1857: The Year that Made Britain Great

In the following newspaper article taken from The Times 5 June, 2007 edition, a British journalist takes a retrospective look at Victorian society and makes a surprising claim. It is your job to find out what that claim is by reading critically.


(1) So why are we devoting today’s Times to what Britain was like 150 years ago? Well, June 1857 saw the birth of two great Victorian icons. The first, in a tradesman’s cottage just outside Worcester, was the man whose music would come to epitomise Victorian England in all its imperial swagger. His name was Edward Elgar. The other was an institution that epitomises the indefatigable Victorian drive for knowledge, progress and improvement. It was the Victoria and Albert Museum, which moved in June 1857 to South Kensington and so inaugurated “Albertopolis” – Prince Albert’s vision of a cultural, educational and scientific “city within a city” – 87 acres of it – that would make London the capital of Western civilisation.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(2) But once you start looking at what else was going on in 1857, a remarkable paradox strikes you. It was exactly like present-day Britain, and yet utterly different. In some respects, the preoccupations, problems and aspirations of the mid-Victorians seem the same as ours. They, too, were fighting dubious wars in far-off places – the Crimea, India, China. They, too, were a society riddled with drugs problems, though their sniff of choice was opium, freely available in dens all over London.

(3) Enjoying one of Britain’s great boom periods, when living standards were rising for everyone in employment (at least until overspeculation in railway shares set the stock markets tumbling in the 1860s), they were as obsessed as we are by fashion, gossip, sex (pornography and prostitution were endemic) and the latest gadgets. Victoria and Albert led the way in the last respect, acquiring the must-have luxury of the 1850s: a magical box called a “camera”.

(4) Consumerism was fast becoming the new religion. Just as well, since Mr Darwin’s explosive book about the origin of species, about to hit the bookstands after a 25-year genesis, would drive a large cart through the old one. In the 20 years after 1850 the number of people employed in shops increased by 50 per cent. While the rest of Europe was racked by revolution, and America moved inexorably towards civil war, the British were much more sensibly preoccupied with choosing wallpapers and newfangled “water closets” for their increasingly luxurious homes. There was a “never had it so good” feel. Tennyson, the quintessential mid-Victorian poet, summed it up. Britain, he wrote, was a place “where Science, Art and Labour have outpour’d their myriad horns of plenty at our feet.”

(5) Of course, we are talking here about the upper and middle classes (the very term “middle class”, used to describe the burgeoning bourgeoisie, came into general use in the 1850s). At the other end of the spectrum, the poverty was probably worse than anything even Dickens dared describe. The new workhouses were sadistic places. So were the dark satanic mills, though various Acts of Parliament had gradually reduced the working-day in factories … to 15 hours.

(6) And home life for the poor was even worse. One inspector found five families living in a single room, without sanitation. “How do you exist?” he asked a woman. “We did very well until the gentleman in the middle took a lodger,” she replied. But such extremes of wealth and poverty are not unknown in present-day London either.

(7) In all these ways, then, 1857 Britain seems a recognisable place. But in one respect it was totally unlike our own era. The difference can be summed up in a word: energy – an irresistible, Promethean, all-permeating and amazingly ingenious vigour that enabled the Victorians to build, invent, manufacture, reform – and rule a quarter of the globe – with a flair that has never been rekindled in this country. Science, technology and commerce were the new Holy Trinity. “We are capable of doing anything,” Queen Victoria noted in her diary. And, for a golden decade or three, she seemed to be right.

Paddington Station Paddington Station (8) That energy manifested itself in a thousand ways. In the speed and audacity with which Brunel and his rivals covered the country with railways – 6,000 miles of track laid in 20 years, punctuated by cathedral-like stations such as the newly opened Paddington. In the mind-boggling stamina of the writers who chronicled this frenetic world – scribes such as Anthony Trollope, who turned out 47 novels (all penned before breakfast, in order to leave the day free for him to help to run the Post Office).

(9) In the daring with which explorers such as David Livingstone delved deep into terrains where no European had gone before. In the fervour with which industrialists turned the North into the “workshop of the world” – by 1857 Manchester alone had 2,500 mills with 500,000 workers. And in the can-do verve with which life-changing devices were not only invented but applied on a massive scale. The great leap forward in the 1850s was the telegraph. It sent news in a flash, and pointed the way to the instant global communications of the 20th century. No wonder that a Johnny-come-lately newspaper founded in that decade trendily titled itself The Daily Telegraph.


