Friday, 27 November 2015

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in 1859
by Winterhalter
Public Domain
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in May 1837, Britain had its first female sovereign since the death of Queen Anne in 1714. 
One immediate and significant result was the severing of the link with Hanover, which did not allow female succession.

Albert: uncrowned king?

In February 1840 Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The engagement had brought into the open the problems of defining the status of the consort of a reigning queen. The precedents were not happy: Philip of Spain, the husband of Mary I, had been deeply unpopular, and George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, had been a nonentity. The queen reluctantly accepted the advice of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, that Albert should not receive the title of King Consort.
It was not until 1857 that he was given the title of Prince Consort.

Victoria and Albert in 1854

Faced with the discouraging precedents, Albert had to carve out a role for himself. He proved a highly interventionist consort. Victoria's many pregnancies gave him the opportunity to take on many of her duties, and the two of them worked together at their despatches at adjoining desks. When Peel was struggling for his political life in January 1846, Albert went to the Commons to lend him moral support – retrospectively, a very partisan gesture. He was never popular, and even his key role in the Great Exhibition was controversial.

Had he lived, his political role might have created problems for the monarchy.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Rail travel in the 1830s

The National Archives have just released a fascinating document about early rail travel. View it here.

Darwin anniversary

On the Origin of Species was published on this day in 1859. Here's a great blog post from English Heritage about Down House.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The mid-Victorians: doubt

Title page of the
first edition of
Origin of Species (1859)
The mid-Victorian optimism, apparently showcased by the Great Exhibition, was offset by some troubling issues that arose in the 1850s. Key questions were raised.

  1. In view of the incompetence with which the Crimean War was waged, were the nation's institutions fit for purpose?
  2. Could Christianity retain its hold over the population in the wake of perceived working-class indifference and the findings of science?

War and nationalism

The panic of 1851: The talk of peace at the Great Exhibition was a little forced and throughout 1851 there was an undercurrent of vociferous nationalism. This nationalism came to the fore when on 2 December 1851, the anniversary of his uncle's victory at Austerlitz, Louis Napoleon, President of the Second Republic, mounted a coup, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested the Republican leaders. There was a brief war scare as the nation contemplated yet another Bonaparte in power in France. For once,  Palmerston did not reflect public opinion. He expressed approval of the coup without consulting either the Queen or his Prime Minister, and on the Queen’s insistence was dismissed on 19 December.

In the following year the Duke of Wellington died and his magnificent state funeral on 19 November 1852 reflected a general feeling that the nation had grown soft after a long peace.

The cort├Ęge passes Charing Cross
on its way to St Paul's
Lithograph by Emily S. Drummond 1852

The Crimean War: The long peace was soon to end. In 1854 Britain and France found themselves on the same side in the Crimean WarThe fundamental cause of the war lay in the fear of Russian encroachment into the declining Ottoman Empire. In January 1854 the British and French fleets entered the Black Sea. On 6 March they declared war on Russia and began the siege of the Black Sea fortress of Sevastopol.

When the war ended in 1856 it was seen as a victory for Britain and France, but it left Britain in a chastened mood.Two factors stood out: the torments of the soldiers during the harsh winter of 1854-5 and the grossly inadequate treatment of the wounded before the arrival of Florence Nightingale and her nurses at the end of 1854; and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 that was immortalised in Tennyson's poem.

William Howard Russell
the first war correspondent

The war was the first conflict to be observed by special correspondents (notably William Howard Russell of The Times) who were able to telegraph their stories back home - uncensored.
Russell observed every blunder. He sang the praises of the individual soldier (‘the thin red streak topped with a line of steel’) while accusing the commanders of incompetence. 

The war secured the return of Palmerston to office. In January 1855 the government of the Peelite Lord Aberdeen was brought down by a censure motion and on 4 February Palmerston became Prime Minister. 

Between 1855 and 1857 Dickens published Little Dorrit in serial form. It was a pessimistic novel, attacking debtors’ prisons, the class system, corrupt bankers, and government bureaucracy in the shape of the Circumlocution Office. The novel reflected the sober mood of a country that had become all too aware of the shortcomings of society.

A religious crisis?

The mid-Victorians believed that they were living through a time of religious crisis. The crisis had three aspects:

  1. denominational rivalry
  2. the absence of the working classes from church
  3. scientific discoveries that seemed to undermine a literal reading of the Genesis narrative.

'Papal aggression': The denominational rivalry surfaced in an anti-Catholic panic in 1850. Anxieties about Catholicism had ongoing in the first part of the nineteenth century. They were exacerbated by the rise in the number of Catholics caused by Irish immigration and by the High Church ('Oxford') movement in the Church of England. The belief that this was a front for Catholicism seemed to be confirmed by the  conversion of John Henry Newman in 1845. 

