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Fathers of the Victorians

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

A good word has been said for King George IV now and then, but it has never been adequately pointed that over an extended period, in fact through most of his life, he was a titular leader in his country’s greatest reform. He was prince, regent, and monarch during the founding of “Victorianism.” The vast censorship was wholly framed under the least respectable English sovereign. The lax, callous old century had virtually disappeared even before the Regency came to an end. By George’s death in 1830 the obligatory moral earnestness and all the socially-enforced taboos and injunctions were thoroughly established and as flourishing as they ever were. Victoria received them as a rich heritage; in fact was created by them. Victorianism was formed and vital before she was born.

George even took a little part in forming it: he presided, dignified and no doubt a little puzzled, over more than one puritanical society designed to stamp out precisely the national dissoluteness of which he was the choicest flower. The Evangelical moralists, practical above everything, never hesitated to decorate a reforming institution if necessary with an impressive president whose life was at considerable odds with the institution’s purpose. In particular it seems almost to have been a point of honor that societies dealing with penitent prostitutes should have impenitent debauchees at their head. The Guardian Society, for the Preservation of Public Morality by Providing Temporary Asylums for Prostitutes, had the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Sussex, who in a strict sense were probably not really debauched. The Asylum or House of Refuge, for the Reception of Orphan Girls the Settlements of Whose Parents Cannot be Found, had the Duke of York. The Lock Hospital for Persons Afflicted with the Venereal Disorder and The Lock Asylum for the Reception of Penitent Females had the Marquis of Hertford, Thackeray’s Lord Steyne; and George IV was Patron of the London Female Penitentiary.

These institutions and scores upon scores like them were controlled, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by a small group of puritanically-minded men and women of the upper class. Devout, shrewd, highly articulate, and very wealthy, they made themselves the directors of a vast movement of moral reform, conscious, deliberate, and involved beyond previous conception.


Of the tiny group of people setting out earnestly in the 1780’s to give combat to a corrupt age, a few were Friends and assorted Dissenters. The powerful source of moral reform was what came to be called the Evangelical Party in the Church of England. In 1780 Sir Richard Hill entered Parliament to fight steadily (and alone) for taxes on Sunday papers and Sunday travel, to point his speeches with Biblical texts and vote always according to Christian principle. In 1787 Mrs. Hannah More, protegee of Dr. Johnson whom Evangelical reform was to make the most venerated woman in Christendom, uttered the new Party’s manifesto in her “Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society,” and in the same year was founded the Society for Enforcing the King’s Proclamation Against Vice and Immorality. By then Evangelicism had found the perfect leader. In 1787 William Wilberforce, close friend of the Prime Minister, young, wealthy, and eloquent, entered in his journal: “God has chosen me to reform [the country’s] manners.” He led the Evangelical Party for thirty years, by general consent the most influential man in England outside the royal family and not holding office.

The growth of this group in size, power, and activity, and the success of their deliberate and astute penetration into the upper ranks of society, where they could make converts who would be useful because of their position and wealth, are next to unbelievable and have never been more than vaguely realized. A comparison of two typical Party societies tells the story. In 1788 was founded The Society for the Relief of Poor, Pious Clergymen, Residing in the Country—the implication that the Church contained impious clergymen being most Evangelical. In 1792 the society numbered forty or fifty clergy and a dozen or so laymen in the upper ranks. Their names ought to be blazoned in gold in some fitting place, no doubt the Albert Memorial, for they were the early founders of the succeeding moral order. Thirty years later the Party founded The Society for the Relief of Distressed Widows, to give “discreet relief to Widows of character.” In the size and scope of Evangelical operations of that day it was a trivial society; but it was officered by twenty-four Evangelical peers, and its list of subscribers is a long and glittering muster-roll of the wealthy and the influential. Before Victoria had come to the throne Evangelicism had proselyted with unimaginable success in the ranks of the great. In the face of steady and savage opposition from High Church clergy and laymen it had made the Evangelical kind of morality and piety fashionable.

In its colossal plan of moral reform the Party’s tactics were unerringly struck upon almost at the outset; and without them Evangelicism would have been futile. They were the tactics of shrewd, not to say cunning, men of political and financial experience. They knew very well what kind of attack on public immorality would succeed and what kind would not. Here the difference between Evangelicism and Methodism. To the devout but (in this instance) simple minds of Wesley and Fletcher it was as good to reclaim a cobbler as a man of means; there was no need to try to attract substantial people. How admirable—but from the Evangelical point of view how unworldly, how fruitless! At the end of the century Methodism had one seat in Parliament. It had no interest, no office in Government, no peers, controlled no boroughs, made no presentations, appointed to no positions. Worse still, it had converted no great merchants or bankers. It had no funds.

