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From Georgian to Victorian

Nicholas Dixon asks whether there was a radical transition between the two eras.

St Hugh’s College, Oxford and History Review

Oxford CrestThe Principal and Fellows of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in association with History Review, offer the Prize, worth up to £500, for the best historical essay submitted by a schoolboy or girl who, at the closing date, has been in the Sixth Form of any school or college for not more than two years.

This year there were 108 entries. The overall standard was good, and the competition at the upper end was severe. Exceptionally, the prize was awarded to a candidate who is still in the Lower Sixth: Nicholas Dixon of Chigwell School. A version of his essay, entitled ‘From Georgian to Victorian: A Radical Transition?’, is published below.

Two further awards were made: to Olivia Elder, of Oxford High School, for an essay on the dying days of the Protectorate in England; and to Robert Wilson, of the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, for an essay on the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth.

The transition between what are commonly termed the Georgian and Victorian eras is one of the great turning points of British history. The dividing line is often considered to be either 1830 (the death of George IV) or 1837 (the accession of Queen Victoria), but there is no real consensus, for alterations to an entire mindset were beyond the mere dates of a monarch’s reign. I intend to assess the cultural, intellectual and religious factors which represented what can be considered a significant change, and then to evaluate the wider consequences of the transition. Less emphasis will be placed on political, social or economic factors.

A convenient starting point is to consider the Coronation Sermons given for King William IV and Queen Victoria by the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield. The 1831 sermon has a distinctly late Georgian air of rational utilitarianism:

A sense of mutual dependence, and the prospect of common advantage, are the basis upon which human reason has erected the fabric of civil society. The principles which regulate the intercourse of man with man, as members of the same community, are to be found in the constitution of our nature. The form which these principles assume, when embodied in the laws and customs of social life, is varied by the peculiar circumstances under which different nations have constructed their system of polity …

The Supreme Ruler of the world has not prescribed to his subjects any particular form of government; but has given the sanction of his approval and the authority of his will to those which are so administered, as to answer the great ends of his own providential economy.

As an anonymous reviewer in the Westminster Review noted, such sentiments are remarkable when one considers the 1838 homily:

From utilitarian, this most versatile prelate has become theocratic. Instead of Archdeacon Paley, we have Archbishop Laud … The ceremony which, in 1831, was a mere ceremony, a thing ‘intended to remind’ – has now grown into a reality, an ‘investiture by the hands of God’s minister.’ The people are called upon to ‘accept their lawful sovereign as given them by God to rule over them.’ Instead of the rationalism of ‘human reason erecting the fabric of civil society on the basis of a sense of mutual dependence and a prospect of common advantage,’ we have the mysticism of the ‘diadem bespeaking a majesty of a more exalted and transcendent kind than any human agency can confer.’ The preacher … forgets the whole of the British constitution – ‘charter’, ‘contract,’ and all; blinks the most palpable facts in our social state and polity; and, as if ministerial responsibility and representative legislation were absolute nonentities, quietly tells Englishmen that their only security for just and good government lies in their king and queen being so good as to remember that his or her power is of God.

The difference is not simply one of constitutional theory, but of an entire culture. The bishop seems to have judged the Zeitgeist at both points and responded accordingly, albeit with considerable inconsistency. It is a transformation that can be witnessed at all levels during this period: from the rational to the mystic, from the classical to the romantic. The irony is that the Reform Act came in between these two sermons, a piece of legislation that would theoretically seem to be far closer to the former sermon. Such facts indicate that, given the more symbolic role of the monarchy in the 19th century, the terms ‘Georgian’ and ‘Victorian’ can only be profitably used in a cultural context.


