1861 and all that

A census website opens the door on a fog-shrouded Victorian world, an age when Britain had changed the world, and ruled it. Jonathan Brown reports
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The Independent Online

It is 1861. Lord Palmerston, a sprightly 76-year-old, is in his second term as Prime Minister. But trouble is brewing between him and his ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone.

It is 1861. Lord Palmerston, a sprightly 76-year-old, is in his second term as Prime Minister. But trouble is brewing between him and his ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone.

Overseas, a conflict involving the United States dominates all others: the Civil War. At home the royal family is in trouble: the death of Queen Victoria's Consort, Prince Albert, in December, sends the monarch into 40 years of mourning. History, the great Victorian novelist Mark Twain observed, may not repeat itself, but it certainly seems to rhyme.

Yesterday, for the first time, the entire 1861 census for England and Wales was put online, the oldest census material available on the internet. Perhaps this will feed the apparently unquenchable desire to study family history. It also chimes with a national mania, from terraced houses to celebrating Christmas, for all things Victorian.

Within the census can be found a fog-shrouded world of lamplighters, butlers and dockers. Where Charles Dickens and John Ruskin are popular heroes. Where Florence Nightingale, General Tom Thumb and P T Barnum can be read about in the pages of Reynolds News.

The archive is the brainchild of the firm 1837online.com, which is charging users. For a minimum of £5, amateur researchers will be able to buy 50 credits, enough to search the records of 20 households, vessels and institutions to discover who spent the night of 7 April 1861 there. Using special software, the site will also provide access to original documents. The project, which contains 20 million records, will initially cover London, Middlesex, Kent and Surrey, but is to be rolled out within months. Eventually, millions of people outside London will be able to check the names, ages and medical disabilities of those in the census.

Professor Martin Hewitt, secretary of the British Association of Victorian Studies, and professor of history at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds, says in 1861 Britain's economic and military power was approaching its apotheosis.

The army had just seized Lagos in what was to become modern-day Nigeria. The newly built Victoria Station was to open up the capital to the towns of southern England and beyond. The North and the Midlands were industrial power- houses, with the great cities of Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds enjoying a municipal pride and political autonomy unprecedented by modern standards.

"Britain is on the cusp of High Victorianism," Professor Hewitt says. "The nation is gradually coming to terms with itself after weathering the storms unleashed by industrialisation and urbanisation in the first decades of the century."

Change is continuing apace not just in the construction of railways, houses and acquisition of new colonies, he says, but also in the minds of the growing Victorian rational class. "The cliché of Victorian smugness and complacency had been unexpectedly punctured two years earlier. On the one hand, we have an economy which is in rude health, employment is generally good and imperial expansion is going on apace. But ideas are changing."

Three books were published, which acted as powerful catalysts for change. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species had for 20 years languished unread. On its publication in 1859, it sent shock waves through the worlds of science and organised religion. Darwin's theory of natural selection, now overwhelmingly accepted, was treated with ridicule by some sections of the clergy. At the height of the argument, Bishop Sam "Soapy" Wilberforce demanded to know whether it was his grandfather or grandmother who had descended from an ape.

Darwin displayed a sure-footed rhetorical flourish, saying he would rather be descended from an ape than a prostitute of the truth. It is the spirit of the age. The biologist was eventually to lose his religious faith after the death of his daughter.

He was in a growing majority. Other parts of the Church of England were at this time working themselves into a lather over figures showing that fewer than four in 10 people were attending regularly. Such growing secularism was fuelled by the publication in the same year of John Stuart Mills' On Liberty. His liberal treatise forcefully suggested the philosophy of individualism, a notion that was to become perhaps the defining principle of the 20th century. "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign," Mills said.

The following year, seven senior churchmen joined the growing turmoil. Essays and reviews by Frederick Temple, Rowland Williams, Baden Powell, Henry Bristow Wilson, C W Goodwin, Mark Pattison and Benjamin Jowett tried to place religion in the context of the modern world. For some observers, it signalled an intellectual crisis and caused a cultural war which ended in three sensational heresy trials.

On the political front, the row between Palmerston and Gladstone and their supporters was to bubble for much of the decade. Palmerston, a former Tory, believed the 1834 Reform Act went far enough in extending the right to vote. Gladstone wanted it to go further. He was to lose his seat over the issue, only to return triumphantly to introduce the 1867 Reform Act, which gave the vote to every male adult householder in a borough constituency.

The age is an august inheritance, Professor Hewitt says. "We live in a world largely shaped by the Victorians. There is a nostalgia and a pride in what they achieved, in an age when Britain didn't have to kowtow to the President of United States, with a people who created cultural artefacts and a cultural fabric which exist to this day."



The British had little interest in the seaside until the middle of the 19th century. But by 1861 coastal towns were becoming fully fledged holiday resorts where the pursuit of pleasure rather than of health was at a premium. There was a growing range of entertainment on offer and new possibilities for social interaction.

