In this term paper we will discuss about the establishment of society and politics in Briatin during 1815-1832.
Although Britain’s economy was developing so fast, the social structure of the country was changing only slowly. The great hereditary landlords, whose chief economic concern was agriculture, still dominated British society. In some respects their position was even growing stronger. The progress of farming increased their revenues.
Further, during the eighteenth century the trend had been for large estates to get larger, and this trend seems to have continued, though more slowly, into the second half of the nineteenth century.
Both law and opinion favored the transmission of entire estates to one male heir, rather than their division among several heirs. The first survey of land-ownership was not made until 1873, and was inadequate in many ways; but it is believed that a reliable general picture can be formed from it, the broad outlines of which apply to the previous sixty years as well. In 1873, 363 persons each owned more than 10,000 acres in England.
To look at the position in another way, half the land of England and Wales was owned by about 4,000 persons. Something of the same pattern was to be found in Scotland. Only in Eastern Europe were great landowners are as great as in Britain. Very roughly, 10,000 agricultural acres might be expected to yield £10,000 a year in rents.
Until the early twentieth century no mere businessman could compete with the greatest landlords in wealth, let alone in power and status. It was they, rather than British merchants and industrialists, who rivaled the ostentatious spending of the great American millionaires. Here are two instances of architectural extravagance.
The sixth Duke of Bedford, Duke from 1802 to 1839, already the owner of several large houses, built another at Endsleigh in Devon, starting in 1810. The grounds were landscaped by the famous Repton, whose scheme included a little cottage to be constructed across the river Tamar, not for habitation, but so that a fire could be lighted in it to produce a whiff of smoke at an appropriate point in the view.
This was quite a common feature of ‘picturesque’ gardening. Less typically, the fifth Duke of Portland, Duke from 1854 to 1879, in order to be able to escape without being observed from his mansion, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, had a tunnel made leading out of the grounds, a mile-and-a-half long.
One of the strangest of eccentric peers was the fourth Marquees of Hertford, Marquees from 1842 to 1870, with perhaps £ 240,000 a year, who lived in Paris, devoted himself to collecting pictures, used the largest of his London houses as a store-room, only occasionally visited one of the others, never resided at either of his principal country houses, and finally left the bulk of his property to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace. His widow gave it, as the Wallace Collection, to the British nation.
As well as wealth, the great landowners possessed political power. Most obviously, they dominated the House of Lords, which before 1832, in practice as well as theory, was nearly as powerful as the House of Commons. Just over half of the 363 owners of 10,000 acres in England in 1873 were hereditary peers, and no doubt the position in this regard was much the same in 1815.
There were a fair number of peers who owed their titles to their own or their ancestors’ services in the armed forces, politics or the legal profession; many peers drawn from the business world is quite mistaken.
The sum total of businessmen created peers during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution is two, both bankers, both of whom had acquired vast landed estates before their elevation. The ownership of a substantial estate was considered a necessary attribute of a peer. Wealth derived from business had to be converted into land before it qualified.
In the House of Commons the great landowners were hardly less powerful. The fact that Members of Parliament were unpaid meant that only men of some wealth could serve, and this was more effective in restricting membership than the technical property qualification. But these were not the reasons for the special power of the great landlords. In order to understand this, it is necessary to know something of the crazy system of Parliamentary representation.
The House of Commons from 1801 to 1885 had 658 Members. Before the First Reform Act Irish constituencies elected 100, Scottish 45, Welsh 24 and English the remaining 489. The great bulk of the constituencies were classified either as ‘counties’, usually covering the whole area of a county, or as ‘boroughs’, usually covering only a small area and identified with a town or village.
Before 1832 English and Irish counties elected two Members each, Welsh counties one, and Scottish counties either one each or one between two. The total of county Members was 188. In England, Wales and (until 1829) Ireland the electorate in the counties consisted of those males who were held to possess a freehold of the value of 40 shillings a year; in Scotland it was much more restricted.
Every county in the United Kingdom sent Members to Westminster, but only those towns did so which had been accorded the privilege by the Crown in past centuries. The boroughs of England in general elected two Members each; the boroughs of Wales, Scotland and Ireland one each or one to a group. In the boroughs there was every variety of franchise.