John Henry Newman in 1844
by Richmond

On 29 September 1850 the Pope Pius IX  issued a brief establishing thirteen new Roman Catholic dioceses (such as Westminster, Liverpool, Birmingham), the first to be seen in Britain since the Reformation. On the next day he made Dr Nicholas Wiseman a cardinal and archbishop of Westminster. On 7 October 1850 Wiseman issued a triumphalist pastoral letter ‘from out of the Flaminian Gate', announcing the hierarchy and his own elevation. He did not reckon with the outrage his letter would cause. By the end of October the press were up in arms and the bishop of London  requested his clergy to preach against ‘papal aggression’.

The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, persuaded his cabinet  to introduce the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill making all territorial titles illegal for Roman Catholic bishops. From February to July 1851 a vast amount of parliamentary time was taken up with the bill, in the course of which it was much modified.  It received the royal assent on 30 July 1851, but no-one was prosecuted under the law and it was repealed by Gladstone in 1871. In retrospect the whole affair was a storm in a teacup, but it highlighted religious anxieties and religious bigotry.

The census: On Sunday 30 March 1851 a religious census for England and Wales was undertaken, which attempted to count the number of ‘attendances’ at places of worship and the extent of the seating accommodation provided. The report generated great excitement at the time (21,000 copies were sold) and has provided great confusion ever since. In 1854 the statistician in charge, Horace Mann, published his tabulation of the results, which tried to make sense of the raw data and yet are agreed to have been unsatisfactory. This means that historians are still debating the usefulness of the census.

His formula calculated the number of attendants at worship as distinct from the total number of attendances to take account of the fact  It was agreed that some people attended worship more than once on census day but Mann was unable to find a satisfactory way of working out the relationship between the two.  

For all its methodological flaws, the census dealt two shocks to the mid-Victorian psyche. It was revealed that:
  • half the population (18 million) had stayed at home
  • just under a quarter of the population worshipped with the Church of England
Mann’s pessimistic analysis (‘a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion’) was accepted by contemporaries and has coloured much of the historical treatment. But compared with parts of continental Europe the proportion of church-goers was high.

The Index of Attendance reveals distinct regional, denominational and class differences. It is not always easy to correlate the figures with class, as the occupations of churchgoers were not included in the census. The Primitive Methodists had a large working-class following; the Congregationalists and Baptists mainly middle-class. But only the Roman Catholics attracted solid working-class support. The census showed (predictably) that they were strongest in Lancashire.

Faced with a perceived crisis of faith, Victorian church people redoubled their efforts to reach the population, in particular the apparently estranged working classes. New churches were built, Sunday schools grew in number and a new denomination, the Salvation Army, was founded to reach the parts of the population resistant to the more established churches. 

The findings of science: The early nineteenth century saw the development of the new science of geology, exemplified in the Scotsman, Charles Lyell's multi-volume Principles of Geology (1830-33).  His book put forward the idea of uniformitarianism, that the earth was shaped entirely by slow-moving forces still in operation today, acting over a very long period of time. This left no room for catastrophic events such as the biblical flood and contradicted the previously accepted view that the earth was only 6,000 years old. 

Sir Charles Lyell

Scientific debates reached a more popular audience when the Scottish journalist Robert Chambers published anonymously Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). He argued that organic forms had not been created in fixed groups at the beginning of the world but had chronologically progressed: 
‘man, considered zoologically, and without regard to the distinct character assigned to him by theology, simply takes his place as the type of all types in the animal kingdom’.
Fifteen years before Origin of Species, Chambers anticipated some of Darwin's findings. 

This is the time that the  great lizards, named dinosaurs by the anatomist, Richard Owen from the Homeric word deinos, terrible, and sauros  lizard), were entering the popular imagination. In 1850 Owen was presented to Prince Albert and served on the Great Exhibition Committee. When the Great Exhibition was relocated at Sydenham, models of dinosaurs were displayed. 

Woodcut of the famous  banquet in
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' s
tanding Crystal Palace Iguanodon

At this stage many people believed that the dinosaurs must have been exterminated in the Flood - there was great reluctance to consider that they were much more ancient.

In 1850 Alfred Tennyson eloquently expressed the anxieties aroused by these new findings in his poem In Memoriam, the first poem to mention the dinosaurs, who are described as 'dragons of the prime/That tare each other in the slime'. If they could mysteriously disappear, then could not man go the same way?

In November 1859 John Murray published Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 

Darwin in 1854
The key novelty was not so much the idea of the evolution of species, which had been hinted at already by Chambers, but the concept of natural selection. It is this that marks out Darwin from his fellow-naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. His studies in the East Indies had convinced Wallace of the fact that 'every species has come into existence coincident in both Space and Time with a Pre-existing closely allied Species'. But, as he was the first to admit, he did not come up with the concept of natural selection to explain the mechanism of evolution.

Alfred Russel Wallace
the unsung hero of evolution

In his conclusion, Darwin summed up his key argument 
'that species have changed and are slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favourable variations'. (The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle, New York and London: Everyman, 2003, p. 906)
He predicted correctly that 
'we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history'. (Ibid, p. 909)
And he hinted - though no more - at the full implications of this theory when he wrote 
'Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.'(Ibid, p. 912)
[He was to set out his theory of human evolution more explicitly in his Descent of Man (1871).]