The leaders of Evangelicism were not likely to make that naive blunder. In a remarkable passage in his journal Wilberforce thanked God that he had not been allowed to become a mere Methodist without standing or influence. Was it more useful to convert the seaman, the clerk, and the orange-girl, or the admiral, the India director, and the Bishop of Lincoln? The answer was as plain as the dome of St. Paul’s. From the earliest years the great Evangelicals did everything in their power to bring people of rank and wealth to their side.

The means naturally had to be suited to the end. From that unavoidable necessity came many of the Party’s objectionable characteristics. There was no use in presenting Reformation Christianity to a duchess in a manner suitable to a milkmaid. It was imperative to be all things to all men. The great, for instance, could not be won to a “serious religion” marked by gloom, austerity, or ill-mannered enthusiasm. Hence the Party’s determined and often painful good humor, playfulness, levity, and jocularity. Hence Wilber-force’s often-expressed regret that some of their leading clergymen lacked polish, and their anxious determination not to be confused with the Methodists, who were regarded as conspicuously ill-bred. Hence the insistence inside the Party on ease and elegance as well as piety. No Evangelical biography fails to mention such qualities—if at all possible— as important characteristics of its subject.

Above all, the great were not likely to be won over to a moral reform movement that was opposed to their economic privileges, or even to genteel or noble amusements. Hence, as well as from their own natural tastes, the Party’s careful restriction of the moral campaign to the sins of the lower orders: bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and cock-fighting, for instance, were manifestly dreadful, but there was no harm in hunting or shooting. Hence also the Evangelical fondness for dwelling on the conspicuous worldly prosperity of virtually all their leading members. It was the supreme proof that Evangelicals were not fanatics.


By 1800 Evangelical churches were crowded. By 1810 or earlier the little group of peers, bankers, and members of Parliament gathered by William Wilberforce, far more important in the history of Evangelicism than the clergy, had been phenomenally successful in organizing for philanthropy and moral reform; above all, in converting useful people. They were already a formidable moral bloc, and they were growing rapidly. “Wide, and more wide,” Mrs. Hannah More wrote, “spreads the blessed circle in the elevated walks of life.” (The italics are the present writer’s.)

The spread of the circle is beautifully clear in the history of the Party’s moral organizations. These were the societies parodied endlessly by the novelists of the nineteenth century as foolish institutions to give pocket handkerchiefs to the natives of Borrioboola-gha. What strikes one about them now is not so much their occasional folly as their incredible size, scope, and number. Here as everywhere Wilberforce’s blithe little figure, diminutive and crippled, is in the front. His work in The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and allied institutions seems in itself more than the work of a lifetime. He was connected with at least seventy other societies, contributing money probably year after year to all of them, in most a governor or director or committee member, in many the founder, organizer, and leader. There were hospitals, infirmaries, dispensaries, lying-in institutions, medical associations, houses, asylums, and refuges by the score. There were societies to distribute Bibles, Prayer Books, homilies, tracts, missionaries, and religious knowledge everywhere. There were societies to befriend, to care for, to protect, to discourage, to teach, to correct, to better, to promote, to encourage, above all to suppress; there were societies for poor industrious boys, North American Indians, adult orphans, female emigrants, London Jews, juvenile mendicants, Irish servants; for sober married females and repentant unmarried females; for indigent, unfortunate, destitute, forlorn, and degraded females; there was The Society for Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country.

In short there were societies, many of them of huge proportions, for all conceivable purposes and many inconceivable, and they flourished, multiplied, and budded into branches and auxiliaries in an unbelievable way. If they tended to suppress the eighteenth century and encourage the nineteenth, they were founded or refounded, wholly or in part, by the Evangelical Party. Or if they were not, the Evangelical Party bored steadily into them, until its members controlled them lock, stock, and barrel. Instance after instance of such penetration could be cited—in the Jew Society, in the Strangers’ Friend Society, in the London Fever Hospital, in the Infirmary for Asthma, Consumption, and Other Diseases of the Lungs, in the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Even the Royal Humane Society, which they had nothing to do with originally and which modestly cared only for “persons in a state of Suspended Animation,” had thirteen Evangelical officers by 1827.

