1841: A window on Victorian Britain

The latest census release sheds light on a year when the Industrial Revolution was in full flow, the empire was still expanding - and black was the only colour to be seen in

It is a world away, and yet it is a world with curious echoes of our own. Yesterday, details of the 1841 census of the entire population of England and Wales were released online for the first time. There had been censuses of the nation before, but they had been little more than head counts. But on 6 June 1841, every individual in the country was recorded in whatever place he or she happened to be. Not just that, but their age, occupation and birthplace were entered into the great pencilled account. It was a gesture of enormous confidence and systematic method, a gesture which spoke volumes about the time in which it was made.

Queen Victoria had been on the throne barely four years. She was not yet popular. The public image of the monarchy had been tarnished by the four Hanoverian kings named George, who had been seen as bad, mad, decadent or remote by the ordinary people. Her marriage the year before to yet another German, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg - tactless, serious and very, very German - had done little to help her image. And yet it did not matter. For this was a country growing in confidence about its place in the world.

That year New Zealand was added to the Empire. Two colonies in the North Americas were merged into the Province of Canada. British ships entered the Niger Delta under the banner of the African Civilisation Society. A new plenipotentiary was dispatched to China. Britannia ruled the waves and an awful lot else, at a time when the United States was run by a president no one much remembers - William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office after refusing to wear a coat or hat at his bitterly cold inauguration at which he made a two-hour speech and caught pneumonia.

In those days we waged wars on our own, though not without a chorus of criticism which has a curiously modern ring to it. That year British forces attacked Canton and occupied Hong Kong in wars over opium - a drug we saw as an ideal trading commodity to help balance our huge trade deficit with China. (Sounds familiar?) The adventure was attacked in the House of Commons by a newly elected young MP, William Gladstone, who wondered if there had ever been "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know".

The Whig government of Lord Melbourne, which had promoted the war, fell that year to be replaced by a Conservative government led by Sir Robert Peel. One of Peel's main concerns was the need for free trade in a rapidly globalising world economy. (Déjà vu all over again.)

But in those days we made stuff. Three years earlier, Benjamin Disraeli had coined the phrase "the workshop of the world" to describe Great Britain. There had been a huge movement of people from the countryside to towns where the impact of the Industrial Revolution - which had begun in the 1780s - was now being fully felt. It was the birth of the railways. That year the Paddington to Bristol line was completed. The first steam-powered ships were being developed. The number of letters mailed had more than doubled thanks to the penny post introduced in 1840.

It was, in the words of Friedrich Engels who arrived in Manchester the following year to begin the study which he published as The Condition of the Working Class in England, "an industrial revolution, a revolution which at the same time changed the whole of civil society". And at what a cost. Conditions in the new factories, and in the coal mines that supplied them, were deadly.

At Bigge's Pit at Wollington, Co Durham, that year, 32 men and children died in "a melancholy explosion" which sent "a violent shock in the neighbourhood resembling what might be supposed to proceed from an earthquake". It was but one of many such industrial disasters. A contemporary account was vivid in its detail: the men's mutilated bodies "presented a sight truly appalling, so completely disfigured, so broken every bone and muscle, that coffins had to be sent down, to prevent limb falling from limb, while being conveyed up the shaft".

Such horror was beginning to press upon the conscience of the nation. In 1841 a young Charles Dickens serialised one of his more mawkish pieces of sentimentality, The Old Curiosity Shop, which tantalised the whole of the reading world with the drawn-out death of the heroine, Little Nell. "Does she live?" shouted readers from the quayside in New York to the ship delivering the next episode. It was not one of Dicken's better novels. But two years earlier he had published Oliver Twist, a book whose depiction of the evils of the workhouse was instrumental in bringing changes to the law.

In a speech not long after his 1841 election victory, Sir Robert Peel told the Commons that he was not going to stand idly by while MPs reported cases of atrocious suffering in their constituencies: "When I hear of any case of individual distress ... I am resolved to institute thereupon an immediate inquiry into all the circumstances." Not long after he strengthened the Poor Law Commission to give it power to enforce a uniform national policy. There was much else to do. That year a survey was conducted of children working in the mines, often in seams which were only 32 inches high.

The job of Fanny Drake, aged 15, was to "hurry" (push) small wagons full of coal which weighed as much as two hefty men, from the face to the shaft. She told the survey: "I work at Charlesworth's Wood Pit in Wakefield. I hurry by myself. I don't like it so well. It's cold and there is no fire in the pit. I'd rather be out of it altogether. I push with my head sometimes; it makes my head sore sometimes that I cannot bear it to be touched, it is soft too. I often have headaches and colds and coughs and sore throats." The year after, Peel banned child labour from the mines altogether.