The overall message was arguably grim, but the final paragraph was lyrical. 
'Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.' (Ibid, p. 913)

The book sold well, though not on the scale of  Vestiges of Creation or even of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help. It was very useful that Mudie’s Circulating Library agreed to distribute it. Darwin received a letter of approbation from Charles Kingsley, who was the first churchman publicly to endorse evolution, though other clergy were deeply distressed. 

In the following year a celebrated (and much mythologised) debate on Origins took place at Oxford between T. H.Huxley ('Darwin's bulldog) and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford. It is now assumed that Huxley won the debate hands-down, though contemporaries were not so sure.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
the site of the Huxley/Wilberforce debate
June 1860
Though Bishop Wilberforce remained a fierce opponent of the theory of evolution, many in the Anglican hierarchy were prepared to accept it. When Darwin died in 1882 he was buried in Westminster Abbey under the statue of Newton. In 1885  his statue was unveiled in the Natural History Museum, and the Prince of Wales was present. Darwin had become part of the Establishment!


  1. The Victorians have often been seen as complacent but they were their own severest critics. The mid-1850s saw a crisis of confidence in the ability of the British establishment to conduct a successful war.
  2. The nineteenth century has been seen as an age of religious doubt. Many, notably Darwin and George Eliot, lost their faith, but more did not. Church attendance went up after the census and Christianity showed, in the main, that it could adapt to the findings of science. The Victorian period was the last great age of faith in Britain.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The mid-Victorians: optimism and liberalism

The interior of the Crystal Palace
The early nineteenth century was marked by economic hardship and turbulent politics. The ‘Hungry Forties’ saw widespread suffering (most notably in the Irish potato famine) and political challenges from the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists. As a result of the downfall of Sir Robert Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws, the Conservatives (now known as the Protectionists) failed to form a majority government for twenty-six years.

By contrast, the period from about 1850 to the mid-1860s saw rising prosperity and calmer politics as the economy improved and working-class agitation died down. With the Conservatives divided, the dominant party were the Whigs, who renamed themselves Liberals. The Liberal party finally came together on 6 June 1859 at Willis’s Rooms (the former Almack’s Club) as a fusion of Whigs, Peelites and Radicals. The most notable Peelite recruit was William Ewart Gladstone.  

The dominance of Palmerston

The dominant politician from the early 1850s until his death in 1865 was Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), who was appointed Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s  government in 1846 and was Prime Minister from 1855 until his death ten years later. 

Palmerston was a Whig who reinforced his political allegiance when in 1839 he married the widowed Emily Cowper, born Emily Lamb, the sister of Lord Melbourne.  (She had previously been his mistress, and he may have been the father of her daughter, Emily, who married the Earl of Shaftesbury.) But he was never really a party animal, and his Whiggism was of the most conservative kind. The Reform Act of 1832 was too radical for his taste and he took care to stress its finality, proclaiming his confidence that the landed interest would continue to prevail in politics. He was convinced that 1832 had prevented social revolution and created social peace – and that this gave him the right to lecture less enlightened foreign autocrats in order to persuade them to behave like sensible Whigs.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The 1834 Poor Law and the workhouse

Eventide’ by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1878)
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 
There is a fantastic and comprehensive site (though a bit cluttered by ads) here. There is also a good summary on Wikipedia.

The Poor Law in the eighteenth century

The origins of the workhouse can be traced back to the Poor Law Act of 1576, which encouraged the setting up of Houses of Correction where the idle and disorderly could be punished and set to work. Towards the end of the seventeenth century some workhouses were started in individual parishes, and in large towns special authorities known as Guardians of the Poor, ran Houses of Industry.

In 1723 the Kentish MP, Edward Knatchbull, put forward a bill that authorised the setting up of workhouses by individual parishes or groups of parishes without the need to obtain a special Act of Parliament. This gave a considerable impetus to the spread of workhouses. 

Gilbert’s Act of 1782 aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis, with each county being divided into large districts. These unions of parishes could set up a common workhouse which was to be used only for the aged and infirm and for children, not for the able-bodied. In practice, however, workhouses were often used to relieve the able-bodied. 

The distribution of relief was carried out by a paid guardian in each parish supervised by a visitor, both officials being appointed by the justices of the peace. This represented a major shift of power from the parish to the landed gentry.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Factory reform

Female and child labour
in factories
The Industrial Revolution is associated above all with machinery. The machines undoubtedly speeded production and reduced the price of goods to the consumer. But they were expensive to install and the best way to pay for them was to keep them going for as long as possible. This led inevitably to a long-hours culture, with factories often operating fourteen hours a day six days a week. The transitions must have been painful for the first generation of industrial workers. There were also huge implications for the health of these workers.
Dean Clough Mills,
Calderdale, Yorkshire
One of the carpet
factories built 1841-69
Public domain

Industrialization is also associated with child labour though it did not invent it, as child labour had been an essential aspect of the pre-industrial economy. In the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe thought it admirable that in the vicinity of Halifax scarcely anybody above the age of 4 was idle. What was new was the element of regimentation, with children working from 12 to 14 hours a day.