With the bitterest will in the world it was impossible for the High Church party, defenders of the old century, to keep Wilberforce and his lieutenants out. It was not so much that they were trained and zealous organizers, would work indomitably, and had social prestige. They had money, and they gave it. Where Joshua Watson, retired wine-merchant of Mincing-lane, or Lord Kenyon, lay leaders of the Orthodox, subscribed a guinea or so to a few societies, scores of Evangelical bankers, brewers, and peers were subscribing ten, fifty, or a hundred guineas to society after society. Hardly behind Wilberforce, they were an interlocking moral directorate, holding, in comparison with any other group, a large majority of the offices of nearly all the important societies and most of the unimportant.

The core of this directorate was a group of ninety-six Evangelicals who subscribed to twenty or more societies each. Apart from Wilberforce they range from Thomas Babing-ton, who subscribed to exactly twenty societies and wa3 vice-president of eleven, to some substantial reformers: Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (leading brewer, lay leader of the Party on Wilberforce’s retirement), thirty-five societies; Admiral Lord Gambier, thirty-nine; William Manning (banker and company director), forty; Charles and Robert Barclay (of Clapham Common; leading brewers), eighty-six; Lord Calthorpe, forty-six; Sir Thomas Baring (member of the great merchant house), forty-seven; Lord Bex-ley, forty-seven; Bishop Barrington, forty-seven; Henry, Samuel, Robert, and John Thornton (bankers and merchants), 173 subscriptions; Henry, Henry Merrick, Charles, Henry Hugh, Samuel, and Samuel (jun.) Hoare (bankers, brewers, and goldsmiths), 220. There should also be mentioned Lady Olivia Sparrow, who belonged to twenty-nine societies, and Miss Sophia Vansittart, who belonged to thirty-three. The twenty-one men named held nearly four hundred and fifty offices, the ninety-six held over twelve hundred. The figures are inadequate, and may be very much so. They are based on the records of some two hundred of the three hundred known societies, all whose literature has survived.

This interlocking directorate did not have many names that are still widely known, but its authority was immeasurable in an age in which Government did nothing about education or public health and next to nothing about public morals or the welfare of the poor. A vigorous and coherent group, closely knit by a common religion and economics and also by an intricate series of intermarriages, they constituted a tremendous moral force and an astonishing example of what can be done in the reforming line by determination and astuteness—if connected with rank and money. The rank and money they had in profusion. Nothing could be more incorrect than the idea that Evangelicism attracted few of the great in the first two decades of the century. The moral directorate alone included over sixty members of the peerage and baronetage with two members of the royal family, some forty members of Parliament, fifty to sixty bankers, merchants, and industrialists of great means. Half a dozen of them were among the wealthiest men of the day. It included a dozen senior members of the services, a President of the Council, a Master of the Rolls, an Ambassador to Berlin, a Governor-General of India, a First Lord of the Admiralty, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, and nearly the complete roll of the great brewers (Meux possibly excepted, but more than one Guinness in Ireland to make up for him).

At the same time fewer subscriptions than were made by the Thornton brothers alone can be credited to the forty names of the day still known in letters, politics, and the arts that appear in the records: Byron, Crabbe, Edgeworth, Marryat, Bentham, Mill, Siddons, Flaxman and so on; and one-third of them were made by David Ricardo and Sir Francis Burdett. The forty held fifteen or twenty offices all told.

The sons of the Evangelical directorate included Captain Parry, Lord Glenelg, Sir James Graham, James Stephen, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Francis and John Henry Newman, Peel, Manning, Gladstone, and Pusey.


No faithful account of Evangelical reform could fail to mention, no matter how barely, the Party’s literature and their invention and exploitation of that dreadful weapon for reform called District Visiting. No other things show so clearly the vast dimensions of their activity and their characteristic attitude towards the unfortunate.

District Visiting was first practised, on any decent scale, by the Benevolent, or Strangers’ Friend Society, founded by the Methodists in 1801 to help sick and distressed strangers, and quickly taken over by the Evangelicals. To its original purely charitable purpose the Party immediately added a second, at the very heart of Evangelicism: “to endeavour . . . to cause the voice of Providence to be heard in the afflictive dispensation.” By 1817, after a modest beginning, the Society had made over a hundred thousand visits. Their primary purpose, and the encroachment of moral reform on benevolence, are transparently indicated in the Society’s own reports.

It would be impossible to estimate the benefits resulting to the families themselves and to society at large, from the weekly intercourse of upwards of Three Hundred Visitors from this Charity with the poor in every part of this great City; who, while they convey to them the bounty of the rich, use every possible means to improve their moral condition, by inculcating the fear of God—respect and gratitude to their superiors and benefactors—a quiet and orderly conduct —and an attentive observance of all other moral and religious duties.

