Victorian Decade of Crisis: An Overview

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10/08/18 History Reference this

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Why have the 1880s been viewed by historians as a decade of crisis for London?

Great city of the midnight sun,

Whose day begins when day is done.[1]

The late Victorian era was a time of many developments, and much progress. After a number of short trade depressions in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the situation stabilised and then increased from the mid-1840s. This was largely due to the massive spread of railways at the time. This period of increasing industry was complemented by the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of High Farming; when agriculture enjoyed similar successes, despite the repeal of the corn laws in 1846. This Golden Age was followed, however, by a period of prolonged depression which spanned over twenty years from the early 1870s until the mid 1890s. It was only in 1914, with the outbreak of the Great War, that the relative decline of Britain as an industrial power became apparent. Why were the 1880s such years of crisis, and what was the extent of this crisis?

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Although the decade falls in what is usually described as the Great Depression, export and production figures for the period suggest the industrial situation was not as bad as some believe. The steel industry continued to expand, as did the coal and cotton textiles industries. The amount of cotton cloth exported was 3573 million yards between 1870-79, while between 1880-89, this figure increased 4675 million yards.[2] As Burnett states, “by the decade of the 1880s, it was clear that the growth both of the cotton and woollen industries had fallen off sharply…”[3] There were, however, other aspects of the period which warranted the description more. Prices were falling, for example, which meant the value of exports was reduced, thereby reducing profits. Unemployment in the decade averaged 5.4% compared to 4.6% in the twenty years before 1874. In 1886, the figure rose for that year to 10%.[4]

The cause of the depression has been attributed to the reduction in railway building which started. In each five year period between 1845 and 1870, an average of 2000 miles of new track were laid, while between 1885 and 1900, this figure fell to 750 miles.[5] This affected one of the major growth industries of the earlier period; the steel industry, as demand fell. It was also during this period that the competition from other countries began to be noticed. This came most acutely from Germany and the USA. German coal production rose from 34 million tons in 1870 to 59 million tons in 1880, while US coal production rose to 64.9 million tons in the same period. While British production was still ahead at 149 million tons, competition was growing. The case was similar in pig-iron and steel production.[6] In the US, machines such as the typewriter and the sewing machine were being developed. Having been the first nation to industrialise, much of the machinery and equipment used in British industry was becoming outdated and surpassed by technology which the newly industrialising nations were utilising. It was in this period, and during the 1880s in particular, that the extent of this relative decline began to be noticed, and this was a major contributory factor to the decade being seen more generally as one of crisis. As Harris points out, “one of the striking facts that emerges from the Census of 1871 is that, a hundred years after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the topography of Britain was still in many ways that of a predominantly rural country.”[7]

Britain, as well as falling behind in technological developments, was being pushed out of her traditional markets by these newly industrialising nations. The US could increasingly meet her own needs, while the European markets were being flooded with cheaper, often better quality goods from other countries. Belgium, for example, developed cheaper, better quality methods of glass production, while the Germans were able to introduce Siemens furnaces for steel production. While these other nations increasingly introduced tariff systems to protect their domestic markets, this was anathema to the British laissez faire approach. Consequently, the British markets remained unprotected and were flooded with imported goods.

Another industrial problem in Britain during the period was the failure of British management systems. These, too, were becoming outdated and surpassed by competitors’ newly-developed systems. Often based around the family firm, management positions were often filled by familial connection rather than ability. Coupled with this was the lack of investment in new machinery and industrial apparatus which in turn contributed to the lack of competitiveness in British industry generally. There was a general lack of initiative and failure to get involved in the newly developing industries such as the petro-chemical and electrical engineering industries, which would soon come to dominate industry.

During the 1880s, imports of wheat and flour into the United Kingdom increased to 70,282 thousand cwt from just 50,406 thousand cwt the previous decade.[8] These imports often came from the US, where the vast prairies were developed by trans-continental railway. The imports were helped by the development of large merchant steamships. The cost of imports fell dramatically, making it much more viable to import larger quantities of foodstuffs. The average annual wheat price fell from 47.67 shillings per quarter between 1875-9 to just 31.58 shillings per quarter in 1885-9.[9] An important development in the 1880s was the introduction of the refrigeration ship, which enabled meat products to be imported from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.[10]

Despite this gloomy economic and industrial situation which was afflicting the country generally, London itself was not amongst the worst hit area. The flux of imports affected the agricultural sector, not many of whom were to be found in the metropolis; particularly those who relied on wheat and cereal growing. Again, the refusal of the government to introduce a tariff system to protect the domestic market did nothing to help the situation. A benefit of the depression, particularly for those not dependent on agriculture, was that it meant food was cheaper. This in turn meant that those who were employed actually enjoyed a higher standard of living.