The railways

"Euston Station - 1851 - from Project Gutenberg - eText 13271".
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 
See here for an excellent site and here for an even better one.

This post is heavily indebted to Christian Wolmar, Fire and Steam. How the Railways Transformed Britain (Atlantic Books, 2007) and Michael J Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (Yale, 1999); and also to Simon Garfield, The Last Journey of William Huskisson (Faber and Faber, 2002). I have not yet had time to read the latest book on this subject, Simon Bradley's The Railways: Nation, Network and People (Profile, 2015).


The idea of putting goods in wagons that were hauled by people or animals along tracks built into the road is extremely old. In Britain the history of these ‘wagon ways’ stretches back at least to the mines of the 16th century when crude wooden rails were used to support the wheels of the heavy loaded wagons and guide them up to the surface. The logical extension of the concept was to run the rails out of the mine to the nearest waterway where the ore or coal could be loaded directly onto barges. By the end of the 17th century tramways were so widely known in the north east that they were known as ‘Newcastle Roads’.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sir Robert Peel

The following two posts concentrate mainly on Sir Robert Peel's relationship with the Conservative party. Two further posts cover the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League in more depth than I am able to cover in the class. They are background reading rather than an essential part of the course.

Sir Robert Peel: (1) pressure group politics

'Sir Robert Peel', by William Pickersgill
Public domain

The age of Peel

The enfranchisement of the great industrial centres was clearly a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. In particular, the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role and did so until the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Most prime ministers sat in the Lords. There were, however, some notable exceptions.

The dominant politician of the 1830s and 1840s was Sir Robert Peel and some historians have described the period as 'the age of Peel'.  Unlike most Victorian politicians he came from a manufacturing background. His most significant achievement was to modernise the Tory party in the wake of its stunning defeat in 1832. But having built up his party, he proceeded to destroy it when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846.  

The political parties

Neither political party could ignore the implications of the Great Reform Act, and in the 1830s they reinvented themselves. The Victorian political division of Liberals and Conservatives came into being.

The Conservatives: the Tamworth Manifesto
In 1834 Peel was installed by the William IV after he sacked his Whig prime minister, Lord Melbourne, against the wishes of a large Commons majority. (This was the last time a monarch dismissed a prime minister.) In December he called a general election. During the campaign he issued an election address to his constituents, the Tamworth Manifesto. The manifesto was recognised at the time as an important constitutional innovation, the first time a prime minister had come out with a full political programme.

The manifesto was addressed to
‘that great and intelligent class of society … which is far less interested in the contentions of party, than in the maintenance of order and the course of good government’.
He accepted the Reform Act as a
‘final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question’
and declared himself in favour not of
‘following every popular whim, promising instant redress of every alleged abuse, abandoning respect for ancient rights and prescriptive authority’,
but of
‘a careful review of institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical’
‘the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.

Peel therefore promised reform in order to conserve the essentials of the constitution. It was also designed to give the Tories, increasingly calling themselves Conservatives, a broader basis of support.

In 1838 Peel told his followers at a great Conservative party banquet in Merchant Taylors Hall: 
'You are supported by the clergy, the magistracy, the yeomanry, and the gentry of the country, as well as by the great proportion of the trading community.'
However this was too optimistic; the party remained an uneasy coalition of country squires who distrusted democracy and most forms of industrial change, and the moderate reformers who occupied positions of influence. Though Conservative strength grew very substantially between 1835 and 1841, far more of this support came from rural and small-town England than from the industrial North or the rest of the country.

Sir Robert Peel: (2) triumph and disaster

Sir Robert Peel,
saviour and destroyer of his party

Peel's triumph? 

The 1840s should have been a triumphant decade for Peel. He had reformed his party after its defeat of 1832 and won the election of 1841.

There was however, a lurking problem.

  1. The Conservative vote was overwhelmingly agricultural and deeply committed to agricultural protection.
  2. Peel himself was increasingly in favour of free trade and his government's budgets saw a steady reduction in duties. Would the Corn Laws be next?

The Irish famine

It is usually believed that it was the Irish famine that converted Peel to free trade, but it is now clear that this simply provided him with an excuse. 

There are posts on this distressing and still controversial subject here and here
Scene at Skibereen, Cork, 1847

By the autumn of 1845 Ireland  was facing a great social and humanitarian catastrophe. On 15 October, Peel wrote to the Lord Lieutenant that the only practical remedy was 
‘the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food - that is the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence’.
But this was not the real issue. Cheaper bread was not the answer to the immediate problem. The Irish could not afford to buy any bread. The only thing that could save them was food relief on a massive scale. The Corn Laws were therefore an irrelevancy.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Anti-Corn Law League

A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League
in London, 1846
This movement achieved a more important place in national life than any previous radical body. Unlike the Chartists, it represented the interests of an urban middle class. Unlike them, too it was well funded and had precise and limited objectives. 