A new moral seriousness was abroad. And as if in deference to it a dramatic change occurred in men's metropolitan fashion. The days of the dandy were over - Beau Brummel, the acme of fastidious foppishness who once boasted that it took him five hours to dress, had died of syphilis in a French mental asylum the year before. The era of the aristocrat was done. The middle class was the coming thing. Light-coloured breeches gave way to dark trousers. The black suit became the uniform of urban gentlemen, respectable professionals, shop clerks, and even artists and writers.

The poets of the day, now that the Romantics had passed away (apart from Wordsworth who lingered another decade) were men of high seriousness: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Austin.

The voices of women began to be heard. There were no votes for women, of course; indeed, universal male suffrage was not available. (It was one of the key demands of the Chartist riots that broke out a year later in northern England after the House of Commons rejected a three-million signature petition demanding votes for all.) But women found an audience through the novel, the literary form which came to dominate English literature during the Victorian period. The social life of the age was subjected to the close, realist scrutiny of writers like Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot.

New intellectual challenges were in the air. That year in Germany, Ludwig Feuerbach published a revolutionary book, which George Eliot translated into English under the title The Essence of Christianity. It posited the notion that religion is merely consciousness of the infinite and that God is the outward projection of man's best inner nature. The world was changing.

It was on the move too. The national exodus from the countryside to the town continued but there was also mass international migration. The population of England and Wales almost doubled in the half century from 1801 and trebled by 1901. In 1841 huge numbers of people were mobile. More than three million people - of a total population of just 15.9 million in 1841 - left Britain and Ireland for America, Canada and Australia in the three decades around this time. The notion of such far-flung "kith and kin" was to influence British politics for a century to come.

It was a time not just of growing confidence but of growing affluence too. 1841 was the year in which Thomas Cook ran the first excursion train. A staunch opponent of the demon drink, he organised it to attract a large crowd to a temperance meeting in Loughborough but the success of the venture gave him ideas about expanding the concept.

The new sense of earnestness about decorum required more stately forms of leisure: this was the year in which croquet was introduced to England - from Ireland - and in which the royal gardens at Kew, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, were reopened under the direction of Sir William Hooker as a centre of botanical research to which the public could be admitted to take the air. To the Victorians even humour needed structure; it was the year that the jocular periodical Punch was launched.

As a year it was, however, to end on a sombre tone. War broke out again in Afghanistan as the local people resisted British domination. An insurrection began in Kabul where the British Army was encamped within its own racecourse and polo field. In December 1841, British officials were assassinated as the first snow flakes began to fall on the city.

One month later, a lone rider was spotted by a British sentry near the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and what was then India. He was the sole survivor of a terrible massacre in which 16,500 British soldiers were slaughtered by the Afghans ,who had refused surrender terms to the expeditionary force. Thousands had been cut down as they retreated from Kabul. Thousands more had just lain down in the snow and died. History, we must fervently hope, does not always repeat itself.

A statistical snapshot of 1841

By Oliver Duff

* The census taken on 6 June 1841 records the English population as 15.9m, with 2.6m Scots and 8.2m Irish bringing Britain's total to 26.7m. The figure does not include the large homeless population

* Life expectancy was 40.2 years for men, 42.2 for women. More than 70 per cent of the population were under 35. Out of every 1,000 babies, 150 died before they were one

* The most popular girls' names were Mary (1.43m) and Elizabeth (809,000); for boys it was John (1.28m) and William (1m) - a top four that remained unchanged for 50 years

* The six-year Whig administration of William Lamb ended in August when he resigned. He was noted for surviving sexual scandal to mentor the young Queen Victoria during the first four years of her reign. Almost 600,000 men voted in the ensuing general election, which resulted in a victory for Sir Robert Peel, who had rebranded the Tories as "Conservatives" in 1835

* The population of London, already the largest city in the world, was 1.58m, with less than two-thirds of its inhabitants born there. Non-English arrivals commonly came from Ireland, Scotland, India, China, Poland, France and Italy

* Fuelled by industrialisation, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds were also in the middle of population explosions that would see their total of inhabitants rise by more than 50 per cent from 1831 to 1851

* A British force was engaged in a disastrous occupation of Afghanistan which ended with 690 British soldiers, 2,800 Indians and 12,000 followers massacred or taken prisoner by Afghan militiamen. It was blamed on political officers making military judgements

* Queen Victoria, aged 22, gave birth to her successor Edward VII. Despite apprehension about Victoria's age and gender, great optimism surrounded the monarchy after a period of unpopularity under the insane George III and the extravagant playboys George IV and William IV

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