There are many parallels between Britain today and the Britain ruled by Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. Both had societies coping with substantial and sustained population growth and the tensions this creates between different ethnic groups. Today the concern is with unfettered immigration from the European Union and especially ‘economic migrants’ from beyond Europe. In the nineteenth century, there was unease over Irish immigration and, especially after 1880, from the influx of poor Jewish refugees especially from Eastern Europe and Russia. Poverty, housing shortages and exploitation in the workplace are as much issues today as they were over a century ago. Our current fixation with the environment was paralleled by the Victorians who sought, and largely failed, to take remedial action necessary to counter the impact of industrial change and urban growth on society. Education, crime and the nature of leisure are equally issues on which the attitudes of Victorians have much in common with our anxieties today over educational standards, knife-crime and binge-drinking, for them it would have been the garrotting panic of the early 1860s and terrorism (Fenians not suicide-bombers). The surveillance society of the nineteenth century was the pervasive presence of the bobby on his beat whereas today we are saturated with CCTV and speed cameras. Debates over the role of government and the extent to which it should impinge on people’s lives remain as important and unresolved to us as they were to our ancestors. The origins of the ‘nanny state’ lie in the debate over whether Britain should or should not be compelled to be vaccinated or bathed into health in the early 1850s. We are still almost as psychotically conscious of our position in society as Victorian working men and women and those from the middle and upper classes. Belief and unbelief remain controversial whether the ‘Catholic aggression’ in the nineteenth century or today’s debates over female and gay priests, Islamic jihad or whether creationism should be part of the school curriculum.
Victorian preoccupations with how to manage the problems created by economic and demographic change were largely unresolved by 1914. There may have been some improvements in people’s quality of life but these were small and unevenly distributed. For most people, life remained a constant battle for survival to keep above the poverty line especially for the very young and the old. The ‘arithmetic of woe’ was all-pervasive. Only through hard work, self-help and a modicum of luck could most people maintain any semblance of quality in their lives. The fear of poverty and yet the recognition that poverty was inevitable at some stage in the individual’s life was ever-present. Today, in an increasingly digitalised society, it is not difficult to find similar circumstances. Poverty has not been eliminated; in fact, if anything, in the last two decades it has worsened with growing concerns about a ‘benefit culture’, ‘fuel poverty’, the problems associated with an increasingly aging population and the economic crisis of ‘credit-crunch Britain’. We now have free access to schooling and medical care but this has not necessarily resulted in a more meritocratic or necessarily a healthier society. Twenty years of the National Curriculum have not made students better educated even if they are better prepared for their ‘place’ in the labour market. We still have a large number of students leaving schools with minimum standards of literacy and numeracy despite a progressive rise in the school-leaving age The National Health Service and advances in medical technology mean people can be cured of diseases that would have killed them in Victorian Britain but we are now plagued with rising levels of obesity and alcohol-related diseases. People from poorer backgrounds, regardless of the plaudits of government, remain disadvantaged. The poor it appears are getting poorer and the rich richer, a return to something like the ‘two nations’ of Disraeli’s England. In many respects, the social and political agenda established by the Victorians remains unresolved. Statements about a ‘broken society’ that periodically punctuate contemporary political debate would have been familiar to many Victorian social commentators.
Images and realities
ictorian Britain brings to mind a series of negative images. In the 1960s, its sexual morality is seen as prudish and hypocritical with different standards of behaviour applicable to men and women. Its culture was regarded as crass and crude, its flamboyance a caricature of proper art and architecture; its poetry sentimental and over-blown; its novels over-long and patronising. The Thatcher government of the 1980s and John Major’s government in the 1990s spoke repeatedly of a return to ‘Victorian values’: self-help; a market-oriented, laissez-faire economy; the role of the family in social control; and national self-confidence, patriotism and pride forged through war, either directly as in the case of the Falklands or indirectly in government belligerence over the European Union. Successive Labour governments since 1997 have extolled the virtues of enterprise, hard work and wealth-creation exacerbating the gulf between the haves and have-nots. This contemporary perception of ‘Victorian values’ was, in many respects, simplistic and created stereotypes that represent neither the complexity of Victorian Britain nor the diverse impact they had on regions and individuals.
