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.