A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE VICTORIAN ERA

 

 

As early as 1721 destructions of stocking machines were reported in Nottingham, a city known for its lacing and clothing industry. Workers and craftsmen were increasingly considered as potential trouble-makers by the factory owners so the relationship between the working class and the monied classes started to deteriorate.

 

Regular industrial unrest started as early as the late 1770 : it was the beginning of what was called frame-breaking : workers in the textile industry destroyed the frames on which they were working to protest against their working conditions.

 

As a result in 1799 the Combination Act was enacted. All gatherings of workers were now prohibited, all combinations of workers were declared illegal. Thousands of workers, most of them in the textile industry were persecuted but this act proved unable to prevent the formation of unions even if each strike ended up with many arrests and reductions in wages. The end of the eighteenth century saw the gap between the wealthier classes and the working class widen. The introduction of machinery in the industry increased production levels but led to the creation of anti-machine lobbies championing anti-machine regulations. The Combination Laws were repealed in 1824 only.

 

During the Napoleonic wars (1802-1815) Napoleon blockaded the imports of English goods, which was detrimental to the British industry. Between 1809 and 1812 the British people actually went through a hard patch : there was a steady decline in imports triggering a fall in wages, a financial panic and crop failures that resulted in the increase of wheat prices. The economic and social situation was therefore strained.

 

This led on to a period known as the Luddite Episode in 1811-1812. Workers were fighting against wage reductions by destroying machines. An increasing numbers of factories were attacked by the rioters. The government reacted promptly : a new Frame-breaking Act ruled that workers charged with machine breaking would be sentenced to death.

In 1812 wheat prices soared, life became even more expensive, which sparked off new outbreaks of violence. In 1812 a Hunger March was organised from Manchester to London. This march had been banned but five or six thousands marchers intended to go at it all the same. Every method of repression including military violence was used by the government to prevent people from taking part in it.

 

In 1815 the Corn Bill was introduced. The object of the Corn Law was to keep the price of wheat  at the famine level it had reached during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. To control imports and exports the market was often manipulated, which caused the anger of farmers because it kept the prices of wheat high. The Corn Laws benefited those who owned the land but not ordinary people who saw the cost of life constantly rise. The Corn Laws were the last clear-cut victory of the landowners but this success isolated them from the other classes. They appeared as a selfish and monopolising minority. As a result the Corn Bill provoked much agitation and an opposition that coincided with the demands for parliamentary reforms.

In 1819 a huge meeting was held demanding the repeal of the Corn Law. On this day the yeomanry charged into the crowd and eleven people were killed, four hundred were wounded. This bloody event is remembered as the Peterloo tragedy. An anti Corn Laws League was created on 1838 but the laws were not repealed until 1846 at a time when free trade developed. So the repeal of the corn Law was due not to people’s pressure but to the threat of foreign competition. There was a general campaign demanding a ten-hour workday. This campaign had a strong evangelical and philanthropic drive. The debates of factory reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws were all part of the same question.  The leaders of the Factory campaign came from very different backgrounds and were united in the fight against the inhumanities of factory labour. The origins of the movement were moral and religious, not economic. The Ten-Hour Campaign therefore had a moral quality and was deemed to be a crusade.

 

 

As social unrest grew at a very quick pace, Robert Peel, the conservative Home secretary, created the Metropolitan Police in 1829, which established a police force in London under the direct control of the Home Secretary. It was rapidly copied in other cities and even in rural areas. Those policemen were known as ‘Peelers’

 

From 1830 to 1848, what came to be known as Chartism gained momentum. From 1817 to 1834 Robert Owen and his followers started spreading socialist ideas.

Robert Owen was a Welsh industrialist whose ideas on social reforms influenced the development of the Co-operative movement and trade-unionism. From the age of ten onwards he had worked in a drapers first in London, then in Manchester. It is while working there that he heard about the success of Richard Arkwright who was using the spinning jetty in his Comford clothing industry. Owen bought some cotton mills in Scotland in Lanaerk and had created a model industrial community for his workers, providing them with decent housing and education. Robert Owen was not only concerned with making money, he was also interested in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. Owen believed that a person’s character is formed by the effects of their environment. Owen was convinced that if he created the right environment, he could produce rational, good and humane people. Owen argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated. For example, Owen was a strong opponent of physical punishment in schools and factories and immediately banned its use in New Lanark. When Owen arrived at New Lanark children from as young as five were working for thirteen hours a day in the textile mills. He stopped employing children under ten and reduced their labour to ten hours a day. The young children went to the nursery and infant schools that Owen had built. Older children worked in the factory but also had to attend his secondary school for part of the day. He also argued that workers should own a part a the factory and industrialists share the ownership. The Co-operative movement started in the North of England and aimed at encouraging people to produce, buy and sell together and to share the profits.

