Reaction and Reform

reaction reform 1
The Peterloo Massacre
reaction reform 2
Stephenson's Rocket
reaction reform 3
Regency architecture
Cumberland Terrace, London
reaction reform
Granville Sharp and Abolition of Slavery
previous arrow
next arrow


After 22 years of almost continuous war, Britain is faced with social unrest. For some years the government imposed harsh penalties on movements and assemblies intent on securing political and social reform.  Eventually this period closes with the passing of  The Great Reform Bill and the Abolition of Slavery Bill.

Britain was visibly entering a new age. Men and women could ascend into the sky in hot air balloons and people with fairly modest means were taking holidays by the sea. A century earlier, great men wore full-bottomed wigs of lustrous curly hair, now a few old men were casting aside the last grey-powdered peri-wigs. Men’s stockings were replaced by trousers or tightly-tailored breeches, first popularised by regency dandies. Ladies had also cast aside their huge wigs and ‘Gainsborough’ hats for the more demure hairstyles, bonnets and slim dresses of a Jane Austen heroine. Everywhere in genteel society the restrained elegance of Regency dress was becoming the standard.

The elegance of the comfortable sections of society was in contrast to the darkening appearance of the new industrial towns in the North and Midlands, where every year more tall chimneys were erected to bear away the smoke emitted by increasing numbers of steam-powered engines.

[swpm_protected custom_msg='If you wish to read or listen to the complete account of this section and gain permanent access to all the other parts of Annals Britannica, please Login now or Join via Credit/Debit card on PayPal for only £5.']

The engines powered mills and factories which were producing hitherto unimagined amounts of textiles and manufactured goods. New pits were opening to provide coal fuel for the engines and the growing number of the new kitchen stoves being installed in middle class households. Canals were being constructed to carry the coal and to transport the manufactured products to customers in the south or to the sea ports, where they were loaded for export to markets in other parts of the world. Smoke polluted all the surrounding areas and soot was already beginning to blacken the new industrial and residential buildings.

Many of the new industrial workers lived and worked in foul conditions. Working hours for men, women and children were long and conditions were usually dangerous; industrial accidents were commonplace. The rows of new houses thrown up around the factories and mills were inadequate and overcrowded at best and quickly became breeding grounds for tuberculosis and other diseases, as well as vermin. Ignorance gave rise to poor hygiene and many social evils. Alcohol had been a notable vice in Georgian cities and it quickly spread into the tenements of industrial Britain. In hard times, unemployment often drove men, women and children to crime, which was harshly punished, by whipping, flogging, death or transportation to the new colonies of New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land in Australia.

New churches were built in the mill town communities, but the Church message was often concerned with social discipline and the afterlife rather than the problems of the here and now. The appointed minister was sometimes absent, leaving a poorly-paid and over-worked curate to minister to communities, where he was overwhelmed by the demand for burials and baptisms and the regular routine of services, and had little time for the humanitarian duties of his ministry. The Methodist movement began to set up chapels, where impassioned preachers adopted an evangelical message more in tune with the needs of their communities. They were fervent believers in abstinence and the evils of gambling and often led the demands for material improvement, social justice and political reform.

Nearly all Christian sects in Britain had begun to involve themselves in missionary work overseas which, besides spreading their Christian message often undertook medical and educational work among the many peoples of Britain’s widespread and growing empire.

Social problems existed elsewhere, in addition to the industrial towns and cities. At the end of the wars, many thousands of ex-soldiers and sailors were released back in society with little to help them establish themselves into an orderly civilian life. War production of stuffs like gunflints, gunpowder and rope also ended abruptly, throwing thousands out of work. In addition, a mixture of population increase and efficient farming, which produced more output with less labour, was squeezing many rural families out of their homes. The common land, which had provided some of their fuel and husbandry needs, was being enclosed and taken into private ownership. Families whose ancestors had lived on the land since time immemorial were a surplus commodity, which year by year was drifting off to towns and cities in search of work.

There were individual and corporate acts of charity to help people in distress. The Elizabethan Poor Laws, propped up by the Speenhamland scheme of paying a supplement to inhabitants on inadequate wages, often put pressure on local ratepayers who were themselves feeling squeezed by the economic slump which followed the end of the war. There was no vision at that time of a national social aid policy, but some parishes and individuals began to finance a rudimentary emigration service and increasing numbers of people began to depart for a new life in the colonies.

Social problems were exacerbated when the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. The laws were passed to meet the complaints of farmers and landowners that imported wheat was undercutting their market and threatened to destroy the entire arable economy. Landowners had invested heavily in the enclosure and fencing of common land. Their tenants had also borrowed money to improve the soil and buy the equipment required for the new farming systems introduced by Jethro Tull and others. Local banks were also at risk of failure if their agricultural clients failed to repay their loans. Those different sectors dominated the rural electoral scene. Parliament, with its Tory majority in both houses, was impelled to underwrite the price of grain; the prime minister Lord Liverpool, was in principle a free-trader, but he had to accept the Corn Law bill of 1815 as a temporary measure to ease the transition to peacetime conditions. Consequently, the importation of foreign wheat was prohibited until the domestic price of wheat reached the minimum level of 80 shillings a quarter. As a result, the price of flour and bread was maintained at a price which strained the pay packet of the average worker. The situation was made worse by an economic slump which resulted in unemployment or reduced wages.