In 1888, the Conservative government set up the London County Council. This was a response to the political activism of the great reformers of the decade, but it marked a positive step in the battle against poverty and want. It involved direct election of 118 councillors, which allowed public opinion to have a say. Although struggles for power even within this new body continued, it moved the battle to political ground. This development was complemented in the 1880s by the growth and development of more organised trades unions in London. This attempt to organise labour often involved the transport workers, and therefore focused on London. While this was undoubtedly a positive development, giving many workers, for the first time, an authoritative voice bout their conditions, it can be said that this led to increased struggle and clashing between workers and employers, which contributed to the idea of the city being in crisis. The most spectacular manifestation of this was the riots in Trafalgar Square in 1886 and 1887, which although they involved the unemployed rather than unionised workers, highlighted the animosity felt towards the privileged and propertied people of London. This culminated in ‘Bloody Sunday’ on 13 November 1887. Mackail described the events. “No one who ever saw it will ever forget the strange and indeed terrible sight of that grey winter day, the vast sombre-coloured crowd, the brief but fiery struggle at the corner of the Strand, and the river of steel and scarlet that moved slowly through the dusky swaying masses when two squadrons of the Life Guards were summoned up from Whitehall.”[11]

Another positive development for London during the period, which counters the impression of London as a city in crisis during this period, was the effect on the great city of the railways and steamships. Having already assisted the growth and development of the empire, by the 1880s, they had considerably magnified the importance of London itself. As well as being a great international seaport, the increasing rail network focused on London also. In 1880, the total value of London’s trade was greater than that of its nearest rival, Liverpool.[12] London also became a symbol of free trade, as it was the centre of the great importing warehouses. This, of course, was not as positive as it may have seemed, given the negative effects on the rest of the country of the massive growth in imports during the period. The flip-side of these developments in transport was the social cost. People often had to be turned out of their homes in order to build the new terminals. Industrial conditions amongst the workers were less than adequate also. This was most marked in 1889, the year of the great dock strike at the London docks, as the workers struggled to achieve the ‘dockers’ tanner’. This event can be seen to encapsulate much of the perception about the decade as a whole; one of struggle and conflict between workers and their managers.

Urbanisation was a major factor during the period. Much of this was concentrated in London and Middlesex (as well as Lancashire, Durham, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, west-central and parts of south Wales). Increasing ground rents in the period were beginning to drive many of the middle and upper classes to the city limits. The term ‘Greater London’ was used for the first time in the 1881 Census; an area that was growing the most rapidly.[13] During the 1870s, rural population experienced an absolute decline for the first time since records began while urban population increased by 75% in some cases. In response to this there was a building boom in London during the 1880s. By the middle of the next decade, in London and Middlesex, nearly half of the population had been born elsewhere.[14] While this massive urban growth was positive for the city in many ways, it also meant more crowding, insufficient housing, increasing rents and costs and the dangers of disease that accompany such conditions.

Harris discusses the fall in fertility during the 1880s. Commentators at the time put it down to the strain of urban living and the modern education system “eroding human procreative powers”.[15] This fall in the birth rate concerned many contemporaries at the time, and it has been debated at length by historians ever since. It is interesting that it coincided with the Great Depression, and another, later drop coincided with a fall in real wages in 1900. This general atmosphere of depression, economic an social, was perhaps at its most acute during the 1880s, and although it actually spanned over twenty years, it is this decade in particular that is remembered as a decade of crisis.

During the 1880s, Charles Booth began his great survey of the London poor entitled London Life and Labour. this would become an important work in drawing attention to the want of the working class in the capital. It marked a realisation, or appreciation, of what was becoming a serious problem of poverty and low living. In one passage, he describes the typical working woman (who was often only partly-employed) as “generally elderly, infirm, penniless and a widow … she is nervous and timid, and takes work at whatever price it may be offered to her.”[16] A major reason why the decade is seen as one of crisis, then, is that it was one of the earliest times that the poverty and dire situation of the working classes in London was forced to the attention of the wider public. Poverty was the “biggest single fact of contemporary existence.”[17] Poverty, poor sanitation and over-crowding were nothing new to the 1880s, but with Booth’s work, and the later work of Rowntree, the situation was increasingly recognised. Booth’s work was followed quickly by other similar studies such as Andrew Mearn’s The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) and General Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890).

