Chartism in 19th century Britain
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
As early as 1802 Sir Robert Peel the elder, the father of the famous statesman, had procured an Act which to a very slight extent improved the working conditions for apprentices in cotton and woollen factories. Some further infinitesimal restrictions were imposed in 1819 and 1825, but the manufacturers in general were already up in arms against breaches of the doctrine of laissez-faire, and interference with them in the management of their own business. Still there were other manufacturers who were philanthropically anxious to procure better conditions for the children, but could not venture to go far on their own account, fearing that they would be too seriously handicapped in the competition with their less scrupulous neighbours. State regulation which imposed the same conditions on all would secure them against that handicap, and would insist upon no restrictions which they themselves would regard as objectionable.
The Factory Act
The more vigorous movement was started in 1832 by Michael Sadler, with the proposal that the labour of children should be restricted to ten hours per diem. His place as the champion of philanthropic legislation was taken in the Reformed Parliament by Lord Ashley, better known to posterity by his later title as Lord Shaftesbury. Grey's Government, however, chose to make itself responsible for an official measure - taking the place of Ashley's bill - which not only created regulations and imposed pains and penalties, but appointed government inspectors to see that the law was carried out. The bill, which bears the name of Lord Althorp, forbade in textile factories the employment of children under nine, of children under thirteen for more than nine hours, and of young persons under eighteen for' more than twelve hours.
It is to be remarked that the employers as a whole did not oppose the Factory Act. There were among them the bad employers, who deliberately desired to exploit the labour of children for their own profit, regardless of the cost to the children. There were those who were possessed with a doctrinaire view that all state interference is a check on the natural course of trade, and therefore in the end does more harm than good. But in England the passionate devotees of abstract doctrines are rare. The employers themselves originated the proposal for state inspection, because they wanted to be secure that, if regulations were made, they would be enforced upon every one instead of being left to be carried out by the conscientious and ignored by the unscrupulous. There were, indeed, not a few of them who already went as far as the new law demanded, and to them it was entirely satisfactory that their neighbours should be compelled to follow suit.
Poor Law Amendment Act
The third great measure dealt with the amendment of the Poor Law. The Elizabethan Poor Law in effect served its purpose in a fairly satisfactory manner for a century and three-quarters with very little modification; but unemployment and the relief of destitution entered upon a new phase about the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Gilbert's Act was introduced to meet the new conditions, but in its practical application by magistrates it met them by virtually upsetting the principles on which the Poor Law was based. The old law gave relief only to those who were incapable of work, or who, being without employment, entered the workhouse and did the work which was provided for them. But the benevolent magistrates under Gilbert's Act provided relief as well for every able-bodied labourer who was earning an insufficient wage, and thereby unintentionally encouraged the payment of insufficient wages by the agricultural employer, while they destroyed the labourer's incentive to earn higher wages by better work, and encouraged him to enlarge his family without any regard to his own capacity for supporting his children by his own efforts.
The Poor Law Amendment Act, which was passed in 1834 after Lord Grey's resignation, abolished the relief which supplemented wages, and reinstated the workhouse test; that is, it gave relief only to those who entered the workhouse. At the same time it organised the combination of parishes into Unions, which at once made their management more efficient and more economical. It compelled the able-bodied labourer to earn by his own work the maintenance of himself and his family instead of depending upon extraneous relief, and as a consequence it forced the agricultural employer to pay the living wage which the labourer was forced to demand. But at the outset the only apparent benefit was the substantial one of greatly diminished rates.
Wages did not immediately adjust themselves to the new conditions, and the labourer starved. The farmer, paying increased though still insufficient wages, did not feel the reduction in the rates as adequate compensation. To the needy the workhouse conditions were deliberately made as unattractive as possible, lest they should offer an inducement to "come on the parish"; and since no one sought relief who could possibly help it, to do so carried with it a stigma which often acted as a preventive precisely in the cases where relief was most needed and most deserved. In the long run the new Poor Law materially improved the position and conditions of the agricultural labourer; but in the beginning, during the process of readjustment, his lot was worsened. The authors of the Act cast their bread upon the waters, and their immediate reward was of the usual kind in such circumstances.
