Fifty Years Ago

Fifty Years Ago

Walter Besant

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It has been my desire in the following pages to present a picture of society in this country as it was when the Queen ascended the throne. The book is an enlargement of a paper originally contributed to ‘The Graphic.’ I have written several additional chapters, and have revised all the rest. The chapter on Law and Justice has been written for this volume by my friend Mr. W. Morris Colles, of the Inner Temple. I beg to record my best thanks to that gentleman for his important contribution.

I have not seen in any of the literature called forth by the happy event of last year any books or papers which cover the exact ground of this compilation. There are histories of progress and advancement; there are contrasts; but there has not been offered anywhere, to my knowledge, a picture of life, manners, and society as they were fifty years ago.

At the very outset of the work I was startled to find how great a revolution has taken place in our opinions and ways of thinking, how much greater than is at first understood. For instance, America was, fifty years ago, practically unknown to the bulk of our people; American ideas had little or no influence upon us; our people had no touch with the United States; if they spoke of a Republic, they still meant the first French Republic, the only Republic they knew, with death to kings and tyrants; while the recollection of the guillotine still preserved cautious and orderly people from Republican ideas.

Who now, however, connects a Republic with a Reign of Terror and the guillotine? The American Republic, in fact, has taken the place of the French. Again, though the Reform Bill had been, in 1837, passed already five years, its effects were as yet only beginning to be felt; we were still, politically, in the eighteenth century. So in the Church, in the Law, in the Services, in Society, we were governed by the ideas of the eighteenth century.

The nineteenth century actually began with steam communication by sea; with steam machinery; with railways; with telegraphs; with the development of the colonies; with the admission of the people to the government of the country; with the opening of the Universities; with the spread of science; with the revival of the democratic spirit. It did not really begin, in fact, till about fifty years ago. When and how will it end? By what order, by what ideas, will it be followed?
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