Many people realised the electoral system was thoroughly corrupt, outdated and in need of reform. Lancashire, with a population nearing one million, was represented by two county MPs; a further twelve represented the 17,000 voters in the boroughs of Clitheroe, Newton, Wigan, Lancaster, Liverpool, and Preston. In 1817, a petition for manhood suffrage containing 750,000 signatures was flatly rejected by parliament. The Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth was so concerned about social unrest that he temporarily suspended Habeas Corpus and permitted magistrates to keep people imprisoned without trial. He believed that demands for parliamentary reform were a pretext for revolution. By 1819 another recession increased the demands for reform. A mass rally was organised at St Peter’s Field in Manchester in August 1819, which was to be addressed by Henry Hunt, a radical orator. The local yeomanry was ordered to arrest Hunt and others on the platform and a child was killed as they moved in. As people became agitated, the magistrates ordered a unit of the professional 15th Hussars cavalry regiment to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn, killing 18 people and hundreds were injured in the ensuing confusion. The occasion became known as the Peterloo Massacre, an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. The government acted rapidly to prevent any future disturbances by introducing the Six Acts, which aimed to suppress any meetings calling for radical reform. The Whigs managed to secure three amendments which to some extent weakened the draconian effects of the Six Acts.

Lord Castlereagh, who was Leader of the House in addition to Foreign Secretary, took most of the flak for the unpopular measures on behalf of his Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and Lord Sidmouth, who both sat in the Lords. Shelley wrote at the time:

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –

Government fears of insurrection were not completely unfounded. In 1820, the Cato Street conspiracy was revealed. Arthur Thistlewood had for some years been active with groups of revolutionary republicans in London who supported an agenda of armed revolt. The years of economic distress provided a wider audience for these groups, but Sidmouth was well aware of them and agents-provocateurs kept him informed of their progress. In December 1816 Thistlewood’s group organised a public meeting at Spa Fields, Islington; a gun shop was raided and a mob moved into London, where Thistlewood called upon the soldiers at the Tower to surrender - they merely laughed at him. He and the other leaders were tried, but were found not guilty of high treason. With support falling away as trade in London improved, Thistlewood actually challenged Lord Sidmouth to a duel and was imprisoned in 1817. The Peterloo Massacre galvanised him to make a new attempt at rebellion. His group armed themselves and planned to assassinate the Cabinet as they were taking dinner and proclaim a republic. Forewarned by an informer, Sidmouth’s men rounded up the conspirators as they armed themselves at Cato Street in February 1820. Thistlewood and five others were sentenced to death; five others were transported to Australia for life.

King George III had died in January. His reign of 59 years and 3 months was, at that time, the longest period of rule by a British sovereign, although his son had ruled in his stead as the Prince Regent since 1811. After 1814 George was also King of Hanover, although he never went there and probably never travelled more than 100 miles from London in his entire life. In his early years George had involved himself closely in government affairs. He resisted claims to office by men he disliked, such as Charles James Fox. He considered the American revolt as a challenge to his anointed right to rule all his dominions through parliament and was unwilling to listen to the moderate voices who sought to accommodate the colonists’ complaints. He became reconciled to the loss of the colonies, but remained steadfast in opposing Catholic emancipation, seeing it as a violation of his coronation oath. He was a generous supporter of charities and the arts; he put together a notable collection of books which became a foundation collection of the British Library. A religious man, celebrated for his loving family life, he despised the loose sexual morals of his brothers and the licentious lifestyle of the Prince Regent. He became popular in later years, until he was overtaken by an unidentified mental illness which was compounded by blindness and rheumatism. He was fondly caricatured as ‘farmer’ George, out of respect for his interest in modern agricultural practices.

The coronation of George IV at the age of 57 was a lavish, theatrical affair, but was blighted by his marital problems. He and his wife Caroline had lived separate lives since 1796. Caroline went to live in Europe, but returned to claim her right as queen consort at her husband’s coronation. George refused to recognise her as queen and, being unwilling to divulge salacious items about his own life in a divorce case, he had the government introduce a parliamentary bill to annul the marriage and strip Caroline of the title of Queen. The bill proved extremely unpopular with the public and was withdrawn by Lord Liverpool. Caroline fell ill after being turned away from the abbey doors when she tried to attend the coronation in June 1821. She died 19 days later, claiming she was poisoned.

George left London before she was buried and carried out a very successful royal visit to Ireland with his latest mistress Lady Conyngham - the first visit to Ireland by a ruling monarch since Richard II in 1399. The following year he spent three weeks in Scotland, which no monarch had visited since Charles II. Sir Walter Scott organised the visit which did much to revive Scottish culture when the king encouraged the wearing of tartan.

Lord Liverpool had remained prime minister throughout the Regency and continued in office under the new regime. He had presided over the final victories over Napoleon, followed by the difficult years of unrest and now enjoyed greater popularity as the economy strengthened; Britain returned to the gold standard in 1819. The Tory party was becoming split between conservatives fearful of revolutionary disturbance and various reformers exemplified by Robert Peel and Canning.