The Visitors of the Strangers’ Friend Society, are pious men, zealously and conscientiously attached to their king, their country, and its constitution; taking the bible as the guide of their lives, and the rule of their conduct, in their intercourse with the poor, they constantly enjoin upon them, in its authoritative language, the duty of submitting to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; that honour is to be rendered to whom honour is due, and tribute to whom tribute; that to fear God and honour the King, is the imperative command of Holy Scripture; and to avoid all meddling or association with those who are given to change, one of its most salutary cautions. They inculcate upon men as powerfully as they can, the duty of submission to the will of Providence; and with that, and a spirit of subordination to the constituted authorities, connect their hope of comfort here and happiness hereafter. Carefully guarding against unkind and envious feelings towards the rich and noble, the Visitors assure them that such persons are touched with tenderness and compassion towards them in their afflictions, and that it is owing to their bounty, they are visited and relieved by the Strangers’ Friend Society. And as the poor especially in this world suffer depression, they set before them the excellency of that religion, which can sweeten every lot in life, and without which, even the most elevated cannot be happy; and attaining unto this, they will be contented with such things as they have, and feel constantly that godliness with contentment is great gain.

This is the authentic great accent of Mrs. Hannah More, suave, wily, and indomitable publicist of Evangelicism; it was no doubt written by her. The Report (for 1818, in the most savage days of Sidmouth and Castlereagh, spies, agents provocateurs, starvation, riots, and executions) proceeds to a statement of the charity’s effectiveness. There is no reason at all to doubt it, or to comment on the attitude revealed in such documents of a society that began by helping sick transients.

From 1810 on, District Visiting was practised by dozens of societies far larger, wealthier, and more active than The Strangers’ Friend Society. The activities of the three hundred visitors are dwarfed in the swarm of thousands upon thousands of moral visits. These new institutions inaugurated District Visiting proper, in its consummate form: they utilized, as the Benevolent, or Strangers’ Friend Society had not done, the transiently volunteer and otherwise idle women of Evangelicism. In 1828 all such groups were gathered into the gigantic General Society for Promoting District Visiting. It was founded on the fear—libellous to the Strangers’ Friend Society, surely—that none of the small institutions was “of an aggressive character.”

To supply this deficiency [the “District Visitors’ Record” is quoted] . . . a regular system of domiciliary visitation was thought to be necessary, by which every poor family might be visited at their own habitations, from house to house and from room to room, and their temporal and spiritual condition diligently yet tenderly examined into, and appropriate treatment applied.

The quality of the tenderness is not now ascertainable, but the diligence was appalling. In 1831 London alone was divided into 866 sections where the 573 visitors regularly employed in that year by the twenty-five local societies made 163,695 visits.

The local branches of Central Provincial District Visiting Societies existed by hundreds, and their records furnish staggering figures in the work of moral reform; but they are not so staggering as the figures of the Evangelical literature. In the eighteenth century Parson Adams found religious books unsalable. In the early decades of the nineteenth nothing sold so well—if the religious books were Evangelical. Many a Party moralist reaped the handsomest profits. Mrs. Bowd-ler’s volume of sermons had nearly fifty editions. The copyright of Simeon’s works, mere skeletons of sermons and nothing more, sold as late as 1832 for 5,000. Wilberforce’s “Practical Christianity” had more editions in one decade than the combined works of Godwin, Malthus, Mrs. Rad-cliffe, and Monk Lewis. In barely more than a decade the booksellers (American included) were paid just short of two hundred thousand pounds for Thomas Scott’s “Bible Commentary.” Mrs. More’s “Coelebs in Search of a Wife,” a peculiarly tedious moral fiction, had more editions and more profits in one year than “Waverley” in five. A sober authority lists more than eight hundred editions of Mrs. More’s two hundred titles (tracts included), and she was translated into virtually all known languages and many virtually unknown. To the end of her long and industrious life an Evangelically-reformed public bought out her editions in a week, a day, or a couple of hours. Mrs. More amassed a very comfortable fortune and left it at her death to sixty-five distinct Evangelical institutions.

There is no record of a biography of an Evangelical leader that was not reprinted, and the deadly works of Mrs. Sherwood and her like were issued by the hundreds with stupefying success. Though no Hannah More, Mrs. Sherwood was herself author of sixty devotional tales, at least one of them of some length—her “Lady of the Manor, Being a Series of Conversations on the Subject of Confirmation, Etc.” The conversations proceed just short of interminably through seven volumes in not much under nine hundred thousand words. That anyone could have written such a book, published it, bought it, or read it is incomprehensible without a realization of the Party’s labors.

