The period from 1799 to 1815 is often referred to as the
“Napoleonic Wars”. These years and the two following decades became one
of the most difficult episodes of the British history. That was the time
when Great Britain had to fight a lot, and had to recover from fighting.
The purpose of this survey is to give a brief description of British
domestic and foreign policy, economic and social situation throughout
the mentioned period and to provide essential information about the role
that Great Britain played during so-called “Napoleonic Wars”.
1. Great Britain during the “Napoleonic Wars”
In the 1790’s, the wars of the French Revolution merged into
the Napoleonic Wars, as Napoleon Bonaparte took over the French
revolutionary government. Great Britain, as the most of the European
nations, was engaged into the set of conflicts. At first the war did not
go well for Britain. The First Coalition with Prussia, Austria, and
Russia against the French collapsed in 1796, and in 1797 Britain was
beset by naval defeat and by naval mutiny. The Battle of the Nile in
1798, however, was one of the hours of the British Navy brightest glory.
Napoleon Bonaparte was climbing to power in France, by
directing her successful arms against the world. He had beaten Germany
and conquered Italy; he had threatened England, and his dream was of the
conquest of the East. Like another Alexander, he hoped to subdue Asia,
and overthrow the hated British power by depriving it of India.
Hitherto, his dreams had become earnest by the force of his marvellous
genius, and by the ardour which he breathed into the whole French
nation. And when he set sail from Toulon, with 40,000 tried and
victorious soldiers and a magnificent fleet, all were filled with vague
expectations of almost fabulous glory. He swept away the Knights of St.
John from their rock of Malta, and sailed for Alexandria in Egypt, in
the end of June, 1798.
His intentions had not become known, and the English
Mediterranean fleet was watching the course of this great armament. Sir
Horatio Nelson was in pursuit, with the English vessels, and wrote to
the First Lord of the Admiralty: “Be they bound to the Antipodes, your
lordship may rely that I will not lose a moment in bringing them to
Nelson had, however, not ships enough to be detached to
reconnoitre, and he actually overpassed the French, whom he guessed to
be on the way to Egypt. He arrived at the port of Alexandria on the 28th
of June, and saw its blue waters and flat coast lying still in their
sunny torpor, as if no enemy were on the seas. He went back to Syracuse,
but could learn no more there. He obtained provisions with some
difficulty, and then, in great anxiety, sailed for Greece, where at
last, on the 28th of July, he learnt that the French fleet had been seen
from Candia, steering to the south-east, about four weeks since. In
fact, it had actually passed by him in a thick haze, which concealed
each feet from the other, and had arrived at Alexandria on the 1st of
July three days after he had left it. Every sail was set for the south,
and at four o’clock in the afternoon of the 1st of August a very
different sight was seen in Aboukir Bay, so solitary a month ago. It was
crowded with shipping. Great castle-like men-of-war rose with all their
proud calm dignity out of the water, their dark portholes opening in the
white bands on their sides, and the tricoloured flag floating as their
ensign. There were thirteen ships of the line and one, towering high
above the rest, with her three decks, was L’Orient, of 120 guns. The
British had only fourteen little ships, not one carrying more than 74
guns, and one only 50.
Why Napoleon had kept the fleet there was never known. In
his usual way of disavowing whatever turned out ill, he laid the blame
upon his naval officers. But, though dead men could not tell tales, his
papers made it plain that the ships had remained in the obedience to
commands, though they had not been able to enter the harbour of
Alexandria. Large rewards had been offered to any pilot who would take
them in, but none could be found who would venture to steer into that
port a vessel drawing more than twenty feet of water. They had,
therefore, remained at anchor outside, in Aboukir Bay, drawn up in a
curve along the deepest of the water, with no room to pass them at
either end, so that the commanders reported that they could bid defiance
to a force more than double their number. The French believed that
Nelson had not ventured to attack them when they had passed by one
another a month before, and when the English fleet was signalled, they
still supposed that it was too late in the day for an attack to be made.
Nelson had, however, no sooner learnt that the French were
in sight than he signalled from his ship, the Vanguard, that
preparations for battle should be made, and in the meantime summoned up
his captains to receive his orders during a hurried meal. He explained
that, where there was room for a large French ship to swing, there was
room for a small English one to anchor, and, therefore, he designed to
bring his ships up to the outer part of the French line, and station
them close below their adversaries.
In the fleet went, through the fierce storm of shot and
shell from a French battery in an island in advance. Nelson’s own ship,
the Vanguard, was the first to anchor within half-pistolshot of a French
ship, the Spartiate. The Vanguard had six colours flying, in case any
should be shot away; and such was the fire that was directed on her,
that in a few minutes every man at the six guns in her forepart was
killed or wounded, and this happened three times. Nelson himself
received a wound in the head, which was thought at first to be mortal,
but which proved but slight. He would not allow the surgeon to leave the
sailors to attend to him till it came to his turn.
