Published by EH.NET (February 2002)


Ian Inkster, Colin Griffin, Jeff Hill and Judith Rowbotham, editors, The Golden Age: Essays in British Social and Economic History, 1850-1870. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. xix + 284 pp. ?44.00, $79.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-0114-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Giorgio Riello, Department of History, Open University and Department of History, University College London.

The Victorian age has too often been analyzed by contrasting an early period of booming economy and thriving performance and a later period of ‘decline.’ The early 1870s were a moment of confrontation between a no-longer dynamic British economy and increasingly successful new countries such as Germany and the United States. The economic splendor of the Golden Age came to an end and Britain only slowly understood its weak position, its internal social problems and a certain degree of paralysis that affected British institutions in the second phase of industrialization.

This collection of short essays is an interesting, though not always exciting, contribution to a redefinition of the economic and social changes affecting Britain in the period between 1850 and 1870. The interest of these essays relates mainly to the subject they are investigating. While during the 1980s and 1990s the post-1870s British ‘declinism’ has been a hit in British historiography, the same cannot be said for the ‘Golden Age’ of early Victorian Britain. Studies by Dintenfass, Kirby, Elbaum and Lazonick, McCloskey, Sanderson, Wiener and others have substantially reduced the importance attached to the decline of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is therefore not surprising to find that this book follows the same formula, underplaying the importance of an early economic boom.

Most of the essays, including the introductory essays by Ian Inkster and Harold Perkin, underline how 1850 can be considered the conclusion of a period of early industrialization. The 1851 Great Exhibition, for instance, is presented as the culmination of a heroic period of British history in several essays, but at the same time it does not appear to be the starting point of anything new. Most essays in this book are able to provide a complex image for a complex historical period. Far from being either a period of success or a period of contemplation of achieved results, the golden patina is made up of light and dark. The resulting image for the reader illustrates a much more ‘un-balanced’ period than previously thought.

The book is very diverse in nature. Eighteen essays are divided into four parts, plus two good introductory chapters. Not all essays are at the same qualitative level. Although the result of a series of seminars at Nottingham Trent University, the various papers are not always well connected to each other. The first three parts of the book examine classic themes such as ‘industry’ (four essays on coalmining; agriculture; cotton; and an extremely well done essay on electricity), ‘technology’ (three essays on Michael Faraday, the 1867 Paris Exhibition; and invention and patenting) and ‘social institutions’ (five essays on workers and the Great Exhibition; technical associations and the Great Exhibition; the cotton trade and social change; hiring fairs in Yorkshire; and crime). This very traditional thematic division is complemented by a fourth part on ‘gender’ (four essays on women workers in rural England; women and sexual assault; domesticity and Lancashire dialect poetry; and popular biography and masculine identity). The thematic variety achieved through eighteen essays would have been more suitable for a longer book. There is the clear feeling that some essays could have been extended beyond fifteen pages.

The volume is enjoyable, thorough and in many areas well attuned to the recent historiographical debate. It pulls together new historical research within the wide frame of an important nineteenth-century period. It also explicitly makes no attempt to give any pre-established explanation or paradigm. As Ian Inkster states in his introduction “the essays in this volume go beyond a celebration of success into the construction of an interpretation of industrial Britain which emphasises social explanation as well as social effects and which unravels linkages between institutions, industries and technologies” (p. 5). However these achievements can be partially questioned on a geographical level. Although the title refers to Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are very much ignored or — perhaps — assimilated into a very anglocentric perspective. Similarly neither a British imperialistic perspective nor an international vision of British affairs is included here. At the opposite end of the spectrum the book provides a quite unique local focus with essays on Lancashire and Yorkshire. Other essays provide a high degree of geographical detail.

On a temporal level the book has to face the problem of dealing with a restricted period in time. If this suits essays dealing with particular events easily localized in time, it creates problems for other essays. Nearly half of the essays here included, stretch either backward or forward in time in a need “to capture a slightly longer trend” (p. 121). This volume does not directly challenge any established interpretation of the golden age of British history. However it provides a useful series of ideas in order to understand British society, culture and economy in the mid-nineteenth century. From the perspective of an historian of the eighteenth-century, it could have said much more on links with an earlier period, part of the so-called long eighteenth century. This could have allowed the juxtaposition of the period 1850-70 not only with the following period of crisis but also with an earlier period of important economic development and social change.

Giorgio Riello is a Research Assistant at the Charles Booth Centre at the Open University. He is also completing his PhD thesis at University College London.