Amazing articles on just about every subject...


British History - The Whigs and the Reform era, 1832 - 5 - Reform in Scotland - Municipal Reform - Factory Acts - Poor Law - Socialists and Chartists.

( Originally Published 1922 )



For three years after the passing of the Reform Bill the Whigs continued to show, under Benthamite and Radical impulse, a legislative activity on the grand scale. Their failure in the sphere of finance, subsequently made good by Peel, and their gradual sterilisation first under Melbourne and then under Palmerston, have associated the Whig name with the idea of a too placid enjoyment of power. Such a judgment, not wholly unjust, leaves out of reckoning the years 1831 -5. The Government that in five years recast our municipal as well as our parliamentary institutions, passed the new Poor Law and the first effective Factory Act, and abolished negro slavery, made more lasting change in the British world than any other Cabinet has. done since Stuart times.

Because law-making of a character so new and comprehensive required a closer examination of complex facts than busy Ministers could give, Lord Grey's Government made the appointment of Royal Commissions the customary prelude to legislation. The lines followed by the Municipal Reform Act, the Factory Act and the new Poor Law were all traced out beforehand by Commissioners, who had been selected not on account of their official experience or political weight, but as vigorous and able men, usually of known Benthamite proclivities. Jeremy Bentham himself, over eighty, but ' codifying like any dragon ' till the last, had died the day before the Reform Bill became law. But his spirit was scouring the country, armed with the force of government and of public opinion, inquiring into every local authority or endowment, and pertly asking ` What is the use of it ? '

If ever a country was saved by Act of Parliament from open rebellion, Scotland was so saved by her Reform Bill drawn on the same lines as the English Bill, and by her Burgh Act of the following year. Political self-government, central and local, was an English invention, imported into Scotland by the Grey Ministry, but intensely popular in spite of its foreign origin. Although in temper, creed and outlook on life the Scottish people were less submissive than the English, the civil institutions of their country contained in 1830 no elements of popular election such as always existed here and there in the south of the island. There was no safety-valve for all that pent energy. The Reform Bill, in England an evolution, in Scotland was a revolution, veiled in form of law, and the passions aroused over it had been proportionately more fierce.' As soon as its enactment had given the Scots for the first time real representation at Westminster, their impatience to begin governing themselves at home was so great that the Scottish Burgh Act of 1833 preceded the English Municipal Reform Act by two years. For this reason the new municipal electorate in Scotland was identified with the new Parliamentary ' Ten Pounders,' while England, by waiting two years longer, obtained the more democratic municipal franchise of all who paid rates.

The political horoscope of the year 1835, when borough government was revolutionised in England, was favourable to Radical legislation owing to the events of 1834. The retirement of Lord Grey, the secession of the Conservative-minded Stanley and Graham on Irish questions, and the growing hostility of the King, who tried in vain to bring in a Tory Cabinet on his own royal authority,1 drove the Whig Ministry, reconstituted under Melbourne and Russell, to rely for a while on O'Connell and the Radicals. Russell had still the energies of an advanced Reformer. Hence the English Municipal Corporations Act is the high-water mark of Benthamite Radicalism acting through the Whig machine. After that, the waters of Reform abate in the force of their onset, as the middle class settles down to a period of enjoying the fruits of victory.

The system of close corporations for governing the towns had been bound up with that of the rotten boroughs for returning members to Parliament. Municipal Reform would have been impossible without Parliamentary Reform. And the first use which the Ten Pounders had made of their newly acquired Parliamentary votes was to claim popular government in the daily life of their localities. The most constant grievance of the ordinary shopkeeper, publican or manufacturer was to be governed in his own town by a cooptive municipality, usually a local ring of certain attorneys, doctors, retired officers and minor gentry, in close connection with the local Tory organisation, ' a shabby mongrel aristocracy ' as their envious neighbours called them. On most municipal bodies no Dissenter, Whig or Radical had the smallest chance of serving, at a time when those categories together covered the vast majority of the inhabitants. A few municipalities were nominated by Whig grandees. A few had a democratic franchise.

Such was the social and political aspect of the municipal system that perished in 1835. Its administrative aspect was incompetence that refused to undertake the new duties called for by new conditions of urban life. The areas of the boroughs were those of bygone ages, and had no respect to the recent shifting of population. To make good the worst deficiencies of the inert municipal corporations, powers had often been given to other ad hoc bodies to deal with lighting, drainage, paving, water or police. Confusion had thus been worse confounded, and local government throughout the island had become a welter of divided powers and local anomalies. There was need of the two Benthamite principles of uniformity and popular election. These the Bill of 1835 largely provided.

