So, just what did the Victorians ever do for us? Helen Arney investigates –

Recommended by Ronald Stiles, Published on April 2nd, 2017


Its the most celebrated period of British ingenuity but are our Victorian forebears due a rethink?

Rather than expand our horizons, did their exploration and discoveries actually encourage eugenics, leave some of our favourite species endangered and contribute to global warming?

Or, to put it more succinctly, did the Victorians ruin the world?

As a science comedian, or a stand-up physicist, thats what Im asking in a new Radio 4 show, which starts this week.

If you didnt have a beard you were an outcast

My passion for the age between 1837 and 1901 began when I worked as a guide at the Royal Albert Hall in Londons South Kensington.

My university was nearby at Imperial College: all part of a centre of culture and science created by the Victorians. What better place to feed my fanaticism?

My sister Kat, who presents the show with me, also caught the bug.


She plays a harp in a Victorian-Bollywood punk band and has a lot of love for corsetry.

As you do.

But I eventually began to realise that not everything the Victorians did was wonderful. Taking a long list of things invented or popularised in the era, we started to ask if their discoveries were good or, to put it mildly, a bit rubbish.

The results were certainly a mixed bag... Let me start with our first topic: the unleashing of the grey squirrel.

This was a breed the Victorians introduced from America because they were fashionable, woodland rodents. Like most people, Im a huge fan of the native red.

Everyone loves them. Poor reds, I thought, they keep getting their little furry bottoms kicked by the greys.

What we actually found out from our squirrel expert at the University of Leeds is that the grey is not to blame.

It was the Victorians! In 1903, there existed a Scottish society called the Highland Squirrel Club, set up to eradicate the ginger race.

In just 40 years, more than 100,000 reds were killed as pests. So the greys werent the only exterminators.

More shocking, possibly, was our discovery that reds cant properly digest acorns. So that lovely Beatrix Potter image of Squirrel Nutkin eating an acorn is pure propaganda.

Its all lies. Victorian lies!


Now for exhibit B: the beard. Kat had noticed that a lot of people who came to our live shows had fantastic facial hair.

But if you think we are at Peak Beard in 2017, think again. The amount of facial hair on the high street today can be traced directly back to the Victorian era when, over a 50-year stretch, beards went from zero to hero.

If you didnt have a beard you were an outcast.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, during the Crimean war the soldiers, who were freezing their faces off near southern Ukraine, grew beards for warmth and returned as heroes.

Queen Victoria wrote about them in her diary and clearly liked seeing all these handsome, furry veterans. One of my favourite guest experts on the series is Dr Alun Withey, a pogonologist who has spent his life studying beards.

He told us that, thanks to industrialisation, many Victorian men spent their lives in mundane office jobs. Feeling emasculated, they grew beards. And theyre doing it again.

Fascinatingly, Victorians also thought beards were good for health.

They saw them as hairy dust filters for the lungs, with added sun protection. I rubbished this idea but a study in the 2014 Journal of Hospital Infection showed that hospital workers with beards were less likely to be carrying the superbug MRSA than clean-shaven ones.

So well have to give the Victorians a point for that one.


Being a physicist, I was most excited about the discoveries Kat and I made about the automobile. There is no doubt this invention eventually led to mass pollution and environmental destruction.

However, the Victorians also invented electric cars, a century before todays Teslas.

There were other engines that ran on heat transfer and hydrogen engines are actually a pre-Victorian invention.

If the Victorians had been given another 30 years research before some chump invented the petrol engine they might have made battery-powered cars that could go the extra mile or perfected hydrogen engines that didnt blow up.

We could all be flying hydrogen powered planes and driving electric cars now!

Instead the rush for fast, petrol powered machines has meant destroying our planet with fossil fuels.

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Now, lets talk Charles Darwin. You might ask how has he ruined the world? but while Darwin wasnt the problem his theories have certainly been used for evil...

His cousin Francis Galton took Charless ideas about evolution and twisted them into something he called eugenics, later used by the Nazis to justify mass extermination.

Another thing close to my heart (or rather, stomach) didnt make it into this series: curry.

The Victorians took this dish and turned it into a shadow of its former self by making it all British.

OK, its great that they brought it over to the UK but the legacy is a pathetic plastic tray filled with tiny portions of rice and chicken tikka masala.

I went into a supermarket the other day and there were two different types of curry pizza. Yes, curry pizza. Two great cuisines destroyed in one. Has it really come to this?

If you havent already guessed, there isnt a straight yes or no answer to the question did the Victorians ruin the world?. The phrase it seemed like a good idea at the time springs to mind.

Yet today we are still following in their sometimes genius, sometimes disastrous, footsteps.

Helen Arney is a physicist, comic and musician. Did The Victorians Ruin The World?, Mon-Fri at 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4

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