The leading light of the former group, Lord Castlereagh, was suffering from gout and other health problems. He was bitterly opposed to the rise of Peel. In August 1822 the king realised Castlereagh appeared to be suffering a mental breakdown and warned Liverpool. The same day the Duke of Wellington also became aware that Castlereagh was unwell. His doctor was called, but that weekend Castlereagh committed suicide. His character was savagely attacked; his capable management of foreign affairs and the enduring European settlement he achieved at the Congress of Vienna was not appreciated at the time. Without his assistance Wellington might never have gained command in the Iberian Peninsula. Although a member of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, he was a consistent supporter of varying degrees of Catholic emancipation. He changed his views on slavery and supported the use of the Royal Navy for suppressing the slave trade. In 1820, he declared Britain would not interfere in European affairs, a policy which remained unchanged until 1900. However, he was a hard Ulster Protestant and he will forever be remembered as an opponent of the reforming forces calling for social and political change.

Castlereagh’s old opponent George Canning succeeded him as Foreign Secretary. Canning had become President of the Board of Control in 1816, which in effect made him Minister with oversight of the East India Company, but he resigned in 1820 because he opposed the government’s treatment of Queen Caroline. The following year Liverpool wished to recall him to government, but the king was hostile and would have no personal dealings with him. Canning became an important supporter of difficult government business; from the back benches he moved a bill to allow Catholics to sit in the House of Lords, which succeeded in the Commons but failed in the Lords. Lord Liverpool was preparing to send him to India as Governor General, but brought him into government to fill Castlereagh’s shoes as Foreign Secretary and Leader of the Commons.

Canning sorted out East Indian colonial problems with the Netherlands and secured recognition of the East India Company rights in Singapore. He also used the Royal Navy to keep other European powers at bay as the Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal struggled to gain independence. In 1825 Portugal was persuaded to recognise Brazil’s independence and commercial treaties were agreed with the independent states of Mexico, Argentina and Colombia. Canning is sometimes recognised as being godfather of the independence movements in Latin America.

In 1827 Lord Liverpool was felled by a stroke. He was the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 19th century and, although usually only remembered now for the repressive measures employed during the troubled period following the Napoleonic war, he shares with Castlereagh the right to be remembered as a firm supporter of the Peninsula Campaign and the far-sighted peace agreement agreed at the Congress of Vienna. He could be liberal-minded, but on questions such as Catholic emancipation he was a pragmatist and would not oppose the king or move faster than the political climate allowed. However, in the final years of his ministry, the restrictive Combination Acts were repealed, Peel removed the death penalty for more than 100 offences and also attempted to reform the prison system, inspired by the work of the prison reformer and Quaker Elizabeth Fry. William Huskisson brought in measures which began the Free Trade policy which prevailed throughout the years of British trade supremacy in the nineteenth century.

The king asked Canning to take Lord Liverpool’s place, but let it be known that, like his revered father George III, he opposed Catholic emancipation. The High Tory Duke of Wellington and the up and coming man Robert Peel, both opponents of emancipation, refused to serve with Canning. Five other members of the old cabinet and 40 junior members of the government followed them onto the back benches. Canning was forced to turn to the Whigs for support, but in contrast to his predecessor, his term of office was exceedingly short - a mere 119 days - before he died in office. After a short stop-gap ministry, a full Tory administration returned, led by the Duke of Wellington.

The Catholic question came to the forefront of national affairs again when Daniel O’Connell stood for election in the Clare bi-election of 1828 although, being a Catholic, he would not be allowed to take his seat in the Commons. His overwhelming victory alarmed the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who feared an insurrection if O’Connell were excluded from parliament. Wellington and Peel were forced to swallow their objection to Catholic emancipation. Another Catholic Relief bill was prepared and the king was persuaded by their threats of resignation to give reluctant royal assent. In the face of fierce ultra-Tory resistance, the bill was passed with the help of Whig votes in April 1829. During the heated process of securing a majority, Wellington challenged the Earl of Winchelsea, the fiercest opponent of the bill, and they met in a bloodless duel at Battersea Fields.

The Act allowed Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to hold public offices, but it also increased the property qualifications that allowed individuals in Ireland to vote, and thus it significantly reduced the number of voters on the register. However, for the first time in over two hundred years, Catholics were able to take part in the civic life of the entire country of Great Britain and Ireland. It was a major change in the constitution and people of all religious persuasions now had a share in the country’s affairs and had access to public office. Once Catholics were emancipated, Irish Protestants became divided along class lines. The aristocracy and gentry of the Ascendancy lived with the changes, but the middle and working classes, especially in Ulster, exhibited their continuing opposition to Catholic involvement in the country’s affairs with parades organised by the Orange Order. The 1829 Act opened the door for a century of often heated examination of Ireland’s political soul.

