Friday, 27 February 2015

The Peterloo Massacre

Here is a very interesting article on the Peterloo Massacre, which is especially interesting because it gives prominence to female reformers. Do read!

The Peterloo Massacre
print published 1 October 1819
Manchester Library Services

This print, published by the Radical bookseller, Richard Carlile, is a coloured engraving. All the poles from which banners are flying have Phrygian caps or liberty caps on top. Not all the details strictly accord with contemporary descriptions; the banner the woman is holding should read: Female Reformers of Roynton -- 'Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves'. 

The print is inscribed: 'To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter's Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile.' 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Victorian politics: an overview

The following two posts on Victorian politics attempt to pick out the major themes rather than follow a strict chronology.

Victorian politics (1)

The dominance of the aristocracy

The enfranchisement of the great industrial centres was clearly a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. In particular, the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role and did so until the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Although the three best-known Victorian prime ministers, Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Ewart Gladstone were of middle class backgrounds, most of the others were aristocratics and sat in the Lords. (Disraeli was created Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 by his admirer, Queen Victoria, and therefore sat in the Lords at the end of his premiership.) 

The political parties

However, neither political party could ignore the implications of the Great Reform Act, and in the 1830s they reinvented themselves. The Victorian political division of Liberals and Conservatives came into being.

Victorian politics (2)

Gladstone in old age

The later Victorian period saw further parliamentary reform, the split of the Liberal party over Ireland, and the rise of the labour movement.

Parliamentary reform

The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 restricted ‘treating’ at elections, and could be seen as the prelude to further reform.

The Third Reform Bill was introduced in February 1884.  It essentially created a uniform householder and lodger franchise based on that introduced for the English boroughs in 1867. 

This ended the distinction between urban and rural voters.

The Redistribution Act in the following year engineered the most extensive reform of the constituencies since 1832. The majority of seats were now single-member and of roughly equal size though the largest cities received between three and six new MPs apiece.  

Because this disaggregated city constituencies into smaller units, many of them suburban, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries. 

Following these reforms the United Kingdom electorate increased from 2.53 million in 1871 to 5.68 million at the end of 1884. By 1891 61% of adult males had the vote. However by this time both France and Germany had manhood suffrage.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The age of reform

The three posts below detail the challenges to the British constitution and the changes that took place between the 1790s and 1832.  

The growth of radicalism

The pressure for reform

John Wilkes, unflatteringly
portrayed by Hogarth
Public Domain
From the second half of the eighteen century there was growing pressure for reform of the political system. For example, the radical journalist, John Wilkes, managed to secure two important reforms: the principle that general warrants (warrants for arrest that did not name specific individuals) were declared illegal, and the reports of parliamentary debates could be published. 

The importance of the French Revolution

With the coming of the French Revolution in 1789 it became more difficult to maintain the belief that Britain had a perfect constitution. The system had too many anomalies. Only about three per cent of the population had the right to vote. Settlements that were almost non-existent such as Old Sarum and Dunwich returned two members of Parliament, while Manchester, Sheffield, and Birmingham had none.  

Ireland at a time of revolution

Wolfe Tone 1763-98
The first Irish nationalist
Public Domain

The United Irishmen

The French Revolution had a profound effect in Ireland, causing radicals, many of them from the rising Catholic middle class, to campaign for the abolition of the penal laws.

On 18 October 1791 the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was founded. Among the founders was Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Protestant lawyer from Dublin.  For Tone radical political reform and nationalist identity went hand in hand, with no place for sectarian divisions. The first resolutions of the United Irishmen asserted

That the weight of English influence in the Government in this country is so great, as to require a cordial union, among ALL THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND. ... No reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which does not include Irishmen or every religious persuasion.
In his posthumously published autobiography Tone described his aim as
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connexion with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.

The coming of reform

With Britain's victory over France at Waterloo in 1815 radicalism revived. The post-war slump created huge hardships, to which the government of Lord Liverpool seemed largely unresponsive, and as the working classes grew in number they increasingly demanded the right to vote and the reform of Parliament.

The Peterloo Massacre
Public Domain
The government's clumsy response to working-class agitation was repression, most notoriously in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on 16 August 1819, in which about eleven people were killed and hundreds injured. 

