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Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living during the time of Queen Victoria's reign (1837–1901), the Victorian era, and of the moral climate of Great Britain in the mid-19th century in general. Many of these values spread throughout the British Empire. Historian Harold Perkin states:

Between 1780 and 1850 the English ceased to be one of the most aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly, tender-minded, prudish and hypocritical. The transformation diminished cruelty to animals, criminals, lunatics, and children (in that order); suppressed many cruel sports and games, such as bull-baiting and cock-fighting, as well as innocent amusements, including many fairs and wakes; rid the penal code of about two hundred capital offences, abolished transportation [of criminals to Australia], and cleaned up the prisons; turned Sunday into a day of prayer for some and mortification for all.[1]

Victorian values emerged in all classes and reached all facets of Victorian living. The values of the period—which can be classed as religion, morality, Evangelicalism, industrial work ethic, and personal improvement—took root in Victorian morality. Current plays and all literature--including old classics like Shakespeare--were cleansed of naughtiness ("bowdlerized").

Historians now regard the Victorian era as a time of many conflicts, such as the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint together with serious debates about how to implement the new morality. The international slave trade was abolished--and was enforced by the Royal Navy. Slavery was ended in all the British colonies, child labour was ended in British factories, and a long debate ensued regarding whether prostitution should be totally abolished or tightly regulated. Homosexuality remained illegal.

Today, the term "Victorian morality" can describe any set of values that espouse sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime and a strict social code of conduct.

File:Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and children by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.jpg

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children as idealized family


Main article: Abolitionism in the United Kingdom

Opposition to slavery was the main evangelical cause from the late 19th century, led by William Wilberforce (1759-1833). They organized very thoroughly, and developed propaganda campaigns that made readers cringe at the horrors of slavery. They carried the same moral fervor and organizational skills into most of the other reform movements.[2] Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, only four years after the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. The anti-slavery movement had campaigned for years to achieve the ban, succeeding with a partial abolition in 1807 and the full ban on slave trade, but not slave ownership, which only happened in 1833. It took so long because the anti-slavery morality was pitted against powerful economic interests which claimed their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labour. Eventually, plantation owners in the Caribbean received £20 million in cash compensation, which reflected the average market price of slaves. William E. Gladstone, later a famous reformer, handled the large payments to his father for their hundreds of slaves. The Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, stopping any ships that it suspected of trading African slaves to the Americas and freeing any slaves found. The British had set up a Crown Colony in West AfricaSierra Leone—and transported freed slaves there. Freed slaves from Nova Scotia founded and named the capital of Sierra Leone "Freetown".[3]

Abolishing cruelty[]

Cruelty to animals[]

Main article: Animal welfare in the United Kingdom

William Wilberforce, Thomas Fowell Buxton and Richard Martin[4] introduced the first legislation to prevent cruelty to animals, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822; it pertained only to cattle and it passed easily in 1822. [5])

In the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 "fighting or baiting Lions, Bears, Badgers, Cocks, Dogs, or other Animals" was made a criminal offence. The law laid numerous restrictions on how, when, and where animals could be used. It prohibited owners from letting mad dogs run loose and gave police the right to destroy any dog suspected of being rabid. It prohibited the use of dogs for drawing carts.[6] The law was extended to the rest of England and Wales in 1854. The 1839 law, made it illegal for dogs to pull carts. They were very often used by very poor self employed men as a cheap means to deliver milk, human foods, animal foods (the cat's-meat man), and for collecting refuse (the rag-and-bone man). The dogs were susceptible to rabies; cases of this horrible deadly disease among humans were on the rise. They also bothered the horses, which which were economically much more vital to the city. Evangelicals and utilitarians in the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals persuaded Parliament it was cruel and should be illegal; the Utilitarian element added government inspectors to provide enforcement. The owners had no more use for their dogs, and killed them.[7][8] Cart dogs were replaced by people with handcarts.[9]

Child labour[]

