The Age of Reform: 1822 – 1848

by Jean Mason

The death of Castlereagh (a particularly unpleasant death since he committed suicide with a penknife) introduced a period of political instability. The reactionary Tories were in retreat and the more liberal George Canning became the most important political figure. Canning, the son of an actress, was not a traditional tory, but rather one of the talented men whom the party often made use of. The most important reforms were carried out by the young Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel (the younger) who began the process of reforming the draconian penal laws that had punished so many minor crimes with death. Another reform repealed the Combination Acts which had prevented working men from unionizing and had inhibited their political activity. Canning’s death in 1827 left a political vacuum which was filled by a Tory administration headed by the Duke of Wellington. His government faced the first of the century’s many Irish crises. Under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish organized to demand Catholic Emancipation, that is the right of Catholics to sit in parliament and to hold other governmental offices. Although his party was adamently opposed to such a major change in in the constitution, Wellington, in the interests of preserving the peace, passed the reform, with the support of the Whigs. Then, in 1830, George IV died and new parliamentary elections were held. Candidates who favored a reform of the political system won the majority of the contested seats, and Wellington resigned in favor of the Whig leader, Earl Grey.

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The issue of reforming the the electoral system had first been broached in the late 18th century. Representation in the House of Commons no longer reflected the realities of British life. The south and west were grossly overrepresented while many of the new industrial cities of the north sent no members to the House of Commons. Moreover, the right to vote in parliamentary elections was anything but uniform. In some places, almost all men could vote; in others, the so-called rotten boroughs, a single man could determine who served in parliament. Almost everywhere, landed wealth was grossly overrepresented at the expense of the newly important wealth based on commerce and industry.

The early attempts at reform had been stymied by the social and political reaction that had followed the French Revolution, but by 1830 it was clear that the system had to bend if it were not to break. It took two years, extensive popular agitation, two elections, and the threat to create enough peers to get the bill through the Lords, but in 1832 the first major change in the British political system became law. It disenfranchised the rotten boroughs, standardized the rights to the franchise and more than doubled the number of voters. The British middle class were now participants in electoral politics.

The next several years saw other innovative laws passed. The first effective Factory Act was passed, which limited the employment of children in textile factories and provided an enforcement mechanism. The Poor Law was amended, establishing poor houses, ending the practice of “outdoor relief” and prohibiting the supplementing of wages from the poor rates. A start was made on providing government funds for education and acts were passed to improve health and sanitation in Britain’s growing cities. In short, the government began to take steps, however halting, to deal with the problems of the new industrial society.

Economic & Social Developments:

The industrialization of Britain continued apace during these years. Perhaps the most significant innovation was the development of the railways. Between their beginnings in the 1820s and 1850, the country was crisscrossed by tracks and suddenly, journeys which had taken days now took hours. The demand for iron to construct the engines and tracks and coal to fuel the trains led to the expansion of mining. The metallurgical industries grew. And the cheaper transport reduced still further the cost of manufactured goods.

But the new capitalistic society had costs as well as benefits. And the working class mostly bore these costs. Hours were long, wages were low, and living conditions were abysmal. Moreover, the new economy was subject to recessions when thousands were thrown out of work and forced into the hated poor houses. Indeed, there were cyclical bad times in 1837, 1842 and 1848.

In the face of these problems there emerged the first organized working class movement, Chartism. The Chartist solution to working class problems was a further reform of the political system: universal manhood suffrage, secret ballot, equal electoral districts, no property requirements for MPs and the payment of members of parliament so working class representatives could sit in the House of Commons. The Chartists gathered millions of signatures on their petitions, but the government simply ignored their demands and viewed the movement with great suspicion.

More successful was the middle class movement that argued that the solution to hard times was the repeal of those laws which protected British agriculture and drove up the price of bread. The Anti-Corn Law League put continued pressure on the government and finally, in 1846 the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws. His actions split his party and changed the direction of politics.

The Potato Famine:

One factor that led Peel to act against the wishes of his party was the dreadful famine that wracked Ireland in 1845 and 1846. It has always been Ireland’s misfortune to be near neighbor to an expansionistic and ruthless England. The first English excursion into Ireland came as early as the 12th century as ambitious and greedy Norman barons sought land and power in the neighboring Ireland. Many English kings campaigned in Ireland, but until Tudor times, English control did not extend much beyond the so-called Pale of Dublin, although the English king called himself the king of Ireland.

However, the situation changed during the 16th century. England became a Protestant country while Ireland remained devotedly Catholic. And a Catholic Ireland was a threat to England. Her enemies could use Ireland as a staging ground for an attack on England, as Philip of Spain tried to do more than once. Thus, at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, she sent troops to break the independent power of the Irish chieftains. James I sought to consolidate his control over the troublesome island by settling Scots Protestants in Ulster, dispossesing the Irish much as the English would later dispossess the Indians. The governance of the country was placed in the hands of reliable Protestants, and a more greedy and grasping group would be hard to find.

But the really bad times would come during the Civil War and in its aftermath. The Catholic Irish rose against their Protestant rulers, claiming they were acting in support of Charles I. After Charles had been deposed, Cromwell took his seasoned troops to Ireland and reasserted English dominance. His utter ruthlessness toward the Irish was so great that for more than a century, Irish mothers would threaten their children with Cromwell to make them behave. He also settled large numbers of his soldiers on seized Irish lands.