The dominant image of the Industrial Revolution is one of ‘a landscape of fire’. Blackened tubs of coal clanking to the pit-head and tipping into wagons and barges; brooding factories shrouded in steam and smoke and echoing with the persistent clatter of machines; bales of cotton piled high in warehouses and swung down into the holds of high-masted sailing ships. Although this is not an altogether misleading picture, it fails to capture the multiple histories of industrialisation. This image of dramatic, revolutionary change fired the imagination of many contemporary writers but it needs to be treated with some caution.
Many of the changes that occurred in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries were, in many senses, remarkably traditional. Most historians now agree that industrialisation was a long-drawn-out process and that it is inappropriate to think of it as simply a cataclysmic transformation. ‘Change in slow motion’ is now the dominant view of the industrial revolution. The idea of an ‘industrial revolution’ only became commonplace during the 1830s and with good reason. Even with an exaggerated definition of ‘revolutionised industry’ only one worker in five was employed in those branches as late as 1841. Most were concentrated in a narrow band of counties and in those areas many industries were reliant on the strength and skill of the individual worker rather than the repetitive movements of machines. The factory worker was in a minority. Most work took place in small workshops or in the home by workers who used traditional manual machinery rather than new technology. In these industries women retained an important economic role while in the so-called ‘revolutionised industries’ their role was increasingly marginalised and the better-paid jobs monopolised by men.
This means that we have to revise our ‘heroic’ assumptions about the industrial revolution. Take, for example, the place of the steam engine in the transformation of the cotton industry and its role in manufacturing industry more generally. For Musson, the ‘steam revolution was predominantly in cotton’ but even here the frontier moved slowly. By 1879, steam engines supplied 97% of power in the cotton industry and 85% in the woollen industry. Yet the textile industries accounted for nearly half of all manufacturing steam power. Most manufacturing operations were still unmechanised and whole areas of the industrial economy remained far from the advancing frontier. As mechanisation proceeded, it did not so much push back the boundaries of manual labour as create new relationships and dependencies between hand- and steam-powered technologies. What we have are parallel and interlocking systems of manufacture. Some industries were revolutionised, while others remained largely unchanged. Some regions saw revolutionary changes in the nature of work, others did not. The British economy in the eighteenth century was already highly integrated, a process brought to a peak by the emergence of railways on a rapidly integrating transport system. However, behind this was an intricate and changing mosaic of economic interdependence, a patchwork of distinctive local and regional communities.
Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901) provided underlying continuity to profound economic and social changes. The country had largely recovered from the effects of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793-1815) and, with the exception of the Crimean War (1854-1856) which claimed 25,000 British lives and cost about £70m, Britain remained free from conflicts in Europe until 1914. Elsewhere, with the exception of perennial and costly ‘colonial’ wars and the Boer War (1899-1902), Britain remained at peace. This almost unparalleled period of peace and Britain’s dominance as a world power created stability that assisted economic growth and social change.
This sixty-year period was one of almost continuous national economic growth. Wealth was, however, unevenly distributed between regions and social groups and, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century Britain’s economic and imperial power was increasingly called into question. Carefully prepared political propaganda and improving standards of living persuaded most social classes in Britain to share these beliefs and values. The materialism that underpinned mid-Victorian prosperity was tempered by a set of religious and moral values that both legitimated the accumulation of wealth and, in some at least generated a moral consciousness that contributed towards nineteenth-century social reform. Yet this deceptively reassuring framework was shot through with changes, challenges and contradictions that substantially altered the social and economic geography of Britain.