The extreme cases were Preston, where all the adult male inhabitants had the vote, and Old Sarum, the classic ‘rotten’ borough, which no longer had any inhabitants and whose seven ‘burgage holdings’ were the property of the Earl of Caledon. All voting was by public declaration. There was no limit to the number of different constituencies in which a man might qualify to vote, but in an individual constituency no one had more votes than there was M.P.s to be elected. Peers could not vote.
Although there was so many more borough than county constituencies, this did not on the whole give power to urban rather than rural interests. The Parliamentary boroughs did not include some of the largest towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds, whose inhabitants, if qualified, voted in their counties.
Many of the boroughs were mere villages; most of them were no more than little market towns. In relation to population, the agricultural South of England was grossly over-represented by comparison with the industrial North, and England was over- represented by comparison with the other parts of the United Kingdom. Most of all, the great landlords, even as compared with other rural interests, had exceptional influence over the composition of the Commons.
Great landowners sometimes, as in the case of Old Sarum, owned a borough outright. More often a landlord had enough property in a constituency or could exert enough pressure on the voters to be virtually sure of the election of his nominee. Such pressure might include ‘illegitimate influence’, threats of eviction or withdrawal of custom, bribery, even violent intimidation.
In many of the more open constituencies a landlord might still exercise enough of what contemporaries called ‘legitimate influence’ to have a good chance of returning his man. It was thought in the 1820s that over two- thirds of the constituencies were at least under the strong influence of some landlord, usually a peer.
Two hundred sixty one M.P.s were supposed to be effectively nominated by a patron. A mere seven peers either nominated or strongly influenced the election of 51 M.P.s: the Dukes of Devonshire, Norfolk and Rutland, the Marquess of Hertford, and the Earls of Darlington, Fitzwilliam and Lonsdale.
This kind of aristocratic influence had actually grown during the early Industrial Revolution. Further, more than a quarter of the House of Commons consisted of peers and sons of peers. By custom all the great officers of state came from one or other House of Parliament.
Before 1834 Cabinets always contained a majority of members of the House of Lords, and the more aristocratic M.P.s were better represented in Ministries than the common run. As well as power, tenure of the principal posts brought very large salaries, of the order of £ 5000 per annum. To a relatively impecunious peer, like Palmerston before his marriage in 1839, office made the difference between debts and affluence.
Parliament’s acts, as much as its composition, reflected the dominance of landlords. The Corn Law is one instance. Another is the Game Laws. In the early years of the nineteenth century organized shooting of game on a large scale became a popular gentleman’s sport, and game preservation became a fetish.
This development was accompanied by a progressive stiffening of the law against poaching, which was at its most severe between 1816 and 1827. Until 1827 land-owners were permitted to use spring- guns to trap and injure poachers, and from 1816 to 1828 any person found at night, armed and with a net for poaching, in any forest, chase or park was to be tried at Quarter Sessions and, if convicted, sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Unarmed poachers were liable to imprisonment, with hard labour if caught with another person, and with whipping for second offences. Here landlords were at their most tyrannous, using their dominance of Parliament to carry utterly selfish legislation which they or their sporting companions, in their capacities as magistrates, were able to enforce locally. Between 1827 and 1830 one in seven of all criminal convictions was under the Game Laws.
More generally, the whole character of Parliament’s activities reflected the landlords’ dominance. As a result of the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century, Parliament had become indisputably the sovereign legislature; it had also won control over the central executive; that executive had lost most of its power over the localities; and property rights had been sanctified, so that only statute, that is, Act of Parliament, could disturb them.
Parliament’s victory was the landlords’, who used it, not to make large changes, but to preserve ‘the ancient constitution’ as they conceived it and to ensure that they were the masters in their counties. Parliamentary supremacy was employed to make local adjustments at the behest of the local landlords.
The main occupation of the Parliaments of George III’s reign was passing local acts: enclosure acts; acts establishing turnpike trusts, bodies of ‘improvement commissioners’ and the like; acts for the construction of canals; acts for the restoration of church towers. Many acts of wider application, like Gilbert’s, were permissive only. Where there was any question of disturbing property rights, mandatory general legislation was suspect.
