Part 1: Victorian - What Does That Mean?

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Part 2: The Definition of “Victorian” Jewellery

Part 3: Late Victorian Jewellery circa 1880-1901

What does it mean when we refer to something as Victorian? Why was Queen Victoria such an influential monarch and why was she referred to as the Grandmother of Europe? We will answer these and many more questions in our 3 part series on understanding an era and design style known as Victorian.

Portrait of Queen Victoria 1859

A Reign That Spanned 63 Years

Victorian implies anything related to the reign of Queen Victoria including the attitudes of that time. Her reign spanned sixty three years 1837-1901 making Victoria the longest reigning monarch in history until the present British monarch, Queen Elizabeth the second, overtook her in 2015.

To understand the Victorian era is to have an understanding of how a tiny island with a diminutive queen could command an empire that spanned twenty three percent of the worlds surface, ruled over four hundred and fifty eight million people living in thirteen million square miles of land.

The expansion of the British Empire was driven by many ambitions, some noble and others not so noble. Victoria’s husband and consort Prince Albert had a vision of what Britain could become and he used his influence on Victoria and the British people to show them how great they could be. The industrial revolution which began in the 18th century, and reached its peak during the reign of Victoria, changed Britain into a manufacturing super power that ruled the waves into the 20th century.

Showcasing the Best of Britain

Lithograph of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Prince Albert was fascinated by the inventions and machines that this period produced and he organised the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London in 1851 to showcase the very best that Britain could provide. It was a British show first and foremost but it did showcase ingenuity from around the world including intricate textile designs, silks, tapestries, and the machines that made them. Furs from Russia, watches from Switzerland, precious jewels from India and even gold from South America were displayed. Steam powered tools and locomotives, medical equipment and many inventions that would change forever the way of life for the mass of the people demonstrated Britain’s dominance in the world and gave rise to a great swelling of national pride, confidence and security. The first public toilets were installed at the Crystal Palace and for a small sum a private cubicle could be used, from which came the phrase “to spend a penny”. The exhibition was a great success with over six million visitors and the travel agent Thomas Cook offering special, affordable day trips to the show.

The success of the Great Exhibition and the many that followed around the world highlighted the scale of invention, development and social reform that now existed in Great Britain. This in turn allowed the expansion of the British Empire and the growth of a soon to be affluent middle class to take place and a period of great prosperity ensued. Initially the pursuit of expansionism was flamed by lofty virtues whereby the empire would be ruled by justice not tyranny, good would triumph over evil, and trade, education and welfare would flourish.

Queen and Country Plunged Into Mourning

Queen Victoria in Mourning

After Prince Albert’s untimely death in 1861 Victoria was inconsolable and she plunged herself into intense mourning which remained until her own death forty years later. The pursuit of the empire took a politically different turn and the quest for world dominance, power and glory with accompanying greed ensued, fostered by the ambitious and determined leader of the conservative party, Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli enchanted Victoria with his charm and wit, flattering her at every turn and igniting a renewed interest in politics, persuaded her to follow his vision of a mighty empire.

National pride flourished in Britain with increased business and soaring wealth but the workers, the majority of the population, found their lives changing in a way that was not favourable. There was no legislation to prevent employers and landlords from exploiting the working classes who lived hard, miserable lives in poverty in squalid conditions. Children in particular were the victims as they were expected to do hard work for long hours (12 hours a day) for a third of the wages of an adult and some carried out menial tasks from the age of three years. Working conditions were terrible and education for children was non-existent which meant that they had no hope of ever improving their situation, there was no future for them and many succumbed to disease or injury.

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times

Charles Dickens wrote in A tale of Two Cities “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It certainly was the best of times for the British Empire but the masses had no hope and no future. Eventually social and education reform was introduced and by the end of Victoria’s reign greater prosperity and basic education had trickled down to the working class. Women struggled hard to be given equal education but the Suffragette movement raised awareness to women’s rights and the need for enfranchisement. It was a long and hard fought battle that did not bear fruit until 1918 when men over 21 years of age and women over thirty were granted the right to vote. It took another ten years before the vote was extended to women over twenty one years of age.

Amazingly Queen Victoria opposed women’s suffrage, she was such a strong role model for women and supported careers for women and yet she thought the idea of women’s suffrage quite mad. Victoria’s long reign was significant to the stability of the nation and encouraged development and invention that lead Britain to become an industrial and economic power house which gave rise to many changes to the very fabric of society itself. We will explore these influences as we discuss Victorian jewellery as a reflection of change, fashion and social values in our next blog.

Click here to view our collection of Victorian jewellery. 

Victorian Jewellery

Read part two of the blog, Part 2: The Definition of “Victorian” Jewellery