In that year, those around the king knew he was approaching the end of his life. He weighed about 20 stone (280lbs) and now rarely appeared in public; in addition to his regular consumption of large quantities of food and alcohol, he was also addicted to the opiate laudanum to counteract severe pain in his bladder. He allegedly repented of his dissolute life, before he finally passed away, largely unlamented, in June 1830. The Times stated that ‘there was never an individual less regretted of his fellow creatures than the late king’, which is understandable, but he was also a magnificent patron of the arts. His patronage remains evident in the great buildings, such as The Brighton Pavilion, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace which he built, restored or enhanced, and his great collection of artwork which remains an important part of the Royal Collection.

The throne passed to his brother, the third son of George III, William Duke of Clarence who reigned as William IV & III. For many years he had lived with his mistress Dorothy Jordan, by whom he had 10 illegitimate children named Fitzclarence. However, when the only daughter of his brother the Prince Regent died in 1818, George and his younger brother the Duke of Kent married German princesses with the intention of producing legitimate heirs. They both produced daughters, but William’s daughter died in infancy. When he came to the throne his heir was his young niece Victoria, who was being brought up in a restricted environment in Kensington Palace by her mother the Duchess of Kent.

William IV’s first Prime Minister Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, was now widely disliked in many sections of the population. Agricultural workers in particular were upset about the changes in their working conditions and pay, which they blamed on the introduction of mechanised threshing machines on the farms, the enclosure of commons and the administration of the Poor Law system. They also disliked the tythe system, whereby a tenth of notional production was often taken in cash by the incumbent of their local church, much to the annoyance of penniless workers who often worshipped at Methodist or Baptist chapels. In the summer of 1830 workers in Kent began a series of attacks on farmers and their property, which soon spread through southern England and East Anglia. They were supposedly led by a mythical figure called Captain Swing and their activities are remembered as the Swing Riots. In addition to destroying farm machinery, they burned corn ricks and sometimes maimed or killed farm animals. Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords in November, Earl Grey, leader of the Whigs, suggested the violence could be reduced by electoral reform, to which Wellington replied he could not visualise any improvement to the existing constitution, which caused a mob to attack Wellington's London home.

The rural violence eventually subsided but farmworkers continued to explore ways of expressing their demands. In 1834 six labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset were found guilty of the illegal act of swearing a secret oath in order to join a trade union and were sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies in Australia. Mass protests led to their pardon and permits to return in 1836, but it was clear that the situation in the countryside was in need of improvement.

It was during this period of national unrest that Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force based at Scotland Yard. He declared: "The police are the public and the public are the police.” Within a short time the new police force successfully reduced crime in London. Other areas of Britain soon followed the capital’s example and formed their own police forces.

The Tories were now completely split. The party had lost the support of its ‘Canningite’ reformist supporters, most of whom followed Huskisson when he left office in 1828. At the other extreme, the ultras were never reconciled to Peel, whom they regarded as a traitor to the Protestant cause. Huskisson’s death in the first fatal passenger railway accident at the opening of the Manchester-Liverpool Railway in 1830 ended hopes of repairing at least one of the party breaches. In July that year, the Tories won an election, but were so divided that Wellington could not form a government and resigned his office. After long years in the political wilderness, the Whigs came back to power committed to political reform with Earl Grey as prime minister.

The parliamentary franchise system which had evolved on an ad hoc basis in the Middle Ages was unrepresentative of the social and economic situation in the early nineteenth century. The notorious rotten boroughs, where a few votes were in the pockets of rich families, were the outstanding examples of the parliamentary corruption which reformers wished to abolish. Places like Dunwich and Old Sarum had virtually no voters, yet each returned two members to the House of Commons, whilst growing cities such as Manchester and Birmingham had no representation at all. Demand for the abolition of rotten boroughs and a redistribution of seats to the more populous parts of the country was now widespread. Moreover, the franchise was reserved to men of some means, identified by a property qualification, but the unrepresented middle and working classes were demanding universal manhood suffrage. Moreover there was no secret ballot; every voter’s choice of candidate was public knowledge and, if it did not suit one of the parties, the unfortunate voter could find his livelihood endangered or even suffer bodily harm.

The government could make no headway with a bill to reform parliamentary representation and went to the country seeking a mandate in 1831. The Whigs and their allies gained a majority which enabled the bill to pass in the Commons, but the Lords continued to resist. King William was persuaded that new Whig peers would have to be created to overcome the Tory majority in the upper house and the Lords finally backed down. The Great Reform Act was finally passed in 1832. 56 boroughs were disenfranchised and 31 others lost one of their two MPs; 67 new constituencies were formed in the more heavily populated areas; the property qualification in the counties was lowered to include tenant farmers, shopkeepers and suchlike folk and in the boroughs all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more were allowed to vote. However, the ballot was still a public affair and nobody voted in secret.

The Reform Act was a fairly modest change, but it brought new impetus to the anti-slavery movement. Parliament had abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, although a follow up Act was required in 1811 in order to fully criminalise British slave traders. Since then the Royal Navy had patrolled the ocean off the coast of West Africa with orders to suppress the trade. A number of European countries had allowed the navy to stop and search ships flying their flag, but some slavers illegally took to flying the Stars and Stripes. Even though the United States had also banned the slave trade, Britain was reluctant to cause an incident by boarding vessels flying their flag. Although Britain was playing the leading role in trying to bring an end to the cruelty and inhumanity of the Middle Passage, there was less appetite for interfering in the actual process of slavery itself, until the Reform Act brought a House of Commons more in tune with the rising demand for the emancipation of slaves in British colonies.