The English Municipal Corporations Act applied to all the principal towns except London, which already enjoyed a e democratic though very anomalous and unsatisfactory government.1 Elsewhere the larger corporations were abolished and disendowed, and their place was taken by municipal bodies elected by all ratepayers. The path of the Whig government in carrying this democratic revolution was smoothed for them by Sir Robert Peel. Peel had, the year before, in his famous ' Tamworth manifesto ' to his constituents, called on the Tory party to accept the logic of the Reform Bill and reconstitute itself as a ' conservative ' party, which under his leadership was often very liberal.

Peel in the Commons had accepted Russell's Municipal Reform Bill, but Lord Lyndhurst, saying : Peel ! What is Peel to me ? ' - led his brother peers to amend it out of all recognition. A crisis seemed at hand recalling that of '32, but Peel persuaded Wellington to order a retreat, and the Bill finally passed with modifications consonant with its purpose, some of which were improvements.

The new corporations were not trusted with the licensing of public-houses, or with any judicial powers. The separation of the benches of magistrates from the town corporations, on the ground that the latter had now become elective, and that justice is incompatible with party electioneering, was regretted by one section of Radical opinion of that day, but the principle of a non-elective judiciary has been ratified by the experience and conviction of succeeding generations of Britons all over the Empire.

The Act readjusted the administrative areas of the boroughs to some extent, though not enough. Each of the new municipalities was empowered to levy a local rate, and gradually to resume the various functions, sanitary and other, then exercised by ad hoc local bodies. In this way in every municipal area a powerful and popular focus of authority was set up, which has in the course of time absorbed almost every local public activity except licensing and justice. Few would have prophesied in 1835 that the education of the people would one day be carried on by these new bodies, or that they would become traders and employers of labour on a great scale. Nor was any provision made in the Act for the close connection that eventually grew up between the municipalities and the government departments at Whitehall, the latter at once aiding and controlling the local bodies in all their activities through the instrument of national grants in aid of local rates. These developments, on which so much of the health and happiness of our modern society depends, were not foreseen, but were rendered possible by the bold and uniform legislation of 1835.

While town government became democratic as a sequel to the parliamentary enfranchisement of the Ten Pound house-holder, the rural districts remained under the government of the squires for another half-century. It was only in 1888 that the establishment of County Councils following on the enfranchisement of the rural labourer in 18 84, did for the country what had been done in 1835 for the town. For half a century longer the Justices of the Peace conducted not only rural justice but rural administration, and the element of election did not enter into county affairs. These differences in government reflected and increased the social and. political divergence between town and country, characteristic of nineteenth-century England. The spirit of the old regime, extinguished in the towns, continued its reign in the rural districts. This was the inner meaning of the battle over the Corn Laws, when rural and urban society came into conflict for the possession of the central government at Westminster.

For the present any such conflict was postponed. Radical reform worked off its first enthusiasm on subjects such as town government, factory acts, negro slavery, wherein the interests or affections of the country gentlemen were not involved. The Corn Laws remained unaltered. The Church, which had prophesied her own fall if Reform passed, did not even lose her less defensible outworks. The Whig Cabinet broke up

when it proposed to touch with mildest hand the extravagant endowments of the Protestant establishment in Ireland, in the hope of appeasing the ' tithe war ' between the Catholic peasant and the minister of an alien religion. In England the Church retained till 1868 the right to levy a rate for ecclesiastical purposes from parishioners of all denominations, till 1871 the monopoly of Oxford and Cambridge, and till 1880 the power to read her burial service at the graveside of Dissenters. Yet these were all subjects on which the Non-conformists felt deeply. So little is it true to say that England was governed by the dissenting middle class between the first and second Reform Bills.'

In these circumstances the Dissenters knew that a system of national education could only take the form of a system of Church education, and for this reason never seriously agitated the question, till the Reform Bill of 1867 had again altered the distribution of power in their favour. Meanwhile the Church was content to increase the number of her National Schools,2 which became by far the largest group in the educational field. Thus denominational rivalry was a spur to educational endowment and activity, but discouraged State intervention which alone could cover the whole ground. In 1833, however, the State made a grant of L20,000 towards the school buildings of the voluntary societies the small beginning of the national system of education. The grant was renewed annually, and led in 1839 to the establishment of an Educational Committee of the Privy Council, with a permanent secretary and a system of inspection of the State-aided schools, the origin of the Board of Education.

In 1833 the Whig Government, under pressure from an almost revolutionary agitation among the working classes in the north, passed the first effective Factory Act, which fixed legal limits for the working hours of children and young per-sons respectively, and prohibited the employment of children under nine except in silk mills. The peculiar merit of Lord Althorp's Bill, though it met with little favour at the time among the northern agitators, was the institution of government inspectors to enforce the law, a device suggested by some of the better-disposed among the millowners themselves. It was not merely bad employers but bad parents, living on their children's labour, who required watching. Government inspection was the only way to make this class of law operative. It secured the success of the factory code for adults that was gradually elaborated in later years.

