Read this term paper to learn about the interrelationship between the establishment and other forces of society in Britain during 1815-1832.
It is possible, to distinguish several forces of society as being wholly or largely outside the ‘Establishment’.
First, some attempt must be made to treat the activities of the working class, or, in the more realistic terminology of contemporaries, ‘the working classes’. The 1790s were a decade of developments in this field hardly less remarkable than the economic changes of the 1780s.
Before this time there was virtually no sign of continuous organized political action by workers. Popular discontent showed itself frequently in out-breaks of rioting usually in times of high food prices and generally directed against them. Sometimes the rioters attacked particular government measures or particular groups such as foreigners, Scots, Jews and Roman Catholics.
But there was little if any continuity between the outbreaks. In the last years of the century, however, while this kind of protest continued, more constructive means of expression appeared. The most striking development was the foundation in 1791-92, during the early years of the French Revolution, of working-class societies in many towns, of which the London Corresponding Society became the chief, for the ‘acquisition and dissemination of Political Knowledge’.
Though so novel, this was a movement which affected many thousands of working-men. The kind of political feeling it embodied can be most easily discovered from Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. This was a reply to Burke’s Reflections. Part One, published in 1791, at 3 shillings, the same price as Reflections, is supposed to have sold 50,000 copies in its first year, against Burke’s 30,000 in two years.
Part Two, more radical and published in 1792 at 6d, is supposed to have sold 200,000 in its first year. These figures far exceed anything previously known. Apart from the Bible and one or two classics, Rights of Man must have been the most widely-read book of the 1790s and the next decades. At this time about half the adult population was capable of reading, after a fashion.
Like the ‘Establishment’, its extreme opponents appealed to an old constitution, the mythical Anglo-Saxon constitution. ‘Conquest and tyranny’, wrote Paine, ‘transplanted themselves with William the Conqueror from Normandy into England, and the country is yet disfigured with the marks.’
The Conquest had brought the hereditary monarchy and aristocracy, primogeniture and grossly uneven land distribution, and had led to the imposition of high taxes to pay for foreign wars. Paine, though he did not actually summon the people to revolution, thought and hoped it was very near – ‘I do not believe that monarchy and aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the enlightened countries in Europe.’
He advocated also the liberalization of the Poor Law and the redistribution of property, together with a pacific foreign policy founded on friendship between nations. Paine had been involved in the American Revolution, to which he paid as much attention as to the French Revolution.
In general, as the latter became discredited even among radicals, the example of the United States was emphasized more strongly. Here was a country in which most adult males had the vote and most were freeholders, where there was no monarchy, no official aristocracy, and something like equality of opportunity. It became too a refuge for English radicals during periods of persecution.
Repressive measures drove this kind of working-class activity underground during the wars. Some of the leaders were tried for treason, and societies like the London Corresponding Society were declared illegal by an Act of 1799. Paine had fled from England as early as 1792, and did not return during the remaining seventeen years of his life.
There was very great discontent, however, which expressed itself in outbreaks of violence at times of economic crisis, worst in 1811-12, when, with wheat more expensive than ever before or since, disturbances in the Midlands occupied a large military and civil force, including an army of 12,000.
The riots of these months were not associated with a movement for political reforms. But with the Hampden Clubs working-class political activity influenced by the ideas of Paine came to the surface again. ‘The peculiar interest of reformist politics under the Regency,’ it has been said, ‘is to be found in the race. . . in which the popular leaders were engaged for the harnessing of economic discontent to the cause of political reform.’
The ‘Establishment’ has never been more bitterly hated than in the years of renewed economic crisis just after Waterloo, and there were protests of all kinds directed against it. But political change was coming to be more generally regarded as a necessary preliminary to economic and social betterment.
This did not necessarily exclude the use of force: there were serious attempts at revolution, most notably the ‘Pentridge rising’ of 1817, in which a small group of labourers set out from Derbyshire to march on London, expecting the rest of the country to rise in their support and overthrow the ‘Establishment’, and the ‘Cato Street conspiracy’ of 1820, a plot to kill the Cabinet at dinner, with the same expectation.
But societies like the Hampden Clubs generally disclaimed violence and the desire to redistribute property, and asserted that they were pursuing their political aims by constitutional means alone. More and more, this approach commended itself. No doubt the teachings of the churches and the rigours of the law helped in this direction.
But so did the leaders of the working classes, in particular Cobbett, chiefly through the Press. His Political Register, especially in its first flush of 1816, caught popular imagination to the extent that he came to rival Paine as the prophet of the underprivileged. His straightforward graphic style, anticipating modern journalistic writing, and his use of illustrations from everyday rural life, ensured him an audience wider than any British newspaper had ever commanded before.