Slavery was a mainstay of the economies of Caribbean and Latin American colonies and the southern states of the United States. Many were persuaded it was a natural part of the human condition since time immemorial. Others defended themselves against charges of inhumanity by disputing the very humanity of their black slaves, which often led to cruelty, sexual abuse and abominable treatment, such as children being sold away from their mothers. Having secured the abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade, the anti-slavery movement hesitated to fight for an immediate end to slavery itself in the British Empire. The West Indies lobby was powerful during the Napoleonic war and in the difficult years which followed, and many people in Britain, perhaps shamefacedly, considered their way of life and in many cases their actual livelihood, owed something to the slave-owning economies in the colonies.

Recognising the strength of that hidden opposition, the first move to ban slavery in the Empire was rather hesitant. An Anti-Slavery Society was started in 1823 by founding members who included Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Its official name was the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions, which clearly shows they had no expectation of achieving a speedy result. In 1824 Thomas Fowell Buxton, a brewer, took over Wilberforce’s position as spokesman for the abolitionists in parliament. His task was eased when the newly reformed House of Commons met in 1832, with the West Indies lobby greatly weakened and a good number of new members sympathetic to the calls for the overturning of a great injustice.

Furthermore, a number of uprisings and freedom demands among the enslaved people of the Caribbean had been publicised by pamphlets written by freed slaves such as Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. Even as the reform parliament was elected, news of a fresh uprising came to London. Jamaica had a history of slave resistance, going back to the Maroons who escaped and waged guerrilla raids on plantations as far back as the takeover from Spain in 1655. Samuel Sharpe, a literate and well respected Baptist deacon in charge of a missionary chapel at Montego Bay, led a strike which developed into a brief uprising in 1831/2. Some 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 enslaved population rose in response to his call. As the militia moved in to restore order, nearly 200 people of African descent and 14 British planters or overseers were killed; many other slaves were captured and sentenced to death. In Britain people were reminded of the horrors and cost of the St Domingue or Haiti uprising and the government was persuaded that the costs and dangers of supporting slavery in the West Indies were becoming well-nigh insupportable.

It appears some plantation owners were willing to consider abolition of slavery, so long as they were indemnified against the loss of unpaid labour, which was their major fixed asset, and so long as the matter was organised in an orderly fashion. The government raised £15 million from Rothchild’s bank as compensation for the owners and presented a bill to Parliament for emancipating the slaves, who were to be converted into ‘apprentices’; they would achieve full freedom in two stages of four and two years, in which time it was expected arrangements for future employment, housing, etc. would be in place; children under six became free immediately. The Abolition of Slavery bill was passed in July 1833, three days before Wilberforce died. It was put into effect on 1st August the following year and full emancipation was legally granted ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838. The Act specifically excluded East India Company possessions and the Islands of Ceylon and Saint Helena, which were made subject to another anti-slavery act in 1843.  Thomas Clarkson was the only one of the original leaders of the abolition movement to live and witness the end of slavery in the British Empire.

Grey’s reforming government also took modest measures to curb the inhumane working practices in many industrial workplaces. The MPs Anthony Ashley Cooper and Michael Sadler, supported by some textile manufacturers in Lancashire and Yorkshire who wanted to end unfair competition from unscrupulous rivals, led a campaign known as the Ten Hour Movement to reduce the working day for children. A Royal Commission was set up which heard evidence of the appalling abuse and mistreatment of children in factories. The 1833 Factories Act forbade employment of children under nine, work for children aged nine to thirteen was limited to 48 hours a week and they were to receive elementary schooling for two hours per day; those aged thirteen to eighteen were limited to 12 hours per day; no children were to work at night. A factories' inspectorate was created, with powers to impose penalties for infringements, but it was far too small and there was widespread evasion of the Act.

An internal government struggle about appropriating some Church of Ireland tythe revenues for use by the Irish Catholic Church caused Earl Grey to retire in July 1834. He was blessed with a long marriage which produced ten children, but he also enjoyed an affair with Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire who had a child by him. Earl Grey tea is another of his creations. Grey had a lengthy political career but he was never a root and branch radical; it was only at the end that he found himself in the fortuitous position of ushering through Parliament the two great radical achievements of political reform and the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire.

Within weeks of Grey leaving office, the Poor Law Amendment Act, which may be regarded as the last achievement of his administration, was passed. The act was framed in the belief that poverty was being perpetuated by the provision of Poor Law relief and the Speenhamland system of wages supplements. The conclusion was that all able-bodied people and their families should stop receiving relief. Parishes were to be grouped together in Poor Law unions, under locally elected boards of Guardians, each of which would have its own workhouse. 'Outdoor relief' (assistance provided outside of a workhouse) was withdrawn, except for some cases where a person was unable to work due to old age or infirmity. The able-bodied but unemployed could not draw support unless they entered a workhouse, where they earned their keep by crushing bones to make fertiliser and other such repetitive chores. Men, women and children were kept in separate departments. Workhouses also housed the sick, the mentally ill, unmarried mothers and the aged and impotent. It was a fundamental alteration of the poor laws which had operated since the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and the intention was that the experience of being in a workhouse should be worse than the life lived by the poorest labourers outside. The Act was designed to deter idleness and curb spending relief on able-bodied people. The fear of the workhouse, as expressed in some of Dickens’ work, haunted every working class home until the next century.

