Britain In The 19th Century

By Tim Lambert

The early 19th century was an era of political and social unrest in Britain. In the early 19th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were active in politics. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They gained their name because so many of them lived in Clapham.

Then on 11 May 1812, a man named John Bellingham shot Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. He was the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated. Bellingham was a lone madman but in 1820 there was a plot to kill the whole cabinet. Arthur Thistlewood led the Cato Street Conspiracy but the conspirators were arrested on 23 February 1820. Thistlewood and 4 of his companions were hanged.

Meanwhile, in 1811-1816 textile workers in the Midlands and the north of England broke machines, fearing they would cause unemployment. The wreckers were called Luddites and if caught they were likely to be hanged. In March 1817 textile workers from Manchester tried to march to London to petition the Prince Regent. They were called blanketeers because many of them carried blankets. However, even though the march was peaceful the blanketeers were stopped by soldiers at Stockport.

Then on 16 August 1819, a crowd of about 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear a man named Henry Hunt. Even though the crowd was unarmed and peaceful the authorities sent in soldiers. As a result, 11 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. Afterward, people called the event ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ in a grim mockery of Waterloo.

In 1830 farm laborers in Kent and Sussex broke agricultural machinery fearing it would cause unemployment. The riots were called the Swing Riots because a man named Captain Swing supposedly led them. As a result of the riots, 4 men were hanged and 52 were transported to Australia. In 1834 6 farm labourers in Tolpuddle, Dorset tried to form a trade union. However, they were prosecuted for making illegal oaths. (Not for forming a union, which was legal). They were sentenced to transportation to Australia. The case caused an outcry and they returned to Britain in 1838.

In 1822 a Tory government was formed which introduced some reforms. At that time you could be hanged for over 200 offences. (Although the sentence was often commuted to transportation). In 1825-1828 the death penalty was abolished for more than 180 crimes. Peel also formed the first modern police force in England in London in 1829. The police were called ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ after him.

From 1828 to 1830 the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was prime minister. He introduced the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829). Since the Reformation Catholics had been unable to become MPs or to hold public office. The Act restored those rights to them. However, Wellington was strongly opposed to any change to the electoral system.

At that time there were two types of constituency, country areas and towns or boroughs. In the countryside, only landowners could vote. In boroughs, the franchise varied but was usually limited. However, the constituencies had not been changed for centuries and they no longer reflected the distribution of the population. Industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester did not have MPs of their own. On the other hand, some settlements had died out but they were still represented in parliament! In ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs there might be only one or two voters!

In the early 19th century there were increasing demands for reforms. Most people wanted constituencies distributed more fairly and they also wanted the franchise extended but Wellington’s party, the Tories, resisted. However, in 1830, the Whigs formed a government and they tried to introduce reform. The House of Commons eventually voted for a reform bill but the House of Lords rejected it. The King, William IV, warned that he would create more peers, who favored the bill unless the Lords agreed to accept it. Eventually, the House of Lords backed down and passed the Great Reform Bill. It received the royal assent on 7 June 1832.

The franchise was only extended slightly but much more importantly the new industrial towns were now represented in parliament. Before 1832 Britain was ruled by an oligarchy of landowners. After 1832 the urban middle class had an increasing say. However, the working class was excluded from the reforms. From 1838 a working-class protest movement called the Chartists was formed. (They were named after their People’s Charter). The Chartists had several demands. They wanted all men to have the vote. Furthermore, at that time you had to own a certain amount of property to become an MP. Chartists wanted the property qualification abolished. They also wanted MPs to be paid. Chartists also wanted all constituencies to be equal in size and they wanted the voting to be by secret ballot.

The first Chartist rally was held in Manchester in 1838. In 1839 the Chartists delivered a petition to parliament, which was rejected out of hand. Another petition delivered in 1842 was also rejected. Finally, in 1848 another great petition was sent to parliament but it turned into a farce. Some of the signatures were obvious fakes. Chartism then fizzled out. For one thing, it lacked middle-class support and had no support among MPs. For another in the late 1840s conditions for the working class in Britain were improving and discontent was declining.

However further reform did eventually follow. In 1867 more men were given the vote and in 1872 the Ballot Act introduced voting by secret ballot. In 1884 still, more men were given the vote. However, not all men in Britain could vote until 1918. Meanwhile, in 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act reformed town governments. A uniform system of town government was formed.

During the Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815, Britain could not import large amounts of grain from Europe. That all changed in 1815. British landowners feared that cheap foreign grain would be imported so they passed the Corn Laws. Import duties would be charged on imported wheat unless the average price of British grain reached a certain amount. From 1828 a sliding scale was used. Import duties were gradually increased as the price of British grain fell. In 1839 John Bright and Richard Cobden formed an Anti-Corn Law League. Prime Minister Peel finally abolished the corn laws in 1846. (Robert Peel lived from 1788 to 1850. He was prime minister in 1834-35 and 1841-46).

