Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Looking Backwards

The Queen had reigned for sixty years, and as the outburst of enthusiastic applause died away, she must have looked back over the wonderful period through which she had lived with much satisfaction, as she thought of the immensely improved condition of her British subjects.

What if her revenue had doubled in that time? The number of her subjects had trebled in the British Isles alone, and the area over which she held sway was four times as large as it was at her accession. But it was neither the increased wealth nor the added miles to her Empire that interested her so much as the improved condition of her poorer subjects. She could think of them now with better wages and shorter hours of work, better housed, better fed, better clothed than in the early years of her reign.

True, they had left the countryside desolate, and crowded into the towns for work, for the farmers had suffered heavily from the free importation of foreign corn. But town life had its advantages as well as its disadvantages. Free libraries provided the people with good literature, they had their swimming baths, their cricket clubs, and varied occupations for their leisure time. Their whole atmosphere was healthier.

The Queen could remember how her subjects in the early part of her reign were publicly hanged in London and the large towns of England, and how hundreds and thousands of people crowded to see the sight, a brutalizing and demoralizing pastime. She must have recalled with satisfaction that no public execution had taken place since the year 1868. She must have remembered the terrible alternative for those convicted of crime. She knew how they were chained, thrust into convict ships, and transported for life to Australia or Tasmania—till in 1858 all transportation was ended by the law of the land.

The very year of her accession, 166 of her subjects had been sentenced to death, and 266 had been transported for life, while in the year of her Diamond Jubilee only 20 had been sentenced to death; instead of transportation, streams of healthy, honest emigrants yearly left British shores, to make for themselves new homes in those great sunlit lands across the seas, thus strengthening the bonds of the fast-growing Empire.

A great reduction of crime had taken place since free education had been provided for the children of Great Britain: the national mind had been elevated and refined, the effects of which were visible everywhere.

Where most could read and write, there was a growing demand for cheap books and newspapers. Queen Victoria might have remembered that at her accession there were but five newspapers—The Times (7d.), the Morning Chronicle, Standard  (an evening paper till 1857), the Globe, and the Morning Post.

The abolition of stamp duties and the introduction of printing by steam had increased the number, until in 1875 there were 325 papers printed in London alone, and in 1887 there were 2,135 in the British Isles, which number was still increasing when the Queen died.

This gave the people an opportunity of learning the affairs of the State from day to day—a matter of great importance, since already the working man had a voice in the government of his country. When the Queen came to the throne he had no part in the government. It was not till the Second Reform Act of 1867 that the working man of England had a vote.

In addition to this, the formation of County Councils in 1888, to deal with local matters relating to small areas, brought the possibility of governing on a small scale within the reach of all. Thus, by means of education, the poorest of the Queen's subjects could rise to the highest position in the Empire. This was impossible at the beginning of the reign, but the Queen could reflect with satisfaction on such a change, which might utilize the best brains and capacity in the kingdom, whether belonging to rich or poor.

Perhaps the changes that came with the cheapening of food were as far reaching as any within the period. No longer did the working man live on home-cured bacon, home-churned butter, home-fed mutton, and home-brewed beer. The great ocean-going ships steamed from shore to shore, bringing to Britain foods cheaper than she could produce them on the spot. From Australia came frozen beef and mutton, from Canada came meal for bread and biscuits, from Tasmania came fruit, from Jamaica bananas, from China, Assam, and Ceylon ever-increasing quantities of tea, from the lands washed by the Nile came abundance of sugar, rice from Patna and Rangoon, eggs from France and Holland, butter and cheese from Denmark and Brittany.

Similarly the huge imports of wool from Australia and else where have made clothing cheaper.

These are but a few of the changes on which the Queen could look back with satisfaction as she neared the end of her long and glorious reign. They were changes which affected Britain most, because Britain was the heart and hub of the new Empire, which was contributing to her prosperity.