(10) That energy galvanised social innovations too. In 1857 Manchester’s mill-owners, stung by jibes that they were interested only in money, backed a stunning Art Treasures Exhibition for workers. In six months, a million people saw the art world’s first “blockbuster”. By then, Parliament had passed laws introducing public parks and lending libraries. Suddenly, the privileges of the aristocrat had become the birthright of the chimney-sweep. The first teacher-training colleges came in the 1850s, and that paved the way for universal elementary education a decade later. Meanwhile, Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School (fictionalised in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the runaway bestseller of 1857) became the model for dozens of new private schools catering for the scions of the upwardly mobile. That they were rife with sadism and sodomy seemed to worry pushy Victorian parents not a whit. The main thing was that their boys were climbing the social ladder. Even The Times advised parents to “abstain from looking too closely into the process” of their children’s education, “and content themselves with the result.”

(11) Only in two areas did this surge of transformational energy falter. One was health – which might seem odd, given that this was the decade in which Florence Nightingale revolutionised nursing. But the mid-Victorians crucially failed to realise that it was polluted water-supplies that caused the terrible killer diseases of the era – typhus, cholera and typhoid. Only after the Great Stink of 1858 (when the Thames smelt so foul that Parliament scampered) was the vast sum of £3 million found to enable Bazalgette to build his mighty underground sewers. It was typhus, incidentally, that killed Prince Albert in 1861, at the age of 42 – after which, in A.N. Wilson’s brilliant phrase, “there was no longer an intelligent member of the Royal Family”.

(12) And the other failure? Women still had a lousy deal in 1857. A married woman’s role was to be “the angel of the house” – as Coventry Patmore famously put it in 1854. She wasn’t expected to think, or run a business. Until 1882 she couldn’t own property. And in bed her duty was to be a passive receptacle. “The majority of women,” wrote the influential Dr William Acton in 1857, “are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.” Even the socially progressive PreRaphaelites, who dominated arty life, loved to paint naked women in chains.

(13) True, there were slight improvements. Caroline Norton’s campaign won women the right to sue their adulterous hubbies for divorce, provided that they could prove he had indulged in bestiality, incest, rape or bigamy. The redoubtable Frances Mary Buss founded the first truly academic girls’ school – North London Collegiate – in 1850. And high-flyers like George Eliot, who was probably Britain’s highest-earning novelist/journalist in her heyday, proved that determined women could rise (though it probably helped if they called themselves George). But the campaign for women’s rights gathered steam only in the 1860s. And it would be another 70 years before the world’s greatest imperial power treated all women as first-class citizens.



Go to "1857: Quiz on the text" (linked below) to check your understanding of the text.

How did you do? With a little practice, critical reading should become second nature. There are many advantages to reading critically. For example, not only will critical reading help you to nose out essential information in a text – careful reading will also help you to become more aware of the writer’s craft and thus make it easier for you to become a better writer yourself! In modern jargon, this is what must be known as a “win-win” situation!

Critical reading

When we read for pleasure we usually read passively, letting the words tell us a story. Critical reading, on the other hand, is active reading. Here the reader must identify the author’s main idea and find the arguments that support this idea. The author’s main idea will be his thesis. In a well written article, subsequent paragraphs will support the author’s thesis with different arguments. By looking for the topic sentence of each paragraph, you will be able to identify the main topic (supporting arguments) of each paragraph.

Ideally, you should read with a pencil in hand to mark the main idea of the article, topic sentences of paragraphs and any words or phrases that are worth remembering. If, however, it is impractical to write in your book, you can keep a shorthand version of your notes in a separate notebook or file.

Glossary: "1857"

epitomise være innbegrepet av / vere summen av

swagger skryt

indefatigable utrettelig/utrøtteleg

inaugurated innviet

dubious tvilsom/tvilsam

den bule

endemic inngrodd

gadget dings, innretning

cart kjerre

inexorably ubønnhørlig/ubønnhørleg

bourgeoisie borgerskap/borgarskap

lodger leieboer/leigebuar

Promethean som utfordrer gudene (etter den greske helten Prometevs) / som utfordrar gudane (etter den greske helten Prometevs)

all-permeating som gjennomsyrer alt / som gjennomsyrar alt

ingenious genial

vigour kraft

flair teft

rekindled tent på nytt / tend på nytt

audacity freidighet/ublygskap

mind-boggling forbløffende/forbløffande

stamina utholdenhet/uthald

delve grave

galvanise forsterke

jibe stikk

scion avkom

rife gjennomsyret/gjennomsyra

falter vakle

scamper stikke

sewer kloakk

receptacle her: mottaker/mottakar

adulterous utro/utru

hubby = husband

redoubtable fryktinngytende/skrekkinnjagande