HS-102 Readings

The English Reform Movement


       Following the Napoleonic Wars, England had been transformed by rapid industrialization into a different society from that which had existed as recently as 1780. Tremendous social pressures had been created by the transition to the factory system.  At the same time, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had reinforced a conservative resistance to any political changes since change was identified with political revolution which had launched a decade of upheaval and threatened the power of the privileged classes.

    The Industrial Revolution had not only produced an exploited working class, but had also created a variety of middle class jobs, such as retail shop owners, warehouse managers, people involved in transportation of goods, and highly skilled engineers. While the industrial capitalists owned vast amounts of land and property which gave them the vote as well as access to Parliament, many of the new middle class owned no land and worked on property which they held on long-term leases. This did not entitle them to the vote. Industrialization had also caused major population shifts. Great industrial cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds developed in the English midlands, where, in the 1840,s there had been little more than sheep pastures. Yet, there had been no Parliamentary re-districting to give proper representation to the people living there.

    The working class faced extremely difficult economic conditions, and often desperate poverty; conditions which they were helpless to correct, because they had no political power.

    The House of Lords was an elite club made up of titled individuals, mainly landed aristocrats who served for life. The House of Commons represented landed aristocrats and merchants and industrialists. There were two major parties, the Conservatives or Tories and the Whigs. The aristocracy was predominant in the Tory Party, while merchants and industrialists were predominant in the Whig party.

    While the Industrial Revolution had generated enormous economic and social changes, the political system remained unchanged and resistant to change. During the Napoleonic Wars, the war pre-occupied the attention of the government and nothing could be done. After the war, there was growing unrest marked by riots in the streets of English cities. The Tory Party, the most conservative of the two major parties was particularly resistant to change. As long as the Tories held the majority, there was little hope for a political response.

       The Whig Party, however, gained a majority in the elections of 1830 and introduced the Reform Bill of 1832. The bill re-apportioned the Parliamentary districts to reflect changes in the population, and liberalized voting qualifications. Fifty % of the adult males, mainly people of middle class bagkground,  gained the right to vote. The king, who favored the Reform Bill, overode the resistance of the House of Lords by threatening to appoint additional peers.

        Factory Acts were passed in the 1830s which reduced the hours of child labor and began to correct some of the worst evils of the factory system. The conditions of female and child labor began to be regulated. For example, the Mines Act of 1842 prohibited underground work for all women, and for boys under ten. In 1847, the Ten Hours Act limited the workday for women and young people to ten hours.

    The controversy involving the Corn Laws is particularly suggestive of the political changes that were taking place during the years of the English Reform Movement. The Corn Laws placed quotas and tariffs on foreign grains. They benefited the landed aristocrat and the farmer, while raising the price of food and hurting consumers and middle class people. A major political campaign, involving petition drives designed to influence members of Parliament, supported by merchants, industrialists, and middle class people, finally brought repeal of the Corn Laws.  By 1847, England became the principal advocate of free trade in the world. The battle of the Corn Laws reveals the gradual shift of power from the landed aristocracy to the new middle class created by industrialization.

     The Chartist political movement broke new ground with a number of liberal proposals, which, though they were considered radical during the 1830,s, would, decades later,  be accepted by the major political parties and be passed into law. Their basic demand was for universal male suffrage. They also demanded an 8-hour workday,  and repeal of the Corn Laws.

    The key to the success of the English Reform movement was the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, which, by greatly expanding the suffrage, compelled the government to respond to the political pressures generated by industrialization.

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