There was an increasing democratisation of society. Parliamentary reform led to the progressive extension of the franchise. The Reform Act 1832 retained the principle that property was the main qualification for the vote while increasing the total electorate by slightly under half to 217,000 males. There was, however, a significant redistribution of parliamentary seats: 43 new boroughs, most northern industrial and commercial towns, gained MPs in Parliament. The Second Reform Act further extended male franchise in England in 1867 and in Scotland the following year. Although the electorate was still entirely male and under 10% of the population, together with a further redistribution of seats towards large urban centres, the political voice of the middle-classes and some of the skilled working-class was strengthened. The secret ballot was introduced in 1872 reducing opportunities for intimidation and the Third Reform Acts in 1884 and 1885 further extended the vote and redistributed more seats to industrial towns. By the 1890s, a significant proportion of men had the opportunity to express their views through the ballot box. The economic and demographic structure of Britain had been reflected in a redistribution of parliamentary seats and national politicians were beginning to realise that the views of an increasingly working-class electorate needed be taken seriously.
Changes and challenges were stimulated by urbanisation and economic expansion. Urban growth and industrialisation had a major impact on all regions and all sections of society. Though women and many ordinary working men were still excluded from the effects of parliamentary reform, all were affected by the massive economic and social changes. But its effects were contradictory. Economic growth offered new opportunities and opened new horizons but also provided new constraints and condemned many to poverty and hardship in rapidly growing industrial towns. Victorian economic expansion is epitomised by the growth of the railways. They offered new and growing opportunities to move between regions, to travel long distances for business or pleasure and cheapened the movement of news and goods. However, not everyone benefited. Railway construction extracted a substantial toll of misery and death; the growth of new routes quickened rural out-migration and assisted the long-term decline of many communities; in towns it led to extensive demolition of houses, increased overcrowding and contributed to a progressively more noisy and polluted environment. Many people were simply too poor to benefit from the railways. The social effects of the Victorian economic ‘miracle’ were complex, unstable and uneven.
Changes in attitudes and values created greater national uniformity while perpetuating regional and local diversity. Attitudes to Protestant Nonconformists and Roman Catholics had gradually become more tolerant during the late-eighteenth century but they remained barred from public office. Anglicanism or the Church of England, the official state religion, dominated England and Wales despite substantial Nonconformist and Catholic minorities. In 1828, the Test and Corporations Acts that discriminated against Nonconformists were repealed and in 1829 the Roman Catholic Relief Act achieved Catholic emancipation. In theory Catholics, Nonconformists and Anglicans should have had equal opportunities from the 1830s onwards from this ‘free trade in religion’.
The effects of these acts varied considerably from region to region. While Nonconformists were readily accepted into society, perhaps because many were in the successful middle-classes, Catholics were often subjected to discrimination. This especially occurred where the Catholic threat was perceived to be significant, or where Catholicism was equated with other negative things, such as immigrant Irish communities. Sectarian violence and discrimination was common in Glasgow, Liverpool and other industrial cities in the nineteenth century.  Discrimination was not confined to religion. The small Afro-Caribbean population in Victorian Britain, concentrated in London, Bristol and Liverpool, was discriminated against far more severely than even the Irish. Jews, migrating in substantial numbers from Eastern Europe from the 1880s, encountered similar segregation and racism. Victorian Britain was also male-dominated and sexual division was commonplace in all aspects of economy and society. In other areas of national life, however, there appears to have been some convergence of values. The dominant vision of self-help is said to characterise Victorian attitudes to work, thrift and community life. In reality, a vast range of popular institutions such as co-operatives, working men’s clubs and friendly societies implemented often conflicting values in different ways in difference communities. Despite the gradual movement towards a national system of education, there were great variations in the quality of schooling and in the level of attendance in different localities.
Between the 1830s and the 1890s, significant changes were projected on to a backcloth of apparent national stability and security. There was not one Victorian Britain but many. Trends towards greater uniformity at the national level were paralleled by an increasing diversity in the ways in which these trends worked in particular communities. However, from the 1880s, traditional political values were challenged by the rise of the labour movement. Social and cultural values were questioned by the rise of secularism. Progressive involvement of women in work and in politics and the development of state welfare transformed society; and the effects of depression and global competition rocked the economy. Political initiatives for social reform during the nineteenth century and influences from the rest of Europe led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. By 1906, the newly formed Labour party had 29 seats in Parliament. This combined with the increasing membership of trade unions resulted in the growing politicisation of the working population and posed a challenge to the existing political structures.
