I Doubt The Victorians Would Sign On

Somebody once told me that the Victorian era was the greatest time of Britains history. I was much younger at the time and my youthful “know it all” response was one of ridicule. “What, emptying human waste into the street, dead before the age of 35 after being forced to work 12 hours a day for a pittance!” I replied. It really didn’t sound such a wonderful time at all. But then I didn’t know what I was talking about.

As I’ve got a bit older, and have had endless conversations with people about everything that is wrong with society – it is impossible to avoid the thought that the Victorian people who built the canals, invented the railways, created the worlds first sewage systems, provided running water and powered the Industrial Revolution – probably wouldn’t have bothered if they could glimpse 150 years into the future and see how dismally useless and pathetic their ancestors would become by comparison. The Victorians had a “go getting attitude” in abundance. We modern Brits on the other hand prefer to chillax, and the worst of us spend our time searching for things to get upset and offended about or look for people to sue against for a trip, slip or fall that wasn’t our fault.

To illustrate this point I’m making; in 1839 – the Manchester to London Railway was being built. But just outside Manchester the railway builders faced a massive problem at Stockport. The River Mersey cut a huge valley through the landscape. Going around this valley at the flattest route would have been impractical, and trains need a flat line. So Victorian engineer George Watson Buck was asked to solve the problem. He designed the incredible 27 arch viaduct that still dominates the towns landscape, and the problem was solved. That may not sound so impressive until you consider that it took 1 year for 600 men to work day and night laying 11,000,000 bricks building the viaduct that remains the biggest brick structure in Europe.

I dread to think how that monumental achievement could be accomplished in todays society, almost 180 years later. We are the micro chipped, laser guided, satellite tracked, space travelling pioneers who can transplant human faces on each other. We can go on the internet and zoom in on our back garden from space. And yet, we could never match the achievement of building that viaduct in a year. The risk assessments and shadow impact calculations would take much longer for starters.

So how did our relatives of two centuries ago achieve such an incredible feat of engineering and building in less time than it takes British government ministers to make skilled train builders redundant at Bombardier in Derby and award the next big train building contract to a German builder, putting 1,400 skilled workers on the dole? Well the answer is fairly straight forward. They saw that a viaduct had to be built and they ordered the bricks and got cracking. A Victorian phrase that still survives to this day is “lets not fanny about.”

But to look at things through the eyes of a modern person who lives in the current times and has to endure our ridiculous self destructive  politics, its easy to see why as a nation, as a people, we just don’t have the “go getting” mentality. Its been beaten out of us by politicians and trade unions.

Going back to the train building travesty of 2010, the reason the government worked for over 1 year on plans to  sack 1,400 British workers and get the trains built in Germany was simply because Siemens, the German train building company quoted a cheaper price. Any money saved on this brilliant example of incompetence and stupidity will contribute towards the 1,400 craftsmen and womens unemployment benefit bill, and in time, on regenerating Derby after the inevitable social and community decay has set in. This kind of dismal, mind numbing farce is sadly a daily occurrence in this once sensible and proud country. The Victorians were not hindered by such political dithering and dodgy dealings. They were focused on the job that needed doing – and everybody was working together towards a common goal so everything was much more straight forward.

I marvel at the achievements and the common sense attitudes of the Victorian people. It was not my intention to put modern day stupidity in the spotlight, but one can see that it is treacherous to avoid when comparing how British folk went about business 200 years ago compared to today.

A lovely story I heard about the industrial revolution was regarding the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal which took just 6 years to complete between 1887 and 1893. The 36 mile hand dug canal came about because Manchesters business leaders were frustrated by Liverpools dock and railway companies excessively rising the costs to transport goods from Manchester to the docks for export all over the world. So, rather than be squeezed out of competitive business; the Manchester cotton mill owners got together and built their own ship canal that effectively cut out the middle man. It was a stroke of industrial brilliance and a fervent demonstration of the Victorian will to succeed.

17,000 workers a day threw shovels and spades into the ground, prisons shoved their convicts out to assist. The ship canal needed digging out, and without further a do, it was – creating the worlds first industrial estate at Trafford Park, building the worlds only swing aquaduct at Barton and most importantly, sending the message around the world that British people were serious, determined and successful at whatever they turned their minds and hands to.

By modern day comparison, such a bold and visionary project would never get off the ground. Online petitions would claim the green belt would be too adversely affected and conservation groups would protest that wildlife would be threatened by such a project. Stoned unemployed former students would set up a protest camp on the site and handcuff themselves together, their plight being televised 24 hours a day on Sky News. Obviously it is inconceivable that convicted prisoners would be forced to work on something like that today – an extraordinary infringement on their human rights if ever there was one.

The point I’m focused on is very simple. We need to take a long hard look at what happened in the 1800s and try to replicate the tenacity, vision and hard work that made our bygone relatives so successful. The political parties claim that manufacturing once again needs to shape Britains future. But at present, according to the government “we export more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.”

There are almost 3,000,000 unemployed people in this country – most of them desperate to work and they are out of work through no fault of their own. We pay them all money to survive without any income from a job, and slowly watch them disintegrate through poverty, depression and lack of aspiration. The Victorians, as you will expect, had a radically different policy on this. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Simple as that. If we take Victorian values and principles and hypothetically apply them to todays society and put those 3,000,000 to work – making things, building, digging or carrying things, there would be an all out civil war.

