What happened during the Victorian era?

The Victorian era of the United Kingdom and its overseas Empire was the period of Queen Victoria's rule from June 1837 to January 1901. Learn more about the fascinating history and world events here. 

The Victorian Era is an age of British history spanning the 63-year reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The period saw the British Empire grow to become the first global industrial power, producing much of the world's coal, iron, steel and textiles.
 
By this time the role of the monarch was to reign, rather than rule. Victoria served as figurehead for the nation. 
 
The Victorian era also saw revolutionary breakthroughs in the arts and sciences which shaped the world as we know it today. These rapid transformations also led to many social changes with the birth and spread of political movements, most notably socialism, liberalism and organised feminism.

Timeline of the Victorian Empire

20 June 1837 | Victoria ascends to the throne 

After the death of King William IV on 20 June 1837, his 18-year-old niece, Alexandrina Victoria (1819 - 1901) was given the title the Queen of England. She became heir to the throne as her three uncles ahead of her in the line of succession - George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV - had no legitimate children who survived. 
 
The coronation ceremony took place on the 28 June and was held in Westminster Abbey after a procession through the streets from Buckingham Palace. It is thought over 400,000 visitors arrived for the coronation. 
 
Queen Victoria, 1819 - 1901
Queen Victoria, 1819 - 1901
 

1 August 1838 | Slavery abolished in the British Empire 

While slavery was abolished in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, only children under the age of six were freed immediately under the terms of the 1833 Emancipation Act.
 
All other former slaves were bound as 'apprentices,' where they continued to work without pay for their former owners. When the apprenticeship period ended in 1838, over 700,000 slaves were freed in the British Caribbean. Plantation owners received nearly £20 million in government compensation for the loss of their slaves. The former slaves received nothing.
 

31 March 1838 | SS Great Western makes its maiden voyage 

The SS Great Western was the first ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 - 1859). At the time of construction, The SS Great Western was the longest steamship in the world, built with the express purpose of crossing the Atlantic. The ship made a maiden voyage from Avonmouth in Bristol to New York in under 15 days, becoming the fastest transatlantic crossing in each direction. 
 
The Great Western Steam Ship of Bristol
The Great Western Steam Ship of Bristol, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel
 

17 September 1838 | London to Birmingham line opens

The London to Birmingham Railway was one of the largest engineering projects attempted in the world. First proposed in the early 1830s to connect the capital with the booming cities of Manchester and Liverpool, the railway became London's first rail line (with a station in Euston). The 112 miles between London Euston and Birmingham Curzon Street took a journey time of 12 hours and 30 minutes.  
 
The experience gained from the railway formed the foundations of civil engineering in Britain and established the construction technology of the railway age.

10 January 1840 | The 'penny post' implemented

Introduced by Rowland Hill, the Penny postal system revolutionised communications in the UK. Before the Penny Post, letters were paid for by the recipient. The high costs were sometimes as much as a day's wages, causing many recipients to refuse their messages. 
 
The Penny postal system was simple. Anyone could send a letter to anywhere within the UK for a penny. This new method was accessible for both the wealthy and the poor and significantly improved the communication of Britain. In 1839, 76 million letters were posted in the United Kingdom. By 1849, this amount had doubled to 347 million messages. 
 
The Penny Black (1840) was the world's first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system.
The Penny Black (1840) was the world's first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system (c) wikicommons
 

10 February 1840 | Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert

At the age of 21, Victoria married her cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German Prince at the Chapel Royal in St. James's Palace. Over the years of their marriage, Victoria had nine children, many of who married into other royal families in Europe.
 

September 1845 | Irish potato famine begins

In 1845, Ireland's potato crop was destroyed by infestation with the fungal disease known as potato blight. The disease rotted the potatoes in the ground, ruining the principal food source for millions of people. The blight lasted for another four years, causing illness and mass starvation across Ireland and killing a million people out of a population of eight million. 
 
Many Irish labourers and farmers worked on estates owned by British landlords. Following the blight, the tenants were expected to still pay rent despite having no income from their crops. This prompted the eviction of over a quarter of a million people between 1845 and 1854 and led to the mass migration of a million people, looking to start a new life abroad – many of them in America.
 
'Famine' by Rowan Gillespie (1997), sculpture in Dublin commemorating the Irish Great Famine
'Famine' by Rowan Gillespie (1997), sculpture in Dublin commemorating the Irish Great Famine (c) wikicommons

July 1848 | Public health act passed

Following a severe cholera outbreak across the world, killing 13,000 people, social reformer Edwin Chadwick was commissioned to find ways of improving disease prevention and sanitary conditions in Britain. This study led to the creation of the Public Health Act of 1848, legislation that placed the supply and treatment of water and waste under single local authorities who could raise funds for improvements to tackle unsanitary conditions. 

1 May 1851 | The Great Exhibition opens

The Great Exhibition was the first of a series of World's Fairs - an international exhibition showcasing the achievements of nations, and present the latest discoveries in science and technology.
 
The show took place in a temporary built structure, known as the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October. The show proved hugely popular across the world, attracting over six million visitors over five months - the equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time. 

