Aspects of the Victorian Book
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The Economic and Social Background to Victorian Print Culture

The cluster of revolutionary changes - including the growth of population, improvements in transport, and the introduction of powered machinery into large-scale manufacturing - that we collectively call the 'Industrial Revolution' had begun in 18th century Britain. However, it was the 19th century that saw the climax of these revolutions, and witnessed the economic, social, political and cultural transformation of the country. The printing and publishing industry was caught up in this transformation, benefiting from the application of power to the various stages of the manufacturing process, but also able to exploit developments in other technologies, most notably the railways and telegraphy.


The population of the country had been growing since the mid-18th Century, and the 19th Century continued this trend. The Census of 1851 revealed that more people were living in towns and cities than in the countryside. As literacy and incomes tended to be higher in urban areas than rural ones, this rapidly growing population meant a hugely expanding market for books and newspapers.

Population in England, Scotland and Wales 1801-1901


Industrial Production

All historical indices are only rough guides; nevertheless, most figures suggest that there was a dramatic increase (in this case a twelve-fold increase) in industrial production between 1801-1901. Agricultural production also increased rapidly in order to feed the expanding population. The UK printing industry was part of this expansion: by 1907 its annual net value was about 31.5 million.

Indices of Industrial Production in the UK 1801-1901



In 1830 there were just 157 miles of track; by 1901 there were 30,385 miles of track in the UK. The railway offered a fast, all-weather, bulk goods and passenger transport system - the first the world had seen. By stage coach in 1825 it took 30 hours to travel from London to Hull; by railway in 1845 it took 8 hours; by 1910 that same rail journey had been cut to 4 hours. By the 1850s newspapers could be delivered to most towns while the news was still fresh. Railways also created a new reading market catered for by such series as 'railway novels'.

The following table is derived from data in The Longman Handbook of Modern British History 1714-1995, edited by Chris Cook and John Stevenson, 3rd. ed (London: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996).

Miles of railway track open



One way of establishing literacy rates is to count those who could sign their names on a marriage register. But for most of the 19th century reading was taught first in schools, and then writing. It is likely that more people could read than write, so estimates based on writing are probably somewhat lower than they should be. Literacy was usually higher in urban than rural areas. Add growing literacy rates to an increasing urban population and you have a huge market for easily-read, cheap books, newspapers and magazines.

Literacy rates among brides and bridegrooms in England and Wales 1841-1900


Postal system

The introduction of the standard penny post system in 1840 - augmented by the book post in 1848, circular post in 1856 and the halfpenny postcard in 1870, and coupled with the new railways - ensured a massive increase in the transmission of both written and printed text. In 1839 on average each person in the UK received just 4 letters a year. That figure doubled in 1840 to 8; in 1871 it was 32; by 1900 it had almost doubled again to 60. Not only were books and newspapers distributed by post, but also a mass of printed advertising flowed through the postal system and gave work to the 'jobbing' printers who produced most of the printed ephemera. The 19th century was the first great age of advertising and almost all of it was in printed form.

Simon Eliot, University of Reading

Newspapers and Book Packets Delivered in the UK 1869-1901/2

Illustration from: Walter Besant Her Majesty's glorious jubilee, 1897. (London: Illustrated London News, 1897) Cup.1264.j.9



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