The tide of the international economy was turning against Britain. From the 1880s, imports of both foodstuffs and manufactured goods increased rapidly and the balance of trade worsened despite the upturn in economic growth between the 1890s and 1914. Competition for markets in textiles was inevitable once major importers in North America, India and the Far East began to supply their own domestic markets and to compete internationally. By 1914, Britain had been supplanted by the USA and Germany in steel-making, some of the new industries such as electrical and precision engineering and many branches of the metals and chemical industries and trailed the USA in the assembly industries, especially automobiles. However, it was still the leading manufacturing nation in the world. 
Victorian social values were challenged on a number of fronts after 1890 and in some cases led to significant legislation. Most importantly the role of women in society changed. Although economic opportunities for women were beginning to broaden in the late nineteenth century, in 1914, there were still only 212,000 women employed in engineering and munitions industries, 18,000 in transport and 33,000 in clerical work but Victorian domestic slavery still dominated. Attitudes to women gradually changed and, following energetic campaigning by suffragists and suffragettes, the franchise was extended in 1918 and 1928 to include women. It was to take the First World War (1914-1918) for these challenges to have their full impact but between 1890 and 1914, they were clearly evident and beginning to confront existing perceptions.
Change was perceived and experienced by people living in different parts of Britain whose activities and cultures helped create regional diversity and distinctiveness. The outlook of businessmen and workers in Liverpool, Birmingham or Glasgow was different from that in London. The view of change and continuity from Scotland, Wales or North East England was quite distinct from that in rural South East England. Within the national framework strong regional distinctiveness was based on persistent cultural and economic differences: Scotland and Wales had strong cultural and linguistic identities while the English regions had cultural characteristics that transcended successive economic and social changes. To be born and bred in, for instance, Cornwall or Yorkshire or the Fens was important for people of these areas and ever-increasing internal migration did not destroy such loyalties.
For many people between 1832 and 1914, the most important region remained their own locality. They identified with the neighbourhood, community or village where they had been born, worked, raised their own families, had their friends and lived out their lives. These home areas were, however, perceived differently by people of different age, gender, class and race. Irrespective of where they lived an active adult travelled more widely round a town or through the countryside than a child or an elderly person whose sense of place was more constrained and who identified mainly with the home and street rather than a larger region. Most women lived more circumscribed lives than men. Even when they worked outside the home, extra burdens of childcare and household duties meant that their time was more home-centred: the region or locality with which they identified was often smaller than that of their male counterparts. Lack of income constrained mobility for most people, regardless or age or sex.
The forces that produce structural and regional imbalances in contemporary Britain were apparent by the mid-nineteenth century. Divisions were not only geographical but also social, reflecting the varying degree to which people of different gender, class and race benefited from the opportunities in their localities. Some groups within society were consistently disadvantaged in all regions. Migration shifted the younger and more skilled workforce to areas of economic growth, so regions of economic decline, particularly the old industrial districts of northern and western Britain, were increasingly marginalised.
During the nineteenth century, structural imbalances not only produced variations in regional prosperity, but also equally marginalised certain sectors of the population. Contemporary commentators were well aware of the disparities between the rich and poor as characterised by Disraeli’s ‘two nations’ in 1845, one rich and one poor, one privileged and one underprivileged and Mrs Gaskell’s North and South of 1855, the one industrial, the other rural. Disadvantage in Victorian Britain was at least as complex as that existing today. Mid-eighteenth century agricultural wages were highest in southern England, but by the mid-nineteenth century commercial and industrial growth led to generally higher wage rates in the north than those in southern England. In the 1830s, wage rates for printers, a high status, skilled, artisan occupation varied between 30 shillings per week in London to 18 shillings per week in Scotland. Where cultural identity was associated with the protection and promotion of a minority language, distinctive linguistic and cultural regions may be identified. The most distinctive minority languages of nineteenth century Britain were Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. Dialects also had distinct cultural associations. In regions such as South Wales, the Black Country, Lancashire, Yorkshire, North East England and London, they were reflected in contemporary social and political comment as shown in the work of the many dialect poets of the industrial regions.
