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
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
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
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 Trafalgar.
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 French admiral.
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 October 1813.
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 at
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 £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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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 labour
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 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
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
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
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
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.