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Queen Victoria's Empire : The Changing Empire : Berg


Berg

 

 
The following is from an interview conducted for the filming of "Queen Victoria's Empire." It is an actual transcript of the interviewee speaking; hence, much of the text may seem informally constructed.

Q: Describe Britain in 1837, when Victoria came to the throne.

A: Well, England was really on the cusp of what we think of as the Industrial Revolution. In fact, it had gone through a tremendous amount of change in the years just before. Certainly since the Napoleonic Wars, there had been a lot of people moving into cities, a great deal of population growth. A lot more people moving into manufacturing, not out of agriculture, because agriculture had to expand to feed increasing numbers of people. But really, from the 1830s, the change that was really apparent, really obvious to people, was that was the time when it was really just starting to take off.

Q: What kinds of people were flocking into the cities in such numbers?

A: Well, we have to talk about which cities. There's London, which in about 1830 has over two million people. And then we have other cites...London is about nine times the size of any other large city, such as Glasgow or Liverpool, at the time. And coming to the fore now, Manchester and Birmingham, those are new industrial cities, and they are very different than a metropolis like London. [A] metropolis like London contains a great deal of manufacturing, but manufacturing going on in much the same way it had for the last hundred years, just a lot more of to provision...large numbers of people coming into London. But large cities, large industrial cities, are fairly a new phenomenon for the period. And [t]here, people are coming in to work in new industries, a whole range of new industries. Some of these are the major factory industries, such as the cotton industry, which we always associate with the great factories. But there's a whole range of other industries -- metal working industries, industries producing a whole range of consumer goods; all the engineering industries, which provided for the mill working; the glass industries...and the brickmaking industries, [which] provided for the construction of factory buildings and other industrial buildings, but also for expanding housing through the period. And there's an enormous production on this much broader scale...across a whole range of industries, and it's not just about factories, it's not just about cotton and steam. It's about widespread industrial expansion across the whole range of industries. And with this, we've seen that there had been tremendous growth in the population since...the 18th century, but it was spread across the whole of the 18th century. And then we see from the 1830s that population is continuing to rise relentlessly. It sets Britain apart from most of the rest of Europe [in that]...this population is increasingly flocking into cities. Where we had 14 percent of the population in [or] around the 1830s living in really big cities of over 50,000 people -- I mean that was a really big city then -- by the time we get to the end of the century, we're looking at 42 percent of the population living in cities of that size.

Q: There were so many people moving in. What were conditions like in the cities?

A: In the 1830s...there had been a really substantial expansion in city sizes by this time. We had the big breakthrough with Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow. There were also a whole range of smaller towns and middle sized industrial towns around these big cities, in these industrial regions, and there was never enough housing. The services were appalling, overcrowding, really very, very poor conditions. The housing stock hadn't caught up with the numbers of people that were coming in, and in fact, perhaps one of the biggest areas for the growth of employment over this part of the 19th century and certainly over the whole of Victoria's reign is the growth in the building trades. We always think of the Industrial Revolution in terms of factories and steam power, but it's the building trades and domestic needs of housing, heating these houses, huge expansion in coal mining, extractive industries of that kind and this is all incredibly labor intensive, all of this work, it's based, not on machines, but on human labor power. So we see the whole century is marked by the growth of labor power, growth of labor, more and more intensive work, as well as this more traditional picture of expanding mechanization.

Q: You give us a picture of this great boom. What effect did it have on the psyche of the British people? How did they see themselves?

A: We're looking at conditions of boom, but we have to also remember that boom is followed by bust and...right through the 1830s into the 1860s, we're looking at a nine year business cycle. [P]eople are living through conditions of going from depression to boom to slump over the course of about nine years, and their lives were actually marked by a sense of insecurity, never really knowing. I mean this insecurity across the wide aspects of life, not just the narrow economic insecurity of whether they were going to have a job for the rest of their lives. It was actually also about the length of their lives, how they had very early deaths, a lot of industrial accidents, industrial disease. A file maker, a potter, they...probably had a likelihood, a sort of fairly substantial likelihood, of dying before the age of 45. And children...born in the 1830s faced perhaps about a 20 percent likelihood of losing at least one parent by the time they were 15. So we're looking at a society that's marked the experience of single parenthood and great insecurity...A lot of small businessmen, even bigger businessmen, went bankrupt...There were no cushions at the time. And so actually we talk about the great Victorian boom, but it was the great Victorian insecurity.

Maxine Berg is Professor of History and Director of the Eighteenth-Century Centre, University of Warwick. She has run the interdisciplinary Luxury Project at Warwick since 1997. She has a book forthcoming from Palgrave Press edited by Berg and Elizabeth Eger entitled, Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods.


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