We’re currently running a game of Dresden Files RPG set in Victorian London. In this setting, we’ve tracked tiger demons through the gas-lit fog. Top hat-crowned White Court vampires try to lure us into their war with the Black Court. We’ve crossed the Channel to keep fallen angels from England’s shores.
Still, I’ve heard several members of our group mention that they don’t have a particularly good grasp of the period in general. So, especially with the popularity of Steampunk, I thought a primer on the Victorian Era might be useful. This installment will cover broad setting topics, and the next will be more people-focused. If you’d like to run a game in Victorian England, or are just interested in that age, read on!
A Word on Chronology
Though our game is nominally set in 1880, we’re using many anachronistic elements from the time period as a whole, just because they’re cool. We’ve included the Crystal Palace, which was no longer around, the Tower Bridge, which wasn’t yet built, and Jack the Ripper, who hadn’t yet struck. None of us being historians, we’d inevitably get stuff wrong anyway, so we figured we’d pull in whatever made for a setting that evoked the Victorian Era.
So, despite the fact that I’m going to cover some history, keep in mind that what I’m going to talk about here isn’t a history. Queen Victoria’s reign lasted more than 60 years, after all, and a lot changed in that time. I’m aiming for more of a pastiche of the era that will paint a recognizably Victorian picture.
The Victorian Era, appropriately enough, began with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 (at the age of 18), and ended with her death in 1901. In her time, she saw railroads snake across England, became Empress of India, and survived several assassination attempts. Between the resources made available by the still-accelerating Industrial Revolution, and the advances in health care and sanitation during her reign, England experienced an unprecedented population boom, nearly doubling between 1851 and 1901 alone.
The period became one of crusading reform. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) depicted many of the social problems of the day, and advocated for education and children’s rights among other causes. Indeed, during Victoria’s reign, laws were passed granting free education to children under 10, and limiting child labor.
The Great Game
Victoria supported expansionist policies (see the next installment for reasons why), which led to wars in Africa and India. In particular, these stances deepened England’s conflict with Russia, in what became known as alternately the Great Game, or the Tournament of Shadows. Stemming from a fear that the Russian Empire would invade India, this epic rivalry strove to maintain the Afghan Khanates as buffer states between the empires.
The conflict would trigger repeated wars across Central Asia, and untold maneuvering beneath the surface. Even granting Victoria the title of Empress of India in 1876 was a move to officially equalize her title with that of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. It would only really begin to cool when both sides noticed the growing German Empire beginning to threaten their dominance.
Beginning in 1845, a fungal infection of potatoes, upon which a third of the Irish population depended, kicked off a series of events that would result in a million dead, and another million emigrating to America. It would become possibly the worst tragedy to occur under Victoria’s reign. It would also fan the fires of the Irish Home Rule movement that would eventually help weaken the Empire.
The Indian Mutiny
The 1857 mutiny of Indian sepoys against the British East India Company would trigger a widespread revolt against British rule. Also known as India’s First War of Independence, it lead to atrocities on both sides. Though British forces regained control of India, it would eventually result in the abolition of the BEIC, and the beginning of the Crown’s direct rule over India: the British Raj.
The Crimean War
One example of the conflicts caused by the Great Game, this war started in 1854 as a dispute over the territories of the waning Ottoman Empire. It would trigger dissent back in England, as word (and even photographs) of debacles such as the famous Charge of the Light Brigade reached home via the new telegraph lines. Its repercussions would echo through the years, setting up some of the balances of power that would eventually lead to World War I. The fictional Dr. Watson gained his military experience in this conflict.
Death of Prince Albert
In 1861, even as Victoria mourned the death of her mother, Prince Albert died of Typhoid Fever. Victoria blamed his death upon the stress caused by confronting his son over rumors of his affair with an actress. For a time, she retreated from public view, and she wore black for the rest of her life.
The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887, but set in 1881. The fictional detective was born in 1854, and was described as occasionally solving mysteries into the early 20th century, despite being officially retired. Even if you don’t want to use Holmes as a real person in your game, the methods he was depicted as using would influence forensic methods in reality.
Jack the Ripper
A series of brutal murders of female prostitutes in the Whitechapel district between 1888 and 1891 have, by some, been ascribed to a single killer. He was nicknamed Jack the Ripper in a letter to the press supposedly written by him. The name stuck despite the fact that the letter was later doubted as a hoax.
Five murders in particular have been singled out as the “canonical” set due to their similar modus operandi. Each involved slashes to the neck, and increasingly gruesome mutilations, culminating in the removal of internal organs. One incident broke the trend of growing brutality, but was included due to the similarity in timing (on or close to a weekend, and near the end of the month) and location. It was generally supposed that the killer was interrupted in that case. Though the police never knowingly caught the killer, the murders stopped, which has only added to the mystique of the crimes.
While a Diamond Jubilee is normally held for a 75th anniversary, it was decided to move Queen Victoria’s to 1897, the 60th anniversary of her coronation. This was an attempt to assuage some of the internal dissatisfaction at her relative absence from public view since the death of Albert. It was made a celebration of the empire as a whole.
Though we think of the 19th century as practically ancient history, the time was not as backward as we tend to think. The Victorian Era saw great strides in scientific discovery. The telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and incandescent lamp were invented. This period also saw the first widespread antiseptics, anesthetics, and waste water treatment.
This rapid advancement had several affects on Victorian England. As previously mentioned, the improvements in medicine contributed to greatly accelerated population growth. In addition, technologies like transatlantic cables, telephones, and photography would increase the pace at which information spread around the world. Compounded by modes of travel such as locomotives, clipper ships, steamships, and automobiles, these changes would kick off the shrinking of the world that is familiar to modern civilization. Finally, by the end of Victoria’s reign, weaponry had advanced from revolvers to belt fed machine guns
A Few Victorian Milestones
- First inter-city railway between Liverpool and Manchester
- Samuel Colt patents and produces his revolver in America and England
- Telegraphy patented
- Daguerreotype process (early form of photography) announced and made public domain
- Britain exceeds 7000 miles of railway
- Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species
- Gatling gun patented
- The Metropolitan Railway opens, becoming the first underground railway in London
- First successful transatlantic telegraph cable
- Cro-Magnon man identified
- HMS Challenger surveys the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the oceans
- Phonograph invented
- First telephone exchange, first commercially-available incandescent light bulbs
- First home lit by incandescent light bulb
- Maxim gun, the first self-powered machine gun, invented. It would eventually evolve into the Vickers of WWI
- First modern, internal-combustion automobile built
- Earliest surviving film recording
- Aspirin patented
- Fingerprinting officially adopted
- First gramophone record
- X-Rays identified
It became clear to me very quickly that I was going to overrun my space today. I decided that this post should focus on broad topics, useful for defining the setting. As interesting as this stuff is, though, it’s more useful for GMs. Thursday’s sequel, however, will zoom in to cover topics more helpful for playing a Victorian character.