Victorian Ideology

09 December 2022

To what extent did ideology impede social reform during the Victorian period?

There are perhaps many ideologies at work in the Victorian period. These might include

capitalism and free trade, British exceptionalism, and individual self-reliance. Some

had opposite 'isms' such as romanticism opposing modernism (Wilson, 2003, p21)1;

mysticism opposing science (Paxman, 2010, p239); religious conservatism opposing

religious tolerance (Strong, 2018, p404); and melancholy opposing optimism (Ackroyd,

2018, p34)2.

Many of these ideologies acted as impediments to various forms of social reform. For

example, British exceptionalism - the 'myth of Britain' (Strong, 2018, p408) - held back

reform concerning colonial peoples. The emphasis on individual self reliance held back

reform on public health3. Religious conservatism held back reform such as religious

tolerance and rights of Dissenters and Catholics (Royle, 2012, p364).

However, I want to focus on two areas of ideology that arguably impeded important social

reforms in particularly significant ways.

The first of these is the 'ideology of laissez-faire’ (Harvie & Mathew, 2000, p2) which is an

umbrella term covering a range of inter-related beliefs4. At government level, it included

free trade, a 'minimal government interference in the economy' (Bartrip, 2014) and 'a

universal horror of state provision' (Strong, 2018, p405) alongside a 'Victorian mistrust of

central government and of compulsion by legislation' (Charing, 1995, p48). All sections of

the ruling class shared a marked hostility to the state (Chitty 1992, in Gillard, 2011).

All this had significant impeding effects in social reform concerning poverty. In 1860,

Gladstone viewed it necessary that the economy functioned with 'an enormous mass of

paupers' (Harvie & Mathew, 2000, p136). The laissez-faire belief was that the poor were

idle, undeserving and that through re-moralising, they could work their way out of poverty

(Shaw, date unknown) and that any statutory poor relief would distort the 'free market

mechanism that determined the natural levels of prices and wages.' (Bloy, 2002a). This,

combined with the laissez-faire horror of centralised, compulsory state provision led to

uncontrolled, drastically increasing poverty (Cove Collective, date unknown). An early

government attempt to address the 'problem' of the poor was the 1834 Poor Law

Amendment Act, which was rather more extreme than a mere 'amendment'. Its aims were

to create 'self sufficient workhouses' (Bloy, 2002b), to transfer surplus population from

countryside to towns, and safeguard urban ratepayers from the consequences of this

(Englander, 1998, p16). It was 'specifically and explicitly aimed at discouraging people

from applying for relief.' (The Peel Web, 2016). And unsurprisingly, 'it improved neither

the material nor moral condition of the working class' (ibid) as government laissez-faire

ideology made sure that it wouldn't5.

A decade later during the famine in Ireland, 'gross inequalities (were still) taken for

granted' (Wilson, 2003, p80) and no one in power thought that 'it was the business of

government to alleviate famine in an entire nation' (Ackroyd, 2018, p143). Government

was 'unprepared logistically and - more to the point - ideologically' (Ackroyd, 2018, p143)

and so the belief in letting market forces do their work during the famine in Ireland was

an 'indifference bred by a dangerous mixture of ideology and theology' (Wasson, 2010,

p155). Again, laissez-faire ideology in government seriously impeded the possibility of any

social reform to alleviate and reduce poverty or even famine. Victorians didn't either

acknowledge or accept the root causes of poverty because they were ideologically blinded

from doing so.

The laissez-faire state also meant maintaining the 'stability and continuity (that) had ...

been laid in 1832' (Wasson, 2010, p151), and most significantly, it also meant maintaining

the interests of the landowning elite (Simon 1974, p72). After the 1832 Act, only 'one man

in five had the right to vote' (Everett, date unknown) and elections 'were often open to

corruption, .....bribery and intimidation.' (UK Parliament, a). In response, Chartist's

presented in 1839 a petition of 1.3 million signatures which 'fell on deaf ears in the

Commons' (Brain, 2021). Three further petitions based on these demands were submitted

to parliament. The first, with over 1.25 million signatures, in June 1839; the second,

signed by more than three million people, in May 1842; and the last in April 1848. All were

rejected, (Gillard, 2011) and the Chartist movement6 flared and faded by the 1850's7.