Main article: Child labour

Evangelical religious forces took the lead in identifying the evils of child labor, and legislating against them. They were angered at the contradiction between the conditions on the ground for children of the poor and the middle-class notion of childhood as a time of innocence led to the first campaigns for the imposition of legal protection for children. Reformers attacked child labor from the 1830s onward. The campaign that led to the Factory Acts was spearheaded by rich philanthropists of the era, especially Lord Shaftesbury, who introduced bills in Parliament to mitigate the exploitation of children at the workplace. In 1833 he introduced the Ten Hours Act 1833, which provided that children working in the cotton and woollen mills must be aged nine or above; no person under the age of eighteen was to work more than ten hours a day or eight hours on a Saturday; and no one under twenty-five was to work nights.[10] The Factory Act of 1844 said children 9–13 years could work for at most 9 hours a day with a lunch break.[11] Additional legal interventions throughout the century increased the level of childhood protection, despite the resistance from the laissez-faire attitudes against government interference by factory owners. Parliament respected laissez-faire in the case of adult men, and there was minimal interference in the Victorian era.[12]

Unemployed street children suffered too, as novelist Charles Dickens revealed to a large middle class audience the horrors of London street life.[13]


Main article: Victorian era#morality

Historians Peter Gay and Michael Mason both point out that modern society often confuses Victorian etiquette for a lack of knowledge. For example, those going for a bath in the sea or at the beach, would use a bathing machine. Despite the use of the bathing machine, it was still possible to see people bathing nude. Typical middle-class brides likely knew nothing about sex and learned about their husbands' expectations for it on their wedding night; the experience was often traumatic. Contrary to popular conception, however, Victorian society recognised that both men and women enjoyed copulation.[14]

Verbal or written communication of sexual feelings was also often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers. However, they also wrote explicit erotica, perhaps the most famous being the racy tell-all My Secret Life by the pseudonym Walter (allegedly Henry Spencer Ashbee), and the magazine The Pearl, which was published for several years and reprinted as a paperback book in the 1960s. Victorian erotica also survives in private letters archived in museums and even in a study of women's orgasms. Some current historians now believe that the myth of Victorian repression can be traced back to early twentieth-century views, such as those of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who wrote Eminent Victorians.


Template:See also The enormous expansion of police forces, especially in London, produced a sharp rise in prosecutions for illegal sodomy at midcentury.[15] However, law officers saw it as an unfortunate duty that detracted them from the real business of fighting crime.[16] Male sexuality became a favorite subject of study especially by medical researchers whose case studies explored the progression and symptoms of institutionalized subjects. Henry Maudsley shaped late Victorian views about aberrant sexuality. George Savage and Charles Arthur Mercier wrote about homosexuals living in society. Daniel Hack Tuke's Dictionary of Psychological Medicine covered sexual perversion. All these works show awareness of continental insights, as well as moral disdain for the sexual practices described.[17]

Simeon Solomon and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, as they contemplated their own sexual identities in the 1860s, fastened on the Greek lesbian poet Sappho. They made Victorian intellectuals aware of Sappho and help shape the modern image of lesbianism.[18]

The Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 for the first time made all male homosexual acts illegal. It provided for two years' imprisonment for males convicted of committing, or being a party to public or private acts of homosexuality. Lesbian acts--still scarcely known--were ignored.[19] Oscar Wilde was convicted and imprisoned in 1895, becoming the iconic victim of English puritanical repression.[20].


File:Illustrated Police News - Jack the Ripper 2.png

A victim of Jack the Ripper

Prostitution had been a factor in city life for centuries. The reformers started mobilizing in the late 1840s, major news organisations, clergymen, and single women became increasingly concerned about prostitution, which came to be known as "The Great Social Evil".[21] Estimates of the number of prostitutes in London in the 1850s vary widely (in his landmark study, Prostitution, William Acton reported that the police estimated there were 8,600 in London alone in 1857).

While the Magdalene Asylums had been reforming prostitutes since the mid-18th century, the years between 1848 and 1870 saw a veritable explosion in the number of institutions working to "reclaim" these "fallen women" from the streets and retrain them for entry into respectable society — usually for work as domestic servants. The theme of prostitution and the "fallen woman" (any woman who has had sexual intercourse out of marriage) became a staple feature of mid-Victorian literature and politics. In the writings of Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth, Charles Dickens and others, prostitution began to be seen as a social problem.

