The Early Reign of Queen Victoria
Early on a June morning in 1837, a carriage dashed up to the gates of the palace where the Princess Victoria was living, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain of England got hastily out. They had driven through the night, from Windsor Castle, the royal residence, twenty-five miles away, and asked to see the Princess at once.
"We are come on business of state," said they, "and even Her Highness's sleep must give way to that."
After a few minutes, the Princess came into the room, a shawl thrown hastily about her shoulders, and her hair in disorder.
Then the messengers fell upon their knees, and informed her that, through the death that night of her uncle, William IV., she had become the sovereign Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and mistress of all the British dominions beyond the seas.
The new Queen was barely eighteen. She had lost her father when she was less than a year old, and had been brought up carefully by her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Long afterwards, she wrote of her early years:
"I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up. I always slept in my mother's room, till I came to the throne. In the small houses at the bathing places, to which we went in summer, I sat and took my lessons in my governess's bedroom."
At the news that her uncle was dead, and that she had become Queen, her eyes filled with tears.
The sweetness, kindness, and good sense which she showed charmed all her people. Because of these qualities, and because of her long reign of sixty-four years, she was one of the most important rulers of her time, and one of the greatest sovereigns that England ever had.
Three years after she became Queen, Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert, who belonged to the family of German princes from which her mother came. They had many children, and their family life was a very happy one. The prince was a good father and a good husband; he was also a wise and a well educated man, and aided the Queen very much in carrying on the government. He died in 1861, and Queen Victoria never got over her grief for him. For many years afterwards, she appeared in public only when it was absolutely necessary.
Throughout her long reign, Queen Victoria loyally played the part of a constitutional sovereign. She chose her ministers, now from the Whigs (or "Liberals," as they began to be called), and now from the Tories (or "Conservatives"), whichever had a majority in the House of Commons. In this way Parliament, especially the House of Commons, came more and more to rule the country; and the old idea of George III., that the personal will of the King should rule, was very largely given up.
The long reign of Queen Victoria saw a constant succession of new inventions, which increased man's mastery over nature.
By Victoria's time, artificial gaslights had taken the place of the old whale-oil lamps, with which formerly the streets of London were dimly lighted. Gaslight was also generally used in shops, and in the better class of houses. It was not until her reign was two-thirds over that electric lighting came into use.
In 1814 George Stephenson, the son of a poor English miner, constructed a locomotive engine, which people called "Puffing Billy," on account of the noise which it made. Little by little the locomotive was improved, until Stephenson's "Rocket" could run at the rate of thirty-five miles an hour. The first railway for passengers was opened in 1829. The year after Victoria became Queen, a railway was opened clear through from London to Liverpool, and it became possible to cover, in ten hours, a distance which had taken sixty hours by the fastest stage coach. The steamboat had already been invented, by Fulton in America (1807), and by Bell in Scotland (1812); and in 1838 vessels under steam power began to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The influence of these inventions, in changing all the conditions of life, was only second in importance to the introduction of machinery in manufacturing.
Formerly, the person who received a letter paid the postage, which varied with the distance. A letter from London to Scotland could cost more than a shilling (twenty-five cents) and poor people often could not afford to receive letters. In 1839, however, gummed postage stamps were introduced, with which the sender paid the postage; and in 1840 the rate was made one penny (two cents) for letters throughout Great Britain and Ireland. Since then cheap postage has spread all over the world, until in 1908 the rate was made two cents even to America. This cheapening of postage brought people closer together, and also aided the spread of information, through the circulation of cheap newspapers and magazines.
Of even greater importance was the introduction of the electric telegraph, at the beginning of Victoria's reign. An American, Samuel Morse, invented an electric telegraph in 1835; but, before he could patent his invention in Great Britain, two Englishman had worked out an invention of their own and patented it. Within a short time the whole country was covered with telegraph wires, and messages could be flashed in a moment's time from one end of it to another. In 1858, an electric cable was first laid, connecting Great Britain and America; but this soon broke, and it was not until 1866 that it became possible to send messages regularly between the Old World and the New. The telegraphs became the property of the government, in Great Britain, and are managed as a part of the Post Office. When the telephone was introduced, after 1880, this also passed largely into the hands of the government.
When Victoria had been Queen nine years, a great famine came upon Ireland, which caused the loss of thousands of lives, and led several million persons to emigrate from Ireland to the United States.
The famine was due to a failure of the potato crop, which furnished the chief food of the Irish people. After a cold and late spring, it began to rain. In some places, the sun was scarcely seen from the end of May till next spring. Here and there brown spots began to appear on the leaves of the potato plants. They grew black and spread, and soon whole fields were blighted. At night, a field might appear green and flourishing, and the next morning all be blight and decay. The food upon which the people depended to carry them through the winter rotted in the ground. The whole land was soon face to face with starvation.