Things have become so convoluted by bureaucracy, political correctness, and overseas interference that our politicians genuinely don’t know how or where to start to try and turn things around. Modern society shares very few of the values, traditions or morals that our ancestors respected and honoured so proudly.

The Victorian era was dirty, it was hard, cold, disease ridden and full of poverty. But the people were remarkable, and I am very proud of them. If we shared their standards we would still all be part of a Great Britain. They were called Victorians because they had Queen Victoria at the head of society from 1837 to 1901. Our next King will be called Charles and I suspect that in a couple of hundred years, if we remain such a feeble race of lazy, incompetent and uninspired people, History will know us forever as “the Charlies.”


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Author of The Clitheroe Prime Minister, and columnist in Northern Life magazine.

6 thoughts on “I Doubt The Victorians Would Sign On”

  1. Sorry Stevie, I’m the first to comment and I’ll have to be the first, probably only, to disagree. I’ll toss my hat in the ring with the simple charge of global life expectancy. People live longer, end of. No other statistic throws up as many problems for your argument, it’s very difficult to argue that an increasing global life expectancy is a bad thing. We’re also, contrary to popular belief, less violent than ever.
    Oh and if it’s real controversy you’re after I’ll go out on a limb and say that even kids TV is better than it was:0
    We’ve all had this conversation before and will never come to any conclusions. So instead I ask you to comment on a much more important issue

  2. Steve, you’ve hit the nail on the head with that article. We’ve become a home-grown a bunch of do-goodie liberals who won’t stick our heads above the parapet and get things done. I agree that life expectancy has vastly improved since these days and it was a very dark and murky time in Britain’s Industrial Revolution but there is middle ground between where we are now and where we’ve come from to strike a balance that gets the ‘chav’ generation off their backside and in to work.

    For a start, I’d get us out of the European Treaty on Human Rights as this is where everyone runs crying and screaming about rights violations. The US have the right idea with this, do you think they’d be worrying about the Abu Hamza extradition issue, not at all, they’d just chuck him to the Jordanians and let them do what they want!

    God forbid if this country ever went to war people would have such a wake up call I personally believe there’s at least 1/5th of the population that simply would not cope. No Sky TV, no Internet, no mobile phones, people just couldn’t live.

  3. Absolutely Neil, thanks for your feedback! The great irony about the European Human Rights Treaty that causes us so much embarrassment and frustration is that it was a British invention – Winston Churchill pressed for it.

    It wasn’t invented to ensure that 60 years down the line Abu Hamza would be able to humiliate the Government – it was plain and simply put in place to ensure the acts of Hitler could never happen again.

  4. In the thirties, when they asked Ittussaarsuaq – who as a child had wandered with her tribe and kinfolk across Ellesmere Island to Greenland during the migration when Canadian Inuit had their first contact in seven hundred years with the Inuit of North Greenland – when they asked her, an eighty-five-year-old woman who had experienced the entire modern colonization process, moving from the Stone Age to the radio, how life was now, compared to the past, she said without hesitation, “Better – the Inuit very rarely die of hunger nowadays.”
    Peter Hoeg “Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow”

  5. I suspect your feelings will change again in time. Speaking as an engineer, the Victorian times were such unspeakably joyous times to be an engineer, but after that, we start to disagree.

    Getting things done was marvelous at making great strides and advances, but do you know the human cost paid by ordinary citizens around the blast furnaces and forges just for the steel? Or the cost in human life, misery and disablements by the navvies who built many of the structures? It goes on and on – The more you consider it, the more you will see that truly great things were indeed achieved, but costed in blood and lives. Think that is a price worth paying? Well go dig me some coal with a pick and a shovel and a Davy lamp for a few years and if you are still alive, I will ask you again if you then consider it a price worth paying?

    The world has changed, not just us. Transportation is easy… and so the rise of the global companies and economies. “Buying British” without regard for open markets will now get you shunned by the rest of the world and your debts called in, crashing your economy and country. Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater however. Your point of getting the trains from Siemens, instead of from Britain is a VERY valid point. It seems the bean counters look only at the bottom line, the price for the contract, and not the price for the country instead.

    How do you stop the rot? Look into British shipbuilding, particularly the problems with building and refiting our Naval ships, because so many contracts have gone overseas these last few decades, our own yards cannot do some of the Naval work anymore and our warships have to be built overseas…

    Where do you get a spare propeller for a Spitfire? They are wood and have to be made in Germany now. Sending large contracts overseas has lead to the “exporting of jobs”, as our own companies were and still are starved of contracts and slowly close down. This was accelerated massively by intentional decisions to switch us from a manufacturing economy, to a service economy in the early 80s. The loss of British manufacturing capeability is heartbreaking to see.

    Perhaps decisions on contracts now, should have to take into account not jus tthe cost, but the “environmental impact” of sending it elsewhere, as in keep sending them overseas and eventually you will have to send them overseas as Britain will have lost the capeability to do that work anymore. Sadly I do not trust such considerations will be made unbiasedly. I fear the figures would be bent to say whatever was wanted politically at the time?

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