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Liberals and Conservatives: from1832

In the shifting political landscape after the Reform Act, the old party loyalties of Whig and Tory take on new colours. Because of pushing through the new legislation, the Whigs are now seen as the party of reform; and during the 1830s they begin to acquire a new name as Liberals (a term first applied only to the left wing of the party, where members are in favour of the 'liberation' movements already successful in Latin America and now under way elsewhere - see Liberal and conservative).

At the same period the Tories begin to call themselves Conservatives, making the most of their recent opposition to reform by suggesting that their policy is to conserve all that is best in the traditional British way of life.

In practice the two parties are rarely predictable in their attitudes to the great issues of the century. In broad terms the Liberals are more inclined to pass measures of social welfare (the Factory Act of 1833, the Ten Hours' Act of 1847), yet the greatest campaigner on these issues is a Conservative MP, Lord Shaftesbury, and his party is responsible for the Mines Act of 1842.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the great issue of the 1840s, the repeal of the Corn Laws. Forced through parliament in 1846 by a Conservative prime minister, Robert Peel, the issue splits the party. Eventually Peel's own minority faction merges, after his death, with the Liberals.

Many such parallels can be drawn. It is the Conservatives who extend the franchise to bring in more voters in 1867, and the Liberals who continue the process in 1884. The two most aggressive prime ministers in their foreign policy, on behalf of British interests abroad, are the Liberal Palmerston and the Conservative Disraeli. And when a Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, presses for Home Rule for Ireland, half his party hive off as the Liberal Unionists.

For these reasons the century is best described not under a succession of prime ministers of one party or the other, but in terms of the great issues of the day. One of the most pressing is the recent growth of new cities.

The growth of industrial cities: 18th - 19th century

The availability of work in Britain's mills and factories, particularly after the introduction of steam power, has the effect of drawing ever-increasing numbers of people from the countryside into rapidly expanding cities. Manchester and the closely related town of Salford have 25,000 inhabitants between them in 1772. In 1821 the joint population is 181,000. By 1851 this conurbation has grown to 455,000.

The growth of Manchester's textile industry brings equivalent prosperity to the nearby port of Liverpool - just in time since the slave trade, the previous source of Liverpool's wealth, is made illegal in 1807. Cotton saves the day. Eight new docks are built in Liverpool between 1815 and 1835.

The amount of raw cotton brought ashore in Liverpool shows a threefold increase between 1820 and 1850, from half a million bales a year to 1.5 million. There is a comparable rise in the population - with a leap of 60% in a single decade, the 1840s, from 250,000 to 400,000 inhabitants.

The other great industrial city of the era, Birmingham, starts from a lower base. Its population increases from 86,000 to 233,000 between 1801 and 1851. Birmingham's interests are broader than those of Lancashire, where textiles predominate. Birmingham is blessed with an abundance of coal, iron and wood in the immediate neighbourhood, and with a position at the very heart of England.

Birmingham's real potential is realized only with the arrival of the railway. The line to London is completed in 1838. By then the city's workshops, specializing in metal-based industries, are ready to supply a wider market. A French visitor in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, describes the place as 'an immense workshop, a huge forge', where one sees only 'busy people and faces brown with smoke' and hears 'nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers'.

To a detached observer the Industrial Revolution can seem romantic in the 1780s and fascinatingly strange in the 1830s. But it is also becoming evident that it creates an environment in which it can be extremely unpleasant to work.

Factories and slums: 19th - 20th century

In any peasant community children work in the fields. As families move in from the countryside to work in Britain's developing industrial cities, there is nothing intrinsically strange about children joining their parents in the factories. And the entrepreneurs who own the factories welcome a supply of labour trapped by economic circumstances into accepting long hours and low pay.

The living conditions of the poor in any rapidly growing city, without sanitation, are invariably worse than the condition of peasants in the countryside. But in Britain in the early 19th century it is exploitation within the factories which prompts the first measures of reform.

