The Victorian era; an era of Empire, gin and stiff looking portraits of men fresh from frantic fumblings with naughty maids, stretched over the majority of the nineteenth century. The era got its name, as eras do, from the Queen of the time, Victoria, who first sat on the throne aged just eighteen after her Uncle William’s heart called time on all the mead and rich stews of palace living. The throne would, in normal circumstances, have passed on to William IV’s eldest boy had William IV’s eldest boy been born legitimately. Sadly he was not. Nor were any of his other seven surviving children and so the throne passed to Victoria, daughter of William IV’s brother Edward, the man widely credited with coining the term ‘Canadian’. The details of which, don’t really matter.
Victoria, sadly, didn’t have a very happy upbringing. She described it in her diary as “rather melancholy”, which really is a bit sad given the cold resonance of a word like melancholy. There just didn’t seem to be much fun. She spent most of her time with her pet spaniel, Dash, brewing resentment for her mother and some court lackey who together stitched together a system that basically stopped her from meeting anyone they didn’t like. Which seemed to be most people, bar perhaps each other. The court, at the time, whispered of a clandestine affair between the two. Any affair though, would have to have been conducted in pantries and linen cupboards, for the teenage Victoria fell victim to a more moral age and had to share a bedroom with her mother. When she came of age, it was decided she should marry her Uncle’s nephew. Her Uncle being the King of Belgium, brother to her mother. His nephew was Prince Albert. So that’s all clear then. By all accounts they hit it off straight away and whilst other suitors had a go, Victoria was interested only in Albert. They went on to have eight children.
The Victorian era outside the palace was though, a ball-bustingly magnificent era. Britain rode high on the waves of global trade shipping textiles and machinery to far flung countries all proud to be part of the Empire. Proud in part, although some, perhaps, a bit miffed at the high-handed British attitude to local customs, boundaries and their more slap-dash indigenous thinking on things like law and general governance. There were few wars and, whilst the country was still run by the wax-like figures of the aristocracy, the working class appeared happy with their lot. Even Karl Marx had little traction. With profits pouring in from around the Empire, merchants grew rich and factory workers got paid. There was a gay spirit of Libertarianism. Taxes were low and, as is their want in the good times, the government just let everyone get on with it. It was the great age of industrialisation and seaside resorts. With labour laws tightening up and railways opening up, the coast beckoned and the working class flocked to take in the sea air, ride donkeys and fritter away their meagre earnings on piers. What’s not to like about that? Karl Marx never stood a chance. Even the Good Lord struggled as Sunday lost its austere chill and religious attitudes softened. Sin, it was discovered, could be atoned for down the pub. Thomas Cook meanwhile, he of the sorry high street shop front flogging cheap all-inclusive weeks in Malaga, first took note and started sharpening a pencil to put to paper a business plan even Karl Marx would have liked.
The Victorian era was also the era of the great British bandstand, as brass bands filled the public parks with pomp and stray F sharps, safe from the fickle elements of British summertime. Many bandstands are still visible in public parks today, yet where there were once trussed-up bands of middle aged men clutching tubas, there are now teenagers clutching litre bottles of Diamond White quietly hoping to see their first bare breast. The Victorian era was also the golden age of the circus. There was the iconic Astely’s Amphitheatre in Lambeth where all traumatised animals longed to perform but for those with owners who lacked the right business connections, they travelled. Up and down the country, delighting the crowds with their ability to stand on one leg, or jump through fiery hoop.
Yet where the Victorians really smashed it out the park was in the sphere of engineering. Britain really was the epicentre, the crucible of where it was at in terms of engineering and technology. The big one was the development of the railways which enabled people and stuff to be moved about at will. It was a game changer, the modern equivalent of plugging into BT’s fibre-optic broadband. The country, indeed the world, suddenly opened up. Steam ships dumped corn and cotton from the United States onto the docks of Liverpool, meat and wool arrived from Australia. The good times rolled. Electric power and telephones soon followed. What trumped it all though, and went down in history as perhaps the Victorian’s greatest achievement, was Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system in London. A system that linked over a thousand miles of street sewers and took raw effluence off the streets. Talk about a lasting legacy. His Mum would have been dead chuffed.
The Victorian era wasn’t all fun and games though. The haves may have had it all but there were plenty of have nots. There were slums, widespread poverty and lots street urchins covered in soot. Indeed the era was notorious for the exploitation of child labour. Children as young as five were sent down coal mines. School was, and would remain for some years, a pipe dream. What specifically ties Coca-Cola to the Victorian era then, perhaps surprisingly, is fashion. The classic wide puffed sleeves, petticoats and breathless corsets of the time. For the iconic contoured bottle, created by the reputed bottle designer Earl. R. Dean, is said to have been inspired from the classic Victorian hooped dress. Interesting stuff.