The Corn Laws were a generic term for a whole system of legislative protection of agriculture. In 1815 there was a prohibition on the import of foreign agricultural products until the price at home reached a high figure (80s a quarter in the case of wheat). In 1828 this absolute prohibition was replaced by a sliding scale of import duties. This legislation was not solely dictated by class interests – there was also the desire to be independent in time of war.

However there was a strong body of opinion opposed to legislative protection for agriculture. In 1830, Ebenezer Elliott, the Sheffield ‘Bard of Free Trade’ published his Corn Law Rhymes

At first this opposition was local and sporadic, but the situation changed in the depression of the late ‘30s when food prices rose. Elliott declared: 
It was born ‘of empty pockets in a respectable neighbourhood’. 
Manufacturing free traders could argue that the Corn Laws had damaging effects throughout the economy: British workmen would agitate for higher wages, which would be spent on food rather than on manufactured goods. The only beneficiaries would be the aristocracy.  

In 1836 an Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London, but it lacked unity of purpose and effective leadership.  However, after the 1837 election the Corn Laws moved to the top of the agenda, not because of the politicians but because, with the onset of an acute manufacturing depression, the cause attracted support in the country.  The topic was brought annually before the Commons by Charles Villiers, Radical MP for Wolverhampton. But the Whig government refused to support him. Melbourne was against any more radical change and declared ‘before God’ that to leave the whole agricultural interest without protection was 
‘the wildest and maddest scheme that has ever entered into the mind of man to conceive’. 

The Chartists

Above is a fascinating early photograph depicting the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April, 1848.

There are some useful web sites on Chartism.

In 1839 Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet Chartism stated,
‘a feeling very generally exists that the condition and disposition of the working classes is rather ominous at present; that something ought to be said and something ought to be done, in regard to it.’
The Chartist movement was the first radical working-class (as opposed to artisan) movement in Britain. It was born out of several factors:
  • The tradition of articulate politically conscious artisan radicalism in London with the encouragement of radicals among the higher classes. This can be dated back to the agitations of the 1770s and was greatly reinforced in the 1790s with the foundation of the London Corresponding Society, the publication of Rights of Man and radical post-war publications such as the Black Dwarf.
  • The increase in radical agitation in the 1820 and 30s. In 1824 a group of working men founded the London Mechanics Institute. These included Henry Hetherington (1792-1849) a radical printer and Owenite socialist and the Cornish cabinet-maker William Lovett (right) (1800-1877). At the height of the Reform Bill agitation in 1831 they founded the National Union of the Working Classes to spearhead the working-class campaign for a real reform bill.
  • The war of the unstamped. Hetherington’s most famous publication was the Poor Man’s Guardian, issued from 31 July 1831 as a periodical in defiance of the Stamp Act (thereby risking imprisonment). Shortly afterwards he was joined by a young Irish lawyer James Bronterre (‘Inebriate’) O’Brien who edited the paper and rapidly established himself as the foremost theorist of working-class radicalism. Led by the Guardian, the unstamped press flourished in London and the provinces, feeding working-class radicalism. In 1835 the stamp was reduced to 1d - this was still too expensive for working-class pockets. The battle over the stamp led to the setting up of a network of organizations and a chain of command that could be revived when the occasion required it.
  • The industrial revolution and the economic and social problems of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. The heartland of Chartism was not London (the site of much previous radicalism) but industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire, though it was a movement of industrial outworkers rather than factory operatives.
  • The ‘great Whig betrayal’. The post-1832 borough franchise disenfranchised many who had previously had the right to vote under the very varied borough franchises of the old system. Along with this went resentment at practically everything the Whigs did between 1830 and 1841, in particular the Poor Law Amendment Act.
The most important aspect of the legacy of the 1830s to Chartism was the sense of unity and purpose built up by a multiplicity of grievances that created a new, radicalized working class presence in the industrial areas. It was symbolized in the formation in June 1836 of the 'London Working Men’s Association for benefiting ... the useful classes’. Behind it lay the belief that social evils were due to bad legislation and were curable by parliamentary reform. In 1836 the LWMA published The Rotten House of Commons, being an exposition of the present state of the Franchise. Bronterre O’Brien argued:
'Knaves will tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you on the contrary, it is because you are unrepresented that you have no property. Your poverty is the result not the cause of your being unrepresented.’