William Lamb the Viscount Melbourne succeeded Earl Grey. Originally a Canningite Tory, Melbourne was also no radical. He reluctantly supported the Reform Bill of 1832 and was Home Secretary when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia. The king, who was offended by Whig plans for church reform and objected to Lord John Russell serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons, soon took the opportunity to dismiss Melbourne’s administration and called Wellington and Peel back to office.

Peel was unable to form a government and, in preparation for another general election he issued his Tamworth Manifesto, which expressed the political beliefs of the evolving Peelite Conservative party. He accepted the Reform Act and promised to correct proven abuses and to redress real grievances but he rejected unnecessary change for change’s sake. The Peelite Tories won back about 100 seats in the election of 1835, but were unable to overcome the combined opposition of Whigs and O’Connell’s Irish members. Peel was forced to resign and Melbourne returned to office with Russell as Leader of the Commons.

King William disliked most of the cabinet, but warmly supported the prime minister when the husband of Melbourne’s friend Lady Caroline Norton sued for divorce, alleging that Melbourne was in ‘criminal conversation’ with her. The petition failed, but Lady Caroline was forbidden access to her children and became a political campaigner for women’s rights. She was instrumental in parliament passing the Custody of Infants Act 1839 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. During his lifetime Melbourne opposed some of the causes she fought for!

The King and Queen Adelaide had grown fond of their niece, Princess Victoria, but no love was lost between him and her mother the Duchess of Kent. William IV feared she would become the regent if he died before Victoria reached the age of majority. However, much to his pleasure, she celebrated her eighteenth birthday one month before he died in June 1837. Victoria then became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and all its overseas dominions, but by Salic tradition the Hanoverian Crown went to her uncle, George III's fifth son the Duke of Cumberland. William's death thus ended the personal union of Britain and Hanover, which had persisted since 1714. William IV was, on the whole, a sensible man who accepted the diminished status of the crown in the altered constitutional order. He said ‘I have my view of things, and I tell them to my ministers. If they do not adopt them, I cannot help it.  I have done my duty.’



1816 The Elgin marbles, stripped from the Parthenon in Athens, which is part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, are sold to the British Museum by Lord Elgin (1766-1841).
~ Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), women’s rights radical and novelist, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), the poet, writes the novel Frankenstein at Geneva.
~ The East India Company concludes the Gurkha War with the Treaty of Sugauli which permits it to recruit Gurkha soldiers from Nepal.
~ The Leeds-Liverpool Canal is finally completed.


1817 Habeas Corpus is suspended due to fear of insurrection.
~ Jane Austen (born 1775), the seminal novelist who brought a female view of society to public attention, dies.
~ David Ricardo (1772-1823), British political economist, publishes Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.
~ Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), Quaker and humanitarian, campaigns to improve conditions for women prisoners in Newgate prison.
~ Princess Charlotte Augusta (born 1796), only daughter of the Prince Regent and second in line for the throne, dies in childbirth. She was wife to Prince Leopold (1790-1865) of Saxe-Coburg who later becomes King of the Belgians.

1818 Gas lights are introduced at Covent Garden and Brighton Pavilion.
~ The need for a new generation of royal children to secure the Hanoverian succession precipitates a double Royal wedding. William Duke of Clarence (1765-1837), who already had 10 illegitimate children by his mistress Mrs Dorothea Jordan (1761-1816), married Princess Adelaide of Saxe Meiningen (1792-1849); his younger brother Edward Augustus Duke of Kent (1767-1820) married the dowager Princess Victoria of Leiningen (1786-1861), sister to Prince Leopold (see 1817).
~ The East India Company forces defeat the Hindu Mahratta Empire which had been an unreliable rival of the Company for many years. Much territory is annexed by the British and the rest is handed to princely rulers under British control.
~ The 49th parallel is agreed as the US/Canadian boundary west of the Great Lakes.
~ John Keats (1795-1821) publishes the poem Endymion in 4 books.

1819 The ‘Peterloo’ Massacre – Hussars kill 11 people at a rally demanding political reform at Manchester.
~ The Six Acts aiming to supress meetings calling for radical reform are passed in response to Peterloo.
~ Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) founds the East India Company establishment at Singapore, which becomes a major trading hub in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, despite government misgivings about competition with Dutch interests in Indonesia.
~ Princess Victoria (died 1901) is born to the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
~ The Peel Act commits Britain to return to the gold standard by 1823.

1820 The Duke of Kent dies six days before his father the king, leaving his infant daughter Princess Victoria as third in line heir to the crown.
~ King George III dies, succeeded by the Prince Regent George IV (1762-1830).
~ The Cato Street Conspirators plot to blow up the cabinet – 5 are executed, the last to be beheaded in Britain.
~ George IV fails to secure a divorce from Queen Caroline (1768-1821) on grounds of her adultery when the necessary bill is withdrawn. She dies soon after his coronation.
~ A treaty with the Trucial Oman States to prevent piracy in the Persian Gulf establishes an informal British protectorate for the region.
~ John Clare (1793-1864), the peasant poet publishes his first work: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.