Factory legislation was never a party question. The movement, started in the Waterloo era by Robert Owen, the Socialist manufacturer, and by Peel's father, the Tory manufacturer, was taken up in the 'thirties and 'forties with passionate enthusiasm by the factory victims themselves, who were mostly Radicals, under the leadership of Oastler and Michael Sadler, who may be described as Tory democrats, while the parliamentary management fell to the Conservative Lord Shaftesbury, aided by many Whigs and Liberals.

Against factory legislation were arrayed the majority, though not by any means all, of the millowners, and politicians drawn in fairly equal proportions from both parties. The doctrinaire political economists declared that only long hours could enable England to compete with the rising power of foreign manufacture. They ignored the physiological fact that overwork reduces output.

The umpire between these disputants was the Parliament of English country gentlemen, Liberal and Conservative, who had no personal interest involved. On the one hand they had been brought up to believe the prophecies of the political economists; but on the other hand, since the manufacturers were attacking the Corn Laws on the ground of humanity, the landlords were driven to counter-attack with inquiries as to the seamy side of factory life, asking questions that in a former generation their fathers would have scouted as ' Jacobinical.'

The second crisis of factory legislation, growing out of the children's charter of 1833, came in 1844-7, contemporaneously with the repeal of the Corn Laws and heated with the fires of that great dispute. The ' ten hours Bill ' limited the daily work of women and youths in factories, and thereby in fact compelled the stoppage of all work after ten hours, as the grown men could not continue the processes alone. This had for years been the aspiration of the working classes and the storm-centre of a fierce controversy. In Parliament it produced curious cross-voting 2 and brought into the same lobby the most embittered political antagonists. It passed in 1847.

What the Reform Bill of 832 was to all later Reform Bills, the Factory Acts of 1833 and 1847 are to the far-spreading system of statutory regulation which now governs the conditions of almost all branches of industry. The factory system, which at its first coming bade fair to destroy the health and happiness of the race, has been gradually converted into an instrument for levelling up the average lot of the city-dweller. Robert Owen's vision, that he had first embodied in the New Lanark mills, was in the course of a hundred years made a standard for the greater part of the industrial world. And the decisive first steps were taken during the period which it is usual to condemn as obsessed by the doctrines of laissez faire. It is difficult to obsess people with a mere doctrine if once their hearts or their interests are touched. The former generation, being in a mood to grind the faces of the poor, had chosen out those parts of laissez faire which suited that purpose and had neglected the rest. Now the process was being reversed by the generation that repealed the Corn Laws and passed the Factory Acts. At no period was laissez faire in force in all its main doctrines at once.

The Whig Poor Law of 1834 was based on the famous report of the Royal Commission, inspired by Chadwick and Nassau Senior. The pauperisation of the English working class, especially in the country districts, by the Speenhamland system of supplementing inadequate wages out of rates, had kept wages down, and sent the birth-rate up.1 The self respect and self-help of the rural working class were systematically destroyed by magistrates who, while stern against agitation for higher wages and instinctively disliking real independence, were ready enough to assist the cringing poor out of the public funds. It had been made profitable and easy to become a pauper.2

Society was perishing of this disease and the new Poor Law applied the knife. It had the great merit of putting an end to the systematic abuse of outdoor relief. But, since the idea of fixing a statutory minimum wage was outside the economic vision of the time, the necessary change could only be effected with great hardship. The sudden withdrawal of outdoor relief from the wage-earner without any security for an immediate rise of wages, often caused acute misery before wages actually rose. Families which had hitherto enjoyed an allowance off the rates for every child, were driven to send mother and children to field labour under the terrible conditions of the ' gang system ' that became prevalent on English farms, just when the children in the factories were passing under the effective protection of the law. The rural tragedy had only taken a new form.

Too great local variation and too much parochial independence had been among the faults of the old Poor Law. Centralisation and national uniformity was the principle of the new. A permanent Commission of three persons was em-powered to carry out the new policy; the local ' Boards of Guardians ' set up in the ' Unions ' of parishes served merely to execute the orders of the three. The ' three tyrants ' concentrated on their heads the hatred of the poor of England, and came in for the last lashes of old Cobbett's whip. The youthful author of Oliver Twist (1838) by describing what workhouses meant for those who had to inhabit them, appealed from the Benthamite abstractions in which the Commissioners dealt, to the flesh and blood realities which interested the more sensitive public of the Victorian era.