The popularity in part was fuelled by the growth of the railways and the trend for holiday weeks, when factories would close and entire cities descend on emerging resorts such as Scarborough.

That year the first England cricket team embarked on a tour of Australia, paving the way for regular Test matches between the two countries, contesting the Ashes.

One sport, however, suffered something of a body blow. The 1861 "anti-prize fight" Act made it illegal to so much as transport someone to the scene of a prizefight. This led to a rapid decline in popularity of the sport. It was to be another 10 years before the first FA Cup, but croquet had already arrived from the United States.

Children played with dolls whose heads and shoulders were made of wax or china with bodies made of stuffed calico or wood.

For adults there was cards. More-organised parlour play would include charades, blind man's bluff and pin the tail on the donkey.


Celebrity culture was beginning to permeate Victorian society by 1861. Politicians were towering figures who commanded passionate followings. But there were challengers.

In the world of literature Charles Dickens was at the height of his literary power and popularity. Great Expectations was serialised between 1860-61 and he had published A Tale of Two Cities the year earlier.

The 1861 census shows Dickens shared his time between homes in Hanover Terrace, London, and Gad's Hill Place, Higham, Kent. He shared his London home with several of his children and his housekeeper/ sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. Gad's Hill Place became the primary family home, where he spent his last days.

But there were curios too. Charles S Stratton, born in Connecticut in 1838, was one of the most famous men in Britain. Just over two feet tall, the impresario P T Barnum had met Stratton and christened him General Tom Thumb, first bringing him to Europe in 1844. He had an audience with Queen Victoria and met Abraham Lincoln. His wedding to Lavinia Warren was attended by 2,000 people, including congressmen and generals and was reported all over the world. Stratton died of a stroke in 1885.

In science, alongside Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell was fêted for his demonstration of colour photography to the Royal Society of Great Britain. In the arts, John Ruskin was a pin-up of the chattering classes. As an artist, scientist, poet, philosopher and environmentalist, he epitomised the Victorian ideal of the pursuit of knowledge. His support for the Pre-Raphaelites, in a letter to The Times, describing it as a "school of art nobler than the world has seen for 300 years" elevated it to respectability.


The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston did not live at 10 Downing Street - favouring his town house. But four families did live there.

Thomas Appleton, 62, the office keeper of the Lord of the Treasury, his son, William, his niece, Elizabeth Dyer and servant, Anne Dyset.

Then there is unmarried Charles Barrington, his valet, Charles Laughton, and a servant, Alice Wackfield.

Thomas Halligan, a Treasury office keeper, also lives with his three daughters, son and two servants.

The final family is Treasury lamplighter Abraham Salmon, his wife and their son.


At the new Blair residence in Connaught Square in Paddington there lived a retired Royal Navy sea captain.

William King, 55, born in Margate, Kent, lived with his wife Sarah, 48. In a sign of the area's respectabilty and gentility, the family enjoyed an abundance of help around the house. There was a 2:1 ratio of staff. Ladysmaid Caroline Deveral, 38, was from Trowbridge. The cook, Mary Bland, 38, journeyed to London from Eastfield, Northamptonshire, while the housemaid Harriet Young, 37, was from Frome, Somerset. The butler, Henry Miller, 43, was from Bexhill, Sussex.


The death of Prince Albert in December 1861 from typhoid sent the British monarch into crisis. The queen was overwhelmed with grief and inconsolable at her loss.

On his death, Victoria retreated from the affairs of state into isolation and was never seen again without her mourning clothes. In her journal she wrote: "Never can I forget how beautiful my darling looked lying there with his face lit up by the rising sun, his eyes unusually bright, gazing as if [they] were on unseen objects and not taking notice of me. I stood up, kissed his dear heavenly forehead and called out a bitter agonizing cry: Oh my dear darling! and then I dropped on my knees in mute distract despair, unable to utter a word or shed a tear".

It fell to Lord Palmerston to advise the Queen that her conduct could not continue. But Victoria's mourning was to last for 40 years.


January Benito Suarez enters Mexico City in bid to end civil war. Elected president in March

February Victor Emmanuel of Savoy becomes King of Italy

March Abraham Lincoln succeeds James Buchanan as US President.

April US Civil War starts as Confederates fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina

May The Canellas meteorite, weighing 859g, strikes Earth near Barcelona

June Lebanon separates from Syrian administration

July Ioan Kasatkin introduces the Eastern Orthodox Church to Japan

August Britain performs last execution for attempted murder

September Ulysses S Grant captures control of Tennessee river for the Union

October Antoine Bourelle, father of modern sculpture, born in Tarn-et-Garonne, France

November James Naismith, inventor of basketball, born in Ontario, Canada

December Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, dies