The Victorious Century: Great Britain 1800 - 1906
W 2019


Imagine you are in Britain sometime in the 19th century. You are experiencing the greatest changes in human social organization since perhaps the advent of agriculture thousands of years earlier. You may have made the transition from agricultural or artisan life to working in a factory, where you have to learn to live by "clock time" rather than "sun time". You have never traveled faster than the speed of horse, or a carriage drawn by horses. Then, one day, you step into something brand new: a railway car, and all of sudden you are "flying" at 45 mph. Letters now arrive within a day of being mailed anywhere within Britain, and suddenly your family members living in Canada are only a telegraph away.

In 1851, you visit the some of the 14,000 exhibits from around the world in the Crystal Palace and marvel at the technological developments on display. By the end of the "long 19th century", you may have electric lights and a telephone in your home. You read about adventures in the far-flung British Empire, the largest in human history, and, if you a young man, you may seek service in the Empire to "make your mark". You witness the opening of the first department store in London, where women, in particular, can stroll and shop from an array of products unimaginable at the beginning of the century. There is more time for leisure, and you can go to a music hall or a theater, being able to find entertainment whether you are rich or poor. 

Nineteenth-century Britons had few doubts about the march of progress, and they viewed themselves as living in the most developed and civilized country in the world. Unlike the rest of Europe, England experienced no waves of revolutionary action during the century, and this stability allowed the development of a robust global economy that left Britain the richest country in the world by 1900. From our vantage point, we know it would not last, but people at the time entertained few doubts. A steady evolution of democratic values and labor changes assured citizens that life would continue improving. 

There was, of course, a dark underside of all of this development, including cities choking in smoke and rivers filled with filth.  Labor was hard and dangerous; children were worked for 12 or more hours a day, and the slums in major cites were a disgrace. In the first half of the century, cholera and typhoid epidemics were common, until in the second half of the century, clean water became more available. Women were always at risk of dying in childbirth, and the childhood death rate had not yet starting fallen as it would in the 20th century.

Meanwhile British colonial power disrupted indigenous societies and cultures and destroyed local industries to British advantage. 

We will explore this British "victorious century" beginning with the Industrial Revolution and the Act of Union in 1800. We will end our SDG with election of 1906, which witnessed a landslide Liberal victory that was the last great triumph of nineteenth-century progressive politics, but which also brought to power the first great reforming government of the twentieth century. We will conclude in 1914 "when the lights went out over all Europe". 

Weekly Topics

    1. Introduction:  Pre-industrial Britain (Allen, chapters 1-4)
    2. Why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain (Allen, chapters 5-6)
    3. Britain in 1800 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 ( Cannadine, chapter 1-2)
    4. Britain 1815-1829: Power, Empire and Ideas (Cannadine, chapter 3)
    5. Industrialization comes of age (Allen, chapters 7-10)
    6. The Great Reforms, Political Power and the Global Agenda(Cannadine, Chapter 4)
    7. The Hungry Forties (Cannadine, chapter 5); The Irish Question (material TBD)
    8. Great Britain at Mid-Century (Canadine, chapter 6); Life in Victorian cities and urban growth (Material TBD)
    9. Great Britain in a Changing International Order, 1852-1865 (Cannadine, chapter 7)
    10. New Politics, Reforms and The "Age of Imperialism", 1865-1880 (Cannadine, chapter 8)
    11. Gender roles in the 19th century and the "New Woman" (Material TBD)
    12. Britain's approach to the Fin de Siecle:  1880-95 (Cannadine, chapter 9)
    13. Jubilation and Recessional, 1895-1905 (Cannadine, chapter 10)
    14. Marching in to the 20th century: A time of hope or a false dawn (Cannadine, chapter 11)


Core Books:

Allen, Robert. C., The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, 2009.

Cannadine, David, Victorious Century:  The United Kingdom, 1800 - 1906; 2017.