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The age of Empire: economy and society, the pressure for reforms and technological innovation

The Victorian age took its name from queen Victoria whose reign was longest in the history of Britain. This was a period of rapid expansion, both economically and territorially. In 1851 Britain became a nation of town dwellers and there were seven important cities, excluding London: Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford. Economically free trade was the dominant ethos and Britain became the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. But the unsettled masses were perceived as a potential danger to English stability and for this reason governments tried to incorporate these masses into society through a series of reforms.
After the French Revolution, political reform in England was inevitable, but both Conservatives and Liberals were fearful about extending the power to vote to the masses. The First Reform Bill excluded the working classes completely and for this reason was born the Chartist movement, whose demands contained six points: votes for all males, annually elected parliaments, payment of Members of Parliament, secret voting, abolition of property qualification for candidates and the establishment of electoral districts equal. These demands were refused and the movement was repressed. But a series of reform bills in the second half of the century gradually extended the vote to members of the working classes.

The 19th century was also a time of great technological innovation. In fact the invention of stream-powered machinery and the development of railways revolutionised both industry and transport. Thus the Great Exhibition held in Crystal Palace became a symbol for Britain’s dominant position.
Communication were also improved thanks to a more efficient mail service and the invention of the telephone. Thus considering these developments the age was characterised by a general feeling of optimism.

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