Meantime his ships were doing their work gloriously. The Bellerophon
was, indeed, overpowered by L’Orient, 200 of her crew killed, and all
her masts and cables shot away, so that she drifted away as night came
on. But the Swiftsure came up in her place, and the Alexander and
Leander both poured in their shot. The French admiral received three
wounds, but would not quit his post, and at length a fourth shot almost
cut him in two. He desired not to be carried below, but that he might
die on deck.
About nine o’clock the ship took fire, and blazed up with
fearful brightness, lighting up the whole bay, and showing five French
ships with their colours hauled down, the other’s still fighting on.
Nelson himself rose and came on deck when this fearful glow came shining
from sea and sky into his cabin. He gave orders that the English boats
should immediately be put off for L’Orient, to save as many lives as
Then a thundering explosion shook down to the very hold
every ship in the harbour, and burning fragments of L’Orient came
falling far and wide, splashing heavily into the water, in the dead,
awful stillness that followed the fearful sound. English boats were
plying busily about, picking up those who had leapt overboard in time.
Some were dragged in through the lower portholes of the English ships,
and about seventy were saved altoghether. By sunrise the victory was
complete. Nay, as Nelson said, “It was not a victory, but a conquest”.
Only four French ships escaped, and Napoleon and his army were cut off
from home. The destruction of Napoleon’s fleet left his troops in a
position from which no victories were likely to extricate them.
With Napoleon out of the way William Pitt was able to form
the Second Coalition with Russia and Austria. The Russian army drove the
French out of North Italy, and the king of Naples effected a
counterrevolution in the South with the support of Horatio Nelson’s
fleet. In the autumn of 1798 Napoleon left his army and returned to
Paris. He overthrew the Directory and established himself as First
Consul. The war with revolutionary France entered its second phase. At
first the French armies were welcomed as liberators by both the middle
and lower classes of the countries they occupied. Presently the people
of the conquered countries found that their interests were always
subordinated to those of France. The price of “liberation” was heavy
taxes and the conscription of their sons to fill the gaps in the ranks
of the French army. War was necessary for the continued internal
stability of Napoleonic France, yet war could be carried on only by the
progressive exploitation of the “liberated” territories. The result was
that the very classes which had welcomed the French were gradually
alienated. The French occupation created a burgeous nationalism that
turned against its creators.
Napoleon had many years of victory before him in 1799. A
short and brilliant campaign reconquered Italy, and the Second Coalition
collapsed in the last days of 1800. In the years that followed, with
Britain alone left in the war and no important land operations, Napoleon
created the Code Napoleon and an efficient civil service. In 1802
Britain had to make peace with Napoleon at Amiens, The Treaty of Amiens
was a mere truce. It left France in control of Holland and all the
western bank of the Rhine. War broke out again the following year.
When the war was resumed, Napoleon had Spain and Holland as
his allies, and was making plans to invade Britain if the French and
Spanish fleets could be concentrated to cover the crossing. These plans
never came true, as both fleets were destroyed in the glorious battle of
The naval battle of Trafalgar, one of the most celebrated
naval engagements in European history, was fought on October 21, 1805,
by a British fleet and a combined French and Spanish fleet. The battle
took place off Cape Trafalgar on the southern coast of Spain, where a
British fleet of 27 ships under the command of Admiral Nelson had to
fight against a slightly larger combined enemy fleet commanded by a
The French admiral had the intention to slip out of Cadiz,
which was under British blockade, to land troops in southern Italy,
where the French were fighting. The fleet, however, was intercepted by
Nelson on October 21.
The French and Spanish ships formed their ships into a
single battle line, south to north. Nelson, however, surprised them by
ordering his ships into two groups, each of which assaulted and cut
through the French fleet at right angles, demolishing the battle line.
This created confusion, giving the British fleet an advantage. The
battle began shortly before noon and ended late in the afternoon. Some
20 French and Spanish ships had been destroyed or captured, while not a
single British vessel was lost. The British suffered about 1500
casualties, among them Admiral Nelson, who was mortally wounded. The
British naval victory under Horatio Nelson saved Britain from invasion.
The great naval battle of 1805 is recorded in the name of Trafalgar
Square in London. The square is dominated by the 145-ft. fluted granite
column supporting a large statue of Nelson, with four lions at the base
and four bronze reliefs cast from captured French cannon and
illustrating the battles where they were taken.
The year 1805 witnessed the creation of the Third Coalition
with Russia and Austria, which also collapsed in 1807. Napoleon then
ruled a vast empire which included Northern Italy, the East coast of the
Adriatic, all the territory west of the Rhine with Holland and a large
area of North Germany from Cologne to Lubeck. Spain, Naples, Poland and
all Central and Southern Germany formed his vassal states.
