraint and an accompanying hypocrisy. It is often said that they were so prudish that they covered piano legs with pantaloons and spoke of white meat rather than chicken breast. In their hypocrisy they ignored the dark reality - the prevalence of prostitution was high and the practice of incest among the urban and rural poor

The late-Victorian and Edwardian periods saw attacks on Victorian hypocrisy and repression - for example in  Hardy’s Tess of the D'urbervilles and H. G. Wells’s daring Ann Veronica.

There is certainly considerable literary evidence for Victorian prudishness. In Our Mutual Friend Dickens mocked the figure of Mr Podsnap, who did not wish a book to contain anything that ‘might bring a blush to the cheek of a young person’. This suggests that novelists, perhaps Dickens in particular,  felt frustrated at the limitations imposed by the conventions of propriety.

The Victorian novel can leave key questions unanswered. Is the marriage of Dorothea and Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch consummated? Is Hardy's Tess raped or seduced? The reader is led to infer that Nancy in Oliver Twist is a prostitute, but it is not made explicit. No British novel of the period has the frankness of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856).

However, this prudishness can be exaggerated. If the Victorians put pantaloons on piano legs it was probably to protect the furniture! British Victorians mocked the prudery of  Americans because they talked of ‘dark’ and ‘white’ chicken and called cockerels roosters. Pruder and censoriousness was personified in the much-mocked person of ‘Mrs Grundy’ - seen below confronted by Oscar Wilde who is showing her his Picture of Dorian Gray. By the end of the century a reaction had set in against the sexual reticence of the high Victorian period. 

And even at the height of so-called Victorian prudery, marital sex was praised and the 'unnatural' celibacy of Roman Catholic and some Tractarian clergy was condemned.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Exploration and evolution: Darwin and Wallace

Here is the most fabulous site, with all Charles Darwin's works available online. There is no end to research on Darwin and a recent set of book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement give a clue to some of the latest thinking.

Darwin in 1854
Public domain

The context

Science is not value-free, and the language and concepts of Darwinism are those of the economic and social doctrines of the time. Darwin's Origin of Species was published at a particularly sensitive time, when scientists were making a bid for cultural supremacy.

The keystone of traditional naturalism was Archdeacon William Paley’s Natural Theology, which Darwin studied at Cambridge. The argument was simple and apparently convincing:
  • Life was good because through the kindness of God, all human beings were adapted to their surroundings;
  • Animals, including humans, are complex beings from the divine workshop, exquisitely fitted to their place in the world.
  • This proves there must be a designer.
Paley was writing during the wars with France, at a time of great social and political upheaval, his science legitimized the existing social order, and his conservative politics were unacceptable to radicals and to rationalist Unitarians such as Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. But Paley’s followers included not merely naturalists at the university, but also scores of vicar-naturalists working in their parishes.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Victorian architecture

I am indebted for this post to some excellent websites from the Victorian web and from Wikipedia. I have also used two books: Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Phoenix, 2004) and Roger Dixon and Stefan Muthesius, Victorian Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 1985).

Victorian architecture is all around us. After a post-war period in which Victorian buildings were deemed 'monstrosities' and many were demolished in favour of modernism, there is now a recognition of the inventiveness, dynamism, and aesthetic appeal of so many Victorian structures. A great deal has been lost, but much has now been lovingly restored.

As well as domestic housing - some modest, some grand - the period saw an enormous expansion in public and commercial buildings: town halls,  churches, railway stations, hospitals, museums, banks and hotels.  


Many of the new building projects were open to competition and this provided an unprecedented opportunity for a young architect who wished to make his way in his profession. In 1836, for example, Charles Barry won the competition for the new houses of Parliament. Architecture was a subject of great public interest and the most esteemed architects, such as Barry, received knighthoods.

There were also many private commissions created by the patronage of wealthy individuals who worked alongside architects to produce noteworthy. Thomas Cubitt was granted commissions by the duke of Bedford and the marquess of Westminster.  In 1845 he was authorised by Prince Albert to proceed with a new residence at Osborne. 

From 1866 William Burges transformed Cardiff Castle for the 3rd Marquess of Bute and in 1875 he began work on Castle Coch.

Castle Coch, a rich man's Gothic fantasy
The career of Joseph Paxton shows both trends. He made his name by designing the glasshouse at Chatsworth for the duke of Devonshire, but won the competition for the Crystal Palace. 

The architect was now a recognised professional working alongside a quantity surveyor. In 1834 the Institute of British Architects had been founded, given a royal charter in 1837. But there were few architectural schools and the majority of architects learned their trade through apprenticeships. Architectural practice was spread through journals.

The Gothic

The favoured style of most architects was the Gothic, popularised by A. W. N. Puginwhose idealisation of the Middle Ages was profoundly influential. 

Pugin's Contrasts (1836)
The modern workhouse compared with medieval charity.
Public domain

The Gothic revival was heavily influenced by two works by John RuskinThe Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3). In the second edition of The Seven Lamps, he set out his position clearly.
I have now no doubt that the only style proper for modern northern work, is the Northern Gothic of the thirteenth century, as exemplified, in England, pre-eminently by the cathedrals of Lincoln and Wells, and, in France, by those of Paris, Amiens, Chartres, Rheims, and Bourges, and by the transepts of that of Rouen.
What he loved about the Gothic was its expression of individuality, and even imperfection, compared with what he saw as the sterile formalism and uniformity of the classical style.
It is perhaps the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they … receive the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.
This idealisation of the Gothic was not a purely British development. In France, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was also extolling the Gothic and restoring buildings in the Gothic style.

