Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Victorian religion

The chancel of St Mary's Morthoe, Devon: a Victorian
restoration of the medieval interior
Public Domain

‘Never was Britain more religious than in the Victorian age. Contemporaries agonized over those who did not float upon the flood of faith. We marvel at the number who did.’ Theodore Hoppen, The Mid Victorian Generation (Oxford, 1998), p. 425.
See here for a very comprehensive site - much better on this subject than Wikipedia!

Victorian religious philanthropy
 From wwwVictorianweb.org

The denominations

Within the British Isles there were two established churches, the Church of England (Anglican) in England and Wales and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) as well as a number of other denominations. In Wales Protestant Dissenters were a clear majority. Until 1869 the Anglican Church was established in Ireland though three quarters of the population were Catholic and half the remainder Presbyterian. In Scotland Presbyterianism dominated though since 1843 it had been split between the mainstream Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (the 'Wee Frees').

'Papal aggression'

From the 1840s Irish immigration was changing Britain, adding a new Catholic population to the existing older Catholic families. From being a religion of rural country gentry, Catholicism was rapidly becoming a religion of the urban poor in centres like London and Liverpool.

In October 1850 Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman issued a pastoral letter announcing the reintroduction of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales. He himself was to be Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The press and the public reacted with outrage to what was dubbed 'papal aggression' and the government of Lord John Russell introduced a bill to make Catholic ecclesiastical titles illegal. (Queen Victoria's reaction was much more measured and sensible.) 

From Punch, November 1850
The Pope as Guy Fawkes
Public Domain

But in spite of this reaction, the Catholic hierarchy was restored and the ecclesiastical census (see below) recorded that on 30 March 1851 about a quarter of a million Roman Catholics attended mass in England and Wales.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Factory reform

Female and child labour
in factories

Industrialisation: the human cost

The Industrial Revolution is associated above all with machinery. The machines undoubtedly speeded production and reduced the price of goods to the consumer. But they were expensive to install and the best way to pay for them was to keep them going for as long as possible. This led inevitably to a long-hours culture, with factories often operating fourteen hours a day six days a week. The transitions must have been painful for the first generation of industrial workers. There were also huge implications for the health of these workers.
Dean Clough Mills,
Calderdale, Yorkshire
One of the carpet
factories built 1841-69
Public domain

Industrialisation is also associated with child labour though it did not invent it, as child labour had been an essential aspect of the pre-industrial economy. In the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe thought it admirable that in the vicinity of Halifax scarcely anybody above the age of 4 was idle. What was new was the element of regimentation, with children working from 12 to 14 hours a day.

Public health

Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-90)
Public Domain

Dirt and disease

It was in the 1830s and 1840s that the links between dirt and disease were conclusively established, though ignorance of bacteriology meant that the reasons for the link remained unknown. Dr James Kay (later Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth) established that typhus was a major killer in areas of poor hygiene.

Knowledge about the state of towns was greatly enhanced by the establishment of the civic registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837. The first Registrar-General was a London doctor, William Farr, and one of his earliest decisions was to require doctors to cite cause of death. In 1838 Farr published a table of deaths which showed that deaths from fevers, smallpox, consumption, pneumonia stood at 8-9 per thousand in the rural counties while in Lancashire and Middlesex they were 18 and 29 respectively.

Public health legislation was the biggest breach in the dyke of laissez-faire ideology. The state had to have a role.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The new Poor Law and the workhouse

‘Eventide’ by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1878)
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 
There is a fantastic and comprehensive site (though a bit cluttered by ads) here. There is also a good summary on Wikipedia.

The Poor Law in the eighteenth century

The origins of the poor law go back to a series of sixteenth-century statutes that culminated in the Act of 1601. These were dealt with in my earlier post. There is a good blog post on poverty and the eighteenth-century poor law here.

The origins of the workhouse can be traced back to the Poor Law Act of 1576, which encouraged the setting up of Houses of Correction where the idle and disorderly could be punished and set to work. Towards the end of the seventeenth century some workhouses were started in individual parishes, and in large towns special authorities known as Guardians of the Poor ran Houses of Industry.

In 1723 the Kentish MP, Edward Knatchbull, put forward a bill that authorised the setting up of workhouses by individual parishes or groups of parishes without the need to obtain a special Act of Parliament. This gave a considerable impetus to the spread of workhouses. 

Gilbert’s Act of 1782 aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis, with each county being divided into large districts. These unions of parishes could set up a common workhouse which was to be used only for the aged and infirm and for children, not for the able-bodied. In practice, however, workhouses were often used to relieve the able-bodied. 

The distribution of relief was carried out by a paid guardian in each parish supervised by a visitor, both officials being appointed by the justices of the peace. This represented a major shift of power from the parish to the landed gentry.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The coming of the railways

"Euston Station - 1851 - from Project Gutenberg - eText 13271".
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 
See here, here and here for some excellent sites.

This post is heavily indebted to Christian Wolmar, Fire and Steam. How the Railways Transformed Britain (Atlantic Books, 2007) and Michael J Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (Yale, 1999), Simon Bradley, Railways: Nation, Network & People (Profile Books, 2015); and also to Simon Garfield, The Last Journey of William Huskisson (Faber and Faber, 2002).


The idea of putting goods in wagons that were hauled by people or animals along tracks built into the road is extremely old. In Britain the history of these ‘wagon ways’ stretches back at least to the mines of the 16th century when crude wooden rails were used to support the wheels of the heavy loaded wagons and guide them up to the surface. The logical extension of the concept was to run the rails out of the mine to the nearest waterway where the ore or coal could be loaded directly onto barges. By the end of the 17th century tramways were so widely known in the north east that they were known as ‘Newcastle Roads’.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017