|David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the|
Despatch from Waterloo (1822)
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.’