The sphere in which the end of the Georgian Era can be mostly clearly witnessed is within the Church of England. The influence of both Tractarianism and its illegitimate child Ritualism on English religion was profound. The Church of England was transmuted from an essentially Latitudinarian Protestant sect, suspicious of ‘enthusiasm’, into a Church fully asserting its historic Catholicity, and strongly influenced by medieval ritual. The idea of the English Archbishops issuing the Saepius Officio to rebut the Pope’s claim that the Church of England was not part of the Apostolic Succession (as occurred in 1897) would have been unheard of in the 18th century. However, this was a very gradual process, for it took a considerable length of time to acquaint Englishmen with a High Church Laudian birthright that was quite alien to them. The process began in 1833 with the non-ritualistic Tractarians, who desired recognition that the English Church was not a Protestant sect, but part of the Catholic Church, and a reaffirmation of traditional beliefs undermined by the rationalism of such Georgian divines as William Paley. Leslie Stephen’s summary of Paley’s utilitarian theology is indicative, albeit exaggerated: ‘Christ came into the world to tell us that we should go to hell if our actions did not tend to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Newman, Keble and Pusey had an entirely different conception of the Church, and it was one that would eventually garner wide acceptance.

One of the most fundamental changes to the Church was the diminishing of its secular authority. In the early 19th century, a parish vestry had wide-ranging responsibilities for such areas as poor relief, tax collection, registration of births, marriages and deaths, and road maintenance. The parish beadle, an ostentatious official with a bicorn hat and goldlaced coat who carried a staff, became a symbol for the pompous officialdom of the Georgian Church (e.g. in Dickens’s Oliver Twist). A series of legislative measures of the 1830s gave such duties to secular bodies like poor law unions and civil vestries, making the Church’s sole concern religion. With the bond between Church and State loosened, it is arguable that involvement in Church life became more a matter of positive affirmation than social compulsion – a trend partially precipitated by the re-introduction of regular Communion services by the Tractarians. It is thus small wonder that most of the great Victorian minds found themselves alienated from the Established Church.

After Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Test Act, the Church of England began to take on an entirely different character. To the irritation of a vocal Evangelical party, its outward forms began to approach Catholicism. The use of vestments, candles, Communion wafers, the sign of the cross, bells at the elevation, robed choirs and liturgical processions spread greatly. The riots at St George-in-the-East over a ritualist incumbent, in addition to the debates over the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874, all concerned practices that had become utterly commonplace by the end of the century. In more remote parish churches, gallery bands of amateur musicians playing time-honoured psalm tunes were replaced with organs playing Hymns Ancient and Modern, as vividly portrayed in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). A desire to break with the supposed spiritual laxity of the Georgian Era was undoubtedly one of the motivating factors behind the dramatic developments of Tractarianism and Ritualism – developments that certainly belong to the Victorian Era.

It should, however, be noted that the end of the Georgian era came slowly, if some outward 18th-century survivals are considered. Prelates wore wigs as late as 1860, rustic gallery bands could still be found in 1893, and Paley’s Evidences of Christianity remained a set work for all undergraduates at Cambridge until 1920. The Victorian ‘Broad Church’ party was probably closest to the Georgian Latitudinarians, but it was never an organised movement, and was influenced by concepts alien to the Georgians such as socialism and German biblical criticism. Thus, by the middle of the 19th century, none of the three main Church factions was identifiable with the Anglicanism of the previous century.


Another interesting area of comparison is the general moral outlook of the Georgians and the Victorians, a subject distinct from organised religion. The members of the Clapham Sect, a group of like-minded reformers active during the last 40 years of the Georgian Era, have been considered by some as the first Victorians. Their moral certainty and zeal for social improvement, stemming from their genteel Evangelicalism, contrasted sharply with the moral indifference of their peers.

It would be completely unjust to characterise the earlier Georgian Era as devoid of charity, but it is probably fair to state that it had never been accompanied by such spiritual fervour as shown by reformers like Wilberforce, Hannah More, Henry Thornton and Charles Simeon. Their main cause was the abolition of the slave trade, an object achieved in 1807, followed by the total abolition of slavery in 1833.

The Society for the Suppression of Vice, established by Royal Proclamation in 1787, is interesting as an example of how Wilberforce and his associates attempted to effect a ‘reformation of manners’. The fashions of the 18th-century aristocracy had been inclined against conventional morality. To some extent, there was a feeling that religion was useful in upholding the social order, but that assenting to its creeds was a superfluity. The late 18th-century upper classes might have concurred with this witticism of Voltaire’s: ‘I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife, to believe in God, and I fancy that as a result I will suffer from less theft and less cuckoldry.’ It was an attitude attacked by Wilberforce in his tract A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity (1797).

