Sunday, 20 September 2015

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.

Free trade

The government was inexorably, if inconsistently, moving towards a policy of free trade.  As far back as 1812, Lord Liverpool had said,
‘the less commerce and manufactures were meddled with the more likely they were to prosper’.
On 26 May 1820 he delivered a speech extolling the virtues of free trade and in 1824-5 Frederick Robinson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, lowered excise duties on a wide range of consumer goods.

The liberalisation of the economy threw into stark relief the anomaly of the Corn Laws, but the power of the landed interest was such that it could not be attacked frontally. The first important modification of the Corn Laws did not occur until 1828 - this was a clumsy sliding-scale of duties which tapered to nominal rates when wheat prices reached 73s – the sum agreed on was a compromise.

Home Office reforms

In 1822 Sir Robert Peel replaced the reactionary Sidmouth as Home secretary. His reforms have been seen as setting the tone for ‘Liberal Toryism’, but they were for the most part uncontroversial, resulting from a parliamentary committee of enquiry set up in 1819 under pressure from the Whig reformer Sir James Mackintosh.

In 1823 the number of capital statutes which lingered anachronistically on the statute book was reduced, not because the government had become more soft-hearted but because they were ineffectual. The Gaols Act of 1823 ordered local magistrates to make regular prison inspections and to report to the Home Office. This laid the foundations for a more positive and humane approach to penal policy but it was not a departure - it was based on the efforts of the Mackintosh committee. Another Act of 1823 abolished the religious penalties for suicide by repealing the custom of profane burial, though this law had not been applied for decades. 

1824 saw the repeal of the Combination Acts. This was not really an act in favour of trade unions - it was inspired by the belief that the Combination Acts had not worked and that if only combinations were made legal, they would diminish in numbers. But instead, in the boom conditions, new trade unions grew. In 1825 a new Combination Act limited the ability of unions to strike and imposed severe penalties for intimidation.

The Metropolitan Police

The Metropolitan Police Act of June 1829 set up a new police organisation under the immediate supervision of two magistrates. The area under their jurisdiction extended from Brentford to Greenwich. The City was left to its own authorities. The new magistrates, subject to the confirmation of the Home Secretary, were given wide powers of recruitment, training and discipline.

The first Metropolitan Police patrols went on to the streets on 29th September 1829 three months after the Metropolitan Police Act after much planning and other work performed by the first joint Commissioners. Colonel Sir Charles Rowan brought military experience to bear and took responsibility for much of the early leadership of the Force until 1850. The Force was initially based at Scotland Yard and 5 watch houses, with a plan to extend to comprise 17 Districts, each with 165 men.

The Act was passed because the capital was felt to be a special case. However many parliamentarians opposed the reforms as ‘unEnglish’ and criticized the uniformed police as a military body (‘gendarmes’). Those who acquiesced in the appearance on London’s streets of blue-uniformed and truncheon ‘Peelers’ would have been mortified if they had known that they were the advance guard of a professional police force within 30 years.

An 1850s 'Peeler'

There is no easy narrative of progress, and it is doubtful whether the metropolitan police provided overnight a new level of efficiency.


Overall, it is fair to describe the policy of the government post 1822 as enlightened conservatism. They wanted to end discontent and amend abuses, but also to preserve the main features of the 18th century constitution. This holding operation was becoming less and less feasible.

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. How long could this discrimination hold?