1821 Immediately after his coronation George IV pays the first visit to Ireland by a reigning monarch since Richard II.
~ Princess Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence gives birth to a daughter Elizabeth but the child dies in infancy leaving Princess Victoria as second in line heir to the throne.
~ Monopoly powers of the Hudson’s Bay Company are extended to include the North West Territories of Canada.
~ John Constable (1776-1837) paints The Hay Wain.
~ The Manchester Guardian newspaper is published.
~ Death of John Keats, the lyric poet, at the age of 25.

1822 George IV becomes the first reigning British monarch to visit Scotland since Charles II was crowned at Scone in 1651. As a result of the visit, the tartan kilt becomes part of Scottish national identity.
~ Lord Castlereagh, long-serving Foreign Secretary, commits suicide to be succeeded in office by his old rival George Canning.
~ Napoleon Bonaparte dies on St Helena.
~ Navigation Acts are modified to allow foreign ships from Europe into UK.
~ The iron ship Aaron Manby, driven by a steam engine and named for its builder and part designer (1776-1850), makes a return voyage London to Paris averaging 8.5 knots.
~ The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (born 1792) is drowned in Italy.
~ Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) publishes the autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

1823 Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) abolishes the death penalty for more than 100 offences and gives responsibility for prison discipline and conditions to the Home Office.
~ William Huskisson’s (1770-1830) Warehousing of Goods Act begins moves for Free Trade.
~ Daniel O’Connell (1775-1857), first of a line of nineteenth century Irish Catholic leaders, helps found the Catholic Association which demands Catholic civil rights and the repeal of the Act of Union.
~ William Wilberforce publishes Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies prior to his retirement with ill health.
~ The King’s Library of 120,800 books is presented to the British Museum.
~ The Royal Academy of Music opens.
~ William Webb Ellis (1806-1872) runs with the ball at Rugby School.

1824 Repeal of the Combination Acts which banned workers’ union organisations.
~ The Straits Settlements administration is created when the Malay Archipelago is divided into areas of British East India Company and Dutch influence.
~ Lord Byron (born 1788), scandalous socialite and poet, dies at Missolonghi, modern Greece.
~ George IV supports purchase of the Angerstein art collection to found the National Gallery.
~ The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, forerunner of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is founded by Sir William Hillary (1771-1647).
~ Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is founded (RSPCA).

1825 George Stephenson (1781-1848), ‘father of railways’ completes the world’s first passenger-carrying steam locomotive railway line which carries 450 persons at speeds up to 15 mph from Stockton to Darlington.
~ Roman Catholic Relief bill is rejected by the House of Lords.
~ Cotton Mills and Factories Act limits children’s working day in cotton mills to 12 hours per day with meal breaks.
~ Navigation Laws modified; foreign ships allowed to trade in UK ports on equal terms.
~ The penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) is established.

1826 University College, offering non-sectarian education, is founded in London.
~ The hard-fought first Anglo-Burmese War ends with Britain gaining control of Assam and other territories in north east India.
~ Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) publishes his first novel Vivian Grey.

1827 Lord Liverpool, the long serving Tory Prime Minister, retires after suffering a stroke, having steered the country through difficult times during and after the Napoleonic Wars.
~ Succeeded by George Canning who dies after 119 days.
~ The Duke of Wellington becomes prime minister with Peel as Home Secretary.
~ The Marble Arch (later dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere) is designed by John Nash to be the ceremonial entrance to Buckingham palace.
~ Battle of Navarino. British, French and Russian ships defeat Turkish/Egyptian fleet and help achieve Greek independence.
~ Fourah Bay College, the only European-style university in sub-Saharan West Africa, is established by the Church Missionary Society in Sierra Leone.

1828 Sacramental Test Act repeals the Test and Corporation Acts.
~ Huskisson leads Canningites out of government over electoral reform matters.
~ Daniel O’Connell, leader of the Catholic Association, wins the Clare bi-election.
~ The Spectator magazine is published (revival of a title first used in 1711).

~ William Burke and William Hare murder 16 victims in Edinburgh and sell the bodies for dissection by an anatomist.
~ The governor of Cape Colony decrees equal citizen rights for non-slave indigenous Africans.

1829 The Duke of Wellington’s Tory ministry passes the Roman Catholic Relief Act granting political emancipation to Catholics.
~ Daniel O’Connell takes his seat in the House of Commons and begins a campaign for repeal of the Union of Ireland with Great Britain.
~ Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act founds a London professional police force.
~ Lord William Bentinck (1774-1839), Governor General of India, proscribes the practice of Sati (immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) and female infanticide.
~ King’s College London is founded by King George IV and the Duke of Wellington.
~ Oxford beats Cambridge in the first University boat race.