The administrative geography of the early-nineteenth century England familiar to most people was still the parish and the shire. The parish provided the social and cultural focus of the church and chapel; the framework within which locally raised poor relief was dispensed; the body through which the roads were maintained; and via the parish vestry the means through which most aspects of rural life were regulated. The shire was the link to national frameworks of civil and, in times of emergency, military organisation of the region. The county sessions reflected their place in the administration of justice; the offices of Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant provided links with central government and the Crown.  By the 1850s, these older administrative geographies were beginning to change in response to the new demands of an industrialising society. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 amalgamated parishes to create Poor Law Unions for the administration of the Poor Law and the provision of workhouses. Reform of urban administration, begun in 1835, progressively replaced ancient town and borough councils with elected municipal corporations. That process was not completed and then ineffectively and at the expense of separation of increasingly inter-related urban and rural areas until the Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894. The result of these developments was the creation of a multiplicity of administrative boundaries created for different purposes such as health, education and housing that actually had meaning for the people who lived within them. The extent to which this was the case is, however, a matter of some debate. The economic and social developments of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries have to be seen within a framework of diverse lives and experiences. Neither change nor continuity was uniform.
 Webb, R.K., Modern Britain, (Allen and Unwin), 1980 remains a good starting point. Ibid, Brown, R., Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850 and Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850 cover the subject in depth from a ‘British’ perspective as does Brown, Callum G. and Fraser, W. Hamish, Britain since 1707, (Longman), 2010 with a longer perspective. In addition, see the following: Briggs, A., The Age of Improvement, (Longman), 1959, Read, D., The Age of Urban Democracy: England 1868-1914, (Longman), 2nd ed., 1994, Gash, N., Aristocracy and People: Britain 1815-1865, (Edward Arnold), 1979, Feuchtwanger, E.J., Democracy and Empire: Britain 1865-1914, (Edward Arnold), 1985, Evans, E.J., The Forging of the Modern State: Early industrial Britain 1783-1870, (Longman), 3rd ed., 2001, Robbins, K., The Eclipse of a Great Power: Modern Britain 1870-1992, (Longman), 2nd ed., 1995 and McCord, N., British History 1815-1906, (Oxford University Press), 1999, 2nd ed. 2007. Bentley, M., Politics Without Democracy 1815-1914: Perception and Preoccupation in British Government, (Fontana), 2nd ed., 1996, O’Gorman, Frank, The long eighteenth century: British political and social history 1688-1832, (Edward Arnold), 1997, Rubinstein, W.D., Britain’s Century: A Political and Social History, 1815-1905, (Edward Arnold), 1998 and Pugh, M.D., The Making of Modern British Politics 1867-1939, (Blackwell), 3rd ed., 2002 and State and Society: British political and social history, 1870-1992, (Edward Arnold), 1994 provide a more political focus. Two useful collections of essays that have important social dimensions are Gourvish, T.R. and O’Day, Alan, (eds.), Later Victorian Britain 1867-1900, (Macmillan), 1988 and O’Day, Alan, (ed.), The Edwardian Age: Conflict and Stability 1900-1914, (Macmillan), 1979. Clark, G. Kitson, The Making of Victorian England, (Methuen), 1966 and Burn, W.L., The Age of Equipoise: A Study of the mid-Victorian Generation, (Allen Unwin), 1964 are readable and, despite their age, essential. Robbins, K., Nineteenth Century Britain: Integration and Diversity, (Oxford University Press), 1988 contains a series of papers that say much on the period after 1830. Langton, J. and Morris, R.J., Atlas of Industrialising Britain 1780-1914, (Methuen), 1986 and Pope, R., (ed.), Atlas of British Social and Economic History since c.1700, (Routledge), 1989 provide a valuable spatial dimension.
 On the iconography of industrialisation see Briggs, Asa, Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace: Impact and Images of the Industrial Revolution, (Thames and Hudson), 1979 and Klingender, Francis, Art and the Industrial Revolution, (N. Carrington), 1947, revised edition, (Paladin), 1975.