It was upon Russia and Spain that Napoleon was finally
broken. Neither of these counties had a strong middle class that made
the victory of the French easier in other European countries. For a time
Napoleon and Alexander I combined to dominate Europe. There were plans
to marry a Russian Grand-Princess to the French emperor to strengthen
the political union, but Napoleon was not prepared to treat the Tzar of
Russia as an equal and Alexander refused to be subordinate.
Failing all else Napoleon tried to strike at Britain by imposing a
European ban on the British manufactured goods. Britain replied with a
blockade. Both the ban and the blockade were not completely effective.
But these caused a strain that broke the alliance between France and
Russia and the other North European countries.
Important events took place in Portugal and Spain. Portugal
had been for a century dominated by the British government, and that was
the reason of the country’s refusal to recognize Napoleon’s “Continental
System”. A French army was sent there to prevent trade between Portugal
and Britain. At the same time, Napoleon made an attempt to change his
indirect control over Spain for a direct rule by making his brother
Joseph the Spanish king. This provoked an instantaneous and universal
revolt. The Spainsh led an active guerrilla war against the French, and
Napoleon was forced to concentrate larger and larger forces in Spain.
In 1808 Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, was sent
with a small army to defend Portugal and assist the Spanish
insurrection. The French had about 300,000 men in the Peninsula but were
seldom able to concentrate morethan about one-fifth against Wellington,
the rest being engaged in small operations all over the country. Every
attempt at a concentration left large areas open to the guerrillas, so
that the regular and irregular wars set up an interaction before which
the French were helpless. In 1811, when Napoleon had to draw away part
of his forces for his Russian campaign, Wellington was able to take the
offensive and step by step the French were driven out of the Peninsula.
An army of nearly half a million — Poles, Germans and
Italians as well as Frenchmen — was massed by Napoleon in 1811 to invade
Russia. The march of the Grand Army to Moscow in 1812 and its disastrous
retreat set Europe once more ablaze.
Germany rose against the defeated emperor and at last the
French found themselves opposed to nations in arms. Although the French
emperor quickly collected a new army that was almost as large as the one
he had lost in Russia, Napoleon was decisively beaten at Leipzig in
In spite of this he rejected an offer of peace which would
have given him the Rhine as a frontier and in April 1814 the allies
entered Paris. The Bourbons were restored, and Napoleon was banished to
the Island of Elba.
Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia then sent their
representatives to the Congress of Vienna to discuss the important
problems of European policy. The work of the Congress was interrupted in
1815 by Napoleon, who had escaped from the exile and, having returned to
France, launched the Hundred Days’ Campaign which ended with his defeat
The main features of the settlement arrived at by the
Congress of Vienna were the restoration of despotism and the triumph of
what was called “the principle of legitimacy”. Revolution was considered
to be as much the enemy as France, and the victory of reaction was
sealed by the Holy Alliance in which Austria, Russia and Prussia agreed
to give each other mutual support against the horrors of revolutionary
uprisings. The Holy Alliance was used to justify international action
against risings in Italy, Germany and elsewhere. Yet neither Prussia nor
Russia could restore Europe to its previous state, and the Holy Alliance
did not survive the upheavals of 1830.
In France the restoration of the Bourbons did not mean the
restoration of aristocratic privilege in the villages or the suppression
of the Code Napoleon. In Germany, though Prussia extended her power over
the Rhine-land, many of the social changes resulting from the French
occupation went undisturbed. Small German states were drawn together
into the German Confederation in which Austria and Prussia both
participated and which inevitably became the theatre of a battle between
them for the hegemony of Central Europe.
The victory over Napoleon laid the foundations for a great
extension of the British Empire. Britain got a number of strategic key
points: Malta, Mauritius, Ceylon, Heligoland and the Cape, then
inhabited only by a few Dutch farmers and valued only as a stopping
place on the way to India. Yet the first result of the peace was a
severe political and economic crisis.
2. Great Britain after Waterloo
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 Ј20 to Ј8 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 Ј30,000,000 out of a
total revenue of Ј53,000,000. 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
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
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
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.
Exports increased from Ј48,000,000 in 1820 to Ј56,000,000 in
1825 and imports from Ј32,000,000 to Ј44,000,000. 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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
5. The Corn Laws
The object of the Corn Laws of 1815 was to keep the price of
wheat at the famine level it had reached during the Napoleonic Wars,
when supplies from Poland and France were prevented from reaching
England. All wheat imports were forbidden when the price fell below 50
s. the quarter.
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
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.
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
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
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 Ј10,000,000 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.
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.
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.
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