In Britain, the general rejoicings that followed the victory over Napoleon were not well founded. The British had assumed that the ending of war would open a vast market for their goods and had piled up stocks accordingly. Instead, there was an immediate fall in the demand for them. Europe was still too disturbed and too poor to take any great quantity of British manufactured goods.
One important market had been actually opened by the war, which had cut Spain off from South America and left its colonies virtually independent. This, however, had only led to crazy speculation and the flooding of the market with all kinds of goods for many of which no possible demand existed. There was also possibility to trade in the West Indies as well as in the Far East, but these markets could absorb only a limited quantity of the British goods.
As a result of it in 1815 exports and imports fell. There was a heavy slump in wholesale prices. Thus, iron fell from £20 to £8 a ton. Most of the blast-furnaces went out of production and thousands of workers lost their work.
The crisis was also intensified by other causes. Three hundred thousand demobilized soldiers and sailors were forced to compete in an already overstocked labour market. Wages fell considerably, while prices were kept artificially high by the policy of inflation which Pitt had begun in 1797 when he allowed the Bank of England to issue paper money without a proper gold backing. Taxation was kept at a high level by the huge Debt charges, amounting in 1820 to £30,000,000 out of a total revenue of £53,000,000. The reckless borrowing by means of which the war had been financed left a heavy burden upon several generations of the British. Inflation and high taxes prevented the rapid recovery of industry.
This post-war crisis was marked by a sudden outburst of class conflict. A series of disturbances began with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and went on until the close of the year 1816. In London riots ensued and were continued for several days, while the Bill was discussed in Parliament. At Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread. At Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain. At Bury St. Edmunds and any other towns the unemployed made attempts to destroy machinery. They regarded machinery as enemy that deprived them of their work. Machine wrecking was inspired by the ideas of a certain Ludd, and people who joined it were called the Luddites.
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The Luddite riots centred in the Nottingham hosiery area, where the introduction of new production methods into a semi-domestic industry had cut prices to a point at which the hand stocking knitters found it almost impossible to make a living. Machine wrecking took place also in many other towns. Every method of repression, including military violence, was used by the government to suppress the Luddite riots.
In 1819 huge meetings were held all over the North and Midlands, demanding Parliamentary Reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. One such meeting was held at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, on August 16th, when 80,000 people assembled to hear a well-known radical speaker Hunt. When Hunt began to speak he was arrested and the yeomanry suddenly charged into the crowd, hacking blindly with their sabres in all directions.
In a few minutes eleven people were killed and about 400, including over 100 women, were wounded. The brutality of this attack on a peaceful crowd, and the callousness with which it was defended by the government, made the necessity for Reform clearer than ever to the industrial workers, and at the same time convinced many of the middle class that Reform was the only alternative to a policy of repression that would lead unevitably to civil war. From this time Parliamentary Reform began to be "respectable" and to appear prominently on the programme of the Whigs. But the immediate result of the "Peterloo Massacre" was a tightening of the repression. Hunt and other radicals were arrested and imprisoned. Some of them were forced to seek a temporary refuge in America.
In November 1819, the "Six Acts" were passed by Parliament. These Acts made organized legal agitation for Reform more difficult. They gave the local authorities powers to prevent meetings of more than fifty persons and to search private houses where they suspected arms were hidden. They forbade any kind of processions with bands or banners. They made publishers of "blasphemous and seditious libels" liable to imprisonment or transportation and placed a tax on all newspapers and pamphlets. The object of this was to make radical papers too dear for most part of the population.
The "Six Acts" of 1819 were followed by a temporary diminution of Radical agitation. For this they were perhaps less responsible than the revival of industry that began in 1820 and continued up to the boom year of 1826. Such a revival was inevitable once the effects of the war had passed, because British industry really had a world monopoly at this time. Manufacturers liked to talk about foreign competition but actually no other country had any considerable large-scale industry or any surplus of manufactured goods for export. France and the United States were just beginning to develop a cotton textile industry, but even by 1833 their combined output was only two-thirds of that of Britain. In mining and the iron and steel industries British supremacy was equally marked.
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Exports increased from £48,000,000 in 1820 to £56,000,000 in 1825 and imports from £32,000,000 to £44,000,000. But this was only one side of the expansion. The same period was marked by the steady decline of the British small-scale and domestic industry before the competition of the factories. The decline of domestic industries was uneven, taking place in the cotton before the linen and woolen industries, in spinning before weaving and in East Anglia and the West Country before the North and Midlands. It was not completed before the 1840's, and was the cause of the most widespread and prolonged suffering. But it divided the working classes into sections with different interests and wrongs, and forced those who were the worst sufferers into futile and objectively reactionary forms of protest.
3. The Reform Bill
By 1830 Britain had been struck by a severe economic crisis. Factories were closing down, unemployment increased rapidly, and the wages of workers fell. The revolution which took place in Paris in July and in Belgium in August helped to increase the tensions of the atmosphere.
Economic distress quickly led to a demand for Parliamentary Reform. The agitation for Reform was more widespread and dangerous than ever before, though Reform meant quite different things to different classes.
