Industrial advancement created social unrest and economic distress among the masses. The Industrial Revolution while creating the privileged class of capitalists and mill-owners, rolling in wealth and riches, also brought in its wake the semi-starved and ill-clad class of laborers and factory workers who were thoroughly dissatisfied with their miserable lot. National wealth was increased but it was not equitably distributed. A new class of landed aristocracy and mill-owners sprang up. They looked with eyes of disdain and withering contempt on the lot of the ragged and miserable factory hands, conditions of life held no charm for laborers and workers in the field; for they were required to dwell in slum areas with no amenities of life attending them at any stage of their miserable existence. There were scenes of horrid despair witnessed in the lives of the poor. With ulcers of this apparently opulent society were brought to the surface by the debtor’s prison, the Fleet and Marshalsea, the dismal abysses of oppression of little children, the prevalence of religious hypocrisy—these and may other dark corners in the life of England were illuminated by the search-light of Dickens’ genius.
Miserable Condition of the Lower Section of the Society
The woeful and deplorable conditions of laborers, miners, debtors, and prisoners soon caught the eyes of social reformers and a stage was prepared for ameliorating the lot of the downtrodden and the under-dogs of an affluent society. The Victorian era, therefore, witnessed vigorous social reforms and a line of crusading humanitarian reformers who sought to do away with the festering sores and seething maladies of the Victorian age. The Victorian age is, therefore, an age of humanitarian consideration and social uplift for the masses.
In the course of the Victorian era, there developed among the increasingly large number of literary men and women and philanthropic social reformers a humanist attitude to life which was not a matter of creed and dogmas, but recognition of the love and loyalty that the better-sensed people had for their unfortunate brethren. In the works of Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Carlyle and Ruskin, we notice the crusading zeal of the literary artist to bring about salutary reforms in the social and economic life of the country.
The growing importance of the masses and the large number of factory hands gave a spurt to the Reform Bills, which heralded the birth of democratic consciousness among the Victorian people. The Victorian age witnessed a conflict between aristocracy and plutocracy on the one hand and democracy and socialism on the other side. The advance in the direction of democracy was well-marked out, and in spite of the protests of Tennyson and Carlyle, its sweeping tide could not be stemmed. The long struggle of the Anglo-Saxons for personal liberty is definitely settled, and democracy becomes the established order of the day. The king and peers are both stripped of their power and left as figure-heads of a past civilization. The last vestige of personal government and the divine right of rulers disappear, the House of Commons becomes the ruling power in England and a series of new reform bills rapidly extend the suffrage until the whole body of English people choose for themselves the men who shall represent them.
England witnessed expansion in the filed of education. The passing of the Education Acts was a landmark in the history of education the country. A large reading public was prepared to welcome the outpourings of novelists, poets and social reformers. The press also came into its own and became a potent force in awakening political consciousness among the people of this age.
Growth in Population
There was a phenomenal growth in population during the Victorian age. The population of Great Britain at the time of the first census in 1801 was about ten and a half millions. By 1901 it had grown to thirty seven millions. More and more of territorial expansion was needed for the habitation of this growing population and England during this age launched on the course of empire-building and establishing its hegemony in countries where the light of civilization had not yet advanced.