Teaching History
Boys and girls wearing Victorian servant costumes in the Coal Gallery at Audley End

Teaching the Victorians

Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign saw Britain’s power and wealth grow rapidly, its reach extending across the globe.

Read advice from our educational experts and historians about studying this period of rapid technological and industrial change, and explore suggested activities to try with your students at home, in the classroom, or on a school trip.

This guide is intended to help anyone teaching the Victorians, but the activities featured will be of particular interest to National Curriculum Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 learners. 

Four boys walking through the Durbar Room at Osborne looking up at the ceiling

Hints and Tips

  • Entry to Empire – Queen Victoria can prove a useful entry point for studying the British Empire – how it grew and evolved during her reign, including early indicators of movements towards self-government and independence.
  • Diversity of experience – Remember to explore the experiences of all classes in Victorian society. Site-based study can really help with this and provide tangible characters for learners to shape their developing knowledge and understanding around.
  • Grandmother of Europe – Queen Victoria’s children married European royalty and played key roles in European affairs. These marriages can provide an interesting stimulus to exploring events in the later Victorian period, and beyond, into the 20th century.

Suggested Reading and Activities

History at Home Live! Charles Darwin and Down House

Watch History at Home Live! with Ben Shires and our expert Antony O'Rourke to uncover the story of Charles Darwin and his life at Down House.

Where did Darwin get his idea of Natural Selection from? How did his theory of evolution develop? What experiments and observations took place in the gardens of Down House? Find out the answers to these questions and more.

Four girls dressed in Victorian costume sitting behind a basket of bobbins, throwing some into the air

Get to Grips with the Period

Britain was at the height of its international power and status during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901). It was the greatest manufacturing and trading nation in the world and led the way in developing new technologies. 

The Victorian period was a time of immense industrial and social change as well as scientific discovery. Sites like Stott Park Bobbin Mill and J.W. Evans Silver Factory show England as a hive of industry, while English Heritage’s collection of windmills which show how rural life was transformed by machinery. Charles Darwin wrote his famous work On the Origin of Species at his home at Down House where he experimented with and observed natural phenomena for 40 years.

Such industry generated wealth and architectural developments and this is reflected in the country houses built at this time. Queen Victoria's seaside retreat at Osborne showcases an Italianate style that was exported throughout the British Empire. 

Despite a French invasion scare in the 1860s, which produced new fortifications such as Fort Brockhurst and the updating of older defences at Dartmouth Castle, Britain’s fleets continued to rule the seas and its armies continued to fight in far-flung wars. Although there was resistance to British rule, the Victorian empire was continuing to expand at the Queen’s death in 1901.

Read our Introduction to Victorian England
  • Victorian Daily Life

    Although the Victorian era was a period of extreme social inequality, industrialisation brought about rapid changes in everyday life.

  • Victorian Commerce

    Overseas trade and an extensive commercial infrastructure made Britain in the 19th century the most powerful trading nation in the world.

  • Victorians: Architecture

    The architectural profession is largely a Victorian creation. From the 1820s, architects began to experiment with a profusion of styles.

  • Victorian Parks and Gardens

    An extraordinary number of innovations in the study and cultivation of plants were made during the Victorian period. Meanwhile, gardening became a national obsession.

Victorians Glossary

  • Victorian Definitions

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
    1st Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Freshwater, was a famous poet in Victorian times. His collection of poems written in memory of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Henry Hallam, called In Memoriam A H H (1850), was so successful that he was chosen to be the Poet Laureate.  

    Arts and Crafts Movement
    A design movement that began in 1880, growing out of concern for the effects of industrialisation on design and traditional craft skills. It placed value on the quality of materials and design and encouraged turning the home into a work of art, often using medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration.  

    British Empire
    The territories ruled or administered by the British Crown. It reached its greatest extent in the early 20th century when the UK ruled 24% of the Earth’s total land area. 

    Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
    A naturalist, biologist and geologist, famous for his theory of Natural Selection and his work on adaptation, variance and evolution. His ground-breaking work, On the Origin of Species (1859), was met with excitement in the scientific community, as well as condemnation among some members of the public and religious figures. 

    Crimean War (1853–1856)
    A war fought in the area of the Crimean peninsula (the northern coast of the Black Sea), between Russia and an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire.  

    coal mining
    The process of extracting coal from the ground.

    cotton mill
    A factory which spins cotton yarn and/or weaves cotton cloth.                     

    despatch box
    Also referred to as red boxes, they are used by government ministers to secure important documents and for the transit of important documents from the government to the monarch. The boxes are made of pine, lined with lead and covered in red leather. They are manufactured by Barrow and Gale. 

    Diamond Jubilee
    The celebration of the 60th anniversary of a king or queen taking the throne. Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was in 1897.         

    Durbar Wing
    A new wing added to Osborne House from 1890 to 1892 to provide a large space for formal entertaining and rooms above for Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Beatrice and her family to live in. 