Meanwhile by the 1840s public opinion changed in favor of free trade. Most people believed that the government should interfere in the economy as little as possible. They also believed that countries should trade without import duties. So in the early 1840s, Peel abolished many tariffs.

The first passenger railway opened in 1825 between Stockton and Darlington. In 1830 a line was opened between Manchester and Liverpool. William Huskisson MP for Liverpool was killed but nothing could stop the growth of the railways. By 1848 there were 5,000 miles of railways in Britain and the network continued to expand rapidly in the later 19th century. Railways provided a great boost to other industries such as iron. They also revolutionized transport. Journeys that would have taken days by stagecoach took hours by train.

The Industrial Revolution created an unprecedented demand for female and child labor. Children had always worked alongside their parents but before the 19th century, they usually worked part-time. In the new textile factories, women and children were often made to work very long hours (often 12 hours a day or even longer). The government was aware of the problem and in 1819 they passed an act that made it illegal for children under 9 to work in cotton mills. However, the act lacked ‘teeth’ as there were no factory inspectors to check the mills. Another act was passed in 1833 but this time inspectors were appointed. Children under 9 were banned from working in textile mills. Children aged 9 to 13 were not allowed to work for more than 12 hours a day or a total of more than 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore, nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am).

In 1844 another act banned women from working more than 12 hours a day (although it also reduced the minimum age for working in a mill to 8). Then in 1847 women and children were banned from working more than 10 hours a day in textile factories.

In 1850 the law was changed slightly. Women were allowed to work for 10 1/2 hours but textile factories could not be open for more than 12 hours a day. All workers, including men, were allowed 1 1/2 hours for meal breaks. In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process). The 1878 Factory Act defined a factory as any place where machines were used in manufacturing. Meanwhile, in 1842 the Miners Act banned women and boys under 10 from working underground in mines.

By the 1860s the 10-hour day was common, but not universal. In ‘sweated industries’ such as making matchboxes and lace people were paid piece rates (i.e. they were paid so much for each one they made). People often worked in their own homes and very often they had to work from dawn to dusk to make a living.

A statue of Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria

Nevertheless in 1871 bank holidays were created. In the 1870s some skilled workers were given a week’s annual paid holiday. (Although it was not until 1939 that everybody had annual paid holidays). However, by the 1890s, the weekend was common as many people had Saturday afternoons off.

In 1799 and 1800 the government passed laws called the Combination Acts, which made it illegal for men to combine to demand higher wages. The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824 but it was still doubtful if trade unions were legal. It was not until 1871 that trade unions were made legal. In 1875 the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act made peaceful picketing legal.

In the 1850s and 1860s, skilled workers formed moderate trade unions called New Model Unions. In return for subscriptions, members were given sickness and unemployment benefits. However, the New Model Unions were keen to be seen as ‘respectable’ and tried to negotiate rather than strike. The TUC was founded in 1868.

In the late 19th century unskilled workers began to form powerful trade unions. In 1888 a woman named Annie Besant managed to organize a strike among the girls who worked making matches for Bryant and May. The girls were very poorly paid and they suffered from an illness called ‘phossy jaw’ caused by working with phosphorous. The strike was successful and the employers were forced to raise their pay. In 1889 the match girls formed a trade union. In March 1889 the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union was formed. Then on 14 August 1889, the Great London Dock strike was held. It lasted 5 weeks and was a great success. The Dockers demanded a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour (the ‘Dockers tanner’). Also in 1889, a Seaman’s Union and the General Railway Workers Union was formed.

In the early 19th century much working-class housing was appalling. It was overcrowded and unsanitary. Of course, poor people’s housing had always been bad. However, things grew much worse when vast numbers of people lived together in a small area. Towns had been dirty and unsanitary for centuries. In the 18th century in many towns bodies of men called Paving Commissioners or Improvement Commissioners were formed with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets.

However, in those days, England was divided into parishes and the commissioners only had powers in certain parishes. However, in the 19th century, towns spread to new parishes. Huge numbers of houses were built where previously there had only been fields and small villages. The commissioners had no powers in these new ‘suburbs’. The streets were often unpaved and unlit. There were no drains and when it rained streets turned to mud. People threw dirty water in the streets and stagnant pools formed. Furthermore, toilets were often shared by several houses, and queues formed on Sunday mornings.

In the early 19th century in most towns, there were no building regulations. Builders simply built as they pleased. Usually, they tried to cram as many houses as possible onto every piece of land. Many houses were ‘back-to-backs’. The back of one house joined the back of another. They usually consisted of two or three rooms. Worst of all were cellar dwellings. In cities like Liverpool families lived in cellars, which were damp and poorly ventilated as well as crowded. Very poor people slept on straw because they could not afford beds.