28 March 1854 | Crimean war begins 

The Crimean War was a conflict between the Russian Empire and an alliance of French, British, Ottoman (or the Turkish Empire) and Sardinian troops. The war broke out in the autumn of 1853 with Britain and France declaring war on Russia in 1854.
 
The main intention of the British, French and Ottoman alliance was to hinder Russian expansion into the Turkish empire. Religious tensions also played a part with Russia taking issue that the holiest sites in Christianity, such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem, remained under Turkish Muslim control.
 
The war came to a conclusion in February 1856 with the Treaty of Paris with the part-surrender of Russia. The war resulted in a massive death toll on both sides. A total of 1.5 million total soldiers fought in the Crimea War with over 367,000 dying. 
 
The Bombardment of Sveaborg, 9 August 1855
A depiction of the Bombardment of Sveaborg, 9 August 1855 by John Wilson Carmichael

24 August 1856 | Henry Bessemer develops a new process for manufacturing steel

Historically, steel proved very costly to produce and could only be used for the manufacture of small, valuable items, such as knives, swords and armour. In 1856, Henry Bessemer discovered a method of converting iron into steel, which was both stronger and lighter. This production technique became known as the Bessemer Converter. The process revolutionised the construction industries, enabling Britain to build large-scale structures such as bridges, trains and boats. 

10 May 1857 | Outbreak of mutiny in India 

In 1857, Bengal Light Cavalry soldiers rebelled against their British commanders. The news of the mutiny spread across India and over the course of the year, caused a series of similar outbreaks across the subcontinent.
 
Many Indians rose against the British; however, many others also fought for the British, and the majority remained seemingly compliant to British rule. The rebellion continued until a rebel defeat in June 1858 at the city of Gwalior and the signing of a peace treaty in July. However, after the peace treaty, there were repercussions as British forces brutally suppressed any further attempts at revolt. 
 
The uprising was the largest threat to Britain's colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent. This violent struggle led to the dismantling of the East India Company, placing India under the rule of the British government. Communications also improved with government and legislative councils now containing an Indian-nominated element. For many Indians, the mutiny marked the beginning of their long struggle for independence.
 

24 November 1859 | On the Origin of Species published 

The foundation of evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, was published by Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 - 19 April 1882), a leading British biologist and naturalist. On publication, the book sold out immediately. The book became an international best-seller, but opinion on the arguments for evolution and natural selection remained fiercely divided throughout Darwin's life.
 
The survey ship HMS 'Beagle' in Sydney harbour
The survey ship HMS 'Beagle' in Sydney harbour
 

14 December 1861 | Prince Albert dies. 

At the age of 42, Prince Albert died. Many historians believe the cause of death to be typhoid, a disease found in contaminated water. Filled with grief, Queen Victoria chose not to make a public appearance for ten years until after his death. She commissioned several monuments in his honour, including the Royal Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, completed in 1876. 

9 January 1863 | Opening of the London Underground

The world's first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway opened in London running 6 km between Paddington Station and Farringdon Street. Within the first year, 9.5 million passengers were carried, in the second year, this increased to 12 million. It took another 21 years (from 1863 to 1884) to complete the Inner Circle of tube lines in central London. The railway system was operated by steam trains until its electrification in 1890. 

18 October 1871 | Death of Charles Babbage, creator of the modern computer 

Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) was a mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer. He is seen as "the father of the computer" due to his designs of the Analytical Engine. He died at the age of 79. Half of Babbage's brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London; the other half is on display in the Science Museum in London. 

17 November 1869 | The Suez Canal Opens

 The Suez Canal, a 100-mile waterway in Egypt that connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas was opened to improve trade links with India, South East Asia and the Far East. Constructed by the French business, the Suez Canal Company between 1859 and 1869, the canal opened initially under French control, which was then shared with the British.
 
Suez Canal, between Kantara and El-Fedane. The first vessels through the Canal. 19th century image.`
Suez Canal, between Kantara and El-Fedane. The first vessels through the Canal. 19th century image.
 

March 1876 | Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone

In March, 29-year-old Scotsman, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for his revolutionary new invention, the telephone. Three days after filing the patent, Bell spoke the first intelligible message into the telephone, saying to his assistant, "Mr Watson, come here, I need you." 

2 August 1880 | Education compulsory for children under 10

The Elementary Education Act 1880 was a policy which made school attendance mandatory from ages five to ten. Introduced by social reformer and member of the liberal party, A.J. Mundella, the education bill quietly overrode the Factory Acts, dramatically reducing the amount of time young children were allowed to spend in mill and factory work. 

25 July 1889 | Founding of the Women's Franchise League

Emmeline Pankhurst, the British women's rights activist, founded the Women's Franchise League, a political organisation that campaigned to allow women the right to vote in local elections. The success of mobilising this campaign group led to the creation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and the rise of the suffragette movement.

22 January 1901 | Queen Victoria dies

Queen Victoria died after a period of poor health at the age of 81. Her son and her eldest grandson were both at her bedside. Her 63-year reign was, at the time, the longest in British history (now surpassed by Elizabeth II) and had seen the growth of an empire. She was succeeded by her son, Prince Albert Edward Wettin, who took the throne as King Edward VII.