The character of Parliament, the classes which dominated it, the methods by which elections were carried out, its unrepresentative nature and the accompanying system of sinecures and jobbery in the first decades of the 19th century differed in no fundamental respect from that prevailing a century before. A few sinecures had been abolished and corruption was forced by the growth of criticism to be a little more discreet, but these gains were more than outweighed by two changes for the worse.
The growth of population since 1760, and the changed distribution of that population, had made the members of Parliament even less representative. Great new towns had sprung up which returned no members: these included Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield. Many of the old boroughs had remained small or had even declined in population.
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The members did not represent the bulk of the inhabitants of the places for which they sat. At the same time the industrial areas were almost disfranchised as compared with the rural areas and small but old market towns dominated by local gentry. And, second, the class of 40 shilling freeholders in whom the county franchise was vested had been almost swept out of existence by the enclosures. The class of yeomen disappeared, the electors were mainly the landowners.
The Reform Bill had really two sides. One regularized the franchise, giving the vote to tenant farmers in the counties (and thereby increasing the influence of the landowners in these constituencies) and to the town middle class. In a number of boroughs the right to vote was actually taken from a large number of people who previously exercised it. About this side of the Bill the working class was naturally unenthusiastic, but it was carefully kept in the background while a furious campaign was worked up against the rotten boroughs.
The most popular part of the Bill was that which swept away the rotten boroughs and transferred their members to the industrial towns and the counties. Fifty-six boroughs lost both their members and thirty more lost one. Forty-two new constituencies were created in London and other large towns and sixty-five new members were given to the counties.
Most of the workers believed that once the old system of graft and borough-mongering was swept away they could count on an immediate improvement in their conditions. Hence the enthusiasm aroused by the Reform Bill and hence their speedy and complete disillusionment afterwards.
The Bill passed into law on June 7th, 1832. It increased the electorate only from 220,000 to 670,000 in a population of 14,000,000, but its other consequences can hardly be exaggerated.
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First, by placing political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class followers it created a mass basis for the Liberal Party which dominated politics throughout the middle of the 19th century. From this time some of the towns of the industrial North began to send Radical members to Parliament, and a definite political group began to form to the left of the liberals, sometimes cooperating with them, but frequently taking an independent political line. There was always a group of members which supported the demands of the Chartists in the House of Commons.
In the fifty-five years between 1830 and 1885 there were nine Whig and Liberal governments that held office for a total of roughly forty-one years: in the same period six Tory governments had only fourteen years of office.
Second, the Reform Bill altered the political balance between the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown. The Commons gained at the expense of the Lords because they were now able to claim to be the representatives of the people against a clique of aristocrats. The abolition of the rotten boroughs also robbed the peers of much of their power to control the composition of the Lower House. For the same reason the Crown lost the last of its means of direct interference in Parliamentary politics. From this time the influence of the Crown, though often considerable, had to be exercised secretly, through its private contacts with politicians.
The third consequence of passing of the Reform Bill was unintended and indirect. The workers who had done most of the fighting soon realized that they had been excluded from all the benefits, and the Poor Law Act of 1834 convinced them that the Government was indifferent to their needs. It is not accidental that the years immediately after 1832 were marked by a disgusted turning away of the masses from parliamentary politics to revolutionary Trade Unionism, or that they proceeded to build up in the Chartist Movement the first independent political party of the working class.
4. The Poor Law of 1834
By the 19th century, Britain had become an industrial nation. The population of the country increased, as well as the number of poor people. For a generation the hand weavers and petty craftsmen had fought desperately to escape the factories. Year by year their incomes had fallen till a man could not hope to earn more than five or six shillings for a full working week. Even with the help of the existing Poor Law grants that was not enough to make ends meet. The weavers, as well as the unemployed and casually unemployed farm labourers starved.
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According to the Poor Law remaining in force, people who could not help being poor could be given money or go to a workhouse run by a parish. In the early 19th century most of the parishes were too poor to take care of the ever-increasing amount of the poor. The British society faced a serious social problem. Something was to be done, and in 1834 the old Poor Law was amended.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 stated that no one fit to work was to receive money at home. Parishes were grouped into "unions", and each union had to have a workhouse, and pay for it out of the rates. The principle of the new Poor Law was simple: every person in need of relief must receive it inside a workhouse. Workhouses had been places mainly for the reception of the aged, the disabled, of children and of all those too helpless and too defenceless to avoid being put there. In 1834 they became the only alternative to starvation for the poor.
The condition of a pauper in a workhouse was to be "less eligible" than that of the least prosperous workers outside. In the sinister language of the Poor Law Commission of 1834, the able-bodied inmate must be "subjected to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious". At a time when millions of people were on the verge of starvation, this object could only be achieved by making the workhouse the home of meanness and cruelty. Families were divided, food was poor and scanty and the tasks imposed were hard and boring, oakum picking and stone breaking being among the most common.
The administration of the Act was deliberately removed as far as possible from popular control by the appointment of three Commissioners who became the most detested men in England. People dreaded the workhouse and tried to protest. In some places workhouses were stormed and burnt after fierce clashes between people and troops. In many of the northern towns it was ten years or more before a workhouse was built. The mass agitation, however, died about 1840 and the Poor Law was put in force both in the rural and industrial areas.