The Peoples’ Charter

The idea of a people’s ‘Charter’ was rooted in the myth of Magna Carta which was held to have been a statement of popular rights against the arbitrary authority of the king. It also referred to the French Constitution of 1814. In May 1838 the People’s Charter was published, primarily the work of William Lovett and the radical tailor, Francis Place. It contained the Six Points

  1. manhood suffrage
  2. annual parliaments
  3. the ballot
  4. payment of MPs
  5. equal electoral districts
  6. the abolition of property qualifications for parliament
At a great rally in Birmingham on 6 August 1838 these arrangements were formally adopted. Similar meetings were held throughout the country. The movement also had a newspaper, the Northern Star (founded 1837), published in Leeds and edited by the demagogue Feargus O’Connor (left), a new voice in the Chartist movement. By the end of 1838 the Northern Star (priced 4½d) was selling 50,000 copies a week.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

'Straights', 'Splitters' and 'Plumpers'

I came across this account of voting before the 1832 Reform Act and thought you might enjoy it.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Great Reform Act

The House of Commons (engraving 1808)
You can listen here to a discussion of the Reform Act on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme. There are two highly readable books on this subject:
Antonia Fraser, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 (W&N, 2013)
Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (Pimlico, 2004)

After Catholic emancipation the demand for parliamentary reform became irresistible, among many sections of the middle and working classes. The Tories under the Duke of Wellington won the general election of 1830 - but only just.

The fall of Wellington's government

On 2 November 1830 Wellington, made a disastrous speech in the Lords in which he argued that the state of representation could not be improved, and that the system of electoral representation commanded the ‘entire confidence’ of the nation’. He believed that his uncompromising stand would encourage the forces of Toryism to rally around him, but he had failed to appreciate the depth of the reform movement in the country. When the government was defeated on a minor financial motion on 15 November Wellington resigned and on 16 November William IV asked the Whig leader, Earl Grey, to form a government. The new government was committed to (modest) parliamentary reform.

Charles, 2nd Earl Grey
Prime Minister 1830-4
Public Domain

On 30 December the diarist Charles Greville wrote:
 ‘I never remember times like these, nor read of such – the terror and the lively expectation which prevail and the way in which people’s minds are turned backwards and forwards, from France to Ireland then range excursively to Poland or Piedmont, and fix again on the burnings, riots and executions here.’

He was referring to the July Revolution in France, continuing unrest in Ireland and Italy, the Polish revolt against Russia, and the Swing Riots in Britain.

The bill introduced

On 1 March 1831 Lord John Russell introduced his Reform Bill to Commons. It contained three cardinal principles: the disenfranchisement of rotten boroughs, the enfranchisement of new towns, and a common £10 household franchise for the boroughs.

On 23 March the bill passed the Commons by a majority of one (302/301). This was nothing like sufficient to take up the the Lords. It would have to be put to the country.

The election of 1831

The general election of April was, in effect, a referendum on the bill - something unprecedented in British history. It showed an irresistible momentum for reform as many Tories lost their seats. Of the thirty-four English county members who had voted against Russell’s proposals only six retained their seats.  Almost all the 'popular' constituencies (those with large electorates) returned reformers - four for London. Virtually the only Tories who were returned were those for closed boroughs. Wellington became an object of hatred and abuse for sections of the public and on two occasions the windows of his London residence, Apsley House, were stoned.

The Lords reject the bill

On 24 June Russell introduced a revised reform bill. On 22 September it was sent up to the Lords. On 8 October after five days debate the Lords rejected the bill by forty-one votes (199/158). Twenty-one of the bishops voted against it; if they had voted for it, it would have passed by a majority of one.

Riots and disturbances

In the country at large, the Lords’ rejection provoked immediate and prolonged opposition. As many as 150,000 people are estimated to have attended monster meetings of the Birmingham Political Union.  There were a series of violent incidents in the country, most notably riots in Bristol and Nottingham.

The Bristol Riots, October 1831
Public Domain

The Lords reject the bill - again

On 12 December: Russell introduced his bill for the third time - with a few concessions to win over peers worried about the risk of civil war. He saved some condemned constituencies, abandoned proposals to increase the size of the Commons, and allowed resident freemen to keep their votes. This was carried on the second reading by a majority of 162.

On 13 April 1832  the Lords passed the second reading of the bill by a majority of nine (184/175). Then on 7 May in committee the Lords passed what the government saw as a wrecking amendment. On 9 May Grey and the cabinet resigned over William IV’s refusal to create enough peers to get the bill through. 

The 'Days of May'

This set off the crisis known as the ‘Days of May’.  Mass demonstrations were held in the country - Birmingham, Manchester, London. In Birmingham Thomas Attwood hinted at armed insurrection. On 12 May the radical Francis Place suggested a run on the banks: ‘To stop the duke [of Wellington], go for gold’.  This slogan was posted up on London walls within twenty-four hours.

The king tried to cobble together another Wellington administration, but Peel, remembering his difficulties over Catholic emancipation, refused to take office. He now believed that reform was inevitable but that he was not the man to bring it about. The king therefore had to send for Grey again. On 18 May he reluctantly agreed to the creation of Whig peers. 

The bill passed

This frightened the Lords into passing the bill, with only twenty-two voting against it. On 7 June it received the royal assent. The news was greeted by banquets, illuminations and ringing of church bells. In the subsequent general election, the Whigs won 483 seats, the Tories only 175.

The provisions of the act were modest. It disenfranchised the more notorious pocket boroughs and created new parliamentary constituencies, notably Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Birmingham. The right to vote in the counties was extended beyond the 40 shilling freeholders to other forms of land tenure. In the boroughs there was a uniform franchise of £10 householders.