The style came to be particularly associated with Sir George Gilbert ScottHe was the son of a clergyman and he specialised in ecclesiastical buildings, though he also designed the Albert Memorial and the St Pancras Station hotel.  However he produced classical designs for the Foreign Office. 

The High-Church Gothic architect, William Butterfielddesigned two Tractarian buildings All Saints Margaret Street in London and Keble College, Oxford.

Butterfield's Keble College chapel, opened 1876

The dominant architect of the mid-Victorian period was Alfred WaterhouseHe was born in Liverpool but some of his most notable work took place in Manchester, where his Gothic designs won the competitions for the assize courts and the town hallHe did not confine himself to the Gothic and constructed the Natural History Museum  along the lines of a Romanesque church.

The most advanced architect of the late Victorian period was Richard Norman ShawHe designed Gothic buildings but he also took architecture beyond the Gothic. His concern was to evolve a style of architecture based on the English vernacular. One of his most spectacular buildings was Cragside in Northumberland.

Cragside: beyond the Gothic

New materials

Because of the nineteenth-century transport revolution builders were not confined to local materials.  The repeal of the brick tax in 1850 meant that St Pancras station and its hotel could be built in the 1860s of Nottingham red brick, brought south by the Midland Railway. Westminster Cathedral was built with brick from Peterborough. The terracotta tiles that face the Natural History Museum came from Tamworth. Polychrome brickwork became a characteristic of Victorian architecture.

Below are a few from the very many examples of the varied ways in which the Victorians applied the architectural language of previous centuries to contemporary conditions.

Station architecture

The London to Birmingham Railway, engineered by Robert Stephenson was opened in 1837.  Its London terminus was designed by Philip Hardwick and his son P. C. Hardwick. The station was approached through the 'Euston Arch', in reality a Doric propylaeum or gateway. It cost about £30,000 but the company thought it a good investment as people flocked to see it when it was built.

The Italianate Newcastle station was opened in 1850 by the Queen. The train shed used curved wrought-iron ribs to support an arched roof, the first of its kind in the world.

After 1851 stations drew on the experience of building the Crystal Palace. King's Cross station was built in 1851-2 to a design by Lewis Cubitt. The train sheds copy the techniques of the transepts of the Crystal Palace. The façade consists of a screen of yellow stock brick pierced by two arched windows, with an Italianate clock tower in between.

King's Cross station at its opening in 1852.

St Pancras station, opened in 1868 was the London terminus of the Midland Railway. It was intended as a structure that would eclipse in size all the previous London stations. 

Museum architecture

The British Museum was designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the style of the Greek revival. But in the Victorian period a second wave of construction took place under the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. By the early 1850s he conceived the idea of constructing a round room in the empty central courtyard of the Museum building. With a design by Smirke work on the reading room began in 1854 and was completed three years later. With a diameter of 140 feet, the room was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. It was constructed by segments on a cast iron framework. The papier mâché ceiling is suspended on cast iron struts hanging down from the frame. The room was opened on 2 May 1857. It was opened for public viewing between 8 and 16 May and over 62,000 visitors came to see it.

The British Museum reading room
Wikimedia Creative Commons

The British Museum was stylistically conservative - classical rather than Gothic - as were the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. However, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington was stylistically much more innovative innovative.

It was the brainchild of the palaeontologist Richard Owen, who was appointed superintendent of the British Museum Natural History departments in 1856. He saw that the collections needed more space and because the British Museum site was limited, he planned a new site in South Kensington. In 1866 the commission was granted to Alfred Waterhouse. Work began in 1873 and the museum was finally completed in 1881 at a cost of £395,000.

The Natural History Museum, designed by
Waterhouse as a temple of science modelled on a
Romanesque cathedral

Waterhouse's design was influenced by his frequent visits to the Continent. The style is an idiosyncratic version of Romanesque. The façade to the Cromwell Road is 675 feet long and is punctuated by central towers which rise to 192 feet. It is faced with terracotta tiles manufactured by the Tamworth-based company of Gibbs and Canning Ltd. The tiles and bricks feature relief sculptures of flora and fauna, with living and extinct species in different wings, the living in the west and the extinct in the east. This may have been Owen's rebuke to Darwin. Between the central towers is a great arched portico, which leads to a hall giving access to the galleries.

Manchester: flagship city

In keeping with its self-confidence as 'Cottonopolis', Manchester saw the building of grand warehouses based on the style of the Italian Renaissance. The J. Brown and Son Warehouse (1851) was one of the most impressive

Possibly the largest is the sandstone Watt's Warehouse, a six-storey palazzo (now the Britannia Hotel), built in 1856 by Travis and Magnell at a cost of £100,000.  It is designed in the form of a Venetian palazzo, and has five floors each built in a different architectural style. The four roof towers break up the horizontal cornice at regular intervals.

In the 1860s a campaign was underway to build a magnificent town hall that would celebrate Manchester's cultural and economic dominance.  The competition was won by Alfred Waterhouse. His problem was how to create an impressive building on an awkward site in Albert Square and he created a Gothic style that owed much to Venetian architecture. The Town Hall opened in 1878.

Manchester Town Hall - a palace for King Cotton
Public domain
The Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall


  1. The Victorian period, a time of rapid population growth, increased prosperity, and technological innovation, saw an unprecedented demand for new buildings, both public and private.
  2. Architects tended to favour the Gothic, though some looked back to the classical period, while others merged the Gothic with Italianate or English vernacular styles. 
  3. The new buildings were a reflection of opulence, self-confidence and stylistic and technical innovation.