Short History of the Victorian Era

Short History of the Victorian Era

by Gordon Kerr


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Beginning in the 1830s and ending with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the Victorian Era saw the British Empire—the largest the world had seen—dominate the world. British ingenuity in the fields of technological development and the heavy industry of its Industrial Revolution led to Britain being dubbed "the workshop of the world" while its Royal Navy policed the world’s oceans helping to create what has become known as a "Pax Britannica." This book details the sweeping social and economic changes that took place during this period but also examines the events of the time and the lives of the eminent Victorians who contributed so much to British success—men and women such as Florence Nightingale, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Charles Darwin. This is the story of the greatest period in British history, a period that still resonates in today’s Britain.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857302076
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 09/01/2019
Series: Pocket Essential Series
Edition description: None
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 636,541
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gordon Kerr is the author of several titles including A Short History of Europe, A Short History of Africa, A Short History of China, A Short History of Brazil, A Short History of the First World War and A Short History of the Vietnam War.

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The 1830s: Reform, Unrest and a New Queen

Whigs and Tories

During the 1830s four men occupied the office of Prime Minister – the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Earl Grey (1764-1845), Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848) and Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850). Melbourne and Wellington would, in fact, go on to twice occupy the highest office in the land. It was a decade marked by important reforms and great unrest, giving these four eminent politicians much with which to contend. A great deal of the trouble was caused by the agitation for parliamentary reform that had been stirred up by the political issues of the last two years of the previous decade.

In February 1828, following a campaign by Protestant dissenters, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), the leader of the Whig opposition in the House of Commons, brought forward a bill to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. The Test Act and the Corporation Act of 1661 had the purpose of restricting Roman Catholics and Nonconformists – Protestants who refused to conform to the strictures of the established Church of England – from holding public office. Although these measures were engrained in Tory sensibilities, Russell's bill passed in the Commons by 44 votes and also flew through the House of Lords. In effect, little changed for Nonconformists because these statutes had not been enforced for some considerable time. However, it represented the thin end of the wedge for many, especially regarding Catholic emancipation which was seen as a tangible erosion of the legal and religious basis on which the establishment stood. But both Wellington, the Tory Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, although publicly espousing the maintenance of the status quo for many years, began to support reform in private, Peel admitting that 'though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger'. They believed the Union between Great Britain and Ireland of 1800 to be at risk if emancipation stalled. Their actions, however, were viewed as treacherous by those Tory MPs and peers, known as 'Ultras', who believed that the Tory Party's main purpose was to uphold the Church of England. This inevitably led to political turmoil.

There were mass demonstrations in Ireland in support of Catholic emancipation and Wellington managed to persuade a reluctant King George IV (r. 1820-30) that there was no alternative to reform. In February, Wellington and Peel announced their support for emancipation but by this time it looked as if they had done no more than concede to extremists in Ireland. And the Irish were not altogether happy. Many of them disliked the measure because Catholics were still excluded from a number of senior government posts. To make matters worse, the New Catholic Association, founded by the Irish political leader, Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), was banned, together with a number of other Irish political organisations. Furthermore, the number of Irish who could vote was also reduced.

With Wellington's government in crisis, another serious issue re-emerged – that of parliamentary reform. The Ultras, once vehemently opposed to reform, now embraced it, judging that, because Catholic emancipation was so unpopular with the mainly Protestant British people, a more representative House of Commons would never have passed the 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act. Liberal Tories, equally disgruntled at their leaders and the opposition party, the Whigs, saw that reform was becoming popular in the country, and, therefore, supported it. Organisations, known as political unions, that championed reform, began to spring up in England's main cities. They consisted of a wide range of opinion and background, from Tory bankers to radical activists from the working class. Against this background, in February 1830, opposition MP, Lord John Russell, proposed that parliamentary seats be transferred to the great cities of Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham to widen parliamentary representation.

These were difficult times. The banking crisis known as the Panic of 1825 had resulted in the closure of six London banks and sixty country banks in England and there was still a shadow over the country's economy. In the following years, food prices escalated, the crisis amplified by a series of bad harvests. Meanwhile, unemployment rose, leading to strikes in the north of England. Agricultural workers in the south and east of the country participated in the 'Swing Riots', destroying farm machinery in response to increasing mechanisation. Then, in the midst of this turmoil, George IV died. At that time, the death of a monarch meant the dissolution of Parliament and a general election. The incumbent, Wellington, fared badly, losing 178 seats while the Ultras gained 60. Wellington remained resolutely against reform, however, stating in Parliament in November in an answer to a question by Earl Grey that:

'Britain possessed a Legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation, and this to a greater degree than any legislature ever had answered in any country whatever.'

