The Victorian Era was a time of vast political reform and social change, the Industrial Revolution, authors Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, a railway and shipping boom, profound scientific discovery and the first telephone and telegraph. But the Victorian Era—the 63-year period from 1837-1901 that marked the reign of Queen Victoria—also saw a demise of rural life as cities and slums rapidly grew, long and regimented factory hours for many laborers, the bloody Jack the Ripper and even bloodier Crimean War.
Queen Victoria, who was born in 1819 and ascended the throne at age 18, was Britain’s second-longest reigning monarch (surpassed only by Queen Elizabeth II). Her rule during one of Britain’s greatest eras saw the country create the world’s biggest empire, with one-fourth of the global population owing allegiance to the queen.
Here’s a timeline of innovations and events that helped define the Victorian Era.
May 24, 1819: Alexandrina Victoria is born in Kensington Palace. As a royal princess, she is recognized as a potential heir to the throne of Great Britain.
Aug. 1, 1834: The British empire abolishes slavery, and more than 800,000 formerly enslaved people in the British Caribbean are eventually set free. The government provides compensation to slave owners, but nothing to formerly enslaved people.
June 20, 1837: Queen Victoria takes the crown at the age of 18. The granddaughter of King George III, her father died when she was just 8 months old, and her three uncles also died, putting her first in line as heir to the throne. An estimated 400,000 people thronged the streets of London for her coronation in Westminster Abbey.
July 25, 1837: The first electric telegraph is sent between English inventor William Fothergill Cooke and scientist Charles Wheatstone, who went on to found The Electric Telegraph Company.
May 8, 1838: The People’s Charter, the result of the Chartism protest movement, calls for a more democratic system including six points: the right to vote for men age 21 and older; no property qualification to run for Parliament; annual elections; equal representation; payment for members of Parliament; and vote by secret ballot.
Sept. 17, 1838: The first modern railroad line, the London-Birmingham Railway, opens, starting the steam-powered railway boom and revolutionizing travel.
Feb. 10, 1840: Queen Victoria marries German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, her first cousin. As queen, she was the one to propose. During their 21 years of marriage (until Albert died of typhoid in 1861) the couple had nine children. They also introduced many typically German Christmas traditions to Britain, such as decorated Christmas trees.
May 1, 1840: The Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp sold for one penny, is released in Britain, featuring a profile portrait of Queen Victoria. More than 70 million letters are sent within the next year, a number that tripled in two years. It’s soon copied in other countries, and the stamp is used for 40 years.
Dec. 19, 1843: Charles Dickens, one of the era’s greatest writers, publishes A Christmas Carol. Other works from the author during this period—many featuring protests against class and economic inequality—include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby.
September 1845: Ireland’s potato crop begins to fail from a widespread mold infestation, causing the Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, that leads to 1 million deaths and caused 1 to 2 million people to emigrate from the country, landing in various cities throughout North America and Great Britain.
May 1, 1851: The brainchild of Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition opens in London’s Crystal Palace, with 10,000-plus exhibitors displaying the world’s technological wonders—from false teeth to farm machinery to telescopes. Six million visitors attend what would become the first world’s fair before it closes in October.
April 7, 1853: Queen Victoria uses chloroform as an anesthetic during the delivery of her eighth child, Leopold. Though controversial at the time, Victoria’s embrace of anesthesia quickly popularized the medical advancement.
March 28, 1854: France and Britain declare war on Russia, launching the Crimean War, which largely surrounds the protection of the rights of minority Christians in the Ottoman Empire. History’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, helps reduce the death count by two-thirds by improving unsanitary conditions. An estimated 367,000 soldiers died in the two-year conflict.
Nov. 24, 1859: The controversial On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin is published, presenting his theory of natural selection and challenging the theory of creation.
January 9, 1863: The world’s first underground railway, the London Underground, opens. About 9.5 million people would ride the steam trains during their first year of operation.
Dec. 9, 1868: Liberal William Gladstone defeats Conservative Benjamin Disraeli to become prime minister, a position he held for four non-consecutive terms. His legacy includes reform for Ireland, establishing an elementary education program and instituting secret ballot voting.
March 7, 1876: Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell is awarded a patent on his invention of the telephone, and, three days later, famously makes the first phone call to Thomas Watson, his assistant.
May 1, 1876: Under the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, India, which has been under British rule since 1858, declares Queen Victoria Empress of India.
August 2, 1880: The Elementary Education Act of 1880 makes school attendance mandatory for children from ages five to 10, effectively reducing the hours children can be forced to spend working in fields, mills, mines and factories.
Aug.-Nov. 1888: An unknown killer named Jack the Ripper murders and mutilates five prostitutes in London, striking terror into the heart of the city.
May 26, 1897: The Irish novelist Bram Stoker publishes Dracula, the story of a now-legendary vampire of aristocratic bearing, inspired in part by his visit to ghostly ruins in the seaside Yorkshire town of Whitby.
Jan. 22, 1901: Queen Victoria dies on the Isle of Wight at age 81, ending the Victorian Era. She is succeeded by Edward VII, her eldest son, who reigned until his death in 1910. At the time of her death, the British Empire extended over roughly one-fifth of the earth’s land surface, giving rise to the claim, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”
India from Queen Victoria’s time to independence. The History Press.
Past Prime Ministers: William Ewart Gladstone. Gov.uk.
Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield. Gov.uk.
An Introduction to Victorian England (1837-1901). English Heritage.
What happened during the Victorian era? Royal Museums Greenwich.
Queen Victoria uses chloroform in childbirth, 1853. Financial Times.