Queen Victoria's reign spanned nearly sixty-four years of British history, 1837 to 1901. Those years are remembered as the Victorian Age, which encompassedtremendous changes for Great Britain. Change occurred in nearly every aspect of British life—political institutions and structures, economic and social conditions, trade, science, and technology.
The international position of Great Britain was strong upon Victoria's succession, as the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 had guaranteed Britain a prominent role in the shaping of European politics. The British Empire, while it had suffered a setback half a century earlier with the loss of the American colonies, was expanding throughout the world with great success. By the end of Victoria's reign, Great Britain was in possession of the Indian sub-content, Australia, Canada, substantial portions of Africa, parts of the Middle East, lands in South America, and numerous islands all over the world. It was a fact that, as late nineteenth century phrase expresses, "The sun never set on the British Empire." No nation in the history of the world had ever achieved such global domination.
At home in Britain the proper position of all the parts of government—the monarchy, Parliament, and especially the common people—was being debated hotly. After living through the mental illness of King George III, who died in 1820, and the generally disliked reigns of his sons King George IV and King William IV, many British subjects had grown dissatisfied with the monarchy as an institution. Some even pushed for stripping it of all official power in favor of making Britain a republic. This feeling was exacerbated by republican revolutions throughout Europe. As Queen, Victoria had to contend early on with anti-monarchist public opinion, but by the end of her reign she had endeared herself to her people and secured the future of the Crown. She achieved this control by lessening the direct power of the Crown. Victoria was aware that new democratic nature of the government required that her position be more symbolic than directly powerful.
The major democratic movement in Britain during Victoria's reign was directed toward expanding the voting population for parliamentary elections. Victoria succeeded to the throne five years after the passage of the 1832 Reform Bill, which was the first major step in reducing property requirements for voting and holding office in Britain. The 1876 and 1884 Reform Bills achieved further democratization of British politics, and by the end of the nineteenth century universal male suffrage was nearly, though not fully, a reality. Women were not granted the vote until well into the twentieth century.
Achieving a greater role in the government of Britain became a realistic desire for many people after the onset of the industrial and economic revolutions. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the middle classes in Britain were gradually expanding to prominence, primarily as a result of increased activity in manufacturing and business enterprises. Urbanization was another important aspect of industrialization, and made the old property requirements for voting seem archaic and unreasonable. The expansion of the middle classes held great cultural implications: social position began to rest less on family and inheritance and more on financial and business success. The virtues of thrift and professional diligence were elevated to a central place in the Victorian mind.
The Victorian age is famous for its circumspect conception of virtue. Honesty, hard work, extreme modesty in dress, and decent public and private behavior are a few of the virtues that gained cultural currency in the nineteenth century. The Queen herself believed strongly in the importance of these virtues, and promoted them by her public example.
While Queen Victoria's reign was a time of great material prosperity and economic growth, industrialization and urbanization brought new social difficulties. Urban poverty and the poor treatment of many in the working classes were major results of the newly capitalized and industrialized economy, and political pressures mounted throughout the nineteenth century to address such problems before they amounted to a great crisis. The threat of socialist revolution, while not as imminent in Britain as elsewhere in Europe, was a source of concern and consternation for the ruling classes. Also, the ever- miserable condition of poor Roman Catholics in British-ruled Ireland was a major cause of unrest. One of the worst stories of the Victorian age was the willful neglect by the British government of millions of starving Irish during the potato famine of 1845–1846. Violent revolutionary movements sprouted in Ireland throughout Victoria's reign, and were the single greatest source of domestic strife in the Britain at the time.
Steam power, trains, telegraphs, indoor plumbing, electricity, and countless other advancements changed British life dramatically while Victoria was Queen. She and her husband, Prince Albert, promoted such advancements as much as they could. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a watershed event for the development of technology.