The British Empire represented much that was truly Victorian; idealism, opportunism, muddle and determination. This was an age of huge excitement, energy and transformation. Great iron steamships, railways, bridges, thundering factory machines – all energised the technological and economic revolutions changing the landscape and fabric of Britain. The nation’s wealth was increasing, its international power and prestige were growing, and progress was the goal. People were on the move – from the countryside to the city and far away from the British Isles altogether, to lands such as Australia, Canada and America.
Wealth was growing, in spite of an enormous gulf between rich and poor and of stark class differences that shocked compassionate observers into initiating reforms. Progress seemed visible, year on year, through the achievements of engineers, inventors and empire-builders – those larger-than-life ‘great Victorians’, headed by Queen Victoria herself.
Dynamic, self-confident, enterprising, idealistic, Britain was gripped by rapid change – although transformation came at a price, paid by those left behind in a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture. Yet society was evolving too, with the development of universal education, local and national democracy, women’s and worker’s rights, and a view that everyone, rich and poor, had a stake in the common good. Core values upheld the nation’s confidence – values based on Christianity, puritanism and a patriotism that often led to suspicion of ‘foreign’ ideas and a belief that ‘British was best’. Alongside faith in progress, self-help and hard work was a belief that the family was the bedrock of society.
The Victorian emphasis on enterprise was in harmony with the scientific discoveries of the time, as well as the economic realities. The theories of the great naturalist Charles Darwin may have shocked the Victorians, but they accorded well with the underlying instincts and individualistic values of a commercial and industrial nation.
The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 ushered in the Edwardian era. Although the British Empire had reached its peak under Queen Victoria, Britain still enjoyed huge influence throughout the world. Given that the period was sandwiched between the stagnating Victorian era and the horror of the First World War, it is understandable that it is remembered with fondness by many. The new King Edward VII was already the leader of a fashionable elite that set a style influenced by the art and fashions of Continental Europe and, despite not taking such a hands-on role in the country’s governance like his mother, his accession to the throne changed the country profoundly. Queen Victoria’s son restored the monarchy’s profile, becoming the poster boy of a country whose society was modernising at pace both socially and technologically. Known as ‘La Belle Époque’, it was a period of high fashion and great style, where Art Nouveau was the vogue, and an age of innovation – by the end of the era, Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel by air; the largest ship in the world, RMS Olympic, had sailed on its maiden voyage (her sister RMS Titanic soon to follow); automobiles were common; and the South Pole was reached for the first time.
Nevertheless, below the upper class, the era was marked by significant shifts in politics among sections of society that had been largely excluded from wielding power in the past, such as common labourers. Women too, became increasingly politicised with Suffragettes leading a high profile campaign for women to be given the vote.