Nowhere could the moral transition between the 18th and 19th centuries more clearly be seen than in the monarchy. The aristocratic debauchery of the late Georgians was exemplified by the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. His countless extra-marital affairs, beginning with the actress Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson at the age of 16, were compounded by his excessive gluttony and drunkenness and the immense debt he accumulated. Forced to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, he separated from her after producing a daughter, returning to the Catholic mistress whom he had illegally married a decade earlier, Maria Fitzherbert. These divers entanglements culminated in George’s accession in 1820, when Caroline returned to England demanding to be recognised as Queen, with her name included in the State Prayers of the Liturgy. In response, George instituted a parliamentary enquiry into her conduct, with public opinion firmly on the Queen’s side (she was eventually exonerated). Despite the excessive pomp of George’s coronation in 1821, the monarchy – and thus the establishment – had reached its lowest point. In the eyes of many, including the growing number of political radicals, it had lost all moral integrity and could no longer command the respect of the nation. Upon the death of George IV in 1830, The Times noted that ‘there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King’.

William IV was nearly 65 when he succeeded his brother, and initially wanted to dispense with the coronation ceremony altogether, seeing his role as that of caretaker for his niece Victoria. The coronation did occur, but it was a simple ceremony, in marked contrast to the extravagance of George IV. As one historian has noted, ‘George IV had made the Throne unpopular; William IV restored its popularity, but not its dignity’.

When Victoria became Queen at the age of 18, her unenviable task was to restore the moral authority of the British establishment. Despite the Conroy affair, Victoria’s union with Prince Albert in 1840 brought a new sense of purpose to an essentially moribund institution. Albert went a considerable way in restoring the reputation of the monarchy as a moral exemplar for the nation. He believed that the ‘exaltation of Royalty is possible only through the personal character of the Sovereign’. The following oft-quoted comment of a lady in the audience at a performance of Antony and Cleopatra would have been unthinkable in the Georgian Era: ‘How unlike, how very unlike the home life of our own dear Queen!’ It was a transformation of which the Clapham Sect would have thoroughly approved.


A third subject of consideration is the transition between the artistic cultures of the Georgian and Victorian eras, from ‘neoclassicism’ to ‘romanticism’. This was observable to some degree in all western cultures during the first half of the 19th century. There seems to have been a point at which rationality and order could go no further.

Perhaps the first cultural manifestation of Victorianism was to be found in the early romantic poets. Writers such as Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Bryon were mainly active during the Georgian Era, but were often dissident elements, refusing to conform to the Augustan society around them. Wordsworth travelled to revolutionary France in 1791 in support of its ideals, where he had a love-child with the Frenchwoman Annette Vallon. William Blake’s far-fetched visions and poetry utterly challenged the basis of 18th-century thought, with such statements as ‘There is no Natural Religion’ and ‘Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception’. Shelley published a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism (1811) while at Oxford, for which he was expelled. These were people on the very fringe of Georgian society, and to see them as representative of their era is to misunderstand their significance. Shelley’s sonnet, England in 1819, is, for example, an excoriating attack on Georgian England.

A remarkable skirmish between the Georgian and the Victorian occurred in the field of architecture. In the early 19th century, the dominant style of architecture was that of the Greek Revival – an attempt at exact reconstruction of the remains described in such works as Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762). This solid and urbane style, propagated by Smirke, Nash and Burton, was most effectively employed in the erection of the monumental new parish churches required in areas of population growth. The use of the Grecian architecture in an ecclesiastical context, noted by John Summerson in his amusing comment concerning the tower of St. John’s Waterloo Road (‘the kind of tower Ictinus might have put on the Parthenon if the Athenians had had the advantage of belonging to the Church of England’), aroused the contempt of those who believed this to be ‘Pagan’. Chief among these was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the fervent Roman Catholic and designer whose publications ignited what became known as ‘the Battle of the Styles’. During the 18th century, the use of ‘Gothick’ in building had been an occasional curiosity, frivolously employed, as at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and the garish parish church at Shobdon, Herefordshire. Such structures used medieval motifs without the ‘correct’ reconstruction of gothic form. Now, in Pugin’s eyes, the gothic assumed a sacred significance as the only truly Christian style of architecture, for ‘in it alone we find the faith of Christianity embodied, and its practices illustrated’. In contrast, the classical buildings of Pugin’s own time were ‘the veriest heathen buildings imaginable’.