Hence, partly, the persistence of inefficiency, abuses and anomalies. It seemed much more important to the landowners to keep control of the localities and stave off central interference than to rationalize the system of government. Already anomalous when they won their victory over the King in the seventeenth century, this system had been deliberately preserved. No new Parliamentary constituency was created between 1677 and 1832.
It was maintained that the system was nonetheless perfect, that places and interests not visibly represented in Parliament were ‘virtually’ represented there. Rationalization was unnecessary, and would in any case be dangerous. This attitude had recently been reformulated in a newly elevated manner by Edmund Burke, especially in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
He denounced ‘economists and calculators’ who made rationalist plans from first principles. What already existed, however irrational it seemed, had something to be said for it or it would not exist. ‘The wisdom of the species’ could be relied upon. Admittedly, change was sometimes necessary, but the onus of proof lay with the reformer.
Burke’s writings apart, it was widely believed that the story of the French Revolution proved the danger of violent and fundamental change. The brutality and licence of the Terror, the tyranny and militarism of Napoleon, were just the horrors that should be expected to follow on the disturbance of the old French constitution, the confiscation of aristocratic and ecclesiastical property, the execution of the monarch, the denial of Christianity.
So every anomaly was defended – Old Sarum, the historic parish boundaries, obsolete forms of law and unenforceable statutes. Here are some extreme instances. A lucky few continued to receive huge sums for offices which were now without duties, like the second Lord Ellenborough, with nearly £10,000 a year as chief clerk of the Court of King’s Bench. The Duke of Norfolk, excluded twice over, as peer and Roman Catholic, from the franchise, continued to return eleven M.P.s, Anglicans, to the House of Commons.
To understand fully the attitudes of the early nineteenth century it is necessary to go back in history much further than the French Revolution. Britain had preserved, to a degree almost unique in Europe, her medieval constitution. In the Middle Ages law had been regarded not as the command of the sovereign but as the custom of the community.
The ‘Common Law’, enshrining this outlook, was still the dominant element in English law at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It consisted of statutes, many of them originally designed as clarifications rather than changes of the law, and ‘precedents’, that is, decisions of the courts interpreting these statutes and the law as a whole, decisions which were binding unless superseded by Act of Parliament.
The reluctance to use Parliamentary sovereignty to put through general legislation reflected, as well as the interest of landlords in local autonomy and the security of property, the traditional views of Common Lawyers, who formed the largest and most influential part of the legal profession. They hallowed precedent rather than statute, and shared the landlord’s reverence for property. It was their attitudes which Burke was reformulating.
A few words must be said about other elements in English law. The monarch possessed a ‘prerogative’ covering executive action, foreign policy and so on; but its wider applications, of a legislative character, had been curbed in the seventeenth century, and even the royal ‘veto’ on Bills passed by both Houses of Parliament had fallen into disuse during the eighteenth century.
There survived ecclesiastical courts with jurisdiction not only in matters of heresy and blasphemy but also over wills and marriages. More important, there was a rival system of law to the Common Law, namely ‘equity’, administered by a Court of Chancery separate from the Common Law courts.
This system derived from the efforts of Chancellors of the late middle ages and the early modern period to supplement and circumvent the Common Law in the interests of the King or of a notion of justice. Chancery had a mode of procedure quite different from that of the Common Law courts. An obvious and important variation was that a defendant in Chancery had to give evidence, but could not do so at Common Law.
Although the two systems were maintained technically and theoretically distinct from each other, and few lawyers practiced under both, they were often concerned in the same questions. When that happened, cases passed to and fro between courts, as decisions were required this fell within the competence of first one and then the other system. At a time when legal procedure was especially dilatory and complex the Court of Chancery was even slower and more intricate than the Common Law courts.
With anomaly went disorder. The yeomanry was inefficient at controlling crowds of rioters, and the parish constables were no deterrent to serious crime. Highwaymen were notoriously numerous and successful. After dark, there was little security in the unlit towns. Most criminals escaped detection, while a few were punished very severely.
But the creation of a proper police force was associated with Continental despotisms, and the story of the 1688 Revolution made people wary of allowing a sizable standing army to be maintained at home. Violent crime and violent punishments were regarded as part of the price of liberty, and violent sport too: ‘A late eighteenth-century bill advertises “that Most ancient, Loyal, National, Constitutional and Lawful Diversion: BEAR-BAITING”.’ Violence and corruption at elections were equally condoned.