Skilled workers lived in ‘through’ houses, so-called because you could walk through them from front to back. However, in the 1840s town councils began to take action. Cellar dwellings were banned and new back-to-backs could not be built. It was impossible to demolish and replace existing back-to-backs all at once. It took decades and some people were still living in them in the 20th century.

In the early 19th century toilets were usually cesspits, which were infrequently emptied and sometimes overflowed. Or urine might seep through the ground into wells from which people drew drinking water. Given these disgusting conditions, it is not surprising there were outbreaks of cholera in many towns in 1831-32, 1848-49, 1854, and 1865-66. In 1848 a Public Health Act was passed. The act made it compulsory to form local Boards of Health in towns if the annual death rate exceeded 23 per 1,000 or if 10% of the population wanted it. Local Boards of Health could demand that all new houses have drains and lavatories. They could also organize a water supply, street cleaning, and refuse collection.

In 1875 a Public Health Act strengthened previous acts. All local authorities were forced to appoint Medical Officers of Health who could prosecute people who sold food or drink unfit for human consumption. The councils were also required to provide refuse collection. Town councils also began to provide public parks and most passed by-laws, which laid down minimum standards for new houses. Furthermore in the 1860s and 1870s sewers were dug in most large towns. In the 1870s water supplies were created in most towns. As a result of these measures, towns were much healthier and cleaner by the end of the 19th century than at the beginning.

In 1875 the Artisan’s Dwellings Act was passed which gave councils the power to demolish slums but large-scale slum clearance did not begin till the 20th century. Furthermore in the second half of the 19th century living standards rose. Gradually houses grew larger. In the late 19th century ‘two-up, two-downs’ were common. (Houses with two bedrooms and a kitchen and ‘front room’.

Many skilled workers lived in houses with three bedrooms. However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were some poor families still living in just one room.

In 1792 magistrates met at Speenhamland in Berkshire and devised a system for helping the poor. Low wages were supplemented with money raised by a poor rate. Many areas of England adopted the system but it proved to be unpopular with the wealthy and the government decided to change things. In 1834 they passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. In the future, the poor were to be treated as harshly as possible to dissuade them from seeking help from the state. In the future, able-bodied people with no income were to be forced to enter a workhouse. (In practice some of the elected Boards of Guardians sometimes gave the unemployed ‘outdoor relief’ i.e. they were given money and allowed to live in their own homes).

For the unfortunate people made to enter workhouses, life was made as unpleasant as possible. Married couples were separated and children over 7 were separated from their parents. The inmates were made to do hard work like breaking stones to make roads or breaking bones to make fertilizer. The poor called the new workhouses ‘bastilles’ (after the infamous prison in Paris) and they caused much bitterness. However, as the century went on the workhouses gradually became more humane.

At first, the Industrial Revolution did cause much suffering to some people. However in the end it made a much higher standard of living possible for ordinary people. In the 18th century when goods were made by hand they were scarce and therefore expensive. Machines meant that goods could be mass-produced and so they became much cheaper.

In the early 19th century many people indeed worked very long hours and they lived in appalling conditions in overcrowded towns. However, by the late 19th century housing for most people was better than in the 18th century. People were also better fed. Inventions like trains and steamships made it possible to import cheap food from abroad, wheat from North America, and meat from Australia and New Zealand. For thousands of years, bread was the staple diet of ordinary people. The poor lived mainly on bread.

By the end of the century, bread was ceasing to be the ‘staff of life’ and most people were eating a varied diet. Furthermore, a host of inventions made life more comfortable and convenient. Railways made travel much faster. Waterproof clothing also made life more comfortable. So did anesthetics. Furthermore today we take street lighting for granted but in the 19th century gas street lights made going out at night much easier and safer.

We also take photography for granted but people in the 19th century thought it was wonderful. For the first time, ordinary people could have pictures of their loved ones to remember them if they lived far away. Poverty was indeed common in the 19th century but things had always been that way. A large part of the population lived at the subsistence level – or below it but that was nothing new.

In the middle of the 19th century, Britain was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. However, in the late 19th century Britain’s power declined. It was inevitable. Britain was the first country to industrialize. She, therefore, had a head start over other nations. However, other countries began to catch up. France, Germany, and the USA industrialized. By the end of the 19th century Russia, Sweden, (North) Italy, and Japan were also industrializing. As a result, Britain became relatively less important.

During the 19th century, Britain built up a great overseas empire including South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1857-58 they crushed the uprising called the Indian Mutiny and in 1877 Queen Victoria was made Empress of India.

Meanwhile, in 1819 Sir Stafford Raffles founded Singapore. Britain also took Burma in stages during the 19th century. In the late 19th century Britain took large swathes of Africa. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, it was obvious that Britain was no longer as powerful as it had once been and needed allies in Europe.

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