    Empress of India
    An empress is a female ruler of great power, usually an empire (many countries under one ruler). The British Crown (led by Queen Victoria) ruled India directly from 1858 and Victoria was given then title Empress of India in 1876.  

    A building or group of buildings where people manufacture goods or operate machines changing one product into another.

    factory acts
    A series of acts passed by Parliament to regulate the working conditions for factory workers during the Victorian period.   

    Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)
    An English writer, diplomat, explorer and archaeologist who became highly influential to British imperial policy-making in the Middle East due to her local contacts. She played a major role in creating the modern state of Iraq.  

    Golden Jubilee
    The celebration of the 50th anniversary of a king or queen taking the throne. Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was in 1887. 

    A woman employed to teach children in a private household often in a great country house.   

    Great Exhibition
    (Or The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition). An international exhibition showcasing modern industrial technology and design organised Henry Cole and Prince Albert. Its aim was to promote Britain as a world leader in industry, by demonstrating the superiority of its technology and design. It took place in Hyde Park in London between May and October 1851.             

    A period of social and economic change transforming an area from a society based on farming to a society focused on manufacturing through mass production.  

    natural history
    The scientific study of plants and animals.       

    Natural Selection
    An idea studied and promoted by Charles Darwin in his books. The processes by which organisms that are better adapted to their environment are able to survive and pass their characteristics on to their offspring, leading to the evolution of species.   

    A room or cupboard in which food, crockery and cutler are stored.  

    A room in a building for receiving guests. 

    Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819–1861)
    Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840 and was a source of help and support for the queen during his lifetime. He was granted the title of Prince Consort (1857). He took a keen interest in topics such as technology and science, as well as architecture, modern art and the abolition of slavery worldwide. Albert was of great practical help to Victoria, managing the Queen’s office, household, and estates. His early death, aged 42, caused Victoria to withdraw from public life for several years and enter into a lengthy period of intense mourning. 

    private secretary
    A secretary who deals with the personal and confidential business of an important person, for example a king or queen.  

    public health
    The health of the whole population, often the subject of government concern and regulation. Public health became of particular interest during the Victorian period due to recurring Cholera epidemics and other diseases caused by slum housing and poor sanitation. 

    royal household
    The courtiers, servants and attendants providing for the needs of the monarch and their family, and supporting the monarch in their duties.  

    service wing
    A set of rooms used by the servants for the purpose of carrying out domestic duties (e.g. washing, cooking and cleaning). The service win was usually kept separate and self-contained from the family areas of the house. 

    An over-crowded urban area inhabited by very poor people living in squalid conditions. 

    Swiss Cottage
    The timber playhouse in the grounds of Osborne that Prince Albert designed for his and Victoria's children where they learnt about cooking, keeping a house tidy and entertaining guests. The Swiss Cottage also contained a Museum Room, and accommodation for a caretaker on the ground floor.    

    tableau vivant
    French for ‘living picture’, describes a group of silent costumed actos, carefully posed with scenery and props to show a scene or tell a story. 

    A bacterial infection caused by eating contaminated food, or drinking unclean water. This can lead to a severe fever which can lead to death with treatment. 

    William Morris (1834–1896)
    An English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and social activist. He revolutionised British textile and wallpaper design and was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The housekeeper at Osborne inspecting students' hands during the Waiting on Hand and Foot Discovery Visit

Expert Advice

We asked one of our historians for their thoughts on teaching the Victorians:

The Victorian period was one of great change in England when many of the aspects of life we take for granted today first appeared. Think of electricity, the telephone, the motor car, compulsory primary education, the post office and modern police service to name but a few.

It’s the first period when we can glimpse into the lives of many ordinary people through sources like the census, local newspapers and photography. It’s also a period clearly visible in our townscapes and rural landscapes today: in the factories, workers’ housing, railway lines, public buildings, farmhouses and field boundaries. 

By 1901, the British Empire stretched across the globe, covering almost a quarter of the Earth’s people and land area. The country was wealthier than it had ever been, its people more numerous, more urbanised, and better educated. Society, economy and political life had been transformed in the 63 years and seven months since Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Dr Andrew Hann, Senior Historian

Read more about Teaching History

Video Resources

Delve into the Victorian period with our variety of themed videos. 

Meet Victorian cook, Avis Crocombe, at Audley End and take a tour of the laundry with housekeeper, Mrs Warwick. Find out about Charles Darwin and his daring discoveries. Learn how to make breakfast the Victorian way and explore the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. 

  • Who Was Charles Darwin?

  • A Tour of the Laundry - the Victorian way

  • What was the Industrial Revolution?

  • How to Make Breakfast the Victorian Way

Curators' Collections: Osborne

Explore objects from the collection at Osborne to learn more about Queen Victoria's family life at her seaside retreat, change and development in Victorian Britain, and the story of the British Empire.

Hear from one of our experts about how these objects can act as sources, offering us a window on the past, and discover a curator's role in making this happen. 

Use objects from Osborne at home or in the classroom to inspire cross-curricular learning and further your research.

Read More