The great landlords, then, took the trouble to dominate Parliament and do much of the work of central administration in order to be sure of dominating the localities. The county was the most important unit of local government; only certain ‘incorporated’ boroughs (not necessarily the same as Parliamentary boroughs) were partly independent of county officials.
The chief of these officials was the Lord Lieutenant, usually the greatest landowner of the district. He commanded the militia, the armed force, which was supposed to combat invasion and rebellion, of which the yeomanry were the cavalry section. The militia consisted of officers drawn from the landed gentry, each higher rank requiring a higher property qualification, and of men to be supplied by the gentry.
It was on the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant that the Justices of the Peace were appointed. The statutory qualification for a County Justice of the Peace was the possession of landed property to the value of £100 a year, but in practice most J.P.s were better off than this, that is, they came from among the substantial landowners.
These Justices, about 2,000 of them in England and Wales, individually or in small groups, and especially in Quarter Sessions, the gathering of all the Justices of a county, had much judicial power, much power which looks like executive power, and even some power which is difficult to distinguish from legislative power. The extent of their judicial power is illustrated by the case of the Game Laws.
They were the only significant local executive officials except in the boroughs, which had their own, less powerful J.P.S. anything which Parliament or the central executive wanted done locally it told Justices to do. They found themselves with an astonishing range of duties, including even, after 1802, the regulation of factory conditions.
They could levy ‘rates’, the local equivalent of taxes. Their quasi-legislative activity was nowhere better displayed than in the Speenhamland decision, which had far wider effects than most Acts of Parliament and which the Parliament of the day would never have dared to initiate.
The Justices had originally been the principal agents of the King in the localities. Now, they themselves were the kings. British local government was controlled by people who as leisured amateurs tended to distrust professional men and as landowners tended to despise traders and manufacturers. Anything in the nature of democracy survived in local government only anomalously, in parish institutions and in some boroughs.
Closely associated with the dominance of the landlords was the Church of England, technically, after 1801, ‘the United Church of England and Ireland’. Negatively, until 1829 Roman Catholics could not become M.P.s or J.P.s or take a seat in the House of Lords or vote in a British (as opposed to an Irish) Parliamentary election.
Protestant Nonconformists or Dissenters, though not debarred from the House of Commons, were excluded until 1828 from public office, except in so far as the less strict among them ‘conformed’, that is, took the sacrament of the Church of England, or took advantage of the Indemnity Acts remitting the penalties incurred by officials who had neglected to do so, Acts which by this time were passed regularly.
In fact, almost all important office-holders were, nominally at least, Anglicans. Conversely, for certain parish offices, which were sometimes onerous, Nonconformists were not only eligible but might be compelled to serve: it was quite common for a Nonconformist to be a churchwarden, generally under protest.
Dissenters were liable to have to pay rates for the upkeep of their parish church, and sometimes it was the duty of a Nonconformist churchwarden to levy the rate. Jews were virtually without rights. Religious toleration was far from complete – only Anglican priests and, strangely enough, Quakers and Jews could perform marriages valid in law. There was no secular or civil marriage.
Positively, the Church of England was bound to the land, to its owners and to agriculture. The clergy were supported partly by proceeds from property belonging to the Church, partly by tithe, a tax on owners and occupiers. The upper clergy, appointed by the Crown, included 26 English and 4 Irish Archbishops and Bishops who sat in the House of Lords.
Some of the seas provided an income which only a few laymen could surpass – the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Durham each had £19,000 a year. Most of the lesser clergy were appointed by some lay landlord, who often chose a member of his family.
The ecclesiastical geography of Britain was so tied to property rights that it could not be altered except by Parliament, and it had become hardly less anomalous than the system of Parliamentary representation. In the country there was still generally one parish to one village.
In old towns there were often far too many parishes in the centre, while in new towns and in the suburbs of old towns there might be tens of thousands of people served by one small church and one ill-paid clergyman. There was a parish whose rector was paid more than £ 7000 a year, but about three hundred were worth less than £ 50.
Some fortunate clergymen, usually those with noble connexions, held several rich ‘benefices’ together. Bishop Bagot of Oxford, son of Lord Bagot, was also Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and Rector of two Staffordshire parishes to which his father had appointed him.
