Until about 1850, Britain was in greater danger at home than abroad. The Napoleonic Wars had turned the nation from thoughts of revolution to the need to defeat the French. They had also hidden the social effects of the industrial revolution.Britain had sold clothes, guns, and other necessary war supplies to its allies' armies as well as its own. At the same time, corn had been imported to keep the nation and its army fed. All this changed when peace came in 1815. Suddenly there was no longer such a need for factory-made goods, and many lost their jobs.
Unemployment was made worse by 300,000 men from Britain's army and navy who were now looking for work. At the same time, the land owning farmers' own income had suffered because of cheaper imported corn. These farmers persuaded the government to introduce laws to protect locally grown corn and the price at which it was sold. The cost of bread rose quickly, and this led to increases in the price of almost everything. While prices doubled, wages remained the same. New methods of farming also reduced the number of workers on the land. The general misery began to cause trouble. In 1830, for example, starving farm workers in the south of England rioted for increased wages. People tried to add to their food supply by catching wild birds and animals. But almost all the woods had been
Enclosed by the local landlord and new laws were made to stop people hunting animals for food. Many had to choose between watching their family go hungry and risking the severe punishment of those who were caught. A man found with nets in his home could be transported to the new "penal" colony in Australia for seven years. A man caught hunting with a gun or a knife might be hanged, and
Until 1823 thieves caught entering houses and stealing were also hanged. These laws showed how much the rich feared the poor, and although they were slowly softened, the fear remained. There were good reasons for this fear. A new poor
law in 1834 was intended to improve the help given to the needy. But central government did not provide the necessary money and many people received even less help than before. Now, only those who actually lived in the workhouse were
given any help at all. The workhouses were feared and hated. They were crowded and dirty, with barely enough food to keep people alive. The inhabitants had to work from early morning till late at night. The sexes were separated, so families were divided. Charles Dickens wrote about the workhouse in his novels. His descriptions of the life of crime and misery into which poor people were forced shocked the richer classes, and conditions slowly improved. In order to avoid the workhouse, many looked for a better life in the towns. Between 1815 and 1835
Britain changed from being a nation of country people to a nation mainly of townspeople. In the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, cities like Birmingham and Sheffield doubled in size, while Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds more than doubled. Several towns close together grew into huge cities with no countryside left in between. The main city areas were northwest England, where
the new cotton industry was based, the north Midlands, the area around Glasgow, and south Wales. But although these cities grew fast, London remained the largest. In 1820 London was home for 1.25 million, out of a total British population of
about 15 million. If the rich feared the poor in the countryside, they feared even more those in the fast-growing towns. These were harder to control. If they had been organised, a revolution like that in France might have happened. But they were not organised, and had no leaders. Only a few radical politicians spoke
for the poor, but they failed to work in close cooperation with the workers who could have supported them. Several riots did, however, take place, and the
government reacted nervously. In 1819, for example, a large crowd of working people and their families gathered in Manchester to protest against their conditions and to listen to a radical speech in favor of change. Suddenly they were attacked by soldier son horses. Eleven people were killed and more than one hundred wounded. The struggle between the government, frightened of revolution, and those who wanted change became greater.
The Whigs understood better than the Tories the need to reform the law in order to improve social conditions. Like the Tories they feared revolution, but unlike the Tories they believed it could only be avoided by reform. Indeed, the idea of reform to make the parliamentary system fairer had begun in the eighteenth century. It had been started by early radicals, and encouraged by the American War of Independence, and by the French Revolution. The Tories believed that Parliament should represent "property" and the property owners, an idea that is still associated by some with today's Tory Party. The radicals believed that Parliament
Should represent the people. The Whigs, or Liberals as they later became known, were in the middle, wanting enough change to avoid revolution but little more.
The Tories hoped that the House of Lords would protect the interests of the property owners. When the Commons agreed on reform in 1830 it was turned down by the House of Lords. But the Tories fell from power the same year, and Lord Grey formed a Whig government. Grey himself had supported the call for reform as a radical in 1792. In 1832 the Lords accepted the Reform Bill, but more
Because they were frightened by the riots in the streets outside than because they now accepted the idea of reform. T hey feared that the collapse of political and civil order might lead to revolution. At first sight the Reform Bill itself seemed almost a political revolution. Scotland's voters increased from 5,000 to 65,000. Forty-one English towns, including the large cities of Manchester,
Birmingham and Bradford, were represented in Parliament for the very first time. But there were limits to the progress made. The total number of voters increased by only 50 per cent. The 349 electors of the small town of Buckingham still had
As many MPs to represent them as the 4, 192 electors of the city of Leeds. And England, with only 54 percent of the British population, continued to have over 70 per cent of MPs as it had done before. However, in spite of its shortcomings,
the1832 Reform Bill was a political recognition that Britain had become an urban society.