Reform in England, 1820-1850

The years immediately following the peace settlement of 1815 are known as the restoration era. However, it was impossible to restore the old regime. The revolutionary dreams of individual liberty, rep­resentative government, and national fulfillment had been momen­tarily defeated but not destroyed. Technology had begun the slow but accelerating alteration of economic activity that would in turn trans­form the social and political structure of Europe.

Thus, from 1820 to 1848, the societies of western Europe faced the task of adapting to these new forces. Where history, culture, institutional framework, and intellectual acceptance permitted, the result was evolutionary change; where these factors stood in the way of adaptation, the result was revolution. Reform proved the exception to the rule of revolution in the decades from 1820 to 1848.

Reform in England, 1820-1850

Despite widespread discontent and sporadic outbursts of violence, the English political system weathered the crisis that followed peace in 1815. By 1820 the long-standing Tory establishment seemed solidly re-entrenched. However, during the Napoleonic wars, England had begun a profound transformation into an urbanized industrial society. Major population shifts coincided with the emergence of an indus­trialized working class concentrated in the Midlands, an upper class of industrialists, and a middle class of managers. These groups chall­enged the old landed and commercial interests for a proportional share of power. The victory of reform instead of the outbreak of revolution can be credited in large measure to England’s parliamen­tary tradition and the good sense of the ruling class.

the balance of power

The Tory Establishment. A new outlook was clearly evident among the Tories who continued to hold power after the accession of George IV in 1820. The suicide of the able but detested foreign secretary Castlereagh led to a reorganization of the cabinet in 1822. The new ministers included Foreign Secretary George Canning, Home Secre­tary Robert Peel, and President of the Board of Trade William Huskisson. All sympathized with England’s industrial interests and recognized the need to reform.

William Huskisson PC (11 March 1770 – 15 September 1830)

William Huskisson PC (11 March 1770 – 15 September 1830)

Huskisson labored to cut through the web of archaic tariff legis­lation. By moving toward free trade, he enhanced England’s position as banker and mercantile carrier while at the same time stimulating the import of raw materials vital to England’s burgeoning economy. The major stumbling blocks to these reforms were the great land­owners, Whigs and Tories alike, who insisted on the maintenance of the Corn Laws. With the support of Peel, in 1824 Huskisson was able to carry through the abolition of the Combination Acts, passed in 1799 during the revolutionary scare, which had outlawed labor unions. Although unions were legalized, a rash of worker agitation brought crippling restrictions on their activity for the next decade.

Home Secretary Robert Peel worked to renovate the legal system. He upgraded the judicial process and was primarily responsible for abolishing capital punishment for over a hundred minor crimes. In this regard Peel is probably best remembered for the organization of the London police force, whose officers came to be known as Bobbies, after their founder.

Victorian bobbies with horse

Victorian bobbies with horse

This liberalized outlook was reflected in the foreign policy of George Canning, who withdrew England from Metternich’s repressive congress system. Englishmen sympathized with the Greek patriots who fought for independence from Ottoman control, and it was clearly in the interests of mercantile England to support the movement toward in­dependence in Central and South America.

However, Britain’s liberal outlook should not be exaggerated. Close to home she maintained an iron grip upon Ireland, where nationalist demands were being renewed. The most renowned spokesman of Irish opinion at the time was Daniel O’Connell, who despite legal prohibitions stood for Parliament in 1828. Backed by his Catholic Association, O’Connell presented the Tories with the alternative of civil war or reform. Even Wellington shrank before the specter of domestic bloodshed. Guided by his grudging leadership, Parliament first repealed the Test Act (1828) and then voted full emancipation (1829), thus allowing Catholics the right to sit in Parliament and hold all but the highest offices of the realm.

Daniel O'Connell giving speech

Daniel O’Connell is giving a speech

Parliamentary Reform. The Tories, as part of the landed aristocracy, exercised their political control primarily through the House of Com­mons, which had emerged as the dominant legislative body during the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century. The landed oligarchy, representing both Whigs and Tories, had managed to silence demands for legislative reform both immediately before and after the French Revolution. In 1830 agitation for reform began to crest again, and the rumbling was made more ominous by the wave of revolutions that inundated Europe in midsummer.

At the heart of the controversy was borough (town) representation. Every incorporated borough had the right to be represented in the Commons, but since no town charters had been issued in over three hundred years, the new urban population in the Midlands was un­represented, while small villages, particularly in the south and south­west, held the majority of borough seats. The least populous of these were known as rotten, or pocket, boroughs because they contained so few voters that they were in the pocket of local magnates or wealthy boroughmongers. Leading the demand for reform were wealthy industrialists and the urban middle class, who in turn found support among the urban working classes.

Lord Grey (left) checks the King during the Reform Bill controversy (from Doyle’s Political Sketches, 1832)

Lord Grey (left) checks the King during the Reform Bill controversy (from Doyle’s Political Sketches, 1832)

The Whigs took up the banner of reform and carried it to victory in the general election of 1830. Lord John Russell, floor leader for the government of Prime Minister Earl Grey, introduced a parlia­mentary reform bill in March 1831. The action precipitated a con­stitutional crisis. For a year and a half, the struggle raged in Parliament and on several occasions spilled over into the streets. The confrontation reached a climax in March 1832, when Grey wrung from the king a pledge to pack the House of Lords with Whig peers if the recalcitrant Tories refused to accept reform. The Tories ac­quiesced, and the bill became law.