The 8th Earl of Bridgewater was from 1780 to 1829 a ‘prebendary’ of Durham Cathedral, had two family benefices in Shropshire, and lived in Paris, surrounded by cats and dogs dressed as humans. The value of benefices had been rising with other land values, and the social status of the clergy with it.
They were now being taken into partnership in local government by the secular landlords, and many were J.P.s, perhaps half the total strength of the Bench. In some urbanized areas of counties the only residents considered qualified to be J.P.s were clergy. At the time of the Peterloo Massacre the Chairman of Salford Quarter Sessions, whose area included Manchester, was the Rev. W. R. Hay, Prebendary of York Minster, Rector of Ackworth and Vicar of Rochdale.
In Wales and Ireland the association of the landlords with the Established Church was even more oppressive, since there the Church was not the Church of the majority of the population, which in Wales was Nonconformist and in Ireland Roman Catholic. The State still treated the Church of England as deserving of grants of public money.
In 1818 £1,000,000, and in 1824 a further £500,000, was voted by Parliament for church- building. The law not only endorsed many of the doctrines of the Church, but also identified Christianity with the Church of England. ‘A Trust’, said the Tory Lord Chancellor, Eldon, ‘for the worship of God pure and simple is a Trust for maintaining and propagating the Established Religion of the country’.
Education, it must be understood, was largely an Anglican monopoly. There were only two English Universities until 1828, Oxford and Cambridge, and they were staffed almost entirely by clergymen of the Church of England. No one could take a degree at either unless he would subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles.
In the small group of undergraduates, fewer than 3,000 altogether at any given time in the 1820s, a majority of young men destined for holy orders mixed with a minority of prospective secular landlords.
Oxford University could be described as ‘the most illustrious body of the English Constitution’. The great public schools and most grammar schools were all strongly clerical, and so were the village schools, often conducted in the parish church.
Finally, though a woman might rule as a Queen, succeed to some of the more ancient peerages and own property if she were unmarried, she could not sit in Parliament or vote for an M.P., and once she married was legally subordinate to her husband.
If anything, the rights of women were dwindling. It was considered anomalous that a few had the local government franchise in some places, and the new professions excluded them from membership. They could not go to University, and little attention was given to their education at any level.
This, then, was the core of the social, political, religious and educational ‘Establishment’, of the early nineteenth century, comprising a tightly-knit group, headed by the great peer landowners and tied to landed property. By the exercise of ‘patronage’ this small group made its influence felt throughout society.
They thought it natural, and they were in a position to ensure, that those of ‘good family’ should hold the majority of offices in the government service, including commissions in the armed forces, as well as the bulk of ecclesiastical benefices.
In 1858, the great Radical, John Bright, could still illustrate the point as follows:
We have what is called diplomacy. We have a great many lords engaged in what they call diplomacy. We have a lord in Paris, we have another in Madrid, another in Berlin, another . . . in Vienna, and another lord in Constantinople; and we have another at Washington; in fact, almost all over the world; particularly where the society is most pleasant and the climate most agreeable, there is almost certain to be an English nobleman to represent the English Foreign Office. . . .
It was true of most areas of administration until the second half of the century that they constituted ‘a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain’. Many offices could be purchased, and some became virtually hereditary. There were no pension schemes, and so people did not retire. An office held for life was treated, even in law, as a piece of freehold property.
The men who obtained these posts by the operation of the patronage system were often diligent and efficient. Property was admitted to have its duties as well as its rights. Similarly, landowners were expected to feel an obligation to pass on their estates to their children in an improved condition.
It was also proper for them to behave well to their tenants and employees, and thus win ‘legitimately’ greater respect and influence than they could obtain by the ruthless deployment of their wealth and legal powers. But if the property-owner, whether landlord or officeholder, refused to acknowledge that he had duties, it was seldom possible to compel him to perform them.
Despite all the abuses, anomalies and injustices associated with the ‘Establishment’, it might have seemed unchallengeable. But between 1828 and 1846 it was severely mauled. The symbol of its decline was the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. The relationship between them and the ‘Establishment’, how reform occurred, and in particular how the unreformed Parliament came to reform itself.