From the beginning the Corn Laws were hated by everyone except the landowners and farmers, and even the latter found that in practice the fluctuation in wheat prices was ruinously violent and that the market was often manipulated so as to rob them of the profit they might have expected to make.
Attempts in 1828 and 1842 to improve the Corn Laws by introducing a sliding scale were not successful. Opposition to the Corn Laws, coupled with demands for Parliamentary Reform, were widespread, but died down after 1820 to be revived again by the coming of industrial depression of 1837. This time it was an agitation not so much of the mass of the people as of the industrial bourgeoisie anxious to reduce labour costs.
In 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was formed. League leaders such as Richard Cobden and John Bright expected the repeal of tariffs on imported food to advance the welfare of manufacturers and workers alike, while promoting international trade and peace among nations. The League's agitation produced a considerable effect on the workers. Unprecedented in scale and lavishly financed this agitation had all the advantages that the railways and cheap newspapers could give. Whenever Cobden or Bright spoke their words were widely reported in dozens of papers and the League orators were able to move swiftly and easily all over the country.
In the light of this continued pressure, combined with the plain fact that the growth of population was making it impossible for England to feed herself, the hesitating steps were taken towards Free Trade after 1841.
The first of these steps was dictated by the confused finance. Many tariffs and duties were swept away and replaced by an income tax which was both simpler and more productive, and in the long run less burdensome upon industry. The effect of these tariffs disappearance was to leave the Corn Laws as an isolated anomaly, increasingly conspicuous and increasingly difficult to defend.
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Sir Robert Peel, who was Prime Minister then, made a thorough study of the situation and realized that the belief common among landowners that vast stores of wheat were lying in the Baltic granaries ready to be poured into England was a pure fantasy. He knew that the surplus of corn for export in any country was still small and that the most the repeal of the Corn Laws would do would be to prevent an otherwise inevitable rise in prices which might have had revolutionary consequences. He managed to force through the repeal against the will of the majority of his own supporters in June 1846.
6. The Railway Age
The 18th century was a boom time for building roads. At the beginning of the century it took over three days to make the journey from London to Exeter or Manchester. By the end of the century the same journey took about 24 hours by coach. That became possible thanks to the network of new roads built by privately owned Turnpike Trusts. Until the beginning of the 19th century, however, British roads were still poor. They were badly rutted and became practically impassable in wet weather. Around the turn of the century engineers Thomas Telford and John McAd-am devised methods of building uniform, smooth, and durable roadbeds on which heavy goods could be carried in carts and wagons without destroying the roads. But still barges remained best for transporting heavy goods, and towards the end of the 18th century engineers constructed a system of canals that linked the larger rivers.
Water transport was rather slow, greater speeds were demanded. The idea of railway emerged as a result of the development of steam locomotives, but building locomotives and rail systems was so expensive that railroads were not widely used in Britain until the 1830's.
The first practical locomotive was constructed in England in 1804 by Richard Trevithick. It had smooth wheels operating on smooth metal rails. At first the railway was looked on mainly as a means of carrying goods, but it was soon discovered that the steam engine was capable of far higher speeds than had been imagined and that it could carry passengers more quickly and more cheaply than the stage coach.
After the successful trials of the Trevithick locomotive, a number of moderately successful locomotives were built in England, primarily for use in mining. In 1823 the Stockton-Darlington Railway was opened. In 1829 the much more important line connecting Manchester and Liverpool came into existence. It was not until 1829 that a locomotive was developed for use in a railway carrying both passengers and cargo. In that year The Rocket, a locomotive designed by the British engineer George Stephenson, won a competition sponsored by the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad.
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The Rocket pulled a load of three times its own weight at a speed of 20 km/hr and hauled a coach filled with passengers at 39 km/hr. This performance stimulated the building of other locomotives and the extension of railroad lines. Investors saw railroads as a profit-making venture and poured vast amounts of capital into building rail systems throughout the nation.
A regular fever of railway building, accompanied by a speculation boom and much gambling in stocks and land values, set in. In the years 1834-1836 about £10,000,000 was raised for railway construction. First in the industrial areas, then on the main routes radiating from London and then on the minor branches, thousands of miles of track were laid down.
Much of the capital expended on these works brought in no immediate profit, and in 1845 there was a severe crisis extending to many branches of industry and affecting a number of the banks. This crisis soon passed, being rather the result of speculative optimism than of any real instability of the railway companies, and was followed by the new outburst of building.
The railway building marked the beginning of a tremendous increase in all branches of heavy industry, especially in such key industries as coal mining and iron. The output of pig iron was 678,000 tons in 1830; in 1852 it was 2,701,000 tons. Coal output rose from 10,000,000 tons in 1800 to 100,000,000 tons in 1865.
Britain was the first country to create a railway system. It also started to build railways in countries all over the world, which proved to be a very profitable business. Railroads played an especially important role in the colonial and semi-colonial countries that had not a sufficiently dense population or money enough to build for themselves. Such railroads were usually not only built by British contractors but financed by loans raised in London.
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The immediate internal effect of the railway boom was to create a large demand for labour, both directly for railway construction and indirectly in the coal mining, iron and steel and other industries. In the second place, the railways made it much easier for workers to get from place to place, to leave the villages and find a factory town where work was to be had.
In 1801, 20 per cent of Britain's people lived in towns. By the end of the 19th century, it was 75 per cent. London especially was like a great octopus with its tentacles reaching out into the surrounding country. Life in the slums of big cities was grim. Although the population as a whole was going up, more children died in the cities than anywhere else. But rail travel made it easier for the better-off to get to work. So suburbs grew up on the edge of towns, with better and bigger houses, trees and gardens.
7. Factory Legislation
In the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution, when machinery was crude, soon obsolete and worked by the uncertain and irregular power of water, factory owners were determined to get the fullest possible use out of this machinery in the shortest possible time. Hours of work rose to sixteen and even eighteen a day. In this way the greatest output could be obtained with the least outlay of capital.
When the facts about factory conditions became generally known they shocked the most part of the early nineteenth century Englishmen, and agitation for the prohibition of some of the worst abuses was started.
As early as 1800-1815, in the years during which he managed the New Lanark mills, Robert Owen had shown that output was not in direct proportion to the number of hours worked, and that it was possible to work a 10 1/2 hour day, to do without the labour of very young children, and yet to make substantial profits. With the development of faster, more accurate, more powerful, and more costly machines and with the substitution of steam power for water power, the advantages from a very long working day became less. It was always the water power mills where hours and conditions were the worst and whose owners put up the most stubborn opposition to any kind of change.
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More capital was sunk in machinery, and the relation between the capital so used and the capital used for the payment of wages gradually changed. The amount of actual manual labour needed to produce a given article decreased, and at the same time the speed at which the new machinery would work became increasingly greater than the speed at which men could work for a day lasting for sixteen or eighteen hours. It became less economical to work the machine at part speed over a long day than at full speed over a shorter one.
The first legislation, passed in 1802, was a very mild act to prevent some of the worst abuses connected with the employment of pauper children. It was followed by the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 which forbade the employment of children under nine in cotton factories and limited the hours of those between nine and sixteen to 13 1/2. As no machinery was ever provided for the enforcement of this Act it remained a dead letter.
It was not till 1833, after the passing of the Reform Bill and under pressure of the workers that an effective Act was passed. This prohibited the employment of children under nine except in silk factories, limited the hours of older children and provided a number of inspectors to see that these restrictions were carried out.
Factory Legislation was a necessary part of that development which included the displacement of water power by steam, the wholescale use of machinery to manufacture not only consumption articles but the means of production themselves and the transfer of the decisive point in production from the small to the large unit.