The period covered by this paper was characterised by rapid and wide-ranging changes to the political, social, cultural and economic fabric of the United Kingdom. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Great Reform Act in 1832, and further constitutional reforms in 1867, 1884, and 1918 and 1928 transformed Parliament, shifting the balance of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons, and increasing the political influence first of the growing professional and commercial middle classes, and then of an increasingly self-conscious working class. In the process, in response to campaigns for women’s suffrage, the vote was extended to women and ideas of political participation and citizenship were re-defined. By the 1950s, the British political system was well-defined and well-entrenched, emerging from two world wars with its political institutions intact and increasingly democratic, at least with respect to those in the British Isles.
For many of those living through these transformations, the possibilities for change and improvement seemed boundless. While those living in industrial cities endured terrible conditions, and the population of Ireland was devastated by the famine, many more prosperous Victorians conceived of themselves as the harbingers of progress, a self-confidence reflected in ambitious building projects for schools, hospitals, civic buildings, and whose results still stand in many British cities, towns and villages. In the early twentieth century, new ideas about national efficiency and social welfare prompted the development of projects for social insurance, education reform and the protection of workers which would underpin the development of the welfare state during and after the Second World War. Alongside these changes to civil society, the period saw smaller scale shifts in family dynamics, with children accorded increasing importance within family life, and new ideas about the role and responsibilities of mothers and fathers shaping conceptions of masculinity and femininity.
The ambition of the Victorians was also reflected on the world stage, as the British sought to extend their influence in other parts of the world and to draw on its resources, through colonisation, diplomacy and war. Over the course of the century ideas of Britishness were increasingly articulated in relation to an imperial ‘other’ while the daily life of those in Britain was enriched by goods and resources from the Empire. The population of the British Isles was dynamic, with growing emigration to the US, Canada, Australia and the growth of communities of migrants, coming particularly from East Eastern Europe and from other parts of the British Empire and Europe into different parts of the British Isles. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Great Britain stood at the centre of a world-empire, the hub of the world’s financial system, and Ireland was still politically united to Britain. By mid-century, an independent Ireland had been established, and nationalist movements were fostering movement for independence throughout the British Empire.
For the Victorians, progress was also envisaged on an individual scale; this was the age of self-help, as Samuel Smiles put it, and ideas of hereditary privilege and status were increasingly challenged by a new emphasis on achievement and meritocracy, sometimes extending to women as well as to men. Such changes were affected by and reflected in a flourishing literary and intellectual culture; writers and thinkers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde transformed the way in which Victorians understood themselves and the world around them. A vibrant and dynamic popular culture absorbed and reinterpreted these elite cultural productions but also drew on folk traditions and popular entertainments of longer standing, new sports and recreations, as well as on newly forms of cheap print media. In the twentieth century, cinema and film, live and recorded music, dance halls and sporting events, formed a key part of social and cultural life, and new and iconoclastic literary and cultural movements rejected Victorian cultural forms in favour of modernist experimentation.
Although the period might often be seen as usefully divided by the turn of the 19th century, the 1830-1950 chronology allows us to call into question over simplified explanations for change that attribute too much simply to the change of century, or to the impact of war. The paper and lectures also try to give the period a unity, to allow people to consider questions about long range social, economic, and cultural changes across the period while also taking into account short-range and particular political developments. Political, social, cultural and economic and structural changes are thus considered as mutually reinforcing phenomena, but also recognised as having their own chronologies and historiographical frameworks.