Heyday: the 1850s and the dawn of the global age

"People in the 1850s had a sense they were entering a new period of history": Ben Wilson talks to Matt Elton about his new book, which argues that the 1850s was a pivotal decade in global development – and that its innovations and concerns have vital lessons for today...

An illustration from Dickinson's ‘Comprehensive Pictures of The Great Exhibition’. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

In context

Ben Wilson argues that the 1850s should be seen as a distinct period within the Victorian era because its developments shaped the world for decades. Key among these are the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in London to promote British technology; the ‘gold rushes’, migration to areas with newly discovered deposits of gold; and the first underwater transmission of a telegraph message, from London to Paris in 1851 – which, in theory, meant that the whole world could be linked in such a way.

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In context

Ben Wilson argues that the 1850s should be seen as a distinct period within the Victorian era because its developments shaped the world for decades. Key among these are the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in London to promote British technology; the ‘gold rushes’, migration to areas with newly discovered deposits of gold; and the first underwater transmission of a telegraph message, from London to Paris in 1851 – which, in theory, meant that the whole world could be linked in such a way.

The Crimean War (1853-56), meanwhile, pitted Russia against the UK, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman empire in a conflict that altered global alliances.

What inspired you to write a book about this particular period?

We now tend to see the Victorian period as a whole, even though it spanned a long time. This means that we sometimes lose sense of the different phases and how they broke down chronologically. The starting point for me writing this book was the telegraph: it defined modernity, breaking down physical barriers of communication and allowing people to get in touch instantaneously.

The more I researched the development of the telegraph, the more I found connections between this apparently miraculous use of technology and a very buoyant, confident time that I saw emerging in 1851 – which, coincidentally, was the year of both the Great Exhibition in London and the first underwater telegraph cable. The more I looked at it, the more that a distinct period of time bookended by events came into sharp relief.

How important was new technology in shaping society in the period?

We’re now used to interconnectedness in our networked world, and the telegraph was the start of that networking. This was a world that was speeding up: steamships, railways and canals were eroding barriers and connecting people.

The ways in which technology interacted with other new developments happening at the same time are also very interesting. The gold rushes, to Victoria in Australia and the US state of California, led to a feeling of prosperity and a booming economy. People had a definite sense that they were entering an identifiably new period of history.

The parallels with today are quite strong: just as we had a sense, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that history had come to an end, the Victorians in this period felt a similar thing – that they were crossing a boundary line in history. They thought that a lot of the world’s problems had been solved by the fact that free trade, technology and increased prosperity were fusing together to spark a new civilisation built on those things.

So people at the time saw this as a new step in human development?

Yes, particularly in Britain. The 1851 Great Exhibition helped because it was a physical manifestation of this progress. Its planning had begun in a period of economic depression as a way of trying to show off British manufacturing, but by the time it opened it coincided with a phenomenal economic boom, one of the biggest in human history, that lasted until the mid-1870s.

During this period the global economy grew five or sixfold, with great population migrations to Australia, New Zealand and the US. The whole world was identifiably taking a different shape, and as the British saw this global boom occurring they put themselves right at the centre of it.

The 1850s, then, were Britain at the height of its powers: it’s very rare in British history that things aren’t miserable or ironic, and there was a huge amount of collective self-confidence that Britain was at the vanguard of this technological revolution. The British thought that free trade, allied with technology and instantaneous communications –rather than revolution or democracy – was going to automatically liberate people and knock down repressive systems and tyranny. The irony is that, by the end of the period, global slavery had become bigger and bigger, but at this point the British thought that they were leading the march of progress through ideas and technology.

And even elsewhere, in places such as Hong Kong, Japan and the US – whose cities saw rapid growth in this period – there was a sense that the world was about to change. People saw the balance in power shifting and going to the peripheries.

There was unease, too, that this self-confidence meant that many were caring less about indigenous people because they were seen as standing in the way of this progress.

Were there specific parts of the world that particularly benefited?