Through the whole period the tracts, a vast background for such formal works, poured out from a thousand sources, private and organized, by millions upon millions. A series by Mrs. More, held by her friends to have saved England from revolution, sold over two millions in a single year. Her masterpiece, “The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain,” the supreme work of its kind ever struck off by the hand of man, established utter perfection in the moral tale. No rival approached it in her day or ever will. Less austere works, such as “The Swearer’s Prayer,” had still huger sales. “The Sinner’s Friend,” by John Vines Hall, converted drunkard, had gone into 290 editions in twenty-three languages—a recorded total of 1,268,000 copies—before Hall’s death. It in turn fades before the most celebrated of all such works. In the early years of the century Legh Richmond, then a curate in the Isle of Wight, wrote a small piece for The Christian Guardian about the death of a young woman in the parish of Arreton. He called it “The Dairyman’s Daughter.” It was reprinted in 1814 and circulated beyond all records. To the end of his life Richmond, traveling far and wide for the Missionary Society and others, met people of all ages and conditions who owed their conversion to it. It was seen in the palace of the Tzar and “in the hut of a North American Indian,” and virtually everywhere else. An American visitor to Arreton has described the sight of the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria weeping at the dairyman’s daughter’s grave. Only an hour before his death Richmond heard that “The Dairyman’s Daughter” had brought about the conversion of a clergyman. It was estimated as early as 1828 that in its twenty languages four million copies of it had been published.

Dozens upon dozens of societies devoted themselves to such literature, and the number of private individuals engaged in writing the tracts (another field opened by Evangelicism to idle women), in selling them and distributing them, appears to have been immense. Virtually every issue of every popular Evangelical publication, such as the Reverend William Carus Wilson’s “Friendly Visitor,” (Wilson conducted the Clergy Daughters’ School, Evangelical of course, where the Brontes died, and won immortality as Mr. Brocklehurst in “Jane Eyre”) contains story after story of the spread of Evangelical morality through districts and communities by the labors of these paid or voluntary workers in reform. It was an activity open to any earnest Evangelical; it took only devotion.


Whatever the effect of all this in checking atheism, radicalism, and immorality among the English poor or in making conversions in Borrioboola-gha, the effect on the great and the wealthy was far more important. The forty religious broadsheets nailed to the walls of a Chinese hut are not so interesting as the fact that it was a substantial part of the English middle and upper classes, militant moral reformers, that put them there. The spectacle of an England apparently overrun with tract sellers, district visitors, and home missionaries, humble agents of the great societies, is not so interesting as the patient and highly intelligent operations of the forty or fifty nobles, bankers, merchants, and Parliamentarians in Clapham Common, working on with grave, shrewd, and pious relentlessness. It was vitally necessary to make sure that the circle should spread, wide and more wide, in the elevated walks of life. It was obvious from the beginning that they could succeed only by proselyting among the great, for only the great had money, and only the great could socially enforce rules that could not be enacted in law.

The story of their fight against the eighteenth century is a vast drama rich in intense interest, sometimes tragic, often comic, always human; all-too-human more than occasionally. Their anger at Bishop Marsh, for instance, who with Industrious malice invented eighty-seven questions to trap Evangelical candidates for ordination; their horror at the trial of Queen Caroline (guilty, as they all knew); the perplexity of the Reverend Charles Simeon, anxious to eat Buxton’s pheasants but not sure that Buxton ought to shoot; the trouble over Lord Calthorpe, who as a poor speaker but fine singer liked to have hymns at public meetings no matter how embarrassing it was for Bishop Ryder; their unlimited rejoicing at the conversion of the Duke of Gloucester, known (as Silly Billy) to be little better than an idiot but still the nephew and son-in-law of the king. There were moments of shock and disappointment, but in general the fight went steadily their way. When Sir Richard Hill retired from Parliament in 1806 his Scriptural quotations were no longer greeted with prolonged laughter as they had been in 1780. As early as 1815 Miss Jane Porter (“Thaddeus of Warsaw”) was congratulating Mrs. More on her prominent part in the reformation of the country. It was not until 1841 that the last stubborn vestige of the old century was wiped out: the archbishops joined the Church Missionary Society. Long before then Evangelicism had done its work. Mrs. More, revered pioneer and veteran of the struggle, had been dead eight years in 1841; and it was some years before her death, when Victoria was still a child, that she uttered her exultant cry of triumph: “Where is the world into which we were born?”


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