In 1887, Henry Hyndman published a pamphlet entitled A Commune for Socialism which was a plea for municipal socialism. This was a cry that was increasingly being taken up, as the importance of local government as a means of social reform was being recognised. Joseph Chamberlain was one of the members of the government of the day to realise this importance, and indeed introduce it into the national debate. He spoke about this in 1885. “Local government is near the people. Local government will bring you into contact with the masses. By its means you will be able to increase their comforts, to secure their health, to multiply the luxuries which they may enjoy … to lessen the inequalities of our social system, and the raise the standard of all classes in the community.”[18] It was, then, increasingly brought into the national debate, and this bears large responsibility for the impression of the 1880s being a decade of crisis. This was, however, a positive step, as it led to increased activism and political developments favouring the working classes.

In Victorian Cities, Briggs describes London as ‘the World City’. This captures how London was seen, both domestically and abroad, throughout much of the Victorian era. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, then, why was the greatest city in the world experiencing a crisis? During the 1880s, the Quarterly Review described the “complete separation of the residences of the different classes of the community.”[19] This was referring to the contrast between the East End and the West End of London, and the effective segregation of the population of London into rich areas and poor areas. It has been said that the residents of each respective part of London knew and cared little about the other area. In another work important in stimulating the better-off into action called Tales of Mean Streets Arthur Morrison asked “who knows the East End?” The description that followed in answer reflected the common perception of the situation in the East End: “an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none combs his hair.”[20]

The situation in London, then, was not homogenous throughout the great city. There were pockets of serious depravity, while other areas enjoyed great wealth and luxury. It was this juxtaposition of the East End with the bright lights of the West End that highlighted the dire situation in the East End, and did more than anything to contribute to the impression of London as a city in crisis during the 1880s. The stark difference was that although poverty was present in parts of the West End, for example around Belgrave Square, it was largely hidden from view, while in the East End it was clearly visible for those who cared to see it. During the 1880s, however, as London was increasingly being seen as a world city, as the capital of the greatest empire in the world, it was the ostentatious and dazzling aspect of the city’s situation which was emphasised. Here, then, is an interesting paradox. Although the 1880s saw some of the early social commentators and reformers recognise and draw attention to the ills of the poorer classes in London (as well as other industrial cities of England), to many London remained one of the greatest cities in the world. In 1883, for example, an Australian writer described London in New York’s Century Magazine. “We may talk of our Western empire and our admirable ports, of our growth and our growing wealth; but here is, and will remain for generations, the centre of the commercial and political world, the focus of intellectual activity and the mint of thought.”[21]

The 1880s were a decade of great struggle in London. There was much poverty and want, with disease rife, and sanitation poor. The dire situation did not affect the whole of the city, however, and it was the wealth and opulence of the West End which highlighted how bad the situation elsewhere had become. It was also a decade of increasing social comment and investigation. The middle classes were, for the first time, taking an interest in their less fortunate neighbours. The decade was not the first in which London was in crisis; it was simply one of the earliest that the situation was recognised.


Baycroft, T., Nationalism in Europe 1789 – 1945 (Cambridge, 1998)

Briggs, A., Victorian Cities (London, 1968)

Burnett, J., Useful Toil (London and New York, 1994)

English, R., & Kenny, M. (Eds), Rethinking British Decline (New York, 2000)

Feldman, D., Englishmen and Jews (New Haven and London, 1994)

Fraser, H., ‘Municipal Socialism and Social Policy’, in Morris, R.J., and Rodger, R. (Eds), The Victorian City (London and New York 1993)

Harris, J., Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870 – 1914 (Oxford, 1993)

Lowe, N., Mastering Modern British History (London, 1998)

Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation (London, 1969)

Morris, R.J., & Rodger, R. (Eds), The Victorian City (London and New York, 1993)

Pugh, M., State and Society (2nd edition) (London, 1999)

Taylor, A.J.P., The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (Oxford, 1971)


[1] Richard le Gallienne (1895), quoted in Briggs, A., Victorian Cities (London, 1968), p311

[2] Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation (London, 1969), p468

[3] Burnett, J., Useful Toil (London and New York, 1994), p15

[4] Lowe, N., Mastering Modern British History (London, 1998), p216

[5] Ibid, p216

[6] Taylor, A.J.P., The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (Oxford, 1971), ppxxix – xxx

[7] Harris, J., Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870 – 1914 (Oxford, 1993), p41

[8] Mathias, pp472-5

[9] Ibid

[10] Lowe, p221

[11] Quoted in Briggs, p329

[12] Briggs, p318

[13] Ibid, p312

[14] Harris, pp41 – 44

[15] Ibid, p47

[16] Quoted in Burnett, p35

[17] Briggs, p313

[18] Quoted in Fraser, H., ‘Municipal Socialism and Social Policy’, in Morris, R.J., and Rodger, R. (Eds), The Victorian City (London and New York 1993), p263

[19] Quoted in Briggs, p314

[20] Quoted ibid, p315

[21] Hogan, J.F., Century Magazine (1883), quoted in Briggs, p317

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