The global impact of the gold rush was huge: it created new shipping lines, new markets and, of course, huge migrations of people.

In 1852, which was probably the peak year for migration, about 370,000 people left the British Isles. It was big business moving people around the world: ships became faster because people wanted to get to the gold faster. Gold led to a lot of technological innovations, because the areas in which it was found were often very isolated.

But the gold rush also had a local impact. There was a free market trying to attract migrants to places that might otherwise seem out of the way, and which were often still surrounded by uncultivated land.

There were a lot of so-called ‘booster towns’ billed as the greatest cities ever: surrounded by beautiful landscapes, with resources such as gold or timber that could be exploited. And these towns also grew because miners had enough gold to pay for the finest luxuries: champagne, fancy snuffboxes, the latest fashions. More money was spent in California than gold was exported. People were borrowing on this idea of exponential riches, and a huge market sprang up to supply such goods to these new towns.

How far did slavery power this boom?

Slavery was a difficult thing for the British, because they were spending so much in money and lives policing the export of slaves from west Africa. But the problem was that there was a tension between slavery and free trade. The British hated slavery and loved free trade, and it was quite hard to have those things working together.

For instance, sugar grown in British colonies by enfranchised slaves in the West Indies had previously had preferential treatment in the British market. However, as soon as duties on sugar were liberalised, sugar grown by slaves in Cuba and Brazil flooded the market. This meant that working-class people in Britain could now afford sugar, because it was much cheaper, but it was grown by slaves. The same applied to other resources, such as cotton: the market didn’t discriminate between products that were slave-produced and those that weren’t.

This was also the decade in which the Crimean War took place, of course. What’s your take on that conflict?

The British entered the Crimean War seeing themselves as a forward-thinking, free-trading, technologically advanced nation, and Russia as the opposite: an autocratic empire. But Russia was growing just as fast into areas that Britain was actively contesting: China, Japan, central Asia. If Russia moved into those places it would close off the free-trade system that the British were trying to create. The question was whether modern science, technology and liberal values would prevail, or vast armies and autocracy. There was an uneasy faultline running through the world, with both empires pressing on each other, and the flashpoint was in the Crimea.

You write in the book about beards, which may seem an unlikely subject. What do they tell us about the period?

Beards became very fashionable in the mid- to late 1850s, grown by pioneers and soldiers alike. It was the dawn of mass-photography, so people saw these unlikely heroes from the frontier or frontline for the first time.

The beard also became an anti-aristocratic symbol, because the aristocracy – whose ranks were typically always clean-shaven – was seen as bungling in the Crimean War and people saw a more meritocratic Britain emerging based on technology and trade. But it was also a symbol of manliness in an age in which character was seen as being better than class.

When and why did this period of growth and optimism come to an end?

I end the book a decade into the future with almost a perversion of these ideas of communication and transport. They had been used by emergent states as tools of nationalism and war, and efforts to regenerate non-European societies had turned into hard, competitive imperialism. Technologies hadn’t brought people together; in a way, they’d pushed people further apart, and created nationalism and imperialism and intense competition between people.

Britain was facing relative decline in the world: competition between emergent states meant that they industrialised very quickly, and then wanted to go and grab resources from around the world. Idealism rapidly drained away, and Britain found itself on the wrong side of a lot of issues: it came close to supporting the south during the American Civil War, for instance. Ideas that once seemed fresh and idealistic, such as free trade, began to be used as an excuse for not doing anything or letting the market play itself out. The world of the 1860s was much more cynical and aggressively competitive.

What lessons does this period have for us in the 21st century?

I think we’re already starting to learn the same lessons they learnt: that unbridled confidence and utopianism can have a bitter end, and that technologies seen as full of hope, freedom and democracy become used for surveillance or government control.

The other lesson is that there are no magic answers: people in the 1850s thought that the world would change just through sheer force of progress. Now we know that it doesn’t always work like that: there’s not always a radiant end to using these tools of democracy and freedom.

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Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age by Ben Wilson (Basic Books, 520 pages, £25).