Making up our minds about the Victorians

We finished our study of the Victorian era by asking our overarching question: golden age or dark age?  On the one hand, we’d learned that Victorian Britain was a world superpower, controlling the largest empire ever to exist, rich and prosperous, trading across the world, leading the industrial revolution and advancing science, technology and medicine.  On the other, we knew that many of these achievements had come at a high cost. The empire had involved violence and exploitation, cities were polluted, there was terrible poverty, and many children (especially orphans, as we’d learned from Oliver) suffered hard lives and cruel treatment.   

How were we to weigh all this up?  The children worked together to produce short ‘Team Statements’ summarising their evaluation of the Victorians.  As you can see, different teams had different perspectives and priorities, perhaps showing us that studying history will always be a matter of interpretation.

Team Statements

  1. The Victorian age can be seen as a golden age and a dark age because there were a lot of new inventions like railways and medicine but the people who invented these things used violence to make their money.  Lots of people were poor and lived in very harsh conditions and children who went to school and were naughty would be humiliated and physically harmed. (Tom, Abdi, Thanh and Reuben)


  1. The Victorian era was a golden age in British history because without steam ships and trains we couldn’t travel and transport goods as quickly and there was also wider education and improved healthcare.  It was also a dark age because there were lots of terrible punishments and orphaned children were treated the worst. (Adam, Sam, Macie and Kia)


  1. The Victorian age was a dark age because the Victorians tricked the empire into making them rich and did lots of bad things to the countries they controlled.  Children’s punishments were very bad and the workhouses were cruel places. (Annie, Chyanne, Jake and Lynden)


  1. The Victorian era was a dark age because if it was a golden age there shouldn’t be any faults, kids shouldn’t have been made to work in factories, and they should have been able to choose what they wanted to do with their lives.  Britain was also a very polluted country and only the rich people got home schooled and were treated much better than the poor. (Oscar, Meli, Kenza and Alamine)


  1. The Victorian era was part golden, part dark age because they invented lots of important things but schools used cruel and humiliating punishments and children were treated badly in other ways too including being made to work in factories from a very young age.  (Nate, Kingsley, Juliette and Nyah)


  1. The Victorian era was a golden age because they controlled the biggest empire in history but it was also a dark age because there was a big difference between the rich and the poor and the Victorians did lots of horrible things like forcing children to work from a very young age.  (Lilah, Azeeza, Niccolo and Harry)


  1.   The Victorian era is a dark age because lots of children were treated very badly, even the ones that went to school and the streets were crime ridden and polluted.  (Hetty, Elwood and Rafi)

The coming of the railways

In today’s history lesson we thought about the impact of the coming of the railways in the Victorian era.   Pictured below are early images and photos of Herne Hill station, built in 1862 on the line from central London to Kent and Dover harbour.  

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For many, the railways meant new opportunities and markets, while for others it was a disruption to traditional ways of life.  We tried to understand the impact on the lives of different groups of people including factory owners, shopkeepers, landowners, canal workers, and owners of coaching inns.  

Then each of the children had to imagine that they were a member one of these groups of stakeholders and speak at a public inquiry – imaginary date 1860 – held to decide whether the railway should be built at Herne Hill.   At the end of the inquiry, there was a solid majority in the class against building the railway – perhaps some modern day environmental concerns formed part of the children’s thinking.

Contemporary newspaper cartoon. Of course, people have always worried when a new form of transport has been introduced. We wondered whether the same is true today in the discussion about self-driving cars.

The railways allowed many people to travel significant distances for the first time and, on balance, probably had the effect of moving families more apart.  But they could also bring people back together and – if only tenuously connected to this lesson – we enjoyed this famous moment from The Railway Children.



Victorian schooling

We studied a series of photographs from the Victorian era (that is, primary historical sources) to see what we could find out about Victorian classrooms.  It was interesting to see how much we could work out from the photos – more than we found in the extracts from books on Victorian schooling that we also looked at.

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This gave us a picture in our minds of a Victorian classroom  – but what was it really like to be at the school?  For this we had to go to use secondary information from textbooks. We learned about the three Rs, Victorian ‘drill,’ regimented teaching including lots of copying and chanting, and the strict discipline and appalling ‘dunce’s hat.’  (The children who had read the horrible histories’ Vile Victorians knew about more and worse!)

We also learned that for most of the Victorian era it was only the relatively well-off children who went to school.  The poorer children were working in factories and the rich ones educated at home by governesses and then (the boys at least) at private schools.  It was only in the later part of the Victorian era that school was made compulsory and all children started to attend (even if their parents wanted them to continue earning money in the factories).  This required a large school building programme, of course, of which Rosendale was a part.

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The style of teaching is different today.  But it’s interesting to ask whether, 150 years later, it is at all surprising that children are still sitting at tables, in the same classrooms, learning roughly the same subjects, for roughly the same period of the day and week.

Victorian child labour

This week in history we found out about  the use of child labour in Victorian times.  We had a primary source of information: the evidence given by eight different witnesses to a parliamentary investigation into child labour in Victorian factories.  The investigation followed allegations in the newspapers that  the factory owners of Yorkshire were more cruel to their child workers than slave owners were to their slaves.  We listened to the evidence and discussed how reliable a description we thought it was of the conditions experienced by child factory workers.

One of the witness statements
Victorian factory
Illustration from Victorian novel set in a factory. You could ask your children to talk about it – is it a reliable source of historical information?

Discussing British rule of India

The children looked at information about British rule of India covering jobs, education, transport, farming, economic development and human rights and freedoms and discussed whether each of the changes the British introduced had been good for India, bad for India, or a bit of both.

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Today in history we learned about how, by the end of the Victorian era, Britain controlled an empire – the largest in the history of the world – that covered almost a quarter of the surface of the Earth and included almost a quarter of its people.  We discussed what was meant when it was said that “the sun never set on the British empire.”

We talked about how Britain became rich from trade with the empire and London became the world’s largest and wealthiest city and port.  We looked at images of the wharfs and warehouses along the Thames at that time and at some of London’s grand, iconic Victorian buildings. 

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On Monday, we’ll continue the lesson by looking in more detail at the British control of India – the so-called “jewel in the crown” of the empire – when we’ll try also to see the empire from the point of view and through the experience of the Indian nation and people.   Several members of the class come from families that once lived in countries formerly part of the empire.  If there is any family history that they could share, then that would be incredibly valuable to our learning.


Historical evidence

In today’s history lesson we learned about the difference between primary and secondary sources of historical information and then used this engraving from 1870 by Gustav Dore as part of our research into cities in Victorian England.  You could ask your son or daughter to discuss the picture and see what they can tell you about it – there’s more to consider than meets the eye.




The Victorians

We’ve started a series of lessons on the Victorians.  We’ll look at lots of different aspects of Victorian England and, by the end, aim to form an opinion on whether we should think of the Victorian era as a golden age for Britain or a dark age.

We started by looking at what seems to be a historical mystery: 

Victorian city

Why did so many people move from the countryside to cities when there was so much poverty, pollution and squalor in these cities and life expectancy was lower? 


Juliette set out her analysis of the reasons like this:


Hetty wrote these interesting reflections:

I think it’s because there were lots of nice houses and better jobs and everyone was moving there.  So I think they wanted to have a fresh start in a better place because everyone said that’s what it was but actually it was really bad and boring and everyone was tired and hated it – only rich people liked it.