The first Factory Act, in 1802, introduces a regulation which by later standards seems astonishing. It limits the amount of time which a child may work in a factory to twelve hours a day.

After much opposition the reformers achieve significant improvements in the Factory Act of 1833. Children under nine are now not to work at all. Those aged between nine and thirteen are limited to eight hours of work and must be given two hours of education each day (this is the first small step towards compulsory education in Britain). And an inspectorate is set up for the factories, albeit initially with only four inspectors for the entire country.

The last significant regulation of hours of work is achieved in the Ten Hour Act of 1847, which stipulates that number of hours as the maximum working day for women and children in the nation's factories and textile mills. This act is largely the achievement of Lord Shaftesbury, who is responsible also for the Mines Act of 1842. This makes it illegal for women of any age and for boys under thirteen to be employed underground.

By the mid-century Shaftesbury is much concerned with the condition of London slums, campaigning actively for improvements in housing and public sanitation. In the 20th century environmental pollution comes to be seen as another deficit to be charged against the Industrial Revolution.

Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League: 1838-1846

Two political organizations are founded in the same year, 1838, in London and in Manchester. They are very different, but each evolves in a sense from the Reform Act earlier in the decade.

The People's Charter is drafted and published in May by the London Working Men's Association. It is partly a response to economic depression and high unemployment in the recent two years, but it is also a protest against the middle-class limitations of the reformed parliament. The document makes six political demands: universal male suffrage, constituencies of roughly equal size, a secret ballot, payment for MPs, no property qualification for MPs, and annual parliaments.

These are regarded by the Liberal government, now headed by Lord Melbourne, as seditious proposals (though all of them, except annual parliaments, are taken for granted a century later). During 1839 many of those speaking around the country in the Chartist cause are sentenced to one or two years in gaol. Even so, by 1842 the Charter has attracted more than three million signatures, collected by a network of local organizations. Chartism has evolved into Britain's first national working-class movement.

Meanwhile the middle classes are making even more impressive progress with their own pressure group, which is also connected with the shift of power promised in the Reform Act.

The influence of the landed gentry in parliament, absolute before the Reform Act and still strong after it, is seen in the continuation of tariffs against foreign grain. Designed to guarantee a sufficiently large British crop in time of war, the effect of the Corn Laws in peace time is to keep prices artificially high - considerably boosting the income of the landed grandees.

It is an issue on which the interests of the working classes coincide with those of their employers in the mills, since cheap bread benefits both groups. In October 1838 seven merchants and mill-owners in Manchester found the Anti-Corn Law League to campaign for abolition of the restrictive laws.

Two men, Richard Cobden and John Bright, emerge as the driving force within the League. Both enter parliament in the early 1840s; both devote themselves to campaigning in the house of commons and around the country on the issue.

Gradually their arguments prevail. Robert Peel, the prime minister, is already wavering when the Irish potato famine of 1845 clinches his view of the matter. Cheap imported food is now, more than ever, essential. In June 1846 Peel carries the bill to repeal the Corn Laws with the support of a minority of his own Conservative party, backed by the Liberals. He resigns four days later, having courageously taken an important step in the direction of free trade - even though the predictable effect is a split in his party.

Victoria, Albert and the Great Exhibition: 1837-1851

The campaigns of the Chartists and of the Anti-Corn Law League take place during the years immediately after the accession to the throne of the 18-year-old Victoria, who succeeds her uncle William IV in 1837. Her reign of sixty-four years can later be seen as one of the defining periods of British history, matched only by that of another queen - Elizabeth I.

Many elements contribute to the powerful brand image known as the 'Victorian age'. Some are economic, connected with Britain's leading role as the first industrial nation and the pioneer of railway transport. Some are imperial, reflecting the importance of India as the most significant colony of the century.

Other elements in the Victorian image are personal, centred very specifically on the queen herself and the German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whom she marries in 1840 when both of them are twenty-one. Visibly in love, and soon the parents of nine children, the young couple could not possibly provide a stronger contrast with the queen's debauched and childless uncle, George IV, who has set the tone in the early decades of the century.