The final tragedy for the Irish came in 1690. After the Glorious Revolution, the Irish Catholics rallied to James II, providing him with soldiers to win back his kingdoms. James was ignominiously defeated by William III at the Battle of the Boyne and henceforward, Ireland was treated as an occupied enemy.

A myriad of penal laws were passed. The practice of the Catholic religion was made illegal and priests were subject to arrest. Catholic fathers were prevented from passing their lands on to their Catholic sons. Catholics were barred from the professions and were denied access to education. Most land passed into the hands of Englishmen, most of whom were absentee landowners who demanded high rents from their tenants and did little or nothing to improve their properties. Moreover, the English parliament passed laws (or forced the Irish parliament to pass acts) which severely limited Irish economic development. For example, a flourishing woolen industry was destroyed at the behest of the English manufacturers. (It should be noted that the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians were treated no better than their Catholic counterparts. As a result, large numbers emigrated to the American colonies where they and their descendants became some of the staunchest opponents of British rule.)

Yet despite all this persecution, the Irish population continued to grow, until it had risen from perhaps 3 million in 1700 to around 8 million in 1840. The reason? The potato. The potato, introduced from America, is a marvelous source of food. It has all sorts of valuable vitamins, grows readily in a cool, damp climate, and can be grown in large quantities on a small piece of ground. The Irish peasants, on their small holdings, grew grain to pay their rents and taxes, but depended for their own sustenance on the lowly potato.

When the potato crop failed in 1845, the result was famine, a famine of such mammouth proportions as had not been known in western Europe for centuries. At least a million Irish died of starvation or starvation induced diseases and another million emigrated. And neither the government in London nor the absentee landlords did anything much to alleviate the crisis. Indeed, many landlords continued to insist on receiving their rents, so at the same time that Irish men, women and children were dying of hunger, grain continued to be shipped to England. (In fact, the Irish had become so dependent on the potato that many lacked the facilites to mill the grain or bake the bread.)

The Irish Famine ended any chance that there might have been for peaceful coexistence between England and Ireland within a United Kingdom. The grudging accomodations that the British government had made to the Irish paled before the failure of that government to act effectively to deal with the crisis. The famine made the final break between Britain and Ireland inevitable, although it would take decades and still more martyrs to achieve an independent Ireland.

Changes in Morals & Manners:

By 1848, that complex of ideas, ideals and behavior that we call Victorianism had already come into being. Victorianism placed great emphasis on moral behavior, on regular religious observance, on the virtues of personal honesty and integrity, on the value of hard work, and on an ideal of womanhood that stressed the purity and indeed, asexuality or the female gender. These standards, while clearly most prevalent in the emerging middle classes, were nonetheless widely practiced both among the aristocracy and the upper working class. And if there was more than a little hypocrisy practiced, the fact remains that the prevailing ethos was very different from that of the late eighteenth century or even the first two decades of the nineteenth.

From whence came this change? Why, especially, did the upper classes abandon their free and easy ways and adopt the attitudes of the once despised middle class? There were a number of contributing factors.

First, the English aristocracy could not ignore the lessons of the French Revolution. The unhappy fate of their French counterparts was not lost on them. The selfishness, irresponsibility and frivolity of the French aristos had clearly contributed to their violent overthrow (although the English aristocrats had never been quite as selfish, irresponsible or frivolous as the French.) Thus, even before Victorianism was in full flood, there was a certain degree of modifying of extreme behavior. (Remember how often the older characters in regency novels remark on the namby-pamby attitudes of the younger generation. The excesses of the 18th century upper classes already were out of fashion.)

A second ingredient (although not unrelated to the above) was the emergence of the new religious sensibility within the ranks of the Anglicans known as Evangelicalism. The Anglican church in the 18th century was almost devoid of religious meaning. Its bishops were appointed because of their political loyalties. Its livings were at the disposal of landowners who used them to take care of younger sons or old tutors with little thought to the ability of the appointees to serve the spiritual needs of the parishoners.

It was the failure of the Anglican establishment to meet the spiritual needs of ordinary Englishmen that led to the growth of Methodism and the greater prominence of the dissenting sects. In the late 18th and early 19th century there emerged a reform movement within the Anglican church who sought to reverse this trend. Led by men like William Wilberforce and women like Hannah More, and a growing force at Oxford and Cambridge, these evangelicals sought to win back both the upper and the lower classes to true religious beliefs. They enjoyed increasing success, especially as religion was presented as an antidote to the dangers of revolution. While far from a perfect institution, the Anglican church by the 1830s was much more likely to have an educated and pious pastor who could and did uphold higher standards of behavior.

Finally, in detailing the origins of Victorianism, we cannot discount the role of Victoria herself, and especially of her husband, Prince Albert. Victoria was strictly raised and taught to despise the free and easy ways of her uncles. She was a bit of a prig and was determined to have a court that was free of scandal. Her attitudes were reinforced when she married Prince Albert. Albert had been raised by strictly pious parents. He had been educated in the German fashion, with an emphasis on more modern subjects than was common in British universities. He was a serious-minded young man, with high moral standards which his wife came to share. Thus, to enjoy a position at the royal court, one had to at least appear to be above reproach. This was a significant incentive for members of the aristocracy to abandon the lifestyle that had been common among their predecessors.


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