In other words, he was perfectly happy with things the way they were and, after his U-turn on Catholic emancipation, he wanted it to be known that he was sticking to his principles on parliamentary reform. Those principles, however, brought a vote of no confidence on 15 November and the Whigs, who had been in opposition for all but a couple of years since 1774, returned to power under Earl Grey.

The Reform Act of 1832

Parliamentary reform was the burning issue of the day, but Earl Grey was not entirely supportive. As he himself told the House of Lords in November 1831, 'There is no one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the ballot, than I am.' He and his cabinet had one objective – to put a halt to thoughts of extensive reform. Nonetheless, to the dismay of the new king, William IV (r. 1830-37), Grey was insistent on introducing some parliamentary reform and on 1 March 1831, with the country, as the Duke of Wellington put it, 'in a state of insanity about reform', Lord John Russell introduced the government's reform bill. It seemed that Grey and his cabinet colleagues had gone with the prevailing wind and the bill was slightly more radical than might have been expected. The counties were given increased representation and eleven of the country's larger towns were each allocated two Members of Parliament. Before this, MPs customarily represented boroughs, the electorates of which numbered anywhere between a dozen and 12,000. Sixty 'rotten boroughs', constituencies with very small electorates that were controlled by a patron to gain influence in the House of Commons, were to be completely disenfranchised. The bill limped through a second reading in Parliament, passing by one vote only. As it began to look as if it was going to be defeated, Grey persuaded the king to dissolve Parliament and call an election, less than 12 months after the last one.

The election which took place between April and June 1831, was, of course, dominated by the bill and it was evident that the general public was clamouring for its passing. Grey won by a landslide and, on returning to Parliament, Lord John Russell immediately introduced a second reform bill. It passed its second reading in the Commons a month after the election by 136 votes but the Tories then attempted to delay it in committee. Nonetheless, it made it through a third reading in September and proceeded to the House of Lords. In October, however, the Lords rejected it by 41 votes. News of this produced an outbreak of violence around the country. In London, the windows of the houses of the ruling elite were smashed; in Nottingham, the residence of the Duke of Newcastle was burned to the ground by a mob; and in Bristol, the bishop's palace and other buildings were attacked. It took three days to restore order in the latter city, and the army finally had to be sent in. Frightened politicians were mindful of what had happened in France in the last decade of the eighteenth century and compromises began to be discussed. Grey even came to an accommodation with the king that, if the Lords once again blocked the bill, sufficient new peers would be created to see it through Parliament.

A third, slightly amended Reform Bill was now introduced in the Commons. It contained some compromises and finally passed its third reading in March 1832. In the Lords, Grey managed to get the bill through its second reading, persuading some of the bishops to change their minds and also cajoling some Tory peers to vote in favour of it. The government lost a vote a few weeks later following a resolution by Wellington's former Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, regarding the disenfranchisement of the rotten boroughs and, when the king reneged on his promise to create peers who would see it through the upper house, Grey's government was left with no option other than to resign. The Duke of Wellington eagerly accepted the king's request that he try to form a government, but much of the country was aghast at the idea of Wellington returning to power. There was a run on the Bank of England, deepening the economic crisis further. The Radical leader and social reformer, Francis Place, devised the slogan 'To stop the Duke, go for gold' in order to encourage opposition to Wellington. It was unnecessary, however, as Wellington failed in his efforts to form a government. The king was forced to turn once more to Grey and again promised to provide sufficient peers to see the Reform Bill through Parliament. Wellington, realising that reform of some kind was inevitable, instructed his party in the Lords to abstain and on 4 June 1832, the bill finally passed by 106 votes to 22. Similar measures for Scotland and Ireland followed soon after. For Earl Grey this represented an extraordinary victory which he exploited by calling another general election in which he increased his party's majority.

Grey's reform was just about as much as the establishment could stomach as well as being the least that would be acceptable to ordinary people looking for greater equality in government. But it did stave off the possibility of revolution and social unrest and, as such, it was very welcome. It had the effect of enfranchising the property-owning middle class and the Whigs hoped that this was the new normal – the Whigs at the top of the landed interest, supported by the middle class. But, although the Whigs won many rural seats in the election, the landed interest was divided, in the long run, between Tories and Whigs and in years to come, the Tories who had voted Whig returned to their original leanings, voting Tory once more.

