xxxxxIn Britain, the years following the Napoleonic Wars were deeply troubled by social and political unrest, a situation made the more dangerous in 1830 with the revolution in France and the overthrow of Charles X. In 1831 the Whigs put forward a reform bill to increase the franchise and provide a more equitable distribution of parliamentary seats. After a struggle it was passed by the Commons, but then rejected by the House of Lords. This caused violent disturbances in many parts of the country, and held out the possibility of an all-out revolution. Fearing such an outcome, William IV agreed to elect a number of peers to outvote the Tory opposition. Faced with this threat, the Tories capitulated and the Reform Bill of 1832 became an Act. By it, members of the upper middle-class gained the right to vote, and the seats in the Commons were more fairly distributed. It proved the first step in the right direction, and further reform acts followed in 1867 and 1884. Two social reforms were also made in the early 1830s. The Factory Act of 1833 limited the hours a child could work, and the Poor Law of 1834 introduced the idea of the workhouse, a means by which the destitute could be given food and shelter while working for their keep.



Election: by the English painter and social critic William Hogarth (1697-1764, 1755 – Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Miners: from the first report of the Children’s Employment Commission, Mines, 1842, artist unknown. Shaftesbury: by the English painter George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) – National Portrait Gallery, London. Wellington: by the English portrait painter Robert Home (1752-1834), 1804 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Walmer Castle: from England’s Topographer or A new and Complete History of the County of Kent by the English writer William Henry Ireland (1777-1835), 1828, artist unknown. Duel: by the cartoonist Thomas Howell Jones, 1829 – King’s College, London.

xxxxxBritain emerged victorious from the Napoleonic Wars, but the years after this military triumph were deeply troubled by social and political unrest. There was widespread unemployment, extreme hardship and exploitation within the ever-growing factory system, and a smouldering resentment at the lack of representation - be it by the middle classes at the outdated political set-up, or by the working classes at the conditions being endured in the work place. Some aspects of this discontent had been shown earlier in the so-called Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Liberalism had then been silenced, but by the early 1830s, popular uprisings on the continent, notably in Poland, Germany and France (where Charles X was overthrown), rekindled the demand for both political and social reform.

xxxxxSuch was the clamour nation-wide that, in the House of Commons the Tories, led by the hard-liner the Duke of Wellington, were forced to make way for a Whig ministry committed to parliamentary reform. It was long overdue. The distribution of parliamentary constituencies had not been changed for decades. Rural areas - much depopulated over the years - had the bulk of parliamentary seats, whilst the new industrial towns like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds - teeming with people - had none at all. Furthermore the abuses of a political system which was firmly in the hands of the landed gentry, continued unabated. There were over fifty “pocket” or “rotten” boroughs which could be readily obtained at a price, or simply passed on to a relative or friend. The borough of Old Sarum, for example, which sent two representatives to the Commons, was a wasteland, the former site of the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire. Nor were elections run on the fairest of lines. There was plenty of bribery, corruption and mayhem, as captured in William Hogarth’s “Election” series of the 1750s. (“Chairing the Member” illustrated above).

xxxxxThe first reform bill was introduced in 1831. It was strenuously opposed by the Tories, and it took the dissolving of Parliament and an election of a new one before a majority could be secured. This achieved, the bill was then rejected by the House of Lords. This was the signal for disturbances across the country. There were fierce riots in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby and Bristol, and the military had to be called in to stop the sacking and burning of buildings. The king, fearing a nation-wide rebellion, reluctantly agreed to create new peers to out-vote the Tory majority. However, such a move proved unnecessary, and the possibility of a July Revolution (as in France two years earlier) was averted. When the bill came before the Lords a second time in the spring of 1832 about one hundred peers stayed away - led by the Duke of Wellington - and the bill became an Act.

xxxxxThe reform measures which were introduced were nothing short of “sweeping” in the context of the time. The pocket and rotten boroughs were abolished, parliamentary seats were redistributed on a much more representative basis, and the franchise was extended, based on quite a liberal property qualification. As a result the upper-middle classes gained the vote for the first time, and the total number of voters was increased from around 440,000 to 657,000. Vast sections of the population, of course, remained without a vote, and landed interest remained dominant in the new House of Commons, but it was a start. As we shall see, a further extension of the franchise, the Second Reform Act, was made in 1867 (Vb) - due in large measure to the Chartist Movement - and then in 1884 (Vc) voting rights were again extended (the Third Reform Act), together with another redistribution of parliamentary seats. By then, aristocratic privilege had come to an end.

