Social Class of the Mid-Victorian Period and its Values

Term Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: Sehr gut


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Context

3. Social Class and Class Distinctions
3.1 The Aristocracy
3.2 The Middle Class
3.3 The Working Class

4. Victorian Values
4.1 The Family
4.2 Respectability and Self-Help

6. References

1. Introduction

The term “Victorian” remains a living concept in our daily society. The term is related to the reign of Queen Victoria of England from 1837 to 1901. Since it covers a wide time span, the era has been divided into the early-Victorian period (1837-1851), the mid-Victorian period (1851-1875) and the late-Victorian period (1875-1901). “Victorian” is also used today to describe British furniture and architecture made during the greater part of the 19th century. Additionally it refers to British literary works which were written, for instance by Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens. Furthermore specific social and moral attitudes are associated with the word “Victorian.”

The Victorian age was an age of transition. England was transformed from a feudal and agricultural society into an industrial democracy. Nevertheless the process of the industrial revolution did not only create progress but also problems. One drawback was the hierarchy which was created in the British society leading to a division of people into distinctive social classes. In order to analyze the class distinctions more precisely this term paper concentrates on the specific class divisions that arose especially between the middle class and the working class and on how these differences were characterized. In addition, the three well known Victorian values of the middle and working class, family life, respectability and self-help, are defined and discussed.

Due to the fact that it is not possible to discuss the whole Victorian period as one homogenous era, the discussion of the social classes and their values is restricted to the mid-Victorian period. In order to understand the society in the Victorian era it is necessary to depict a brief overview of the historical circumstances concerning the Victorian society.

2. Historical Context

The Victorian period (1837-1901) can be separated into three periods. The early Victorian period (1837-1851) started when Victoria became queen on June 20, 1837.[1] Before Victoria’s reign in 1801 most people lived in the countryside. By 1851, more than half of the population was urban. The first period of Victoria’s reign is characterized by “social and political turmoil[2] caused by the rapid changes that came with industrialization. In 1840 there were economical and political problems that led to the term “hungry forties” because of the high food prices and the numerous people who were unemployed. The Chartist movement, a political activism campaign by the working class, strived for improved economic conditions and democracy. The Reform Bill of 1832 extended voting privileges to the lower middle classes and redistributed parliamentary representation to break up the conservative landowner's monopoly of power.

There were also improvements during the early Victorian period such as, the coming of the railway, the invention of the telegraph, the development of electrotyping and high-speed presses for mass printing, and lighting through gas for the major streets.[3]

The mid-Victorian period (1851-1875) is the relevant period for this term paper. Mitchell points out that “England enjoyed domestic stability, progress and growing prosperity”[4] during this era. At the Great Exhibition[5] of 1851 in London, Great Britain demonstrated her industrial, military, and economic superiority. The standard of living increased as profits and wages rose. The Second Reform Bill of 1867 extended the vote to still more of the middle class and even to some working-class householders, furthering Britain's move towards greater democracy.

Mitchell complements:

“New laws prevented the adulteration of food,, protected children from abuse, and enforced standards of safety and sanitation in housing. Trade unions were legalized, universities were modernized, and the purchase of army commissions was abolished. The Factory Act of 1874 established a maximum week of fifty-six hours.”[6]

The Education Act of 1870 created government-supported schools and made elementary education available to every child in England.

Finally Queen Victoria’s influence began to grow by the time she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. In the next seventeen years she had nine children and

“became increasingly popular as a moral leader and model of family values.”[7]

Since the late Victorian period (1875-1901) is of little relevance to this term paper, it will only be described shortly.

During this period the population increased rapidly and the economy continued to grow but it grew at an increasingly slower rate and therefore the years 1837-96 were called the Great Depression.[8]

In yet another major step towards a full democracy, the third Reform Bill in 1884 enabled most urban working men to vote.[9]

Overseas, England expanded significantly and in 1877 Victoria became the “Empress of India”. Nevertheless, after 1870 other nations, like the United States and Germany, surpassed the level of British production and pioneered new areas.[10] Generally the political and economical power and influence of England was declining.

When Victoria died in 1901 the Victorian age was at its end.[11]

3. Social Class and Class Distinctions

Social Class can be defined as

“People having the same social and economic status; for instance the working class as an >>emerging professional class<<.”[12]

Victorian England was structured in a class hierarchy. According to Sally Mitchell, the

distinguishing factor was not necessarily how much money people owned, instead the class one belonged to was revealed through his/her manners, speech, clothing, education, and values.[13] Generally the various social classes would live in separate parts of town and differ significantly in their attitudes toward politics and religion. Consequently people were most likely to associate with others who shared their social status and hence also their opinions and values.[14] Due to the fact that people were so integrated in their social class, Mitchell points out, that Victorians argued each social class had its own code of conduct and value system, which one belonging to this particular social class had to conform to.

In general Victorians saw their society as divided into three classes. On top in the hierarchical order was the elite called the aristocrats, in the center the middle-class and below was the working class. To understand the class distinctions during the mid- Victorian age, it is important to specify them.


[1] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.3. (Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press 1996)

[2] Ibid.3.

[3] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.7.

[4] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.7.

[5] The Great Exhibition: In 1851 Great Britain was arguably the leader of the industrial revolution and feeling very secure in that ideal. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was conceived to symbolize this industrial, military and economic superiority of Great Britain. Just representing the feats of Britain itself would have excluded many of the technological achievements pioneered by the British in its many colonies and protectorates, so it was decided to make the exhibit truly international with invitations being extended to almost the entire colonized world. The British also felt that it was important to show their achievements right alongside those of "less civilized" countries.

[6] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.11.

[7] Ibid.12.

[8] The Great Depression: In fact it was not a depression of the magnitude of those of the 1830s and 1840s or the 1930s, but was rather a recognition that a new phase in the development of the economy had been reached. ( J.F. Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 1875 -1901, p16)

[9] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.14.

[10] J.F. Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 1875 -1901 (London and New York: Routledge 1991), p. 17.

[11] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.14.

[12] ( 8.05.2006)

[13] Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, p.71.

[14] Ken Roberts, Class in Modern Britain (London:Palgrave 2001), p. 8.

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Social Class of the Mid-Victorian Period and its Values
University of Osnabrück
Sehr gut
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Social, Class, Mid-Victorian, Period, Values, Seminar
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Alexandra Köhler (Author), 2007, Social Class of the Mid-Victorian Period and its Values , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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