The Reform Act – the Representation of the People Act of 1832, as it was formally known – disenfranchised 56 rotten boroughs that contained less than 2,000 people. One of the MPs was removed from each of 30 boroughs that had fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. There was an increase in county seats from 92 to 159. Larger conurbations such as Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Sheffield were allocated two MPs each and smaller towns such as Rochdale and Salford, were each allocated one MP. Forty-shilling freeholders held on to the right to vote, but the franchise was extended to owners and long-term leaseholders of land that was worth £10. Medium-term leaseholders on land worth £50 also gained the vote as well as tenants who paid that sum in annual rent. In Scotland, Glasgow was allocated two MPs and county constituencies were introduced. Ireland was given five new MPs representing boroughs. The electorate in England and Wales increased from 350,000 to 650,000; in Scotland it grew from a paltry 5,000 to 65,000; but in Ireland it increased only slightly, from 75,000 to 90,000. In England and Wales, one in seven adult males now had the vote, one in eight in Scotland and a disappointing one in twenty in Ireland.

It is worth noting that despite these apparently radical changes, Grey and his Whig government had achieved what they set out to do, maintaining the position of the landed interest, and many of the constituencies still remained in the grasp of powerful landowners. The system, moreover, remained biased towards England, despite the redistribution of seats. Annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the ballot had all gone by the board. Nonetheless, the will of the people, expressed through protest, riots, campaigns and petitions, had been listened to. Although disappointing to many who had campaigned for it, the act did the trick. Soon after its passing, the economy began to pick up and the threat of unrest in Britain seemed to have passed, for the moment.

Consequences of the Reform Act of 1832

While Britain appeared to have avoided political unrest, many parts of Europe were undergoing disorder and revolution. The July 1830 Revolution in France led to the overthrow of the Bourbon King, Charles X (r. 1824-30) and his replacement by Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans (r. 1830-48). In Belgium, revolution focused on independence erupted in Brussels in August 1830, followed by uprisings in other parts of the country. Independence from the Netherlands was declared in October after heavy fighting and the London Conference of major powers of 1830 recognised Belgium's independence and neutrality. Revolutions also took place in Poland and Switzerland. In Italy, insurrection was crushed by the Austrian army and many radicals were arrested. Thus, the achievement of Great Britain, in increasing the franchise, introducing reform and maintaining stability, was admired across a Europe in turmoil.

The Reform Act changed British politics forever. The relationship of government, Parliament, the electorate and the public was irredeemably altered. Without the corrupt influence of the rotten boroughs and their powerful patrons, the House of Commons gained a new impetus and independence. MPs now paid less attention to the government of the day and instead listened more to the electorate and the general public. Constituency issues took on a new importance and public opinion now had to be listened to. The consequences of ignoring it could be seen in events across the Channel. The old patrician, authoritarian government style was a thing of the past and single constituency issues could bring down a government.

With the electorate now so powerful that it could unseat a government – something that could not happen prior to 1830 – the two main political parties were forced to introduce a concerted national approach to general elections. The Carlton Club was opened for Tories and the Reform Club for Whigs. These two clubs became the centres for distributing party funds, welcoming party workers from the provinces and managing their election campaigns.

Most importantly, the new political landscape gave British people the hope that many of the pressing issues of the day – issues for too long ignored by the Tories – would be dealt with.

The Whig Decade

Having been out of power for so many of the previous 58 years, the Whigs would now remain in government until 1841. It would be a period of reform and change, the necessary parliamentary reform having been the first step. The Whigs now attempted to prove their liberal, progressive credentials by turning to the social, economic, political and religious issues that were foremost in the minds of the British people. The party certainly had the talent to achieve much. The cabinet included one former Prime Minister, Lord Goderich (1782-1859), but there were no fewer than four men in it who would also one day occupy that office – Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) and Lord Stanley (17991869). They were undoubtedly talented, but it proved difficult to manage such a group of egos. Nonetheless, much was done through the more focused, professional approach to politics. Parliamentary sessions were lengthened in order to cram in as much as possible. Britain moved from the type of state over which Wellington had presided – a state that seemed to exist only to raise finances in order to go to war – to a state that dealt with contemporary issues, issues that affected everyone.

One of the most pressing of these was child labour. Amazingly, it had never been much considered until the notions of workers' rights, children's rights and universal schooling began to be discussed. In 1788, for instance, around two-thirds of the people working in water-powered textiles factories were children. In 1784, a serious outbreak of fever in Manchester cotton mills instigated debate about the conditions in which children worked and the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act – often known as the Factories Act – the first important piece of labour legislation, was passed in 1802. This act took small steps towards protecting children in employment, limiting working hours to 12 per day and abolishing night work for children. It required that employers provided basic education and sleeping accommodation and clothing. The act was not enforced effectively and only applied to apprentices, failing to take into consideration children employed independently – 'free children' – and there were soon many more of these than apprentices. As industrialisation continued at a pace, the number of working children escalated rapidly and there was a great deal of public concern at the conditions under which they were employed. The efforts of the industrialist and philanthropic social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858) led to the Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819 which limited to twelve the number of hours a child could work and prohibited children under the age of nine from being employed.


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