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Reform in Britain 1870-1914

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Key Point:

World’s most powerful empire saw a period of reform that gradually increased political democracy and improved economic and social conditions for all.

Queen Victoria 1837-1901
King Edward VII 1900-1910
King George V 1910-1936
Main Political Leaders: Party Period as PM
W.E. Gladstone Liberal 1868-74, 1880-1886, 1892-94
Benjamin Disraeli Conservative 1874-1880
Lord Salisbury Conservative 1885, 1886-1892, 1895-1902
Herbert Asquith Liberal 1908-1916

These notes examine the major reforms introduced into the UK during the period 1870 to 1914.


The strength of the British system of Government has been its ability to stifle any danger of revolution through reform. During the 19th century Britain’s government was the model most Liberals throughout Europe sought to copy.

It was a constitutional monarchy where the power of the Monarch was greatly restricted by Parliament (the House of Lords and the House of Commons). As the 19th century progressed, this system developed into one of the most democratic in Europe. The politics of the country was dominated by two parties the Conservatives (Tories) and the Liberals (Whigs).

By 1870 it was the most industrialised and the most powerful country in the world. It possessed the world’s largest Empire protected by a very formidable navy. Imperialism was popular and during this period Britain added to her colonial possessions. They included India (the jewel in the crown), South Africa, Canada, Australia, Malaya (now Malaysia), Egypt, Nigeria, and Rhodesia and covered one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface.

However the Industrial revolution had created severe social problems, as Britain became the world’s most urbanised country. Over half of her population lived in cities. The social problems were to be found especially in the area of housing, education and health care.

The major measures of reform can be grouped into four categories:

Parliamentary Reforms

A series of acts had gradually extended the franchise in England during this period. These were passed by both parties and helped to strengthen support for the political system in Britain.

The Suffragettes

The major issue left untouched was that of votes for women. In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters to demand the vote for women.

Until 1914, when the First World War broke out, they campaigned energetically, and sometimes violently, to achieve this aim. In 1906 the Daily Mail first referred to members of the WSPU as 'suffragettes'. This name became widely used by both supporters and opponents of the campaign.

Suffragettes were responsible for breaking the windows of 10 Downing Street, burning buildings and damaging paintings in public galleries. They were often prepared to go to prison for their cause or even put their own lives in danger.

While in prison they went on hunger strike. The government often force fed the women prisoners. The so-called Cat and Mouse Act was passed by the government in an attempt to prevent suffragettes from obtaining public sympathy - it provided for releasing those whose condition got too serious then re-imprisoning them when they had recovered.

In 1913 the suffragette Emily Davison tried to stop the Derby horserace by running onto the track just as the horses came round Tattenham Corner. In many texts, you will read that she 'threw herself under King George V's horse' — which is simply not true. She died from her injuries.

When World War One broke out many women took jobs normally undertaken by men. The huge numbers of men needed to fight the war resulted in women being employed as gas workers, coal heavers, transport workers and ambulance drivers.

When the war ended, the tremendous war effort of these female workers was rewarded by the introduction of a bill that allowed women over 30 years to vote in parliamentary elections.

Worker’s Rights

Trade Unions for skilled workers had grown in strength throughout the 19th century and were made legal in 1871 and given the right to strike. In 1875 they were permitted to peacefully picket their place of work when on strike (Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act).

Unions for unskilled workers were slow to develop. Throughout the 1880s there were a series of strikes by unskilled workers in an attempt to improve their conditions. The most famous of these were the match-girls strike of 1888 and the dockers' strike of 1889.Both of which were successful.

However the trade union movement suffered a severe setback with Taff Vale Case in 1901. A union was found to be financially liable for the losses that the Taff Vale Railway Company suffered during a strike. The conservative government took no action.

The Liberal government (1906) brought in the Trade Disputes Act (1906) which declared that unions could not be sued for damages incurred during a strike. This reversed the Taff Vale judgement. Trade unions began to sponsor candidates for parliament. In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed. In 1906 it changed its name to the Labour Party and was led by Keir Hardie. 29 MPs were elected in the election of that year. The Labour party continued to grow and in the 1920s replaced the Liberals as one of the two big parties in England.


The provision of education in England was improved greatly by a series of laws that made a basic education available to all children.

The 1870 Education Act (commonly named after its author W.E. Forster) set up school districts. Local ratepayers were asked to build a primary school in an area where one did not already exist. The local board had the right to compel children to attend these schools and to charge a nominal fee.

By 1874 over 5,000 new schools had been founded. In 1880 education became compulsory up to the age of 10 (raised to 12 in 1899) and in 1891 it was made free.

However the absence of real reform in the secondary sector meant that education in 1900 was generally only up to primary level. Britain lagged seriously behind Germany and France.

In 1902 the Education Act (Balfour Act) greatly improved this situation. It provided for the funding of secondary schools out of local rates with helps of grants from central government. In 1907 a scholarship scheme made it possible for the clever children from poor backgrounds to attend secondary school. By 1914 Britain had a well-organised system of education.