The Yeomanry charge into the crowd
at St Peter's Fields

Public Domain

Friday, 6 February 2015

How Londoners voted

My friend, Professor Penelope J. Corfield of Royal Holloway, University of London, and her colleagues, have just launched this fantastic new website on the electoral history of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The digitisation of poll books and other electoral data will allow scholars to investigate how individuals voted.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The eighteenth century: an overview

Hogarth, 'Polling: The Humours
of an election, 1755'
Note the absence of a secret ballot
Public Domain

There are many excellent books on this subject. I have relied particularly, though by no means exclusively, on the relevant volumes of the New Oxford History of England.

Historians write about a ‘long eighteenth century’, meaning the (relatively stable) period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 and the Great Reform Act of 1832. The start of the premiership of William Pitt the Younger at the end of 1783 is often seen as a ‘half-way mark’ in this long century.

For all the differences of historical interpretation, the period possesses a certain unity and witnessed some hugely important developments.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The king and his prime minister

George I
reigned 1714-27
Public Domain

George I

George Louis, Elector of Hanover, owed his accession not to divine hereditary right, but to the Act of Settlement of 1701. He was the son of the Electress Sophia, the most direct Protestant descendant of James I.

He finally arrived at Greenwich on 18 September, having been delayed by contrary winds and by his own lack of urgency. Although he had known since 1701 that he was likely to be king, he had not troubled to learn to speak English with any proficiency.

The limits of George’s power were defined by the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement. He had to be a Protestant, he was forbidden to give office, title or estate to a foreigner without Parliament’s consent, he could appoint but could not dismiss a judge, he could appoint and dismiss ministers and dictate foreign policy. He controlled a vast amount of patronage. But he needed Parliament (a) for money and (b) because no minister could survive long without its support.

The Whig supremacy

On 10 April 1716 the Whigs passed the Septennial Act, on the grounds that the Triennial Act of 1694 had fomented feuds and party strife and occasioned ruinous expense. But the Scottish Whig, Lord Islay, gave the game away: frequent elections rendered ‘government dependent on the caprice of the multitude and very precarious’. The Whigs had moved a long way from their radical origins in the reign of Charles II and were now firmly oligarchical.

Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole
prime minister 1721-42
Public Domain
The financial collapse occasioned by the South Sea Bubble led to the appointment of the Norfolk squire Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury. This was not seen at the time as a particularly momentous move. The king disliked Walpole, as did most politicians, who resented his obvious love of power and lack of scruple. He came to be unofficially referred to as Prime Minister – a term of abuse. In 1735 he moved into 10 Downing Street (then no 5), the residence of a Mr Chicken, and he secured the property as a residence for all future First Lords of the Treasury.
George II, r. 1727-60
When he became king, 

he kept on Walpole
as prime minister.

Public Domain
After twenty-one years in power, Walpole lost office, not because he had lost an election, or because he had lost the favour of the king (George II from 1727) but because he had lost the support of the Commons. This was therefore an event of great constitutional significance. To survive, an eighteenth-century prime minister needed both the support of the monarch and a majority in the Commons.

The Act of Settlement and the Union of Parliaments

The Treaty of Union, March 1707
Public Domain
The Princess Anne’s only surviving child, the duke of Gloucester died of smallpox on 30 July 1700. This raised the question of the Protestant succession, which was resolved by the Act of Settlement in May 1701, which established the succession, on Anne’s death, on the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her heirs.

Because the Act of Settlement had been passed by the English Parliament, there were concerns that Scotland might chose a different monarch from England.  Between April and July 1706 Union Commissioners convened in London. 25 articles were drawn up, which were ratified by the Scots Parliament in January 1707 and by Westminster on 6 March. The Act of Union was passed in March.

Key features were the establishing of:
  1. A single kingdom of ‘Great Britain’ with the succession vested in the Hanoverians. This state comprised c. 1 million Scots and some 5 m. English.
  2. A single Parliament at Westminster by expanding the Commons and Lords to include 45 MPs from Scottish constituencies to join 513 English MPs (a 12:1 ration compared with England) and 16 elected Scots peers to join the 45 English peers. This low representation flattered the country’s economic strength (38:1) but grossly under-represented the population ratio (5:1) between the two kingdoms.
  3. A British free trade area and the use of English standards of coins, weights and measures within it.
  4. An equality of Scots and English in colonial trade.
  5. A unified fiscal system based upon that already in place in England.
But the Scottish privy council continued, no change was made to Scotland’s legal system,  the Presbyterian settlement, the universities, burghs or hereditable jurisdictions. Scotland therefore remained a distinct country.

Scotland’s last Parliament was dissolved in April and the Union came into effect on 1 May 1707. The flags of St George and St Andrew were merged.