Early Victorian era Britain

View over London, Britain 1830s.

Over the past couple of months I’ve spent much time researching early Victorian era Britain, the period in which my upcoming book The Journey of the White Dahlia takes place. In this post I want to share some of the key developments of this particular period in history, which forms an important backdrop to my story.

The Victorian era is roughly regarded as the time period spanning from approximately 1820 to 1914, around which Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) ruled over Britain. The period followed several decades of great instability across Europe, with the final defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815 still in many people’s recent living memory. The Victorian era is characterized by historians as a class based society and a period of significant economic growth and state expansion.

Britain’s great economic growth and state expansion was spurred on by periods of stable government, a large wealth providing empire and growing industrialization. During this period around three fourths or more of the British population were deemed working-class, a lower paid social group who often only got paid for the hours they worked, and usually performed physical labour for which no advanced education was needed.


Victorian era society was highly hierarchical. While aspects such as race, religion, region, and occupation played a role in people’s identity and status, it was gender and class that were of key importance for people their place in the hierarchy of society. Victorian era ideology on gender originated from the so called “doctrine of separate spheres.” These beliefs said that men and women were fundamentally different in origin and supposed that men and women were destined for different purposes. With men being generally regarded physically strong, while women being regarded generally weak. For men sex was deemed central, while for women reproduction was deemed central. Men were supposed to be independent, while women were supposed to be dependent. Men were deemed to belong in the public realm, while women were deemed to belong in the private realm. Men were meant to take part in politics and paid labour, while women were meant to take care of the household and raising a family. Women were also thought to be more religious in nature and morally refined than men (who were deemed more distracted by sexual passion by which women supposedly were not affected). While most working-class households could not live by the doctrine of separate spheres, because they could not live on a single male income, the ideology had a significant influence across British societal classes.

A person’s class originated from both an individual’s economic background and cultural background, such as one’s income, occupation, education, family structure, sexual behaviour, politics, and leisure activities. The working-class got its income from wages, with household incomes usually under 100 GBP / 125 USD per year. The middle-class (households with an income of roughly 100 GBP / 125 USD to 1000 GBP / 1250 USD per year) got its income from profit and salaries, explanded quickly during the 19th century, growing from 15 to over 25 percent of the population. During the 19th century, those in the middle class were the regarded moral leaders of society. The small and greatly wealthy upper-class (households with an income of roughly 1000 GBP / 1250 USD or more per year) got its income from rent, property and interest. The upper-class people in society were characterized by their titles, wealth, land, and owned most of the land in Britain, while also controlling local, national, and imperial politics.

Religion and science

Christianity was the main religion for most Victorian Britons, with the monarch being the head of the Anglican churches of England, Wales and Ireland and dominating the religious landscape. There was some modest religious diversity, as Britain also housed non-Anglican Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others. A relatively small number of atheists only arrived much later in Victorian era Britian.

Victorians made great advancements in science. With the most well known Victorian scientific development being the theory of evolution. Victorian scientists also proved interested in the emerging discipline of psychology and by the physics of energies like electricity.

Government and politics

The official political system during early 19th century Britian was a constitutional monarchy. It was in practice actually dominated by a relatively small group of aristocratic men. At the national level, government consisted out of the monarch and the two houses of Parliament, called the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The monarch that dominated this period (as the name Victorian era suggests) was Queen Victoria (1837–1901), whom preceded King George IV (1820–30) and King William IV (1830–37). During the Victorian period, the House of Commons became the centre of government, with the House of Lords losing power, and the monarchy transforming into a symbol of the nation.

The House of Commons consisted out of around 600 men called members of Parliament (MPs), who were elected to represent the counties and boroughs of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. England had more representatives than the other three nations, due to having the status of being the first nation and the most important in terms of power and wealth among the British nations. The House of Lord was mainly populated by several hundred noblemen who had lifetime tenures of power. Members of both the houses were wealthy men. Formal national politics was dominated by two major parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party.

At the start of the Victorian period, members of Parliament were elected by the roughly half-million vote allowed property-owning men, out of a population of 21 million. In 1829 the voting population got expanded by granting Catholic men to vote and in 1832, to most middle-class men. Most women over the age of 30 got the right to vote in 1918. While full adult suffrage, with no property requirement to vote, was passed into law with the second Representation of the People Act (1928).

One of the key political events during the early Victorian era was the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, with the passing of the Act for the Abolition of Slavery by Parliament in 1833.

The British Empire

The Victorian British Empire dominated the planet, though its forms of rule and influence were uneven and diverse in various parts of the world. The commerce of people and goods between Britain and its colonies was constant, complex, and multidirectional. British jobs abroad included roles in the civil and military service, missionary work, and infrastructure development. People from various imperial locations traveled to, studied in, and settled in the main island of Britain. The empire was a source of profit, and emigrants sent money home to Britain – as did goods like jute, calico cotton cloth, and tea.

Significant expansion of the British Empire meant that goods arrived to the island of Britain from all over the world. Between 1820 and 1870 the empire refocused its orientation more eastward, and increased the amount of non-white people over whom it ruled. Much of the expansion was the result of violence, including via the Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60) in China, with India becoming central to imperial status and wealth. With British India often being described as ‘the Jewel in the Crown’. During this time there was also significant migration to the settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand, in which the British Empire notoriously shipped over 160,000 convicts to Australia between 1788 and 1868.

The economy

Britain’s status as a global powerhouse was underlined by its strong economy, which boomed between 1820 and 1873. With the earliest phases of industrialization being completed around 1840, the British economy expanded.

Britain became the richest country in the world, but many working-class people worked long hours in tough conditions. However, overall, standards of living were rising during this period. While the 1840s were a bad time for workers and the poor, overall it gave people a less precarious life than people experienced in preceding generations. Most families not only had a home and enough to eat, but also had resources leftover to obtain things like alcohol, tobacco, and even vacations to the seaside or countryside.

By the 1870s increased wealth meant that even working-class people could purchase some luxury items. Mass production ultimately resulted in goods like clothes, souvenirs, newspapers, and others to become more affordable for almost everyone.


  • Brittanica, Susie Steinbach, Victorian era, February 12, 2024: https://www.britannica.com/event/Victorian-era
  • Cambridge Dictionary, working-class, adjective: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/working-class
  • National Archives UK, The 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act and compensation claims: https://beta.nationalarchives.gov.uk/explore-the-collection/explore-by-time-period/georgians/1833-abolition-of-slavery-act-and-compensation-claims/#:~:text=In%20August%201833%2C%20Parliament%20passed,protect%20their%20work%20and%20wellbeing
  • University of Kent, ‘The Jewel in the Crown’: India and the Making of Imperial Britain – HIST5103, Course overview, 2024 to 2025: https://www.kent.ac.uk/courses/modules/module/HIST5103#:~:text=Often%20described%20as%20the%20%27Jewel,and%20consolidation%20of%20British%20Empire
  • Australian National Maritime Museum, Australia’s Immigration History: https://www.sea.museum/explore/online-exhibitions/waves-of-migration/australia-immigration-history#:~:text=From%201788%20to%201868%20Britain,an%20empty%20land%20as%20expected

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