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Victorian pioneers


Discovery, invention and the solving of problems clearly appealed to the Victorian temperament. Profit was not necessarily a primary incentive; some of the most significant discoveries were made in pursuit of the scientific knowledge, and others out of a desire to benefit humanity and reduce suffering.

The Victorians also admired achievement, many not only believing that their generation was uniquely blessed but also destined to give a lead to humankind. Had not Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Stephensons and Joseph Lister shown the way in science and engineering? And what army on Earth could match the righteous generalship of Gordon or Kitchener, whose stern faces were imprinted on china mugs and biscuit tins? They were respectful of eminence too – it was, after all, the basis of their social order – and gave lectures, corresponded with other eminent figures and read one another’s learned books. 

Few ventured into the dark backstreets to confront social evils – but those who did gained the respect of their own and subsequent generations for their humanity. Prominent among them were Dr Thomas Barnardo, Lord Shaftesbury, Catherine and William Booth of the Salvation Army, Josephine Butler and W.T. Stead. Reformers and political campaigners, such as Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Joseph Chamberlain, Henry Fawcett and Arnold Toynbee also wrestled with social problems: child abuse, public health, universal education, women’s rights, labour reform, universal suffrage. 

Vision, however, sometimes leapt ahead of commercial realities. Brunel’s steamship Great Britain never made a profit (being too big and too ahead of its time). While British industry powered ahead with bigger, better and brassier steam engines, other countries were left to perfect and market petrol, diesel and electric traction. 

Exploration, part of the imperial vision, was also motivated by scientific inquiry. Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin died with his men, frozen in ice, while searching for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s, though their remains were not found until 1859. Edward John Eyre crossed Australia from east to west in 1840-41 and Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills made the journey from north to south, dying on the return trip. In 1857 Victorian scholar-explorer Richard Burton set off to find the source of the River Nile with John Hanning Speke, although the two men soon became bitter rivals. David Livingstone became the first European to cross Africa (1854-56) and, after disappearing into the unknown, was discovered by Henry Morton Stanley who himself became an explorer, crossing Africa from east to west in the 1870s.

No journey of discovery, however, had greater impact on the Victorians than a five-year voyage made by a then unknown naturalist, Charles Darwin, in the 1830s. Darwin’s voyage to the South Seas aboard HMS Beagle during the years 1831-36 laid the foundation for a lifetime devoted to zoological and geological analysis, conducted entirely in an inquiring, rather than a campaigning spirit. His On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859, caused impassioned debate and shook the very foundations of Victorian science and religion, neither of which was ever the same again.

In literature, the Victorian spirit expressed itself with freedom and force. Novelist Charles Dickens and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were the idols of society in their times. Dickens’ writing spanned a broad range of themes, and varied in style from the richly-comic to the heart-rendingly tragic. He depicted Victorian society in all its variety, its richness and its squalor; the family, childhood and poverty were the subjects to which he returned time and time again. Dickens was a campaigning novelist and his books define all the Victorian social controversies: the faults of the legal system, changes to public health, the horrors of factory employment, scandals in private schools, corruption in government, the miseries of prostitution. Dickens’ moral intensity was matched only by his creative imagination and by the enthusiasm of the public’s response. Tennyson, who became Poet Laureate in 150, was similarly idolised by the Victorians, but for his mastery of descriptive and evocative language than for his campaigning tendencies.

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