Early Social Welfare Reforms

The Industrial Revolution and the growth of the towns had created a number of serious social and health problems. A number of measures were brought in to alleviate the conditions of ordinary people:

The Public Health Act of 1872 set up Health Authorities throughout England. However the operation of the Act was seriously hampered by a lack of money. A further Act in 1875 increased funding and greatly improved the situation. It also brought together a range of acts covering sewerage and drains, water supply, housing and disease.

Other legislation in this period included the Artisans’ Dwelling Act (1875) which allowed for a large clearance of slums in England. In 1888 local government was introduced to England and this was further improved upon in 1894.

Throughout the nineteenth century a series of Factory Acts had regulated conditions for workers in factories. By the 1870s workers in Britain had a half day on Saturday and this led to the growth of organised sports especially soccer.

The Social Reforms of the Liberal Governments 1906-1914

The long period of conservative government between 1895 and 1905 had meant a slowing of reform. In 1900 it was estimated that 30% of the population lived on the edge of starvation. There were also great inequalities of income and wealth. A working class family lived on about 18 shillings a week while a middle class family spent £10.

During the Boer War the medical condition of the working-class recruits was a cause of grave concern and more attempts were made to improve the nation’s health.

In 1906 a Liberal government was elected with a massive majority. It introduced a large number of social reforms. These included:

A basic social welfare service had been created which greatly improved the conditions for poorer people in British society. To pay for this social reform the Liberals increased the taxes on the rich.

These reforms were resisted by the Conservative dominated House of Lords. The crisis caused by their rejection of the 1909 budget led to the Parliament Act that ended the veto of the House of Lords.

The Economy

Although still a powerful economic power, Britain had gone into relative decline against the new economies of Germany and the US. (Table 1)

The economy was growing very slowly although she continued to be the banking capital of the world. British shipbuilding boomed during the period especially on the Clyde and in Belfast.

Much of British industry had failed to modernise and many factories were slow to use electricity. For example by 1910 German steel production was double that of Britain and US output of coal had overtaken and was greater than Britain.

Traditionally the basis of British economic power had been based on Free Trade. As most of her competitors erected tariff barriers, Britain found her industries shut out from many markets.

By the early twentieth century the demand for tariffs increased in Britain. This demand was led by Joseph Chamberlain who felt that Protectionism would protect British industry and help to unite the empire. His demand was opposed by many in his own party and helped to split the once invincible Conservatives. This division paved the way for the Liberal victory in 1906.

Table 1: Percentage Distribution of the World's Manufacturing Production 1870 and 1913
(% of world total)
USA 23.3 35.8
Germany 13.2 15.7
U.K 31.8 14.0
France 10.3 6.4
Russia 3.7 5.5


“England was widely regarded as a society in which political differences could be solved by compromise” James Joll

“Large sections of the industrial population were still at the end of the 19th century living in appalling conditions” James Joll

“The “Mother of Parliaments” at Westminster had shown herself able to keep pace with fast-moving change” David Thomson

British Foreign Policy 1870 - 1914: A Summary

The main aims of British foreign policy were

  1. 1. To maintain the balance of power in Europe and to prevent one country or group of countries becoming too powerful. Traditionally France was seen as the main threat in this regard e.g. Napoleon.
  2. To protect its naval superiority over any other European country. The British army was small and her power rested on the strength of her navy that was the largest in the world. It was this determination that led to a serious breakdown of relations with Germany as she built up her navy to rival the British one.
  3. To protect and expand her colonial Empire. France was traditionally her rival.
  4. To defend the sea routes to India (Suez canal and South Africa) and to prevent landward encroachment towards the subcontinent by Russia.
  5. To prevent Turkey from collapsing and Russia expanding her influence in the Balkans at Turkey’s expense.

During the 1880s and 1890s Britain had pursued a policy of avoiding alliances that involved any sort of military commitments. This policy was known as “Splendid Isolation” and it was most associated with the figure of Lord Salisbury, prime-minister for most of this period.

However the Boer War (1899-1902) had exposed Britain’s lack of a reliable ally and proved she had very few friends. This allied to the growing might of Germany, caused Britain to abandon her policy of isolation.

In 1902 she formed an alliance with Japan mainly directed against Russia. In 1904 she settled her colonial differences with France and the Entente Cordiale was formed.

Partly as a result of French encouragement she did the same with Russia in 1907. This alliance between the three nations became known as the Triple Entente but as Joll notes “relations between Russia and Britain never became close”.

In 1912 the Entente between France and Britain was strengthened when an agreement on naval co-operation, in the event of war, was reached between the two.



Outline the main political, social and economic reforms enacted in Britain during the period 1870-1914.

Treat social, economic and political reforms as separate.

  • Political Reform
  • Suffragettes
  • Worker’s Rights
  • Social reforms especially Education
  • The Liberal Reforms after 1906
  • Economic policies

Trace the progress of political and social reforms in Britain during the period, 1870-1914

Same essay as the one above (minus economic).


Identify the major social and economic changes that took place in Great Britain during the period 1870-1914.

Difficult essay that involves examining social and economic change only. Political reform is not required.

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