The Victorian era was one of the most industrious for finance, commerce and even workers’ rights. Global household brands from Cadbury’s to Boots took off then, as did technology investors. Here’s what we can learn from a backward glance
Beyond crumpets and lace, the Victorian era propelled Britain onto the global stage as an imperial force and the the world’s first industrial power.
It was an age of invention, innovation, and self-discovery, with the move of production out of the home and into the factory.
The volatility of this transition saw Britain swing pendulously from boom to depression and back, and many raged against the advance of technology.
From Cadbury’s to Unilever, some of the world’s most popular brands set up during this tumultuous time. Here’s what we can learn from their centuries-old legacy.
The greater the risk, the greater the reward
Like today, investment in fast growth sectors which used new technology was risky.
Some business owners did well from the new and booming cotton industry but many who jumped on the bandwagon too late, or without a proper understanding of the costs and benefits of this new technology went bust.
If investors chose well, they could make a fortune. If they chose poorly, they could end up shamed and penniless in debtors’ prison.
A Victorian cotton mill
The who, what, where, why and how of business
Success depended on a variety of factors, such as:
Where to set up business: thriving London with its worldly consumers, or bustling Lancashire or Newcastle with its access to skilled labour and nearby coal mines?
Whom to employ: able-bodied men who may be productive but may also be prone to strikes or women and children who can work for less?
Which source of energy to use for production: coal or this newfangled gas?
What areas of the business to invest in next: a new factory, new shops, or the supply chain in the colonies?
These questions are generally as important now as they were then.
Birmingham was a hub for industrial expansion
Branding is everything
The importance of advertising was starting to emerge during Queen Victoria’s reign.
While traders and craftsmen before then were well aware of the benefits of word-of-mouth referrals and of standing out from their rivals, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that competition really became cut-throat.
Marketing became a matter of survival.
An early 20th century ad by artist Cecil Aldin
Corporate social responsibility pays
Global chocolatiers Cadbury’s were started by two brothers, who are largely recognised as pioneers in industrial relations and employee welfare.
While other large-scale manufacturers would often skimp on workers’ welfare to cut margins, Cadbury’s believed in increasing profits by boosting the health and safety of its workers.
For example, young employees were encouraged to attend night classes, women’s and men’s swimming pools were built for recreation, and work outings to the countryside were arranged as a treat for the staff.
Each factory had properly heated dressing rooms; kitchensfor heating up food, and gardens and sports facilities for workers to take breaks in.
As the profits rolled in, the company expanded to new sites, even though that may have meant a short-term cash crunch. Cadbury’s clearly understood that a happy workforce makes good business sense.
The packing room at Bournville, circa 1903