The Victorian era in the United Kingdom was the period when Queen Victoria was on the throne, from June 1837 to January 1901. This was an extended period of prosperity for the British people, as profits gained from the overseas British Empire, as well as from industrial improvements at home, allowed a large, educated middle class to develop. Some historians extend the beginning of the period back five years to the passage of the Reform Act 1832, but not me. That's William IVth and he's not Victoria.
The Victorian era is also characterised by a long period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, and economic, colonial, and industrial improvements, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War. Though Britain was actually at war every year during this period. Towards the end of the century, the political climate was increasingly liberal with a widening of the voting franchise.
The population of England almost doubled from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 million in 1901. Ireland’s population halved during a similar period. At the same time around 15 million emigrants left the United Kingdom in the Victorian era and settled mostly in the United States, Canada and Australia.
The Victorian city of London was full of startling contrasts. New building and affluent development went hand in hand with acutely overcrowded slums where people lived in conditions scarcely imaginable. The population surged during the 19th century, from about 1 million in 1800 to over 6 million a century later. This growth far exceeded London's ability to look after the basic needs of its citizens.
A combination of coal-fired stoves and poor sanitation made the air heavy and foul-smelling. Unprecedented volumes of raw sewage were dumped into the Thames River. Even royals were not immune from the stench of London - when Queen Victoria occupied Buckingham Palace her apartments were ventilated through the common sewers, a fact that was not disclosed at the time.
The engineer Joseph Bazalgette came to the rescue. Bazalgette was responsible for the building of over 1300 miles of tunnels and pipes to divert sewage outside the city. This had a drastic impact on the death rate, and outbreaks of cholera dropped dramatically after Bazlgette's work was finished. For an encore, Bazalgette also designed the Embankment, and the Battersea, Hammersmith, and Albert Bridges. During the same period London's water supply network was improved, and a gas network for lighting and heating was introduced in the 1880s.
In 1829 Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police to handle law and order in areas outside the main City. These police became known as "Bobbies" after their founder. Just behind Buckingham Palace the Grosvenor family developed the aristocratic Belgrave Square. In 1830 land just east of the palace was cleared of the royal stables to create Trafalgar Square, and the new National Gallery was built just two years later.
The early part of the 19th century was the golden age of steam. The first railway in London ran between London Bridge and Greenwich and was built in 1836 - a great railway boom followed. Major stations were constructed at Euston (1837), Paddington (1838), Fenchurch Street (1841), Waterloo (1848), and King's Cross (1850).
In 1834 the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace burned to the ground. They were gradually replaced by the Gothic-Revival Houses of Parliament designed by Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin. These buildings are still collectively referred to as the 'Palace of Westminster'.
The 'Clock Tower' of the Houses of Parliament, known erroneously as Big Ben, was built in 1859, after completion of the House of Lords and House of Commons. The origin of the name Big Ben is disputed, but there's no argument that the moniker refers to the tower's largest bell, and not the clock itself. However, pedants aside, everyone know's what you mean if you're referring to the clock as Big Ben. Pugin is credited with the design of the Clock Tower (though he died 8 years before its completion) and the palace interiors with Barry responsible for the rest, however many disagree. What is clear is that the stress of building the palace cost them both their lives. Pugin was admitted to an asylum ('Bedlam' in Lambeth, currently the home of the Imperial War Museum) and was released a few days before he died from a stroke at only 40 years of age. Barry died a year after the Clock Tower housing Big Ben was opened, aged 65.
Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria was largely responsible for one of the defining moments of the era that bears his wife's name; The Great Exhibition of 1851. The first 'world's fair', a showcase of technology and manufacturing from countries all over the globe. The exhibition was held in Hyde Park, and the centerpiece was Joseph Paxton's revolutionary iron and glass hall, dubbed the "Crystal Palace". It was an immense success, with over 200,000 attendees. After the event, the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, in South London, where it stayed until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. The proceeds from the Great Exhibition went towards the founding of two new permanent displays, which became the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The year 1863 saw the completion of the very first underground railway (Tube) in London, from Paddington to Farringdon Road. The project was so successful that other lines soon followed. But the expansion of transport was not limited to dry land. As the hub of the British Empire, the Thames was thick with ships from all the world's ports, and London had more shipyards than any other country.
For all the economic expansion of the Industrial Revolution, living conditions among London's poor were appalling. Children as young as 5 were often set to work begging or sweeping chimneys. Campaigners like Charles Dickens did much to highlight the plight of the poor in London, to the literate classes with his novels. In 1870 those efforts bore some fruit with the passage of laws providing compulsory education for children between the ages of 5 and 12.
Queen Victoria's Funeral in 1901