The Poor Law Amendment Bill had already passed through several stages in Parliament when Lord Grey's ministry was broken up by differences upon Irish questions. The reconstruction was entrusted to Lord Melbourne, with a vain hope on the king's part that he would combine with Peel and Wellington. This project however was impracticable, and the new administration was as definitely Whig or Liberal as the last. King William, on the other hand, was waiting anxiously for an opportunity to bring in the Conservatives. Lord Althorp, who commanded an extraordinary degree of confidence in the House of Commons among all sections of Liberals, was transferred to the House of Lords, when he became Earl Spencer in succession to his father in November. This event appeared so to weaken the party, or at least the Cabinet, that William felt justified in dismissing the ministry and calling upon Wellington and Peel to form a government. He undoubtedly thought that the country, like himself, wished to be rid of the Liberals, especially in view of the great outcry against the Poor Law Amendment Act and the present sufferings which that Act entailed.
The Tamworth Manifesto
The dismissal of the Liberals made an appeal to the constituencies an obvious necessity, since in the Parliament which had begun its sessions in 1833 the Conservatives could not hope to command a majority. Peel announced his principles, of what was called Liberal Conservatism, in the "Tamworth Manifesto." At the general election the Conservatives were returned in considerably larger numbers than before; the curious may observe with some interest that there were two hundred and seventy of them, forming a minority larger perhaps than any other single group, but unable to resist a combination of orthodox Liberals, advanced Radicals, and Irish Repealers - a position singularly like that of the Unionists in 1910. They hoped, however, for support from a considerable number of the Conservative wing of the Liberals, so that for a while they attempted to carry on the government. But when the Liberals struck an unofficial compact with O'Connell, Peel's administration was doomed; and in April 1835 Melbourne returned to power with most of his old colleagues in the Cabinet. The principal measure for which the new Government was responsible before the death of the old king was the Municipal Reform Act, a natural corollary of the Parliamentary Reform Bill. The old municipal government was in a state of chaos, and the new Act established a uniform system under which the governing body, the Council of the borough, was elected triennially by the rate-payers, and the mayor and aldermen were elected by the Council.
The Anti-Corn-Law League
Of the permanent influences brought to bear upon the British constitution with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 we have already spoken; in the immediate problems of government it made no difference. The general election which followed very shortly kept the ministry with a substantial if somewhat uncertain majority; and in the next four years Melbourne did good service to the country by the admirable manner in which he educated the young queen in the duties and responsibilities of her position. But a period of legislative stagnation followed upon the activity of the last four years. Distress and its usual accompaniment, discontent, were painfully prevalent, but no remedies were forthcoming from Parliament, which was satisfied that political reform had gone far enough. Two outside agitations however were now set on foot.
The Anti-Corn-Law League fixed upon the high price of corn as the fundamental cause of the general distress, and in 1838 began its active propaganda for the abolition of the corn duties - a propaganda as little agreeable to Melbourne as to Peel and Wellington. But the originators of the League and its most vigorous advocates were of the manufacturer class; and while most of them were actuated by the sincere belief that the working classes would derive immense advantage from the reduction in the price of food, it was easy also to point out that the manufacturers anticipated benefits for themselves, since they would be able to pay a lower money wage when less money would buy more food. Among the working men themselves there were not a few who viewed the agitation with suspicion, believing that its real object was the curtailment of wages. They mistrusted gifts from the class whom they regarded as their natural enemies; moreover, they saw in the movement an insidious attempt to distract their energies from the persistent pursuit of political power which was their own panacea for the depression of the working classes.