1830 Swing agrarian riots against commons enclosures and threshing machines spread through southern England.
~ Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) secures recognition of Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands by the continental powers. Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg (1790-1865) widower of Princess Charlotte Augusta becomes King of the Belgians.
~ The London Protocol establishes the independent kingdom of Greece, recently freed from Ottoman rule.
~ William Huskisson is accidentally killed by George and Robert Stephenson’s locomotive Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool - Manchester railway.
~ George IV dies succeeded by his elderly brother William IV & III (1765-1837).

~ Princess Victoria becomes the heir to the throne.
~ Wellington resigns, succeeded by the Whig leader Earl Grey (1764-1845).
~ William Cobbett, a populist supporter of the Swing riots, presents the collected edition of Rural Rides.
~ The Royal Geographical Society is founded to promote the advancement of geographical science.
~ The lawnmower, which greatly improves the care of sports grounds and encourages the adoption of lawns by middle-class home owners, is patented by inventor Edwin Beard Budding (1796-1846).

1831 Michael Faraday (1791-1867) discovers Electro-magnetic induction leading to the invention of the electric transformer and generator.
~ Construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge begins; designed by I.K Brunel (1806-59) with the largest span in the world at the time, work is halted for many years due to funding problems.
~ The House of Lords resists an electoral reform measure brought forward by tEarl Grey's new Whig administration, which wins a majority at the subsequent election, but electoral reform is still resisted in House of Lords.

~ Charles Darwin (1809-82) sails on board The Beagle to conduct a scientific survey of South American waters.
~ The British Association for the Advancement of Science is founded.
~ James Clark Ross (1800-62) discovers the Magnetic North Pole on Arctic voyage led by his uncle John Ross (1777-1856).

1832 The Great Reform Act is passed. Rotten and pocket boroughs are abolished and replaced by constituencies in industrial towns; the franchise is extended to the urban upper middle class. Similar Acts for Scotland and Ireland are passed.
~ Whigs gain 300 majority in the reformed House of Commons.
~ The first of several cholera outbreaks kills many in London and elsewhere.
~ Jeremy Bentham (born 1747), the founder of Utilitarian philosophy, dies. His body was dissected and preserved and is now exhibited at University College London.
~ Scotsmen James Matheson (1796-1878) and William Jardine (1784-1843) found Jardine Matheson in Canton (Guangzhou), destined to become the largest British trading company in Asia.
~ Sir Walter Scott, prolific Scottish writer and author of ‘The Waverley Novels’, dies of typhus.
~ The first new English university since the Middle Ages is founded at Durham by Act of Parliament.

1833 The Factory Act forbids employment of children under 9 and those under 13 are limited to 9 hours per day. Inspectors are appointed.
~ John Henry Newman (1801-90) and John Keble (1792-1866) initiate the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement.
~ Isambard K. Brunel is appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway.
~ Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) publishes a heavily criticised volume of poems which includes a first version of The Lady of Shalott.
~ Britain reasserts its claim to the Falkland Isles (Malvinas).
~ The East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China is abolished.
~ Bank Charter Act allows joint stock banks to operate in London.

1834 Slavery is abolished throughout the British Empire. Slaves over the age of six become apprentices and are freed from their bond in two stages ending in 1840. Owners are compensated by the government with money loaned by the N. M. Rothschild bank.
~ 30,000 trade unionists protest in London as Tolpuddle Martyrs are sentenced to 7 years transportation for taking a secret oath in support of The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.
~ The Poor Law Amendment Act abolishes supplementary wages support for the poor (the Speenhamland System) and institutes the Union workhouse system, whereby the poor and destitute are removed to area institutions run on strict utilitarian rules.
~ Earl Grey resigns succeeded as prime minister by Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848) who is dismissed by the king for proposing church reforms.
~ Sir Robert Peel tries to form a government and issues the Tamworth Manifesto, which describes the principles which will guide the future Conservative Party.
~ A colony of South Australia is authorised for free migrants, not convicts.
~ The London and Middlesex Sheriffs’ Court at Old Bailey, London is renamed the Central Criminal Court.
~ William H. Sleeman (1788-1856) is made superintendent of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department of the East India Company, formed to eradicate murdering gangs of bandits.
~ Fire destroys the Houses of Parliament.
~ Charles Babbage (1791-1871) designs a digital computer, which is too complicated to manufacture.

1835 General Election. Whigs, radicals and Irish outnumber Tories by more than 100 seats in the Commons and agree to form a joint opposition.
~ Peel resigns and Melbourne becomes P M again.
~ Municipal Corporations Act reorganises local government for 178 cities and boroughs.
~ Boer farmers leave British jurisdiction in the Cape Colony on the Great Trek beyond the Orange River.

1836 The Tythe Commutation Act abolishes the ancient parish levy paid in kind (corn, eggs etc.) to church ministers or patrons and replaces it with a monetary payment, varying with the price of corn.
~ The Tolpuddle Martyrs are pardoned and permitted to return to England.
~ Irish Constabulary Act centralises Ireland’s police into one force and gives a salary to magistrates.
~ Registration of Births, Marriages and Death becomes compulsory in England and Wales, followed by Scotland in 1855, Ireland in 1864.
~ Point to Point horseraces begin at Madresfield, Worcestershire.
~ London University is permitted to examine for degree status in Literature, Science and Arts.


Follow by Email