 On the nature of the ‘industrial revolution’, see, More, Charles, Understanding the Industrial Revolution, (Routledge), 2000, King, Steven and Timmins, Geoffrey, Making sense of the Industrial Revolution: English economy and society 1700-1850, (Manchester University Press), 2001. See also, Berg, Maxine and Hudson, Pat, ‘Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution’, Economic History Review, Vol. 45, (1), (1992), pp. 24-50 and Temin, Peter, ‘Two Views of the British Industrial Revolution’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 57, (1), (1997), pp. 63-82.
 Musson, A.E., The Growth of British Industry, (Batsford), 1978, p. 113.
 Rubinstein, W.D., Wealth and Inequality in Britain, (Faber), 1986 and Kaelbe, H., Industrialisation and Social Inequality in Nineteenth Century Europe, (Berg), 1986 provide useful analyses of the issues. See also, Pollard, S. and Crossley, D.W., The Wealth of Britain 1085-1966, (Batsford), 1968 and Burnett. J., A History of the Cost of Living, (Penguin), 1969. Floud, R., Wachter, K. and Gregory, A., Height, health and history: Nutritional status in the United Kingdom 1750-1980, (Cambridge University Press), 1990, is a major contribution to the debate. Taylor, A.J., (ed.), The Standard of Living in the Industrial Revolution, (Methuen), 1975 contains articles by the major protagonists. Burnett, J., Plenty and Want, (Scolar Press), 1969, new edition, 1989 is central to the period 1830-1914.
 Garrard, J.A., Democratisation in Britain: elites, civil society and reform since 1800, (Palgrave), 2002 and Roberts, Matthew, Political movements in urban England, 1832-1914, (Palgrave Macmillan), 2009.
 McCloskey, Donald N., ‘Did Victorian Britain Fail?’, Economic History Review, Vol. 23, (1970), pp. 446-459. See also Crafts, N.F.R.., ‘Victorian Britain Did Fail’, and McCloskey, D.N., ‘No It Did Not: A Reply to Crafts’, Economic History Review, Vol. 32, (1979), pp. 533-537 and pp. 538-541 respectively.
 See, Neal, F., Sectarian Violence: the Liverpool Experience, (Manchester University Press), 1988.
 Rubinstein, David, The Labour Party and British society, 1880-2005, (Sussex Academic Press), 2006, Laybourn, Keith, A century of Labour: a history of the Labour Party, 1900-2000, (Sutton), 2000 and Tanner, Duncan, Political change and the Labour Party, 1900-1918, (Cambridge University Press), 1990.
 The simplest analysis of movements in the economy can be found in Checkland, S.G., The Rise of Industrial Society in England 1815-1885, (Longman), 1964. More detailed discussion can be examined in Gayer, A., Rostow, W.W. and Schwartz, A.J., The Growth and Fluctuations of the British Economy 1790-1850, (Oxford University Press), 1951 and Rostow, W.W., The British Economy in the Nineteenth Century, (Oxford University Press), 1948. Church, R., The Great Victorian Boom 1850-1873, (Macmillan), 1975 and Saul, S.B., The Myth of the Great Depression 1873-1896, 2nd ed., (Macmillan), 1988 provide short analyses of these critical themes. Alford, B.W.E., Britain in the World Economy since 1880, (Longman), 1996 is now the standard work on Britain’s relative decline to 1914.
 Pugh, Martin, Votes for women in Britain 1867-1928, (The Historical Association), 1994 is a very brief introduction to the subject. Wingerden, Sophia A. van, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain 1866-1928, (Macmillan), 1999 looks at the major events, themes and problems of the suffrage movement from its inception to ultimate victory in 1928. Pugh, Martin, The March of the Women: a revisionist analysis of the campaign for women’s suffrage, 1866-1914, (Oxford University Press), 2000 provides the most accessible and recent introduction to the major problems of interpretation.
 Snell, Keith D. M., Parish and belonging: community, identity, and welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950, (Cambridge University Press), 2006.
 Eastwood, David, Government and community in the English provinces, 1700-1870, (Macmillan), 1997 and Governing rural England: tradition and transformation in local government, 1780-1840, (Oxford University Press), 1994.