There are two views about the Reform Act.

  1. It was the 'great Whig betrayal' that left the working classes still without a vote, even though they had been among the foremost campaigners for reform.
  2. Though a very modest reform it showed that the British constitution could be changed. Other reforms were bound to follow.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Daniel O'Connell and Catholic Emancipation

Daniel O'Connell
'the Liberator'

The ending of the Anglican monopoly

The government’s reforms highlighted the anomalies remaining in the system. The two major anomalies were the unreformed political system and religious discrimination. Since the Test and Corporation Acts of the reign of Charles II, only Anglicans had been permitted to hold public office. 

In 1824 these Acts were repealed, allowing Protestant Dissenters the same civil rights as Anglicans. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, opposed the repeal, but the ease with which the act was passed shows how society had changed. Few were prepared to defend a total Anglican monopoly. 

The Catholic Association

It was far more controversial to end the discrimination against Catholics. Anti-Catholic feeling was deep-rooted, and bills brought to allow Catholics to take their seats in Parliament were regularly defeated. In 1793 Catholic Irish 40 shilling freeholders had been given the vote. But they could only vote for Protestants.

In 1823, the Catholic barrister, Daniel O’Connell, set up the Catholic Association. The association campaigned for Catholic emancipation and also for reform of the Church of Ireland, tenants' rights, and economic development. The Association was funded by ‘the Catholic rent’, membership dues of one penny per month. The subscription was highly successful, and the Association raised a large sum of money in its first year.

The 1820s: a change in the air

Sir Robert Peel
Home Secretary from 1822

Liberal Toryism?

Lord Liverpool’s administration has traditionally been divided into two unequal periods:

  1. a reactionary phase 1812-1820 symbolised by Sidmouth and the Six Acts
  2. a shorter ‘liberal’ phase associated with the ‘second-wave’ ministers: William Huskisson, Frederick Robinson, Robert Peel.

This is now seen as an over-simplification. But there can be little doubt that the nation was changing. In March 1820 Robert Peel wrote to a friend:
‘Do you not think that there is a feeling becoming daily more general and more confirmed in favour of some undefined change in the mode of governing the country?’
The Whig politician, Henry Broughham said
‘the schoolmaster had been abroad in the land’.
The Mechanics Institute movement, the brainchild of two Glasgow professors, John Anderson and George Birkbeck spread education among working men. (The Manchester Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1825 is depicted right.) Henry Brougham’s Practical Observations upon the Education of the People sold 50,000 copies in a few weeks and quickly went through twenty editions. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (founded by Brougham in 1826) provided them with cheap information. 

The Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill was part of this ‘march of intellect’. Benthamite ideas were advocated in the Westminster Review (1824). The Unitarian W. J. Fox remarked in the first number of the Westminster that
'the public was everywhere coming into its own’.
In 1826 the Benthamites founded the University of London, which became University College, London. (Bentham bequeathed his body to UCL and it is still on display there.) The members of the Liverpool government were largely hostile to the secular philosophy and utilitarian curriculum of the university, but they could not ignore the new currents of the age.

Queen Caroline

Queen Caroline of Brunswick

For most of 1820 the nation, still reeling from the Peterloo Massacre and the Cato Street conspiracy, was transfixed by the saga of George IV's estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The essayist, William Hazlitt, described the affair as
‘the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house and cottage in the kingdom.’
This post gives the background to the affair and explores its repercussions and implications in more detail than I am able to do in class.  

The Regency

In November 1810 a courtier was reporting that ‘the personal popularity of the King [George III] is as great as it can possibly be’. But the death of his daughter Princess Amelia a week later was one of the events that helped to send him over the edge. When he was hit by his final bout of insanity (if that is what it was) in 1811, the public reaction was one of sympathy – only the radicals sneered at his plight. At the end of the year the Prince of Wales was confirmed as Regent. In February 1812 he received full powers, and now had all the prerogatives of a king.

The Regent was already unpopular. The breakdown of his marriage was an open scandal, and on the whole the public sympathised with Caroline. His unpopularity became a party-political matter when on becoming Regent he abandoned his previous Whig allies in 1812, stuck with his Tory ministers, and seemed to be condemning the Whigs to permanent opposition. From this time onwards, the Whigs became Caroline's champions.

The Peterloo massacre

This post owes a great deal to my friend Robert Poole's brilliant article, ‘”By the Law or the Sword”: Peterloo Revisited', History, 91 (2006): 254-276. The Wikipedia article on Peterloo is also extremely good and takes account of modern research including Poole's article.

There is an interesting discussion of Peterloo in Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme on Radio 4.

In 1819 radical reformers made serious attempts to stage a series of mass demonstrations.

In January there was a parliamentary reform meeting of about 10,000 at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester at which Henry Hunt was the principal speaker. Banners bearing the mottoes ‘Rights of Man’, ‘Universal Suffrage’ and ‘No Corn Laws’ were displayed.

