The Victorians - Towards the Modern World



Jo and others like him were the product of a strange alliance between the highest and the lowest in the land, those who opposed reform in principle and those who hated its effects. The enemy of this alliance was a man called Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) whose 'utilitarian' philosophy offered successive Victorian governments a middle way between doing nothing and engaging in wholesale intervention.

Whenever his advice was sought Bentham would counter by asking one simple question: what provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number? There had been a system of poor relief since Elizabethan times but by 1830 it was overstretched and open to abuse: clearly it was of no benefit to the population as a whole if large numbers of people were tempted to rely on charity rather than their own efforts. The new Poor Law of 1834 was largely the creation of a Benthamite lawyer called Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890). He devised a system that was so unpleasant that only the truly destitute would be tempted to enter it. For Jo, a life on the streets was infinitely preferable to one of Chadwick's infamous workhouses.

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Edwin Chadwick was also the architect of the first Public Health Act (1848), forced upon an unwilling government by news of a fresh epidemic of cholera sweeping through Europe. Although bacteria had yet to be discovered the connection between the disease and foul water was obvious and Chadwick's act gave the government power to force newly established municipalities to build adequate sewers. This time the forces of reaction won. Chadwick's efforts were widely resisted in the name of local democracy and his commission was abolished after a few years. When improvements came they were largely the result of local initiatives. Governments could and did aid these initiatives with grants but the principle of 'laissez-faire' (hands-off) was preserved.

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Unlike poverty and disease, the detection and punishment of crime had always been seen as an area of government responsibility. Victoria's reign saw the establishment of professional police forces throughout the country but only in London did the Home Secretary have control. Elsewhere the principle of local accountability once again triumphed. Meanwhile public opinion oscillated between being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. A compromise was effected a) by making prison unpleasant and b) isolating offenders so that they could be steered towards better lives. This was known as the 'separate' system and required that each prisoner have a cell to him or herself, safe from the contaminating company of other convicts. It led to a major investment in new prisons (probably the greatest single item of public expenditure in the whole Victorian period) but in terms of preventing re-offending it did not work. Before the century was out the experiment had been abandoned.

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By 1884 the vote had been given to almost all men over the age of 21. With a vastly expanded electorate to please, the nature of British politics changed. Governments now had to address the concerns of working people, even if the politicians themselves were still drawn from the property-owning elite. Coincidentally with Imperialism, the era of the Welfare State was at hand.

Despite a greater level of social security however, the 'boom-bust' cycle continued, sometimes even more ferociously than before. Whilst men like Morris wanted to free the economy from the operation of market forces and to get back to a time when people only made what they needed, others like Karl Marx (1818-1883) wanted to nationalise the means of production so that working people could share in the profits of their labour. In due course these ideas would harden into a belief that working people should seize what properly belonged to them, giving rise to the conflict between 'left' and 'right' that dominated the politics of the 20th century.

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