A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 26

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Circa 1837— 1865


"Far away beyond her myriad coming changes earth will be
 Something other than the wildest modern guess of you or me."

SUCH a familiar atmosphere surrounds the period succeeding the accession of Queen Victoria, that it is hardly necessary to do more than suggest the changes that passed over England during the early years of her reign and briefly to indicate the great developments of the age. Though sovereignty in this country had lost its old influence, and the Court no longer played the same part in the life of the nation, yet the example of one so simple, pure-minded, and merciful as the young Queen could not fail to have an effect on those who were her acknowledged subjects. She was married to a singularly earnest young Prince, and the Court atmosphere was soon cleansed and purified, till Lord Melbourne was heard p exclaim: "This damned morality will ruin everything." The excessive drinking, gambling, scandal, and loud swagger of the Georgian ages disappeared as by magic, and a somewhat superior respectability pervaded Court life. "No one dined here last night," comments a maid of honour at the new Court, "so we played vingt-et-un and I won 8d." If gambling was no longer the fashion, duelling too was coming to an end. The last public duel took place in 1841, when two well-known officers—brothers-in-law—fought till one was killed. Public opinion cried aloud for some other way of settling "affairs of honour," and a society for the abolition of duelling brought about the desired effect For all this, manners were still rough: men and women talked in loud voices, they made ostentatious and vulgar display of their wealth, jokes were made in bad taste, personalities amounted to impertinence, and it was not uncommon in a crowd of well-born people to find many men and women with the very clothes torn off their backs. All these matters are within the memory of many. Within the memory of a rapidly decreasing number is one of the greatest events of modern civilisation—the institution of the Penny Post in 1840. It was a curious fact that, though the population had increased so enormously—six millions in twenty years—yet the postal receipts had actually diminished between the years 1815 and 1835. The recipient and not the writer paid the postage, and a letter with seal unbroken, returned to the postman at the door, often betokened a poverty which could not afford to pay for news of absent relations. The story told by Coleridge, and repeated in every modern history of the period, illustrates the condition of postal arrangements at this time, when distance rather than weight augmented the price of a letter, which varied from 4d. to 1s. 8d.—a serious outlay to business men. Means of transit, though improving, were still defective, and accomplished by horses and mail-coaches, as they had been since 1783. It was only under favourable circumstances that a letter from London reached Hampstead in ten hours! Rowland Hill, in his famous pamphlet, published in 1837, called attention to the difficulty of carrying on trade with such expense and delay in the postal service. And the inauguration of the Penny Post throughout England was the result. "Little bags called envelopes" had already been in use to prevent letter-opening by post-office officials, and now the familiar, stamp with an impression of the Queen appeared in the right-hand corner, and writer instead of recipient paid for the letter. Letter-boxes now made their appearance in London, where letters might be posted any time between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.; from these local letter-boxes everything went to the central office at St. Martin-le-Grand, so that a letter from one part of the town to another often took fifteen hours. Other now familiar innovations followed in quick succession. Book post, money orders, post-office savings bank, and post cards (1870) succeeded one another, each in turn adding vastly to the facilities of correspondence in the growing commerce of the land.

A yet more rapid means of communication was now reached by the institution of the electric telegraph. The first was established across the twenty miles between Paddington and Slough in 1844. How step by step it gained in popularity is a matter of ancient history now. So, too, is the hitherto undreamt-of development which enabled men to lay the first submarine cable (1851) and to transmit messages to the Continent The connection between the Old and New Worlds followed six years later; Ariel's prophecy that he could "put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes" was thus fulfilled, and one of the greatest benefits to civilisation secured.