The People's Charter
Therefore from them arose the second agitation whose objects were formulated in the series of six demands known as the People's Charter, the advocates of which became known in 1839 as Chartists. The demands which appeared so revolutionary in those days scarcely seem alarming now. Abolition of the property qualification for members of Parliament, payment of members, and the ballot were three of the points, all of which have since been conceded. Manhood suffrage is not far removed from the official proposals of the Government in 1912; and the objection to equal electoral districts rests more upon their impracticability than upon abstract conservatism. The sixth demand, for annual Parliaments, is the only one which finds no advocates among responsible politicians who are hot looked upon as extremists. But seventy years ago every one of the six points was regarded as revolutionary - by enthusiastic advocates as a straight road to the millennium, and by respectable but timorous persons at large as a straight road to anarchy. So the Government would have nothing to say either to Chartists or to Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers. The refusal of Parliament in 1839 to receive a huge Chartist petition was followed by several violent outbreaks which were sharply repressed, and the vigour of the agitation died down for the moment.
The Anti-Corn-Law League had little more success than the Chartist movement with the Government, whose financial difficulties nevertheless induced them in 1841 to make another movement in the direction of Free Trade. Disciples of Adam Smith could cite plenty of instances in the past of an increased revenue following upon a diminution of duties upon imported goods, due to the increased demand. The Government now proposed to lower the very heavy tax upon foreign imported sugar, and to establish a fixed duty of eight shillings on foreign corn in place of the existing sliding scale. But the budget was defeated by a substantial majority, and the defeat was followed by a resolution of "no confidence," which was carried by one vote. Parliament was dissolved, and the general election gave a strong majority to the party led in the House of Commons by Sir Robert Peel. Melbourne resigned and Peel became Prime Minister.
The Bed-Chamber Crisis
In 1839 there had arisen a curious domestic crisis which caused intense excitement at the time. The Government through these years was in a constant minority in the Lords, while its majority in the Commons was sufficiently insecure to warrant the Upper Chamber in an active opposition. After narrowly escaping defeat in the Commons on a colonial question, Lord Melbourne resigned and advised the queen to send for Sir Robert Peel. Peel undertook to construct a ministry; but he pointed out to the young queen that the ladies of the bedchamber who had been selected by Lord Melbourne belonged to the Whig families, and surrounded their mistress with an atmosphere which would prevent her working cordially with a ministry formed from the Conservative party; he therefore made the dismissal of certain of these ladies a condition of his taking office. The queen claimed that the appointment of the ladies was a personal not a political matter, and entirely declined to dismiss them. The question was one which could only arise when a queen occupied the throne. Both the monarch and the statesman stood firm, and consequently Lord Melbourne returned to office, considering that the queen's position was constitutionally sound, and that in the circumstances it would be an act of desertion to refuse her his services. It was very shortly after this event that the queen married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha - one of those unions rare enough in royal families in which both parties were lovers from the beginning and remained lovers to the end of their lives.
Palmerston's Foreign Policy
Probably the most popular feature of the Melbourne administration was its foreign policy as conducted,by Lord Palmerston. That minister acted very much, as if he were an autocrat in whose doings his colleagues had no voice. His audacity might cause nervousness, but at least there was no fear that Britain would be ignored in the councils of Europe. It was from this time that suspicion of Russia and antagonism to her became prominent features of British policy. Like Canning before him, Palmerston was bent on preventing Russia from either acquiring Turkish territory or exercising a predominant influence at Constantinople. More than this, he succeeded in pushing his own country to the front as the champion of the integrity of the Turkish Empire, drawing France and Austria in his train, but keeping the leading position for himself.
The notable stroke was effected in 1840. Mehemet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, was evidently seeking to establish an independent sovereignty over Syria as well as Egypt, and his ambitions probably went considerably further. It was Palmerston's object to make the repression of Mehemet Ali an act of the European Powers in general, not merely of Russia. He succeeded in bringing about a concert of the Powers sufficient for his own purposes, while in effect it enabled him to accomplish the defeat of the Pasha by means mainly of British ships and men without effective participation either by Russia or by France; and Turkey began to learn to look upon Britain as her protector. The anti-Russian policy had also at this time begun to play a serious part in India; but with this as also with important events in the colonies we shall deal separately.
[Ed. for an overview of the Chartist movement please see our main article on Chartism.]