When was the golden age?

In the present day, many people look back to the 1950s as the golden age: low crime, low divorce rates and a simpler life.

In the 1950s, people tended to see Victorian times as the golden age, and it’s easy to see why. After two world wars and faced with austerity Britain, the tail end rationing and an Empire in terminal decline, it must have been tempting to cast warm glances back to a time when Britain was top dog and the Empire was at its peak.

So when did people in Victorian times see as the Golden Age?

According to a series of articles appearing in the Economist in 1851, those early Victorians gazed fondly back to 1800 and complained that life in the 1850s just didn’t match up to the good old days when George III was on the throne and the horrors Peninsular War were still in the future.

But were those Victorians right? The Economist doesn’t think so.

Too many of us are disposed to place our Golden Age in the past…Nearly everybody agrees by common consent to undervalue and abuse the present. We confess that we cannot share their disappointment, nor echo their complaints. We look upon the past with respect and affection as a series of stepping stones to that high and advanced position which we actually hold…we see no reason to be discontented either with our rate of progress or with the actual stage which we have reached.

[If we were transported to 1800 we would find ourselves] grumbling at heavy taxes laid on nearly all the necessaries and luxuries of life…receiving our newspapers seldom and some days after date…receiving our Edinburgh letters in London a week after they were written and paying thirteen pence-halfpenny for them when delivered…exchanging the instantaneous telegraph for the slow and costly express by chaise and pair…travelling with soreness and fatigue by the ‘old heavy’ [coach] at the rate of seven miles an hour, instead of by the Great Western [railway] at fifty; and relapsing from the blaze of light which gas now pours along our streets into a perilous and uncomfortable darkness made visible by a few wretched oil lamps scattered at distant intervals.

We should find executions taking place by the dozen; the stealing of five shillings punishable and punished as severely as rape or murder; slavery and the slave trade flourishing in their palmiest atrocity.

We should find the liberty of the subject at the lowest ebb; freedom of discussion and writing always in fear and frequently in jeopardy; Catholics slaves, not citizens; religious rights trampled under foot.

Parliament was unreformed; gentlemen drank a bottle where they now drink a glass…Finally the people in those days were little thought of, whereas now they are the main topic of discourse and statesmanship.

The progress of scientific discovery has been magnificent…in 1816 we had 15 steamboats; in 1848 we had 1,253. Many of these are ocean steamers, and ply between England and America at an average speed of ten miles an hour.

But this advance is nothing compared to that we has taken place in locomotion by land within the last twenty years. In 1829 the first railway for the transport of passengers was operated between Manchester and Liverpool; – it opened at the modest speed of 20 miles per hour. At the period at which we write, the whole of England is traversed by almost countless railways in every direction.

In the days of Adam the average speed of travel was four miles per hour. In the year 1828, or 4,000 years afterwards, it was still only ten miles, and sensible and scientific men were ready to affirm and eager to prove that this rate could never be materially exceeded.

In 1850 it is habitually forty miles an hour, and seventy for those who like it. We have reached in a single bound from the speed of a horse’s canter to the utmost speed comparable with the known strength and coherence of brass and iron.

On almost any measure you care to choose, 1850 was a better time for most English people to live than 1800, yet we’re told that many people thought otherwise.

I wonder if the claim that 1950 is superior to 2010 will look as absurd to future generations, or whether, even when rose-tinted glasses are cast aside, they’ll see our present time as inferior to those post-war years.

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9 Comments

  • paul barker 28th Mar '10 - 1:12pm

    Ages, like Cities of Gold are usually off in the distance, innaccessible & only visible with the eyes of Faith but sometimes they coincide with the here & now. 1967 & 1989 saw Ages of real Gold, for a few million, for a few months. Perhaps 2010 will be another, enjoy it while it lasts.

  • Moral panics about the state of society happen near enough every generation. Think of the teddy boys or the mods and the rockers in the 50s and 60s; or going back earlier to the Boer War when half the recruits failed their medical and a great brouhaha ensued about the physical and moral wellbeing of the industrial working classes.

    Beyond that you can look at Hogarth’s Gin Lane, debates around the corrupting influence of “luxury” in the 18th century, or even the puritans during the commonwealth for earlier examples.

    It’s always a very easy (and lazy) argument to claim that the country is going to the dogs.

  • Iain Coleman 29th Mar '10 - 12:54pm

    There was indeed a golden age, a time when life was simpler, morals were certain, and the future seemed full of endless wonder. It was when you were seven.

  • this is absolutely shocking. victorians were friendly people, not vicious cannibals!

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