When Parliament passed the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864 (which allowed the local constabulary in certain defined areas to force any woman suspected of venereal disease to submit to its inspection), Josephine Butler's crusade to repeal the CD Acts yoked the anti-prostitution cause with the emergent feminist movement. Butler attacked the long-established double standard of sexual morality.[22]

Prostitutes were often presented as victims in sentimental literature such as Thomas Hood's poem The Bridge of Sighs, Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton, and Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The emphasis on the purity of women found in such works as Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House led to the portrayal of the prostitute and fallen woman as soiled, corrupted, and in need of cleansing.[23]

This emphasis on female purity was allied to the stress on the homemaking role of women, who helped to create a space free from the pollution and corruption of the city. In this respect, the prostitute came to have symbolic significance as the embodiment of the violation of that divide. The double standard remained in force. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce for adultery combined with other offences such as incest, cruelty, bigamy, desertion, etc., or based on cruelty alone.[24]

The anonymity of the city led to a large increase in prostitution and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Dickens and other writers associated prostitution with the mechanisation and industrialisation of modern life, portraying prostitutes as human commodities consumed and thrown away like refuse when they were used up. Moral reform movements attempted to close down brothels, something that has sometimes been argued to have been a factor in the concentration of street-prostitution.[25]

Crime and police[]

Main article: History of law enforcement in the United Kingdom

After 1815, there was widespread fear of growing crimes, burglaries mob action, and threats of large-scale disorder. Crime had been handled on an ad-hoc basis by poorly organized local parish constables and private watchmen, supported by very stiff penalties, including hundreds of causes for execution or deportation to Australia. London, with 1,5 million people--more than the next 15 cities combined--over the decades had worked out informal arrangements to develop a uniform policing system in its many boroughs. The Metropolitan Police Act 1829, championed by Home Secretary Robert Peel, was not so much a startling innovation, as a systemization with expanded funding of established informal practices.[26] It created the Metropolitan Police Service, headquartered at Scotland Yard.[27] London now had the world's first modern police force. The 3000 policemen were called "bobbies" (after Peel's first name). They were well-organized, centrally directed, and wore standard blue uniforms. Legally they had the historic status of constable, with authority to make arrests of suspicious persons and book offenders before a magistrate court. They were assigned in teams to specified beats, especially at night. Gas lighting was installed on major streets, making their task of surveillance much easier. Crime rates went down. An 1835 law required all incorporated boroughs in England and Wales to establish police forces. Scotland, with its separate legal system, was soon added. By 1857 every jurisdiction in Great Britain had an organized police force, for which the Treasury paid a subsidy. The police had steady pay, were selected by merit rather than by political influence, and were rarely used for partisan purposes. The pay scale was not high (one guinea a week in 1833), but the prestige was especially high for Irish Catholics, who were disproportionately represented in every city where they had a large presence.[28][29]


Intellectual historians searching for causes of the new morality often point to the ideas by Hannah More, William Wilberforce, and the Clapham Sect. Perkin argues this exaggerates the influence of a small group of individuals, who were "as much an effect of the revolution as a cause." It also has a timing problem, for many many predecessors had failed. The intellectual approach tends to minimize the importance of Nonconformists and Evangelicals--the Methodists, for example, played a powerful role among the upper tier of the working class. Finally, it misses a key ingredient: instead of trying to improve an old society, the reformers were trying to lead Britain into a new society of the future.[30]

Victorian Era movements for justice, freedom, and other strong moral values made greed, and exploitation into public evils. The writings of Charles Dickens, in particular, observed and recorded these conditions.[31] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels carried out much of their analysis of the evils of capitalism in and as a reaction to Victorian Britain.[32]

Peter Shapely examined 100 charity leaders in Victorian Manchester. They brought significant cultural capital, such as wealth, education and social standing. Besides the actual reforms for the city they achieved for themselves a form of symbolic capital, a legitimate form of social domination and civic leadership. The utility of charity as a means of boosting one's social leadership was socially determined and would take a person only so far. [33]