Meanwhile railway lines were being hurriedly laid down all over the country. There were but 200 miles at the Queen's accession, there were 2,000 some seven years later. Lines were constructed from London to Birmingham, to Greenwich, to Southampton, to Croydon; the Great Western had been running for two years before the Queen would venture by train in 1842. Each year saw the death of some famous coach, and as time passed on, the railway mania grew; men talked in railway language about "getting up steam," they reckoned distance by hours and minutes, and the country became a network of lines, even as it is to-day. Still, the early days of travelling were far from luxurious. Arrived at the station, the intending passenger gave his name to the clerk, who wrote it on a large green paper, giving in return a metal badge with a number and the name of the destination. On receipt of this, the passenger paid his fare—about double what it is to-day—and took his seat. No smoking was allowed either in station or train, for fear of fire. Indeed, the terrors of railway travelling were still great, and the Punch of the day illustrates the spirit in which a journey was taken by a picture of the would-be traveller being presented with an undertaker's card ere he set forth on what might prove to be his last venture. It is not far to seek a parallel to-day in the raw beginnings of modern mechanical progression. And yet the speed in these days was but twenty miles an hour, and thirty years later it was still under thirty. True, the signalling was as yet rudimentary and insufficient. Sometimes a candle burning in a window told the driver whether to go on or stop, sometimes a lamp swung from a high post guided him to his destination. Stations sprang up with great rapidity, over 4,000 being built in thirty years. But all this, and much more, may be learnt from a comparison of the first Bradshaw's Railway Guide published in 1839, six pages in length, with that published to-day, containing a thousand pages of intricacies. But in all this early travelling it was the third-class passenger who suffered most severely. A rich man might have his comfortable carriage placed on a railway truck and travel in it, but the third-class passengers were packed into open cattle trucks with movable seats placed across, and no provision for bad weather. For this they were charged 1½d. a mile. The company's servants were strictly ordered to do no work for these unhappy persons, and only one slow train a day was run for their convenience at twelve miles an hour. Indeed, some of the companies refused to carry them at all. But to the astonishment of all, it was found that over thirteen million third-class passengers used the railway in the year 1845, while by 1860 the number swelled to ninety-three million, and they were legislated for accordingly. Not only by land, but by sea too, was this improvement in rapid transit telling on social progress. The substitution of steam for sail caused a huge advance to the mercantile navy of England and the colonial expansion of the Empire. The first steamer had made its way across the Atlantic in 1819, but little important progress had been made till 1838, when the Great Western with sixty-five passengers and twenty thousand letters crossed from Bristol to New York in fifteen days. Although even this was regarded as something of a freak, and men solemnly declared that one might as well attempt a voyage to the moon as to run regularly between England and America, yet the growth was inevitably steady and rapid. Englishmen built English ships fitted with the new steam engines, whereby trade was carried on quickly and securely with the far ends of the earth, and the little State of old times, compassed so hopelessly by the inviolate sea, became the world-wide Empire it is to-day.

Perhaps nothing so forcibly illustrates the immense growth of our over-seas commerce as the Great Exhibition of 1851. It is only by comparative statistics that we can obtain the slightest idea of the vast increase of our national wealth. In the year of the Great Exhibition our imports were valued at one hundred millions, our exports at some seventy-five millions. In 1865 our imports had nearly trebled and our exports doubled. Such increase of wealth told substantially on the middle classes of England, and their position rapidly improved. It told more slowly on the working classes, whose condition in the early forties was pitiful indeed. The industrial revolution had followed the introduction of machinery as a natural sequence. Riots and crimes were but the result of discontent and the prospect of starvation. The sufferings of the artisan class were intense. In Manchester, a tenth of the whole population lived in cellars without sunlight and filled with a "horrible stench." Here dwelt whole families, the children lying on the "damp, nay wet, brick floor, through which the stagnant moisture oozed up." Overcrowding in the large towns added horrors to the already impossible conditions under which the poor lived. In London the same state of things existed. But this was an age of enquiry and action. Men were no longer satisfied that a section of their fellow-countrymen should live in misery and degradation. In 1838 there was an enquiry on "Combination of Workmen"; in 1840 a Commission sat to consider the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain and another to enquire into the physical and moral condition of children and young persons employed in mines and manufactures. Legislation had moved slowly with regard to the mining population, and little had been done since 1833, when the working hours for children under thirteen in factories were limited to eight So apathetic was public opinion on the subject that a Ten Hours Bill for mine children was defeated again and again, till in 1847 it passed after a heated struggle.

