Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Queen Victoria's Empire : History : Engines of Change

Engines of Change

George the Fourth eating.
George the Fourth eating.
Dover Publishing
As a teenager, Princess Victoria -- aware, as was the English public, that she was heir to the throne of her childless uncle, William IV -- was taken by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, on a royal progress -- by carriage -- through the rain-drenched Midlands into North Wales. For Victoria, it was a horrifying introduction to the Britain that kept the elegant society of the great houses at which they would stay comfortable and prosperous. "The men, women, children, country and houses are all black...," she wrote in her diary. "The grass is quite blasted and black." A blast furnace the entourage passed in their carriages was "an extraordinary building flaming with fire," after which everything continued to be "black, engines flaming, coals, in abundance; everywhere, smoking and burning coal heaps, intermingled with wretched huts and carts and little ragged children." Yet despite the grim conditions, at every stopping place, enthusiastic crowds shouted greetings, lengthy addresses by local officials promised future devotion, choirs sang patriotic anthems, and salutes were fired by happy celebrants, unaware that such anticipations of his death made old King William more than unhappy. At the great country houses, the princess dined from gold plates and drank from gilt cups, unaware that the industrial progress she had witnessed had left her future subjects behind in an abject misery concealed by their loyalty.

In February 1837, the year of her accession, she again saw the future. At Hersham in Surrey, on a visit to Claremont, the country home of her uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians, she encountered her first railway train, and "saw the steam carriage pass with surprising quickness, striking sparks as it flew along the railroad, enveloped in clouds of smoke & making a loud noise. It was a curious thing indeed!" The invention would transform Victoria's world and way of life.
Before the industrial revolution.
Before the industrial revolution.

When Queen only a few months later, she remained protected by her advisers from traveling on such dangerous conveyances, but her husband, Prince Albert, whom she married in February 1840, was fascinated by technology and eager to set an example that the Crown had to change with the world. At his request, the Great Western Railway constructed a state carriage for the Queen, short (by modern standards) and ornate, with a symbolic crown on the roof, the interior suggesting a small but opulent parlor. On June 14, 1841, the Queen and Prince made their first journey in it, on the line from Slough, near Windsor, to Paddington Station in London. Victoria announced herself "quite charmed," but Albert worried that the locomotive's speed was dangerously excessive -- an amazing fifty miles an hour.

For their planned trip to Scotland, the Court proceeded by carriages to Slough, then boarded a special train of engine, luggage tender, royal saloon, and two carriages for attendants and railway officials. Victoria had been concerned about the crumbling of embankments on which trackage had been laid, a not-uncommon experience during the growing pains of railways, but her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, dismissed such worries as the price of progress in a rainy climate.

At Paddington they disembarked into carriages again, crossing London to the Thames at Woolwich, where they boarded the antiquated yacht Royal George. The long voyage to Scotland was unpleasant. The cumbersome sailing ship had to be towed by two steamers, the Queen's introduction to the age of waterborne steam. The uneven strain on the two ropes, combined with the North Sea swells, left the royal party severely seasick. Victoria and Albert refused to return from Scotland, which they had grown to love, on the heaving Royal George, embarking for London on the less-than-royal steamship Trident. A royal steam yacht would be ordered for future progresses by sea, and when rail lines were extended into Scotland, the couple altered their lifestyle by purchasing Balmoral, on the Tweed.
The steam engine changed England forever.
The steam engine changed England forever.

The new age of technology suggested to Albert in the later 1840s a grand world's fair to display the arts and manufactures of all nations, and he tirelessly promoted funds for its fulfilment. On May 1, 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace, an engineering marvel itself, on the southeastern edge of Hyde Park. A wonder of iron and glass, it was the first substantial prefabricated building, and housed a staggering sampling of the new developments in engineering, manufactures and the arts. Its impetus in fostering change would be enormous, and the setting, with light streaming through its 293,655 panes of glass, awesome. Six million visitors were recorded, equal to a third of the kingdom. Charlotte Brontė wrote to her father, "Whatever human industry has created, you will find there." It would be another thrust by the Crown into a modernity not necessarily greeted with enthusiasm by an upper class uninterested in forceful change, or almost any change. In 1847, Prince Albert had campaigned to be chancellor of Cambridge, and as he was opposed by traditionalists, it became a hard-fought struggle. When he succeeded, he dragged a university reluctant to reform the hidebound Oxbridge system on the German model, with science and engineering, into the dynamic nineteenth century.

Two wars had already emphasized to Britain the importance of long-distance telegraphic communication-the Crimean War in 1853-54, and the Indian Mutiny in 1856-57. (The telegraph had become practical by 1845.) No royal impetus was needed. But at Albert's death in 1861, his influence on the Queen, when it came to the engines of progress, ceased. Her attitude toward five later inventions which transformed Britain made that apparent, as she was briefly and grudgingly hospitable to only three of them. In the later 1870s the typewriter began to revolutionize how people communicated on paper. The Queen would have nothing to do with it, and discouraged its use for Court functions. In January 1878 she did permit Alexander Graham Bell to demonstrate his telephone, which left her unimpressed: "It was faint." When commercial service began in London the next year, she was uninterested, and would never suffer a telephone in the living quarters in any of her residences.

When Thomas Edison's phonograph was demonstrated, she had no use for it, but when it was explained to her that a border dispute with Ethiopia might be best handled with the backward King Menelik by sending him a queenly phonographic message, she spoke briefly but imperiously into a large horn device to express her hope for "friendship between our two Empires." The cylinder recording, the Queen commanded, "will be sealed up; and destroyed after he has received the message." It was duly played by her representative in Abyssinia, accepted with ceremony-the king stood when he heard Victoria's voice-and replayed several times, accomplishing its task. Then, Colonel Harrington reported, "The cylinder was returned to me and immediately broken into pieces as promised." But the precious relic-or at least a copy of it-survives secretly, the Queen's voice raspily preserved for history. It was her only proven contact with recorded sound.

Both the telephone and the phonograph were dependent upon electricity, as was the incandescent light and the new device of the motion picture. Electric lighting everywhere at Balmoral created more glare for her than visibility in her last years, as her fading eyes were afflicted by cataracts. She would have none of it in her private quarters at other residences. At her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 she found the electric light "very inefficient." Only once, too, did she participate momentarily, in being filmed--photographed with her family by the flickering new "cinematograph." She and Albert had been great devotees of that new invention called the camera in the 1840s and 1850s, but newness had now passed her by largely as it had in fashion. Much of her life was fixed by how it had been when Albert died in 1861. Yet the public knew little of that, and when she opened a new dock or sent off a celebratory public telegraph message or fired a salute by touching a button she remained a presiding symbol of a force called electricity, familiar in 1819 largely as a mysterious and unstable phenomenon in the stormy sky. Much that had transformed her world had been unknown when the Queen was born.

Back to the top of this article