xxxxxOtherxreforms followed in an attempt to tackle some of the worst social evils of the day. The Factory Act of 1833 was directed at the appalling abuse of child labour. In many factories children of seven were put to work for twelve or more hours a day. The law prohibited the employment of children under the age of nine and, until they reached thirteen, limited their working week to 48 hours. Some schooling was also provided during the day, the first step on the long road to compulsory, universal education. Thexfollowing year changes were also made in the poor laws. The Poor Law of 1834 saw the introduction of the workhouse, an institution which, despite all its faults, attempted to give the unemployed food and shelter whilst working for their keep.

xxxxxIncidentally, it was at this time (as noted earlier) that the politician Sir Robert Peel, in order to shed the Tories of their reactionary image and thus widen their membership, defined the aims of the party in his Tamworth Address of 1834. This advocated measures of reform within existing institutions, stressed the importance of law and order, and promised continued support to trade, industry and the landed interests. This address is often seen as the launch of the modern Conservative Party, a term first used by the writer and arch Tory John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review of January 1830. The Whigs adopted the title of the Liberal Party in the late 1830s, though the first Liberal government in the modern sense was not formed until 1868. ……

xxxxx…… Axstout supporter of the Reform Bill was the Whig politician Henry (later Baron) Brougham (1778-1868), a man of fashion who was known for his wit and somewhat eccentric behaviour. He helped to found the Edinburgh Review in 1802, played a leading part in the foundation of London University, and was Lord Chancellor form 1830-34. He supported a number of other good causes, including education and law reform, but he is best remembered today for his design of “The Brougham”, originally a four-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse. He spent most of his last thirty years in Cannes, on the French Riviera, and it was there that he died in 1868.

xxxxxAnother Englishman of this period who played a prominent part in supporting and guiding major social reforms through parliament was the statesman and philanthropist Anthony Ashey Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885). He served in the House of Commons for twenty five years before he succeeded to the earldom and took his seat in the Lords. Ironically enough, he was not in favour of the Reform Bill, being against the widening of the franchise, but he did much to improve working conditions in factories, especially for women and children, and as a member of the Ragged School Union he was instrumental in providing free education for the poor. He also supported the Mines Act of 1842, which put an end to women and children working underground, and the Lunacy Act of 1845, aimed at improving asylums for “persons of unsound mind”.

xxxxxToday, Shaftesbury is especially remembered for persuading Parliament in 1846 to forbid the use of young children being used as chimney sweeps. Among those he assisted financially were Florence Nightingale in her work to improve hospital nursing, and Thomas Barnardo in his provision of homes for destitute children. He was leader of the evangelical movement within the Church of England and favoured the political emancipation of Roman Catholics.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1893 a memorial was erected in Piccadilly Circus, London, to commemorate Lord Shaftesbury’s work for good causes. It was crowned by a nude figure of Anteros, a butterfly-winged archer depicting the Greek God of unrequited love. However, the figure was mistaken for Eros, the God of love, and the monument became known by that name! Today it is a London landmark. ……

xxxxx…… Thexwork of the Ragged School Union, which Shaftsbury helped to found in 1844, was actually started some forty years earlier by John Pounds (1766-1839). Born in Portsmouth, he became a shipwright apprentice at the age of 12, but three years later he was badly injured at work and became a cripple for life. He took up shoe making and around 1802, while working at his shop in Portsmouth, he began to give free schooling to local poor children. The idea was taken up by others and the scheme eventually came to the notice of Shaftsbury. He put it on a firm footing.


