The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Britain in the nineteenth century (summary)

Category: 19th century

The beginning of the nineteenth century was remarkable for Great Britain for its union with Ireland. In Ireland, some of the Irish united under the and began to demand independence, being affected by the French Revolution. They formed the organization known as the United Irismen. They quickly took the lead of the whole national movement, and attempted to initiate a rebellion in 1796, with the help of the French troops which were ready to land in  Ireland. The landing failed, and the English government began to eliminate its enemies. In 1798 it seized a number of the Irish leaders, and placed the whole Ireland under the military law. All the Irish uprising were suppressed, and finally the rebellion and an attempt of the French invasion led to the Act of Union with Ireland of 1801. The Dublin legislature was abolished, and one hundred Irish representatives were allowed to become members of Parliament in London. So in the very beginning of the nineteenth century the United Kingdom took the political and geographical shape of the country we know today. Still, the Act of Union caused great indignation in Ireland, and another powerful insurrection took place in 1803.

In 1790’s, the wars of the French Revolution merged into the Napoleonic Wars, as Napoleon Bonaparte took over the French revolutionary government, and Britain was engaged into the conflicts. Throughout the whole period of Napoleonic wars, Britain won two battles of great importance, one of them against the combined French and Spanish navy at Trafalgar, and another against the French army at Waterloo. The naval battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805. 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 faced a slightly larger enemy fleet commanded by a French admiral. The goal of the French was to land the reinforcements in southern Italy, but they were intercepted by Nelson on October 21 and engaged in a battle. Finally, some 20 French and Spanish ships were destroyed or captured, while not a single British vessel was lost. The great victory is recorded in the name of Trafalgar square in London, which is dominated by the granite column supporting a large statue of Nelson, who was mortally wounded and died in the course of battle.

The final victory over Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 laid the foundations for a great extension of the British Empire. As one of the members of anti-Napoleonic coalition, Britain got a number of strategic key points, such as Malta, Mauritius, Ceylon, Heligoland and the Cape. Yet the first result of the peace was a severe political and economic crisis.

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 because Europe was still too disturbed and too poor to take any significant quantity of British good. This post-war crisis was marked by a sudden outburst of class conflict, as a series of disturbances began with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and went on until 1816. 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 Britain. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, a small, temporary tariff being retained till 1849. Still, there was no fall in prices, what could be explained by a number of reasons: increasing population of Britain, greater demand due to the revival of industry, bad harvests in a number of years and the Crimean War which soon interrupted the import of wheat from Poland.

Another act of law that became the result of the economic crisis was the Reform Bill of 1832, which had two sides. One regularised the franchise, giving the vote to tenant farmers in the counties  and to the town middle class. Another swept away the rotten boroughs and transferred their members to the industrial towns and the counties.

In the first half of the nineteenth century a protest organisation called the Chartist Movement gained power. The Chartist Movement urged the immediate adoption of the so-called People’s Charter, which would have transformed Britain into a political democracy, and also was expected to improve living standards. Drafted in 1838, it was at the heart of a radical campaign for Parliamentary reform of the inequities remaining after the Reform Bill of 1832. Some of the main demands were universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual general elections and the secret ballot. There were three unsuccessful attempts to present the Charter to the House of Commons were made in 1839, 1842 and 1848, and the rejection of the last one brought an end to the movement.

The years between 1829 and 1839 were the time of foundation of the modern police force in Great Britain. This development became the direct result of the upsurge of a militant working class movement in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The Chartist Movement with its demonstrations and riots played the major role in initiation of the reorganisation of the police. One more reason for it were the multiple problems of factory workers.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain had become an industrial nation. In the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution, when machinery was crude and unreliable, 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, and in this way the greatest output could be obtained with the least outlay of capital. The terrible conditions of labour caused a number of legislation acts to ease the burden of factory workers. The first legislation, passed in 1802, was a very mild act to prevent some of the worst abuses connected with the employment of children. It was followed by the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 which forbade the employment of children under nine and cut their hour down to thirteen and a half a day. One more effective act was passed in 1833, which provided a number of regular inspections to control the labor conditions. In 1847 the Ten Hour’s Bill limited the hours of women and young people and secured a ten hour day for most of the men.

The years 1837 – 1901 are remarkable in the British history for what is called the Victorian period. King William IV died in June 1837, yielding the throne to his niece, Victoria, and so the great Victorian epoch started. 1837 to 1848 is considered as the early Victorian period, which was not that much different from the beginning of the nineteenth century as the following years. The time between 1848 and 1866 is known as the years of Mid-Victorian prosperity. Rapid and efficient development of manufactures and commerce took place mainly due to the removal of protective duties on food (such as he Corn Laws of 1815) and raw materials. Also, the British industry and the technological development began to experience a steep rise in those years. The first half of the nineteenth century is widely known among historians as the Railway Age. 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 late 1830’s, when the increase in economics began.

The striking feature of the Victorian time was the growing urbanization of Britain, which is commonly explained as the result of the development of industry.  In 1801, 20 per cent of Britain’s people lived in towns, and by the end of the nineteenth century, it was 75 per cent. The inflow of people in towns was caused by the increasing demand for new workers at factories and plants.

The middle of the century was marked by the Crimean War which lasted for three years (1853-1856). In 1853, Russia attempted to gain territories in the Balkans from the declining Ottoman Empire. Great Britain, France and Austria joined the Ottomans in a coalition against Russia to stop the expansion. Britain entered this war because Russia was seeking to control the Dardanells and thus threatened England’s Mediterranean sea routes. Although the coalition won the war, bad planning and incompetent leadership on all sides, including the British, characterized the war, leading to the large number of casualities. The exposure of the weaknesses of the British army lead to its reformation.

Among the internal problems, Britain experienced much disturbance in its relations with Ireland. A set of conflicts, based on both the political and religious grounds, followed the British attempts to suppress the Irish struggle for independence throughout the whole nineteenth century.

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