But machinery was affecting another section of the community at this time, and changing the lot of the agricultural labourer in the country districts. In 1838 the Royal Agricultural Society sprang into existence, with the object of encouraging and improving the land, crops, and agricultural produce. Science was now applied to farming, which was no longer left to the "chance-directed discoveries of unlettered rustics." The rapid growth of manufacture had already given an impetus to agriculture, and wool, mutton, and beef had risen in value. Architects, chemists, geologists were all consulted; money was expended on farm buildings, implements were improved, new varieties of crops introduced, live-stock breeding extended, a new system of manuring tried, while railways had already created distant markets for agricultural produce. All went well with the English farmer till 1846, Then came the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, involving starvation to some four million inhabitants, who had no other food-stuffs to fall back upon. Public opinion was stirred, and legislation was the result Up to this time England had been able to produce her own corn, and all imported corn was taxed. Indeed, not only corn, but few articles came into the country at this time that were not taxed. In the words of Sydney Smith, there were "taxes upon every article which enters the mouth or covers the back or is placed under the foot; taxes upon everything which it is pleasant to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste; taxes upon warmth, light, and locomotion; taxes on the raw material; taxes on every fresh value that is added to it by the industry of man; taxes on the sauce which pampers appetite and the drug that restores health; on the ermine which decorates the judge and the rope which hangs the criminal; on the poor man's salt and the rich man's spice; on the brass nails of the coffin and the ribbons of the bride—at bed or board, downlying or uprising, we must pay. The schoolboy whips his taxed top; the beardless youth manages the taxed horse with a taxed bridle on a taxed road; and the dying Englishman, pouring his medicine, which has paid 7 per cent., into a spoon that has paid 15 per cent, flings himself back upon his chintz bed, which has paid 22 per cent, and expires in the arms of an apothecary who has paid a license of £100 for the privilege of putting him to death … and he is gathered to his fathers to be taxed no more."

The abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the first step towards Free Trade, as it was the first step towards the decline of agriculture. It was followed by the abolition of duties upon hundreds of other articles. Prosperity reigned in every department. The rush for gold to California in 1848 and to Australia two years later helped to enrich Englishmen, who spent their fortunes for the most part in the Mother Country. The increase of wealth told on rich and poor alike. Luxuries were indulged in by all classes of society. People ate more meat, they smoked more tobacco, they travelled, they read. One recalls Pendennis and his mother (1850): "Besides the ancient poets, you may be sure Pen read the English with great gusto. … He read Shakspere to his mother (which she said she liked, but didn't), and Byron and Pope and his favourite 'Lalla Rookh,' which pleased her indifferently. But as for Bishop Heber and Mrs. Hemans, above all, this lady used to melt away and be absorbed in her pocket-handkerchief when Pen read those authors to her in his kind, boyish voice. The 'Christian Year' was a book which appeared about that time. The son and mother whispered it to each other with awe."

The abolition of the stamp duties had reduced the price of daily papers. Even at the Queen's accession there already existed the Times, Morning Chronicle, Standard (an evening paper till 1857), Globe, and Morning Post. The Times, printed by steam, had reached a circulation of 10,000 copies a day in 1834, while twenty years later it had increased to 52,000, and was exercising some influence on public opinion.

But on the subject of dress public opinion was strangely blind. The "crinoline," introduced from Paris in 1854, had become popular, and remained in fashion for some fourteen years later. All the unsightliness and inconvenience of the Elizabethan hoop was revived, only the Victorian crinoline was yet more elaborate, with its Vandyke and scolloped flounces, its basques and bows, its frills and double skirts, its fringes, jet, gimp, beads and ruchings. So inconvenient were crinolines at a ball, that in order to create the same effect young ladies would wear as many as fourteen starched petticoats! In these they were driven to their ball "standing up in their carriages." Silk dresses were very much the fashion of this period, "Every lady felt that a silk dress was necessary to her self-respect" In it she attended church on Sunday, paid her afternoon calls, or sat at home to receive her visitors. It was an age of shawls too—shawls with large patterns, shawls with light grounds and gay flowers. There is Mrs. Bungay (1850) dressed in her "gorgeous shot-silk dress, which flamed with red and purple," wearing a yellow shawl with red flowers inside her bonnet, and carrying a brilliant, light blue parasol. Caps were no longer worn under the bonnet, but a quilling of lace filled the gap, and a bunch of bright-coloured flowers was tucked under the brim. Muslin, cambric and piqué were used as dress materials for young people, but at a comparatively early age all women retired into dresses of sombre colours, as befitted their advancing years. The black silk jackets, the wide flounced sleeves, the small round hats and the smoothly parted hair gathered behind into chenille nets—all these are familiar to us in the early photographs. The daguerreotype process, which received the image produced by the lens on a silver plate, visible by means of mercury, was discovered by Daguerre about 1839. Eight years later, glass negatives coated with albumen were introduced, and collodion in 1851 helped the wet-plate process, though the real revolution in photography did not take place till 1871.

So passed the early Victorian period with its new activities, its increased possibilities, its fusion of classes and enormous wealth; but at the same time one cannot but note the decadence of taste and art, the amazing decorations of houses, the heavy adornment of rooms, the inelegance of dust-preserving draperies, the chandeliers and elaborate patterns everywhere—throughout everything there was a want of simplicity and refinement in this age, which has been not inaptly called "twenty years of triumphant vulgarity."