The Earl of Shaftesbury

and The Duke of Wellington


xxxxxIn contrast to Lord Shaftsbury, a politician who lost a great deal of public support because of his opposition to political and social reform was the Duke of Wellington. As we have seen, on becoming Tory prime minister in 1828 he had antagonised his party by making a U-turn and pushing through the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, a decision he thought necessary to avoid a civil war in Ireland. The following year, however, he lost the support of the majority of the country’s population by coming out strongly against any reform measures. This uncompromising stand brought about the downfall of his government and made him a target of abuse. As we have seen (1815 G3c), on returning to England after the Battle of Waterloo Wellington was drawn into politics. He served as a Tory until resigning in 1827, and the following year was made prime minister at the insistence of William IV. It was then that he ran into trouble with his own party over the question of Catholic Emancipation, and then angered the public by his anti-reform policy. Later, in the early 1840s, he assisted Sir John Peel in abolishing the Corn Laws - against his own judgement once again - but retired from public life in 1846. He held many public offices during his long career, and was advisor to the young Queen Victoria. As a soldier, he lacked the common touch, but he was an outstanding commander, albeit somewhat cautious at times. As a politician he was reactionary by nature, but it is to his credit that he was prepared, when necessary, to put aside his own views in the interest of his nation’s welfare. Few men have served their country better.

xxxxxBy contrast, one politician at this time who lost a great deal of public support because of his fervent opposition to any political or social reform was the Duke of Wellington. As we have seen, as Tory prime minister he had angered many of his party in 1829 by doing a U-turn and pushing through the Catholic Emancipation Act (giving civil and political rights to Roman Catholics). He had then gone along with his home secretary, Sir John Peel, to avoid a possible civil war in Ireland, but his action was seen by hard-liners as a betrayal of Tory principles. In 1830, however, he pleased his party but alienated the general public by speaking out against any reform measures whatsoever. He argued, in particular, that there was nothing wrong with the present electoral system, and any changes to it would ruin the country. This uncompromising stand not only brought about the prompt downfall of his weak and unpopular government, but also made him a target for abuse. The windows of Apsley House, his residence near Hyde Park Corner, were smashed by violent mobs on more than one occasion, and he was obliged to put up iron shutters to stop further damage. It was that action, not his glorious career on the battlefield, which earned him the title of “the Iron Duke”!

xxxxxAs we have seen (1815 G3c), after his career in the army, Wellington returned to England in 1818 and was drawn into the political arena. A straightforward and honest man, he was not always at home in this new “battlefield”. He served in the Tory government of Lord Liverpool, attending the Congress of Verona in 1822, but resigned in 1827 (taking half the cabinet with him!) when George Canning - who favoured Catholic Emancipation - became prime minister. The following year, however, on the insistence of William IV, he formed his own government, and it was then, over the next two years, that he became unpopular with his party, first over his support of Catholic Emancipation, and then with the population at large over his reactionary stand against any measure of reform, political or social.

xxxxxDuring the mid-1830s he served as foreign secretary under Peel and then, as minister without portfolio, assisted him in abolishing the Corn Laws, acting against his own judgement once again. He retired from public life in 1846. Among the offices he held during his political career were commander in chief of the forces - an appointment made permanent in 1842 -, chancellor of the University of Oxford, constable of the Tower, and master of Trinity House. He was an advisor and father figure to the young Queen Victoria, and, as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, he was living at Walmer Castle in Kent (illustrated) when he died of a stroke in 1852. He was given a monumental state funeral - one befitting the “Great Duke” - and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

xxxxxAs a soldier, Wellington was an outstanding general, though he lacked the common touch and is viewed by some as a rather over-cautious commander. As a politician he was certainly reactionary, but, when necessary, he was prepared to compromise his own views in the interests of his country, and he was honest and upright in all his dealings. He was, indeed, a public servant without rival during a long and distinguished career.

xxxxxIncidentally, having eventually persuaded his party and the king to accept Catholic Emancipation in 1829 - his greatest political triumph - Wellington was criticised by a number of die-hard Tories. By all accounts, one of them, the Earl of Winchelsea, went so far as to insult the Duke and was challenged to a duel. The contest took place at Battersea Fields but, having made their point, both men chose to shoot wide deliberately! ……

xxxxx…… In 1817 a grateful nation presented Wellington with the stately home and estate of Stratfield Saye in the county of Hampshire, and it has remained the home of the Dukes of Wellington ever since. The Duke’s London home was Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner, and this now serves as a museum and an art gallery, run by English Heritage.