The authorities were deeply alarmed. On 2 March, following reports that radical leaders were arming themselves with pikes, Henry Hobhouse, the permanent undersecretary at the Home Office, wrote to the Oldham magistrates that the evidence confirmed the Home Secretary, Sidmouth’s, opinion that
‘your Country will not be tranquillized, until Blood shall have been shed either by the Law or the Sword.’ (Quoted Poole, 265).
In June there were a series of meetings in the industrial districts of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands and the west of Scotland. These peaceful meetings pounded the same theme: the sufferings of the people were due to the inadequacies and extravagance of government, and the remedy lay in annual parliaments and manhood suffrage.

The problems of the peace: Britain in turmoil

Problems of the peace

The radical, Samuel Bamford (seen here in his respectable old age) wrote: 
While the laurels were yet cool on the brows of our victorious soldiers ... the elements of convulsion were at work among the masses of our labouring population.
The immediate post-war years, 1815-21, proved as difficult as any during wartime itself, as unemployment and high bread prices coincided with renewed political discontent.
  1. Adjustments had to be made in line with reduced demand for products associated with the war effort: provisions, timber, clothing, iron, leather, canvas, rope.
  2. During the wars the armed forces of Britain had been increased to 400,000 men (with as many again in the reserves) compared with about 60,000 in 1791. Rapid demobilisation put nearly a third of a million ex-servicemen on the already glutted labour market. This depressed wage levels, added to unemployment, increased the burden of local taxation and ensured that the discontented would be led by those with military experience.
  3. Added to this came the strains of technological redundancy. The number of shearing frames in Yorkshire had increased in the past decade from under a hundred to over 1,400 and in October 1817, 3,625 croppers petitioned Parliament for help. In Lancashire the number of handloom weavers continued to rise while their wages continued to fall.

The Corn Law

Even before Napoleon’s final defeat, the government of Lord Liverpool had bowed to massive agricultural pressure. In 1813 an abundant harvest sent prices tumbling. Peace in 1814 brought foreign grain imports with the promise of more to come. The government came under strong pressure from the landed interest , which argued that a Corn Law was justified in the interests of national security and domestic stability:
  1. Britain might once again need to maximise the domestic supply of foodstuffs to counteract the effects of blockade.
  2. Agriculture was the largest single employer of labour and was already subject to rural depopulation.
In February 1815 a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by the landed interest passed a law allowing the free importation of foreign corn only when the price of home-grown corn had reached the price of 80s.  a quarter. This decision -together with a run of bad harvests - helped ensure that the average price of corn was higher in the years 1810-19 than at any other time during the whole of the nineteenth century.

Britain in 1815

David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the
Despatch from Waterloo
With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 Britain emerged the victor after a war of twenty-two years. The census of 1811 had revealed a population of 17. 8 million and this population was rising rapidly, presenting the nation with both challenges and opportunities. 

Britain comprised three nations: England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The union of the English and Scottish Parliaments in 1707 had created the nation of Great Britain. The Union of the British and Irish Parliaments in 1801 had created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In England and Wales and in Ireland the Church of England was the established Church. In Scotland the established Church was the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Anglican (Church of England) bishops sat in the House of Lords, though the representatives of other denominations did not.

Britain was the only industrialised nation, though this industrialisation was far from complete. The population was shifting dramatically from the south to the north, the Midlands, and the central belt of Scotland. The 1851 census would reveal that the majority of people were living in rural rather than urban areas. Industrialisation was focused on textiles, especially cotton, powered by steam derived from coal. Goods were transported from one part of the country to another by sea, canals, and the river systems. The strength of the Royal Navy created safe shipping routes that enabled the importing and exporting of goods and raw materials. 

Britain was also the greatest imperial power the world had ever seen.  The British Empire now comprised Canada, many Caribbean islands and a large area of India. From the Napoleonic wars she had gained Trinidad, Ceylon, and the Cape of Good Hope. The colonies supplied raw materials such as sugar and tea and provided a market for British goods.

Britain was far from being a democracy, but the building blocks of democracy were already in place and Britons prided themselves on being the freest people in the world. With the exception of a few restrictions, the press was free, and often vociferous in its criticisms of the government. The judiciary was largely independent. However, the monarch (the Prince Regent in 1815) retained many prerogative powers, and politics was dominated by the aristocracy, the owners of the great landed estates. Many members of the House of Commons owed their position to peers. The Church of England possessed considerable monopoly powers and neither Protestant Dissenters nor Roman Catholics could be members of Parliament. 

This meant that at a time of economic dynamism and imperial expansion, Britain’s political structure was locked into that of an earlier period. With only about 3 per cent of the population having the vote, most people were excluded from the political process. From the time of the French Revolution, radical agitation had been a threat to existing power structures and this radicalism was to pose an increasing threat in the harsh conditions of the years after Waterloo. The radical, Samuel Bamford, was to write: 
‘While the laurels were yet cool on the brows of our victorious soldiers ... the elements of convulsion were at work among the masses of our labouring population.’