Robert Owen hoped that the way he treated children at his New Lanark would encourage other factory owners to follow his example. It was therefore important for him to publicize his activities. He wrote several books including The Formation of Character (1813) and A New View of Society (1814). In 1815 Robert Owen sent detailed proposals to Parliament about his ideas on factory reform. Robert Owen toured the country making speeches on his experiments at New Lanark. He also published his speeches as pamphlets and sent free copies to influential people in Britain. Disappointed with the response he received in Britain, Owen decided in 1825 to establish a new community in America based on the socialist ideas that he had developed over the years.

Workers started to organise themselves. The London Working Men’s Association was founded in 1839 by William Lovett, an owenite. In 1938 a convention was appointed to sketch the outlines of a people’s petition or a charter that was introduced in parliament only to be rejected straight away. In 1840 543 charters were imprisoned.

A second charter was written and introduced in Parliament in 1842 and this charter was once again rejected. This new refusal gave birth to a new series of strikes in the coal-mining industry as well as in the textile industry. The 1840s are known as the hungry forties indicating that the living conditions were barely bearable for workers.

However, the situation of ordinary people started to improve in the late 1840 with the repeal of the Corn Laws, the 1847 Factory Act introducing shorter working hours and the Public Health Act in 1848.

 

Earlier factory legislation had aimed primarily at limiting child labour, especially in cotton factories.  In 1794 the magistrates at the Lancashire Quarter Sessions passed a resolution that makes it clear that some authorities tried to protect the children in their care by not allowing them to be apprenticed to masters who would work them for long hours.  This was before the passing of the first Factory Act. The first Factory Act had been passed in 1802, it forbade work for children under 9 and limited the working hours for children between 9 and 16 to 12 hours a day.

However, legislation that placed age restrictions on employment was difficult to administer because before that, there were no birth certificates. By 1830, the government was made aware of a number of problems in factories, with which it intended to deal. The problems which existed in factories included :

  • Excessive working hours : 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. and often longer.
  • shortage of mealtimes: 40 minutes at noon, and no opportunity to rest
  • poor conditions of work: dust, filth, unguarded machinery, heavy lifting. Sir Anthony Carlile, a doctor at Westminster Hospital visited some textile mills in 1832. He later gave evidence to the House of Commons on the dangers that factory pollution was causing for the young people working in factories
  • dangers to health: constant bending, exhaustion, deformity
  • cruelty of overseers: children worked in a ‘culture of violence’

Reforms were difficult for several reasons The government continued its 18th century laissez faire attitude;  the general belief was that it was wrong for the State to interfere with private rights.  Many free traders believed that a reduction of hours would ruin productivity. Religious controversy hindered reform. Anglicans and Dissenters disagreed over the schooling clauses for children and over concepts of evangelical paternalism. Most factory owners were Dissenters, most reformers were Anglican. Both groups wanted to oversee the education of working children.

The government introduced a new Bill in February 1844. Children’s work was limited to 6½ hours a day to allow time for schooling. Women were brought under the same protective restrictions as young persons including the limitation to twelve hours and among other safety measures, employers were compelled to protect them from dangerous machinery.

Another Factory Act was passed in 1847. It established a 10-hour day for all women and children. A further campaign was necessary because women and children were still worked beyond 10 hours with the result that adult male hours continued to be very long. Few adult males could work beyond 10½ hours in factories.

 The purpose of the Public Health Act was to promote the public’s health and sanitary conditions of towns. Clear inequalities in health were established and it was recognised that some fundamental issues, such as poverty, had to be addressed. The act included the organisation of public health and all major issues at the time for example, poverty, housing, water, sewerage, the environment, safety, and food. It emphasised strong local involvement. The 1848 act took the view that as many of the problems affected the population as a whole, water, or sewerage, then health improvement was the responsibility of national and local government. The act therefore sketch the governmental structure responsible for the implementation of the measures and the necessary inspections.

 

Several far-reaching reforms were thus enacted at that period. But political reforms still had to come. In 1860 out of 13 million English people there was only one million voters at parliamentary elections. Electoral discrimination was considered as unfair hence a call for an extension of the franchise. The first electoral reform was made in 1867. The numbers of voters doubled.