At the same time, a competition was taking place for the design of the new Houses of Parliament, after their destruction by fire in 1834. The chairman of the rebuilding committee stipulated that the buildings should be either ‘Gothic’ or ‘Elizabethan’. Thus, classical architects were effectively disqualified, allowing Charles Barry to submit the successful design, with the later assistance of Pugin. This set an important precedent, and from the 1840s onwards gothic was the standard style for churches. Like the equally vehement Oxford Movement, the Gothic Revival induced a natural dislike for Georgian architecture which permeated the Victorian Era, finding further expression in John Ruskin’s works. The contrast with America, where neoclassicism endured as a national style well into the 20th century, is symbolic of the differing auras these respective nations wished to project.

Another area for cultural consideration is fashion: a seemingly trivial matter, but ever indicative of societal change. The distinctive features of 18th-century male clothing had been superseded well before the Victorian Era: the wig disappeared around the turn of the century, the top hat supplanted the tricorn, and trousers, once the preserve of revolutionary artisans, replaced knee-breeches, giving a more masculine appearance. Female clothing changed drastically around the same time: dresses were no longer large and elaborate, but were simple and light in imitation of Grecian models. James Laver notes that ‘perhaps at no period between primitive times and the 1920s had women worn so little as they wore in the early years of the nineteenth century’.

The suggestiveness of such attire had been toned down somewhat by the 1830s, from which point female dresses were gradually expanded and embellished, reaching the absurd extreme of the unapproachable crinoline dresses of the 1860s. The Victorians preferred to forget the immodest dress of the Regency Era as part of their general perception of the Georgians as licentious. A striking example of this is Henry O’Neil’s painting Before Waterloo (1868) in which the Georgian ladies are depicted in the more decorous dress of the 1860s; an apposite symbol of Victorian approval for British military success during these earlier years mingled with disapproval of societal mores.


Several conclusions may be drawn from this brief account of how the end of the Georgian Era manifested itself. Firstly, the way in which so many of the changes are interconnected is remarkable. Religion becomes intertwined with architecture, fashion with morality, and literature with politics. Bishop Blomfield’s transition from rational utilitarianism to flights of romantic fantasy is mirrored in almost all spheres, be it the design of the Houses of Parliament or sentimental verse. It is an alteration which has shaped this nation ever since, having such consequences as the creation of the modern monarchy and the eventual demise of State Protestantism. It also created social mores, the collapse of which was a vital element of the 20th century. As a result, it is arguable that the modern British mentality is more Georgian than Victorian, although persistent stereotypes of both eras have been spawned in the process.

Whilst the change was dramatic, it was often incremental. The change in literature began as early as the 1780s, and religious changes were incomplete until around a century later. However, the 1830s was the crucial decade for this transition, with such elements as the beginning of the Oxford Movement and the demise of classical architecture. The other interesting feature of these changes was the frequent lack of opposition to them; Victorians of all descriptions seemed almost unanimous in disapproving of the times of their parents and grandparents. By the second half of the 19th century, the Georgian Era had become a byword for degenerate ignominy – ‘an age of great material prosperity, but of moral and spiritual poverty, such as hardly finds a parallel in our history.’

The limitations of such a brief survey as this will be self-evident to the reader, given the enormous subject matter. However, it is clear that the transition between the Georgians and the Victorians has had profound consequences. The demise of the Georgian Era demonstrates how a complete set of assumptions can be undermined, and finally overthrown, from within. The battles between rationality and romanticism, moral leniency and strictness, materialism and mysticism, still affect us today. Although such debates transcend the narrow confines of specific epochs, the manner in which this radical transition moulded a nation’s history remains both astonishing and instructive.

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