When the earnestly moral qualities of prince Albert himself are added to the mixture, the new Victorian ethos is complete - confident, prosperous, forward-looking, family-minded and profoundly worthy.

The best of the Victorian age is seen in the extraordinary event of 1851, the Great Exhibition. A brainchild of Prince Albert, its intention and scope is evident in its full title - The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. This is to be a celebration of the new industrial era and of Britain's leading role in bringing it to pass.

Astonishingly the first committee to discuss the proposal, chaired by Albert in January 1850, meets a mere sixteen months before the agreed opening date. In that brief period exhibits are invited and gathered in from all over the world. Meanwhile discussions start from scratch on what new building should house them in London's Hyde Park.

An architectural competition is launched, resulting in the submission of 245 designs. From these proposals the members of the building committee, in somewhat high-handed fashion, produce a composite design of their own. It is extraordinarily dull (a long low brick building, like farm outhouses, capped by an incongruous dome), and it suggests to Londoners that Albert's exhibition is going to be equally dreary.

In June 1850 tenders are about to come in for the construction of this building when Joseph Paxton, superintendent of the gardens at Chatsworth, submits a bold design for a massive hall of glass and iron.

The building committee is understandably cautious (no tests exist to prove that such a building will even withstand a strong wind), but Paxton clinches the issue by publishing his design in the Illustrated London News. London buzzes with excitement and a journalist suggests a perfect name, the Crystal Palace.

Work starts on the site at the end of July and the building is completed in January 1851. The exhibition opens on schedule on the first day of May. By the time it closes, in October, six million visitors have marvelled at this new-age palace and its contents.

Ten years later, in 1861, prince Albert dies of typhoid. His adoring wife becomes the archetypal widow, forty years in mourning and once again another kind of symbol of her Victorian era, strait-laced and yet sentimental, heavily upholstered spiritually as well as physically.

The Crystal Palace is dismantled in 1852, but its neighbourhood remains heavy with memories of Albert and his great success - the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, both built in his memory in the 1860s, and down the hill the Victoria and Albert Museum, founded in 1852 with profits from his international exhibition. Meanwhile, in the last decade of his life, Britain has some less peaceful international involvements - in the Crimea and in China.

Gunboat diplomacy: 1850-1856

The decade of the Great Exhibition begins with an event which suggests a new British attitude to foreign policy. This is the approach later characterized as gunboat diplomacy, in which military force is used to impose the nation's will on another country.

Known as the Don Pacifico incident, the event concerns a Portuguese Jew of that name trading in Athens. When an anti-Semitic crowd burns his house, in 1847, he sues the Greek government for damages - with little result, until he appeals to Britain for help on the grounds that he is a British citizen (as a result of being born in Gibraltar).

The Liberal foreign secretary, Palmerston, provokes fierce controversy by the vigour of his response. He sends a naval squadron into the Aegean in 1850 to seize Greek ships to the value of Don Pacifico's claim. Censured in the house of lords, Palmerston wins a majority for his action in the commons where he argues that 'a British citizen, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong'.

Four years later the watchful eye and strong arm of England are in the care of a Conservative prime minister, Lord Aberdeen. He too sends warships to the Aegean to back up diplomacy, this time in support of Turkey.

A joint British and French fleet steams through the Dardanelles in 1854 as a gesture of warning to Russia. The result in this case is full-scale war in the Crimea. A few years later Britain and France again act together in distant waters. They use two minor incidents which would normally be the stuff of diplomacy (in the British case the offence of some Chinese officials in 1856 in boarding a British merchant ship and lowering the red ensign) as a pretext for launching a renewal of the Opium Wars.

The steam-assisted warship has made it possible, as never before, for a strong nation to police the entire world in its own interest. And to an unprecedented degree ordinary members of the public now feel closely in touch with events.

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