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Sunday, 21 January, 2001, 08:55 GMT
Victorian values at 100
Queen Victoria
Not amused?
This week sees the 100th anniversary of Queen Victoria's death. Her 64-year reign was until recently seen as little to celebrate, but are we now coming round to her legacy?

The Victorian Age, once a by-word for Dark Satanic Mills, imperialism, and a stuffy and hypocritical morality, is increasingly being seen in a positive light.

Victoria: part I
1837: The accession of Queen Victoria
1838: First Opium War with China
1841: First proper census of population: Great Britain 18.5 m (USA 17 m, Ireland 8 m)
1844: The Railways Act
1845-50 Irish famine
1846: Repeal Of The Corn Laws
1849: Charles Dickens publishes David Copperfield
1851: The Great Exhibition
1854-56: The Crimean War
1859: Publication of Charles' Darwin's On the Origin of Species

It was all very different on the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria's death in 1951, the year of the resolutely modernist Festival of Britain.

In those days the term 'Victorian' was seen almost as a term of abuse, applied to conservatives and reactionaries unwilling to embrace a scientific future.

Over the following two decades thousands of Victorian buildings and houses, many denounced as slums, were torn down and replaced by the modern plate glass and concrete.

Richard Seedhouse of the Victorian Society says most people associated Victoria's reign with the seemingly dark, dingy and sombre appearance of what remained of Victorian era buildings.

But this was misleading, Mr Seedhouse says; "They were dingy and yellowing inside because of the soot from gas-lighting. It didn't look good when much brighter electric lights came in."

Monty Python's Michael Palin as Queen Victoria
"Who are you calling glum, mate?"
At the same time the only images surviving of Queen Victoria showed her scowling and decked out in black widows' weeds. She was famous mainly for mourning her husband, Albert, and for the phrase "we are not amused".

This too, Mr Seedhouse says, is misleading.

"Actually all the surviving written accounts show that she was a cheerful, even giggly, person. It was just that she had a policy of looking serious when she was having her picture taken."

Dark age

The generally dark, gloomy and even morbid impression of the Victorian age, Mr Seedhouse says, was boosted by the state of Victorian city centre public buildings and factories. By the 1950s they too were decked out in a thick layer of funereal black soot.

Most of the UK population still works or lives in Victorian era buildings, Mr Seedhouse claims.

Euston Arch model
Arch enemy: The original Euston station was demolished
Many of the country's major cities including Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool are essentially Victorian in origin. Most of the older population centres, including London, also took their shape in Victorian times.

"To a large extent we are still a Victorian country," Mr Seedhouse says, "at least in terms of our buildings."

The Victorian Society was established in 1958 by poet John Betjeman, architect Nikolaus Pevsner and others to fight what they described at the time as the "widespread hatred" of all things Victorian.

Victorian crusaders

Their main aim was to preserve as many Victorian buildings as possible at a time when many were being pulled down.

They failed to save the original 1830s Euston station - which included a celebrated Roman-style triumphal arch. A resolutely modern complex of offices and train terminals was the replacement.

The Albert Memorial with fireworks
Back with a bang: The refurbished Albert Memorial
Since the 1970s, the society's conservation message has been aided by the general disillusionment with modern architecture and a new fashion among the middle classes for refurbishing old houses.

Yet even into the 1990s such iconic Victoriana as the London memorial to the queen's beloved husband, the German Prince Albert, looked to be in danger.

"No money had been spent on the Albert Memorial since before the second world war and it was falling into a very bad state of disrepair. The plan in the early 1990s was to break it into pieces and give the bits to museums," Mr Seedhouse says.

Victoria: part II
1877: 'British Empire' takes shape as Victoria is crowned Empress of India
1879-82: Parnell's 'Land War' campaign in Ireland
1888: Jack the Ripper
1897: Victoria's Diamond Jubilee
1899: The Boer War
1899: Elgar's Enigma Variations
1901 Victoria's death
However the decidedly un-politically correct memorial - which boasts prone figures representing each of the continents of the earth praising Britain and delivering goods and natural resources - has recently been revamped.

Our Victorian heritage also includes sewers and water supply systems which, when they were built, were seen as the engineering marvel of the age. In most cities they are still in use - though some are now in need of extensive repairs.

Almost all of the UK and Ireland's railway system - including the bridges and most of the stations - are Victorian in origin.

A large slice of central London is almost totally Victorian in origin - the museums, monuments and college buildings grouped around the Albert Hall - once known as 'Albertopolis' and built using the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Scottish football fan celebrating
"Did the Victorians invent lager too?"
In addition to bricks and mortar, the Victorians bequeathed much of the very idea of Britishness and the identity of the English and Scots to later generations. Indeed, the idea of clan tartans was largely a Victorian wheeze.

It is often said that Westminster is the "mother of parliaments" and that Britain's gift to the world include football and cricket.

But all of these things were given to Britain by the Victorians.

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