The Great Reform Bill is a milestone in modem British history. The struggle for its passage reconfirmed the supremacy of the Com­mons in the governmental structure. Further, it established the principle that population patterns should form the basis for repre­sentation in Commons. The rotten boroughs were for the most part abolished and the seats distributed primarily among the new cities of the north and the Midlands. This is not to say that the bill brought democracy. Only those in the boroughs dwelling in homes worth an annual rental of ten pounds sterling received the vote. Thus the middle class and the skilled artisans won the victory, while the unskilled of both town and county remained disfranchised. However, with the adoption of the principle, the democratic spirit slowly prevailed in the subsequent reform acts of 1867, 1884, 1918, and 1928.

The House of Commons

The House of Commons

The Wave of Whig Reform. The Whigs did not stop with parlia­mentary reform. In 1833, to the consternation of both the West Indian sugar magnates and South African farmers, the Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Many people had also been stirred by the de facto slavery in English mills and mines. Under Lord Ashley’s leadership, Parliament passed a Factory Act in 1833 regulating working conditions of women and children in textile mills. This act was also a milestone, although enforcement was often very lax. All the “reforms” were not so benevolent toward the under­ privileged. The Poor Law of 1834 in effect made poverty a crime. To discourage idleness and to relieve the burden on parish taxpayers, the act established workhouses that were virtual prisons, with rules designed to make the impoverished inmates as miserable as possible. The pages of Dickens’s Oliver Twist eloquently testify to their stark success. With a last burst of energy in 1835, the Whigs carried through the Municipal Corporations Act, which ended the govern­mental monopoly of a few families in each town and created a hierarchy of officials elected by the taxpayers and responsible for all municipal utilities and services. The beneficial results of this bill were much more quickly felt by the average Englishman than were those of the Great Reform Bill.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria and the Victorian Compromise. Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 upon the death of her uncle William IV. Her reign, which lasted until 1901, marked a period of political and economic dominance in European and world affairs unprecedented since the time of Louis XIV. Victoria and her consort Prince Albert set the tone of industrious respectability that characterizes the age. During the first thirty years of her reign, Victoria presided over a political and social arrangement known as the Victorian Compromise. Under its unwritten terms, the old landed aristocracy accepted the industrial middle class as partners in government, and both agreed to block any demands by the lower classes for further reform. The regime stood for free enterprise, toleration, and law and order.

Chartism. The Victorian Compromise did not remain unchallenged for long. The Great Reform Bill did nothing for the working classes that had supported it. In their misery and disillusionment, they turned to political action on their own. William Lovett, Francis Place, and Feargus O’Connor were the most influential leaders of what came to be known as the Chartist movement. In 1836 Lovett founded the London Workingman’s Association to rally the working class into a unified political action. In 1838 Francis Place drafted the People’s Charter, which became the movement’s basic program. Its six essen­tial demands were; (1) universal manhood suffrage, (2) the secret ballot, (3) equal electoral districts, (4) abolition of property qualification for members of Parliament, (5) pay for members of Parliament, (6) annual election of Parliament.

Chartists' Riot

Chartists’ Riot

Although many Chartists had faith in the reformist tactics of Lovett and Place, Feargus O’Connor doubted that the ruling class would accept change without a fight. Through the columns of his paper, the Northern Star, he advocated the use of force if the Parliament failed to respond to persuasion. The Chart­ists held a national convention in 1838 and presented Parliament with the charter, supported by a petition bearing several hundred thou­sand signatures. The Commons received both but rejected the char­ter’s specific planks. Division between the moral suasion and physical force factions robbed the movement of its momentum at this critical juncture. The charter was revived in 1842 and again in the revolutionary year of 1848 but to no avail. Soon afterwards the movement disintegrated.

'Chartists at Church', by H. M. Page

‘Chartists at Church’, by H. M. Page

Chartism was not a total failure. It had raised significant questions concerning representative government and provided a program of re­forms. Although the Commons refused to accept the charter whole­ sale in 1839, it accepted its demands piecemeal. By 1918 Britain had adopted every plank of the charter except annual elections of Parliament.

Anti-Corn Law League. The demise of the Chartist movement may be ascribed in part to the success of the Anti-Com Law League in diverting middle-class attention from the political issues raised by the Chartists to an economic issue much nearer their hearts.

In 1815 the Parliament had adopted a high wheat tariff to protect landowners. from Continental grain imports. Although the law had been only moderately successful in protecting farmers, it was a source of grievance to the working poor. Free traders, including William Cobbett and John Bright, objected to it in principle as standing in the way of British industrial well-being.

'Advocates for reform shewing the White Feather!!' by George Cruikshank, 1817, in which Cobbett clutching his 'Register' urges Hunt to flee

‘Advocates for reform shewing the White Feather!!’ by George Cruikshank, 1817, in which Cobbett clutching his ‘Register’ urges Hunt to flee

The Anti-Corn Law League was organized in 1839 in the wake of a bad harvest and rising bread prices. The “hungry forties” in Eng­ land were capped in 1845 by the Irish potato famine and the reality of widespread starvation. Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel then rose above his partisan position and at the peril of his career pushed through a repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The repeal was a victory for the principle of free trade, which became a pillar sup­ porting the Victorian Compromise, although subsequent good har­vests had a greater immediate effect in reducing bread prices. The repeal eased social tension and demonstrated the ability of English conservatives to bend before the gale of popular outrage, a virtue often lacking among their Continental counterparts. Despite the fail­ure of Chartism, the league had also demonstrated the power of national organizations to influence parliamentary action. At mid-century a relatively affluent and stable Britain could view the European revolutionary upheavals as an interested but unscathed observer.

by Charles A. Endress, ‘History of Europe 1500 – 1848