Not until 1918 had five of the six Chartist's demands been met, and even then, Britain

remained 'one of the least democratic states' in Europe (Colley, 2005 p350). Reform was

therefore step-wise and slow. The 'fear that reform aroused in many circles' (Black, 2020,

p183) was balanced by 'a growing fear of revolution' (Crone 2015). Between 1848 and

1883 there were five Bills to improve election probity, and 'three Reform Acts, of 1832,

1867, and 1884, all extended voting rights to previously disfranchised citizens.' Yet even

by 1900, only '58% of the adult male population was able to vote and ....many women

were denied the right' (UK Parliament, b). Representation of interests rather than people

'remained a principle, and parliament continued to be dominated by the landed interest for

almost a further half-century’ (Harvie and Mathew, 2000, p35). So to a very large extent,

this strand of laissez-faire ideology greatly impeded the progress of electoral reform. This

'stand aside' approach (Harvie and Mathew, 2000, p68) also played a significant role in

impeding public health reform8, workers' rights (Eves, 2014, ch6), rail safety (Snow, 2013,

episode 3), and colonial reform (Jackson, 2013, p10)9.

A second Victorian ideology that had significant impeding effects on social reform was the

doctrine of separate spheres - upon which 'Victorian gender ideology was premised'

(Britannica a). 'Victorian Britain was above all a sternly patriarchal society, in which

women at every level were subordinate' (Strong, 2018, p402). And 'a man’s place was in

the world of economics and business while a woman was a trophy of the home.' (Cossar,

2021, and Nsaidzedze, 2002, p1).

In practice, this meant that most women could not vote, and only one third were in any

form of employment (Cossar, 2021). Barred from any other role, 'women were ascribed

the more feminine duties of caring for the home' (Appell, date unknown), this, because

'her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and

decision' (Ruskin, 1865, part II). Women were defined by their 'weakness and delicacy'

(Burke in Fraser, 2021, pxvi). 'Typically, women were not allowed to be educated or gain

knowledge outside of the home because it was a man’s world' (Appell, date unknown).

Many aspects of this patriarchy were enshrined in law including a husband's conjugal

rights; rights over his wife's property and income; custody of children10; and rights over

her intellectual property.

Attempts to overturn these laws achieved mixed success. One 'cruelty of the law' (Fraser,

2021, p101) concerned the custody of infants following the separation of a married

couple. This was challenged from 1836 onwards by Carline Norton, driven by her own

experience. Taking up the cause, the Radical MP, Thomas Talfourd presented a Bill to

parliament which was rejected by the Lords in 1838 but did pass into law the following

year granting limited maternal rights (Fraser, 2021, p129). Not until 1870 was the issue of

a wife's income and property addressed in parliament. The Married Woman’s Property Act

focused mainly on earnings and not other forms of property. There were loopholes and as

it was not retrospective, so its impact was limited. Another 12 years passed until a

subsequent Bill addressed some of these weaknesses.

Another feature of the separate sphere ideology was coverture - the assumption that 'a

married woman would be represented by her husband' (Shanley, 1986, p72). This was

frequently used as a reason to deny women access to education, to public office, and

especially, the right to vote. Reaction against these injustices began to be prominent in

the 1850's (Cossar, 2021). Individual acts of petition were presented to government, and

local groups were established such as the Langham Place Circle (Victorian Era, date

unknown), and the Sheffield Female Political Association who submitted a petition

(unsuccessfully) to the House of Lords in 1851 calling for women’s suffrage.

By 1868, many local groups founded the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS).

This was the first attempt to create a unified voice for women’s suffrage, but it was

relatively ineffective. (McBeath, date unknown).

During the 1870’s an average of 200,000 signatures a year were collected in support of

votes for women (McBeath) and 'the subject was debated in the House of Commons every

year (excluding 1874) from 1870-1879' (ibid) but there was no change in the law until

1918 and 1928. Both the ideology of separate spheres and that of laissez-faire played

their impeding part.

