The Peel Web

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In 1830 the first Whig government for 50 years was returned to power on a platform of 'peace, retrenchment and reform'. Attempts to reform parliament had been made at intervals since the 1780s but none had really succeeded. However, the Tory government of the Duke of Wellington had 'cracked' the Constitution in repealing the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and by passing the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. This made the possibility of parliamentary reform more likely, particularly since the fear of revolution was abating - except that in 1830 there were revolutions in France and the Netherlands and an uprising in Poland. Problems which continued into the 1830s from earlier years were not only political but also social and economic.


The rate of population increase continued to grow. In 1821 the population was 12 millions according to the Census. By 1831 it was 13.9 million and in 1841 it had reached 15.9 millions. These figures are for England and Wales. In the rural south there was under- and un-employment, with consequent low wages. The Speenhamland System exacerbated this. In the industrial north, rising population meant urban overcrowding and its resulting squalor. It also led to low wages in the factories because it was an employer's market.


The interests of landowners had been protected in 1815 with the passing of the Corn Laws so enclosure had continued. Self-contained farms with hedged fields meant less work for agricultural labourers and also created a wage labour force. Previously, rural society had operated on a paternalistic/deferential basis: the landowner helped his workers in times of need; the labourers gave him the deference he expected. This system had begun to break down: labourers earned their wages and landowners felt that having paid the wages, they had no further responsibility towards them. Furthermore, the Speenhamland System held down agricultural wages.


This suffered from the effects of the Corn Laws, which restricted expansion by artificially forcing up the price of food and by limiting the import of cheap raw materials. There were several results: Both groups wanted a reform of parliament.

The 1832 Reform Act

The massive campaign for parliamentary reform began in earnest in 1830 when the Whigs took power. It continued with varying degrees of intensity, which at several points appeared to threaten actual revolution, until the Reform Act was finally passed in 1832. The campaign marks the start of nationally organized campaigns for various types of reform centred in the provinces.

Robert Owen and Trade Unions

Owen has been seen as the "father of English socialism". He had strong ideas on the organization of factories and education; he also wanted to see "worker control" of their work places and a return to self-sufficiency. He became involved with the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, the last of the early attempts at organizing the working man in this period. The GNCTU, like all the other unions, collapsed because of the economic climate and - so far as the working classes were concerned - the attractiveness of other movements.

Shaftesbury and Factory Reform

The 10-Hour Movement was a phenomenon of the north of England led by Michael Sadler and Richard Oastler. It wanted a maximum 10-hour working day in factories, and made much of "Yorkshire Slavery" when the Anti-Slavery campaign was at its height. Shaftesbury took over leadership of the factory movement after 1832 and continued to work for factory reform throughout the period, with some success.

The Poor Law (1834)

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 came as a result of the report of the Royal Commission of 1832-34. It altered the system of poor relief and insisted on the building of workhouses. The Act was intended to solve the problem of increasing poor rates in the rural south but attempts to superimpose it on the industrial north led to a massive anti-Poor Law Campaign, which failed.


This movement was so diverse in aims, methods and leaders that it is impossible to describe. The web contains a number of units in Chartism, which are central to this period study. Chartism appeared in 1836 when the London Men's Working Association produced their Peoples' Charter. The movement grew and spread, peaking in 1839, 1842 and 1847-48. Thereafter Chartism declined and disappeared.

The Anti-Corn-Law-League

This was an organization based in Manchester, set up in 1838 by and for middle class industrialists and manufacturers to pressurize parliament for the repeal of the Corn Laws. The driving forces behind the ACLL were Cobden, Bright and Wilson. They were fortunate in having Peel as Prime Minister from 1841 since he also saw the need for Britain to move to free trade. The Anti-Corn-Law League's campaign was highly organized but repeal of the Corn Laws was, in the end, more to do with external events than to their pressure.

Police Reform

In 1829 Peel, who was Home Secretary in Wellington's first ministry, established the Metropolitan Police in London. In 1839 the Whig government extended the police force to the counties with the Rural Constabulary Act. The police were much used by the authorities in the containment of Chartism although troops were also used.


The 'railway age' began in 1830 with the official opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line. Socially and economically the railways had a tremendous impact on Britain, besides quite literally changing the face of the countryside. Railways were a second industrial revolution in their own right.

Public Health

The state of towns became a real problem in the 1830s. Urbanization on a vast scale took place very rapidly and there was no precedent to look to so that problems of sanitation and overcrowding could be resolved. Life expectancy for urban labourers stood at 15 years in Liverpool and 17 in Manchester. The onset of cholera epidemics after 1831 added another killer disease to the list already in existence. Little was done to clean up the towns until the 1848 Public Health Act, which did little since it was permissive rather than compulsive.

Standards of Living

The debate over whether the standard of living rose or fell in this period is still raging. Much depends on one's political leanings. The Marxist, Hobsbawm, states that living standards declined, so far as the working classes were concerned; Hartwell, a monetarist, insists that conditions and wages improved.


There was no national provision of education in this period, although government grants to two church organizations began in 1833. Such schools as existed for the working classes were ad hoc and provided little other than the basics.

The Novel as a social document

Students are strongly advised to read as many contemporary novels as possible since they shed much light on mid-nineteenth century attitudes to work, urban life and industrialization.
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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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