For some years an "Anti-Corn-Law League" had been working in England to secure the repeal of the "Corn Laws," which laid heavy tariff duties on imported grain. They held great public meetings, they printed pamphlets, and they published bitter rhymes, like this:
Sir Robert Peel, who was now Prime Minister at the head of the Tory party, believed in free trade in everything except grain. As to grain, he believed that every country must raise its own food, or it could be starved out in war time. But now, the famine in Ireland showed him the necessity of free trade in grain also.
So, Peel carried through Parliament a measure repealing the Corn Laws (1846). Many of his followers deserted him on this measure, for cheaper grain meant less profits to the landlord class; but the Whigs aided him. This law made England a free-trade country; and it has remained such from that day to this. Soon after this, the Whigs and Protectionist Tories overthrew Peel's government, and he never regained power.
Since the overthrow of Napoleon, in 1815, Great Britain had fought several small wars in Asia and in Africa, but had not been at war with any European power. From 1854 to 1856, however, she fought Russia, in the "Crimean War," so called because it was fought mainly in the Crimea peninsula, in the Black Sea.
The cause of this war was the claims of Russia over Turkey, and the fears of England and France that, if they did not aid Turkey, Russia would become too powerful. The Czar of Russia was in the habit of speaking of Turkey as "the Sick Man" of Europe. By this, he meant that the government of Turkey was so weak that it must soon fall to pieces, and he believed that the great powers should plan beforehand what was to be done when this should happen. The other countries thought this was only a scheme of Russia to get possession of Constantinople, which would give it an outlet from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. This would be especially bad for England, for it would threaten the security of her possessions in India. So, when Russia claimed the right to interfere in Turkey, to protect the Christians there (who were "Greek Christians," like the Russians), England and France encouraged the Sultan to resist. And when war broke out between Russia and Turkey, they sent their armies and fleets to the Sultan's assistance.
The Russians strongly fortified Sebastopol in the Crimea, and the English and French attacked it. The siege lasted for nearly a year, amid cholera, famine, and the winter weather. The Czar said that "Generals January and February" would be his strongest allies, and so it proved. The British army suffered terribly, and there was a great outcry at home because of mistakes made by the government.
For the first time women nurses were sent out to the army, and an English gentlewoman, named Florence Nightingale, won undying fame by the heroism and self-sacrifice which she showed in caring for the sick and wounded.
The most famous deed of all this war was the charge of the Light Brigade, about which Tennyson wrote one of his best known poems. Through the blunder of some officer, six hundred and seventy-three British horsemen were ordered to charge the whole Russian line.
More than two-thirds of that heroic band were killed, wounded, or made prisoners. "It is magnificent," said a French general, "but it is not war."
In the end, Sebastopol fell, and Russia was obliged to make peace. Many people thought that the whole war was a mistake, and that all the war accomplished could have been gained by peaceful means.
The year which followed the end of the Crimean War saw a great rebellion against British rule in India. It is known as the Indian "Mutiny," because it was confined almost entirely to the native soldiers, or Sepoys, who made up more than nine-tenths of the British army there. It was largely due to uneasiness among the native peoples at the introduction of railroads, and European ways, and to interference with native religious customs. Its immediate cause was a rumor that some new cartridges which were given the troops were greased with beef-fat and hog-lard. The Hindoos regarded beef-cattle as sacred, and the Mohammedans hated everything which came from the hog; so both Hindoos and Mohammedans joined in the revolt.
It was in May, 1857, that the Sepoys first mutinied. They slew their officers, and proclaimed an aged Prince, Emperor of India. In one place, the officers, warned by telegraph, ordered a review of their troops at daybreak. When the columns were in front of the cannon—behind which stood white gunners with port-fire lighted—the command was suddenly given, "Pile arms!" and the Sepoys dared not disobey. They were disarmed, and the mutiny was prevented from spreading to that province.
Other places were not so fortunate. At Cawnpore, the British were obliged to surrender, after standing siege for some time, and men, women, and children were put to death. At Lucknow, the garrison, together with 450 women and children, held out for three months, amid the greatest hardships. A relieving expedition fought its way to them, but it was not strong enough to bring back the besieged through the hostile country. A second expedition was long in coming. But one day a Scotch girl, in the camp, suddenly startled up from her sick bed, crying:
"The Campbells are coming! Don't you hear the bagpipes?"
At first they thought that her mind was wandering. But she was right. It was a body of Scotch Highlanders, of the clan of the Campbells, marching to their relief, with the bagpipes playing at the head of the column. This time the force was strong enough to bring the garrison away.
After some further fighting, the rebellion was put down, and the rebels were severely punished. Ever since the Mutiny, a larger proportion of British troops has been kept in India, so that a danger might not again arise. Also, the Mutiny showed the necessity of making a change in the government of India. The old East India Company was dissolved, and the British government itself took over the rule. In many ways, some consideration was shown to the wishes and prejudices of the Indian peoples, and in 1877 the Queen was proclaimed Empress of India. On the whole, British rule had been a great blessing to India; but it is very natural that the educated natives should seek, as they are now doing, to have a larger share in the government of their own land.