The Commissioners strove, not with complete success, to collect into their ' Bastilles,' as the workhouses were popularly called, all able-bodied persons who applied for public relief, and so to subject the genuineness of each application to the ' workhouse test.' With the dreadful results of Speenhamland before them, they were determined that the pauper should be distinctly worse off than the independent labourer. Unfortunately, as they could not improve the lot of the one, they had to depress the condition of the other. They made workhouse life miserable as a matter of policy. Absorbed in the pressing problem of the able-bodied pauper, they gave too little thought to the case of the women and children, the sick and aged, whether outside or inside the workhouse, and they had no idea of curative treatment.

In 1847 the Commission was turned into a regular Government Department, the Poor Law Board. The national and centralised character which the first: Commissioners had stamped on the Poor Law made it easier to carry out the many improvements suggested later on by a philanthropy that gradually became more humane as it became more experienced and more scientific. Imperfect and harsh as was the work of 1834, it had been intellectually honest within its limits, and together with the Factory Act of the year before formed the first big attempt of the legislature to deal with the evils incident to the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile the working classes were endeavouring to help themselves not very successfully in the 'thirties. Socialistic Trade Unionism led by Owen (18334), and the Chartist movement to obtain the parliamentary franchise (18389) were both failures.

It was largely due to the personal influence which Owen's services had earned for him with the workingmen, that a wave of Socialist enthusiasm swept British Trade Unionism for two years out of the path that it pursued with such success during the remainder of the nineteenth century. Owen, having started the Factory Code and sowed the ideas that in later years gave rise to the Co-operative Wholesale Society, was in his old age fired with a Socialist gospel, much of which sprang up again with characteristic modifications in the doctrines of St. Simon in France and of Marx in Germany. Owen now taught that ' labour is the source of all wealth,' and induced some half-million working men and women to join in a Grand National Trade Union, for the purpose, at any rate in his own mind, of carrying out a system of communistic production. ` All individual competition,' said Owen, ' is to cease. All trades shall form Associations of lodges to consist of a convenient number for carrying on the business. All individuals of the specific craft shall become members.' But the ' Grand National ' soon melted away, having no proper organisation or finance and no very distinct idea what it was to do.1 The normal development of Trade Unionism was resumed, in local and sectional action, on questions of wages and hours.

Trade Unions were still on their trial. They had only become legal in 18245. Partly owing to their temporary connection with Owenite Socialism, the feeling of employers and of government against the Unions was very strong in these years, and broke out in 1834 in the transportation of the ` Dorchester labourers ' for attempting to form an agricultural labourers' Union in which oaths were administered. The rally of the working classes all over the country to the defence of these men, the one thing in which the ' Grand National ' was able to be of practical service, secured the shortening of their sentences and probably prevented further attempts to nullify the liberating Acts of 824-5. But the farmers had other ways than transportation of suppressing Trade Unionism in agriculture.

After the failure of Owen's non-parliamentary programme, the political side of the Labour movement was revived in the

People's Charter, with its six points of manhood suffrage, ballot, equal electoral districts, payment of members of Parliament, abolition of their property qualification, and annual Parliaments. All points save the last are now the law of the land. But the Chartist movement could find no abler chiefs than Feargus O'Connor and Lovett, and collapsed in 1839 in rioting and ' physical force ' among the South Welsh miners. Government imprisoned the leaders and so broke the organisation of the movement. The Trade Unionists looked on with an indifference which they had not shown over the fate of the Dorset labourers, and middle-class radicalism was equally supine. Sympathy had been alienated from a movement of which the aim was political, but which was too ' class conscious' to be a political success. Chartism repudiated the alliance of middle-class radicalism on principle, its adherents rejoicing to interrupt anti-Corn Law meetings. Its failure was sealed in 1839, but it lingered on till its second and final catastrophe in 1848. The working-class demand for the franchise only became effective when it found a leader in John Bright, whose household suffrage movement united classes which Chartism had striven to divide.

The economic condition of the working class in the 'thirties was indeed so bad as to render impossible their steady co-operation with other classes in a purely political programme. As young Disraeli said, there were ' two nations ' in England, between whom a gulf was fixed. The bread-and-butter character of the Corn Law question bridged the gulf to some extent in the 'forties, but it was only in the 'sixties, when conditions of life had very materially improved, that: Bright's conciliatory policy of uniting all the unenfranchised, to demand political rights in common had any chance of success. Though the spirit of the Chartists was too intransigeant and their leadership second rate, they had pointed the working class back to political action and a belief in Parliament, and this tradition was fortified in later and happier years by the memory of much heroism and self-sacrifice. When British democracy at length won the vote, many an ` old Chartist ' took part in the final victory.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com