  1. Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society (1969) p 280.
  2. Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (2009) pp 205-44.
  3. Howard Temperley, British antislavery, 1833-1870 (1972).
  4. Template:Cite web
  5. James C. Turner, Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind (2000) p 39.
  6. Template:Cite web
  7. M. B. McMullan, "The Day the Dogs Died in London" The London Journal: A Review of Metropolitan Society Past and Present (1998) 23#1 pp 32-40
  8. Template:Citation. Chapter: 'A Left-handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals' by Erica Fudge
  9. Template:Cite web
  10. Georgina Battiscombe, Shaftesbury: A Biography of the Seventh Earl 1801-1885 (1988) pp. 88-91.
  11. Template:Cite book
  12. Template:Cite book
  13. Amberyl Malkovich, Charles Dickens and the Victorian Child: Romanticizing and Socializing the Imperfect Child (2011)
  14. Template:Cite book
  15. Sean Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (2005).
  16. H. G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (2003) p. 50; online review
  17. Ivan Crozier, "Nineteenth-century British psychiatric writing about homosexuality before Havelock Ellis: The missing story." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 63#1 (2008): 65-102.
  18. Elizabeth Prettejohn, "Solomon, Swinburne, Sappho." Victorian Review 34#2 (2008): 103-128. online
  19. F. Barry Smith, "Labouchere's amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment bill." Australian Historical Studies 17.67 (1976): 165-173.
  20. Ari Adut, "A theory of scandal: Victorians, homosexuality, and the fall of Oscar Wilde." American Journal of Sociology 111.1 (2005): 213-248 online
  21. Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class, and the state (1982).
  22. Nancy Boyd, Three Victorian Women Who Changed Their World: Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale (1982)
  23. George Watt, The fallen woman in the nineteenth-century English novel (1984)
  24. Template:Cite book
  25. Judith R. Walkowitz, "Male vice and feminist virtue: feminism and the politics of prostitution in nineteenth-century Britain." History Workshop (1982) 13:79–93. in JSTOR
  26. Norman Gash, Mr. Secretary Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830 (1961) pp. 487-98.
  27. J.L. Lyman, "The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829: An Analysis of Certain Events Influencing the Passage and Character of the Metropolitan Police Act in England," Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science (1964) 55#1 pp. 141-154 online
  28. Clive Emsley, "Police" in James Eli Adams, ed., Encyclopedia of the Victorian Era (2004) 3:221-24.
  29. Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750–1900 (5th ed. 2018) pp 216-61.
  30. Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society, pp 280-81.
  31. Daniel Bivona, "Poverty, pity, and community: Urban poverty and the threat to social bonds in the victorian age." Nineteenth-Century Studies 21 (2007): 67-83.
  32. Aruna Krishnamurthy, "'More Than Abstract Knowledge': Friedrich Engels in Industrial Manchester." Victorian Literature and Culture 28.2 (2000): 427-448.
  33. Peter Shapely, "Charity, Status and Leadership: Charitable Image and the Manchester Man" Journal of Social History 32#1 (1998), pp. 157-177 online

Further reading[]

File:William Holman Hunt - The Awakening Conscience - Google Art Project.jpg

Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853)

  • Adams, James Eli, ed. Encyclopedia of the Victorian Era (4 vol. 2004). articles by scholars
  • Bartley, Paula. Prostitution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860-1914 (Routledge, 2012)
  • Boddice, Rob. The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilization (2016)
  • Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867 (1959).
  • Churchill, David. Crime control and everyday life in the Victorian city: the police and the public (2017).
  • Churchill, David C. "Rethinking the state monopolisation thesis: the historiography of policing and criminal justice in nineteenth-century England." Crime, Histoire & Sociétés/Crime, History & Societies 18.1 (2014): 131-152. online
  • Emsley, Clive.Crime and Society in England, 1750–1900 (5th ed. 2018)
  • Fraser, Derek. The evolution of the British welfare state: a history of social policy since the Industrial Revolution (Springer, 1973).
  • Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud
  • Harrison, Brian. "Philanthropy and the Victorians" Victorian Studies 9#4 (1955) 353-374 online
  • Merriman, J (2004). A History of Modern Europe; From the French Revolution to the Present New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Perkin, Harold. The Origins of Modern English Society: 1780-1880 (1969) online at Questia; also online free
  • Searle, G. R. Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain (1998)
  • Woodward, E. L. The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (1938); 692 pages; wide-ranging scholarly survey online