Britain in the Nineteeth-Century (1799-1832)


            Early nineteenth-century Britain was considered a time of political repression, mostly due to the wars with America and the French Revolution. The political hierarchy during this time period consisted of the Monarchy, the Tories and the Whigs. Due to the lack of dignity and honesty involved with the Monarchy and these parties, the war years from 1793-1815 were particularly a time of discontent. In the years after the French Revolution, the government and the parliament were extremely small. Eventually, however, the central government in London began to weaken as the country began to improve and expand internally (Roach 40-42).

            In aspects of social reform, poverty was the biggest stigma in Britain. Additional issues of illness, mortality, life expectation, wages, marriage age, child mortality, slavery and women’s roles in society began to bring agitation to every social class. Between 1802 and 1813, the population increased slowly and steadily. Edwin Chadwick published his first article in the Westminster Review in 1828, arguing that more statistical information was necessary about these particular issues. He pointed out the mortality rates were significantly different in the various social classes. Yet he did believe that there had been an improvement in the living conditions of all classes. In general, social reforms began in Britain during the time of the French Revolution because the aristocracy and government deeply feared that social turmoil would result (Roach 18).

            From 1799 through 1832, the country of Great Britain began the process of social, political and economical reform. The common belief in the early nineteenth-century was that if an individual pursued his or her own interests, those particular interests would serve both the personal interest as well as the society’s interest (Roach 32). A group referred to as the Protestant Dissenters gained both political and economic importance during this time, as well. The behavior of the Protestant Dissenters was highly individualistic, mostly due to the fact that they refrained from participation with government-sponsored religion. They wished to practice any religion they wanted to practice, with out government intervention.

            The campaign against Slave Trade and Slavery took place from 1770-1833. Initially, the campaign occurred because of moral issues but, recently, there was an argument that Britain did not support the slave trade because the West Indies was no longer of any economic importance. Regardless of which theory is correct, opposition to the slave trade demonstrated three specific things: first, and foremost, it was the absolute clearest example of social amelioration motivated by religion; second, it illustrated the strength of personal and family connections through the execution of such a large campaign; finally, it used public and constitutional disturbance to achieve the ultimate goal of the abolition of slavery in Britain.

            Prior to the nineteenth century, Britain’s society was beginning to see the early stages of the country’s transformation into the Industrial Revolution, which basically occurred in two phases. The first phase occurred before and around the French Revolution and focused mainly on agricultural improvements. The cotton textile, for instance, led the way for economic progress. Early in the eighteenth-century, the ‘spinning jenny’ increased the production of cotton. The importance of the cotton industry was especially evident by the 40% increase in British exports. Another essential product that competed with the cotton industry was the production of iron. Although it was initially expensive to produce, it eventually became an efficient industry.

            During the early nineteenth-century, the Industrial Revolution was in a transformational stage. From 1799 through 1830, Britain changed from a traditional society loyal to the Monarchy and church to a much more urban society that focused on the growing industry. Between 1815 and 1830, the cotton industry was still booming but, along with this growth came a huge population shift from rural areas to urban areas. People moved from their homes in the villages and farms of the country to find employment in the cities, which signified the transition from agriculture to technology and science. This shift ultimately resulted in an increase of women and child labor in factories and mines because it was cheaper to pay women and children than men (Pugh 29).

            Child labor became very serious as the Industrial Revolution forged on. Consequently, the age of children workers became younger due to the fact that the younger children were also small and could perform more tedious jobs than larger, older people. Certain jobs in the mine shafts, for instance, required a small child to fit inside the pit of the mine shaft to control ventilation. These jobs, in particular, were dark and lonely and often caused children to become disturbed. In other jobs, children were treated like animals; they were forced to wear belts and chains like horses to push tubs along wagon ways.

            There was plenty of evidence that children were abused and exhausted by heavy labor and long hours. Ill-treatment, such as long hours, miserable work conditions and cruel treatment, resulted in fatal accidents. Children in manufacturing trades were not fed well and paid poorly for their work. Industries in lace, metal, weaving and dress-making were especially physically demanding on children. Unfortunately, parents lacked concern about child welfare and did not fight to control factory or mine regulations. Parents were more concerned with finances: the more children worked, the more money they could bring home to help out the family. Other major concerns revolving around child labor was the lack of education and immoral actions that occurred in the factories and mines. Cases of theft and prostitution became increasingly common (Roach 140-142).

            Although London was the most influential city in Britain, other prosperous cities and provincial towns merged with the influence of London to create a cross of different tastes, personalities, beliefs and customs. Since the central government was becoming extremely weak, the local nobility and gentry controlled the government and richer classes and beneficiated clergy made up the County Commissions of the Peace (Storch 38-40).

            Throughout 1799-1832, the government passed a number of acts that benefited the improvement of society. Although this was a time of attempted improvement and change in Britain, there were a number of fears and social problems that prohibited the country from successfully advancing and appealing to all social classes. Peel’s Factory Acts of 1802 and 1819 were ineffective, but they the Acts awakened society to the need of control in child labor in factories. Another social problem raised concern of the lack of education among the poor. Some people believed that educating the poor would, perhaps, do more harm than good because it would encourage the paupers to rise against the aristocracy. Additionally, people considered giving education to the poor was a method of charity and they were highly opposed to this action of good will. The 1815 Corn Law attempted to protect Britain’s agriculture, one of the most important economic interests of the country, from any post-war difficulties (McCord 30-34). The Prison Act of 1823 was the first measure of general prison reform. Although it achieved very little, it paved the way for closer central control on regulating institutions, social welfare and social discipline (Roach 34).

            In the social scene, the aristocracy obviously dominated the country and this class of people did not erode for a long time. Though they were small in numbers, they controlled the political system and provided positions for the Cabinet. They shared the same culture, education and recreation. Young men of aristocratic societies received higher education from universities of Oxford and Cambridge (McCord 90). Most importantly, however, the strength of the aristocracy lay in the land because it was safe and permanent; they were always guaranteed wealth (McCord 93). In art and architecture, the aristocracy built, rebuilt and embellished country houses because they were wealthy enough to be extravagant. Artists relied on the patronage of the aristocracy to continue creating their masterpieces. These artists were also paving the way for the addition of women poets, such as Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as women authors, like Mary Shelley, who were beginning to emerge as important figures of English literature and poetry (Sweet 1996).