Another aspect of the separate spheres ideology was that 'the Victorians liked to have

their social classes clearly defined' (Picard, 2009). And 'incursion of the poor into the

better-class neighbourhoods was firmly discouraged' (Strong, 2018, p402). There was also

an 'intricately graded pecking order' within the working class (Strong, 2018, p401). Even

religious denominations 'appealed to some social classes' and acquired a 'class image'

(Royle, 2012, p378).

The ignorance of the poor was widely seen as essential to the maintenance of the social

order (Lawson and Silver 1973, p235). Charity entailed deference if not subordination

(Black, 2020, p186) which cemented the hierarchy. Education for all was resisted because

it might interfere with the 'natural order' of the classes. Together with laissez-faire

ideology in government (see above), the ideology of separate spheres seriously impeded

any social reform to improve opportunities or reduce poverty. The poor had their 'natural'

place and it was seen as no concern of government to improve their lot.

However, although 'the idea of hierarchy was universally accepted.... change was in the

air' (Strong, 2018, p403). And 'dominant male powers beginning to suffer erosion' (Best,

1979, p302). And by 1880, state laissez-faire was also under challenge. 'We have had too

much laissez-faire....we need a great deal more paternal government' (Cumming in

Ackroyd, 2018 p305).

Driving this change was 'an inexorability about events' (Wilson, 2003, p28). The entire

political framework 'was undergoing enormous change, just as the social and industrial

landscape was being dramatically and rapidly revolutionised'. (Parker, 2019, p59).

As I have tried to show, government laissez-faire response was to 'bend rather than break'

(Blake in Wasson p151). Peel's Conservative party from 1830 onwards was 'a party of

resistance to wild, radical change, but it was also a party of cautious reform' (Taylor,

2000, p35). Russell's government was similarly becoming 'more flexible' and 'the state was

steadily taking more responsibility' (Wasson, 2010, p157). And 'Gladstone seemed to be

performing the essential ..function of Liberalism - moderate reform in a stable society'

(Taylor, 2000, p360). Under him, the Liberal party shifted to 'a more collectivist mode11

12 ... where the state intervened on behalf of the mass of the people' (Wasson, 2010,

p163) and there was the 'increasing involvement of the state in welfare provision' (Royle,

2021, p187). ‘The assumption that a major obligation of government was to keep public

expenditure low’ began to be questioned (Robbins, 1994, p56).

What resulted was a stuttering, step by step process of reform all the while impeded and

opposed by the twin ideologies of laissez-faire and separate spheres.

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1 Victorians we’re ‘glad to be different but hankered after the past’ (Wilson, 2003, p21);

they built railway stations 'in the manner of Gothic cathedrals' (Wilson, 2003, p322).

2 These can be seen as aspects of a Victorian 'rich tapestry' or as fundamental,

incompatible contradictions.

3 and still does.

4 It was 'supported by the philosophy of utilitarianism' and advocated 'the belief that the

individual striving for his own ends would thereby achieve the best results for society'

(Charing, 1995, p48).

5 'the investigation of the Royal Commission (on which the Act was based) was wildly

inaccurate and unstatistical.' The Whig government 'already knew what it wanted to do....

The Royal Commission provided the evidence to support the government's proposed

plans. (Bloy, M 2002b)

6 an 'immensely complex' and varied movement (Harvie & Mathew, 2000, p38).

7 Colley makes an interesting point that although Chartists were so critical of parliament, it

was paradoxically to parliament that they presented their demands. (Colley, 2005, p337)

8 The 1842 Public Health Act was permissive rather than compulsory in towns other than

Municipal Corporations.

9 'Melbourne's government took a somewhat lazy attitude towards the colonies' Wilson,

2003, p48; e.g half-hearted and ineffective attempts to impose prison reform in Jamaica in

1838, Wilson, 2003, p53;

10 There was the hope that in the reign of a female queen, the rights of females who

were mothers would be seen more favourably, (Fraser, 2021, p107) (unmet as Queen

Victoria was famously against the 'wicked folly' of women's rights) (Paxman, 2010, p146).

11 Dicey noted disapprovingly that pre-Victorian Quiescence had been replaced by

Individualism which was then challenged by Collectivism (Dicey, 1905)

12 although this is now regarded as too simplistic see


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