His motley prejudices, anti-intellectual, anti-clerical, monarchist, Anglican, rural, provincial, and insular to a degree, and the fact that he deliberately set himself up against theorists, revolutionaries and even political societies, helped to moderate the extremism of protest. Although his personal influence was reduced by his flight to America, it revived in the ‘twenties, to be powerful again in 1830-32.
The law continued to discourage all working-class as well as much middle-class political activity. Under one of the Six Acts of 1819, notice of any public meeting of a political character involving more than fifty persons, except for a ‘county meeting’, had to be given to a J.P.; and, if the meeting was to be held in a town, no one might attend it unless he was a freeman, a householder or a considerable landowner.
Apart from the special legislation enacted, some of it for limited periods only, in 1817 and 1819, frequent prosecutions of those who wrote and sold newspapers and pamphlets, under the Common Law of blasphemous, seditious and obscene libel, put severe constraints on publications intended to reach a wide public.
It was avowed by the Government and the Courts that what would be considered unobjectionable in an expensive book might be regarded as criminal in a cheap newspaper. Stamp duty remained at 4d. on every copy of a newspaper, and evasion was made more difficult by one of the Six Acts.
These measures, however, still left the Government and the ‘Establishment’ with inadequate powers for a policy of total repression. They were most successful in dealing with revolutionary attempts: Ministers knew all about the Partridge rising and the Cato Street conspiracy long before the event, and those involved were heavily punished.
But large meetings were difficult both to prevent and to control, especially before the Act of 1819 was passed and after it lapsed, in 1825. County meetings were never prohibited; nor were large-scale petitioning of Parliament, though it was of recent growth. In particular, the popular Press could not be eradicated.
The law did not in general permit the intervention of the Government until after objectionable matter had been published. Once, the publication had occurred, while there were many ways of harassing those concerned, there were also many difficulties in the way of securing their conviction. Those who broke the law were often left alone either because the forces of order and the Courts could not cope with all offenders or because there was reason to fear that a jury would not convict.
Fox’s Libel Act of 1792 had made juries the judge of law as well as of fact, and in several cases, especially in London; they refused to enforce the law. Many defendants were acquitted on technicalities, which were easily exploited under the unreformed legal system.
Though many persons were imprisoned, some of them were so determined to protest that they ran their newspapers from prison, or persuaded their families and friends to continue their work. After Peterloo, and more emphatically during the Queen’s trial, upper and middle-class opinion swung against the King and his Government and their repressive measures.
From the mid-‘twenties, though the lesser penalties for infringing the stamping regulations were still exacted, the Press was left almost untouched by prosecutions for libel. The cause of radicalism profited from the constitutionalism, legalism, inefficiency and anomalies associated with the rule of the ‘Establishment’.
During the ‘twenties economic conditions were so much better that there was slight danger of working-class violence, and the scale of popular activity was reduced. However, during the crisis of 1829-32 all types of protest were made: there were riots and machine- breaking and rick-burning; but also there appeared over thirty newspapers for the poor, successfully defying the law by sheer weight of numbers.
The public catered for was wider again than in 1816-19. Some of the leaders worked to harness discontent to a moderate political programme, like Francis Place in London; others would accept nothing short of the programme of Paine or of the extreme Parliamentary reformers like William Lovett; and a new group was preaching the gospel of ‘co-operation’, something like communism, associated with the name of Robert Owen, who was both cotton manufacturer and socialist visionary.
But the moderates were successful to the extent that mass support was given to the Birmingham Political Union, with its middle-class leaders, which was calling for peaceful and not very radical Parliamentary reform. Many politically-conscious workers were willing at this stage to settle for the Act of 1832 as a first step towards democracy, and to put constitutional change before social reform.
The working classes developed also over this period two related economic institutions, the ‘friendly society’ and the trade union. Friendly societies took the subscriptions of their members in order to insure them against death, illness, burial expenses and so on. In the late eighteenth century there was a great increase in the number of these societies, and in 1815 they probably had a million members.
In other words, at least a million working-men had some savings. This movement, in so far as it was separable from the trade union movement, commanded the approval of the ‘Establishment’ even at the worst period of repression, and was assisted by Acts of Parliament from 1793 onwards.
On the other hand, combinations of working-men to obtain increases of wages and better conditions of work were illegal under an Act of 1800, if riot before. In fact they flourished, though half-secretly.
In the 1820s the Government was persuaded, largely through a campaign run by Place, that legal suppression of combinations of this kind only drove them underground and made them more dangerous, and by an Act of 1824, somewhat restricted in 1825, they ceased to be illegal as such, though they had no positive status in law and were greatly limited in the means they might use to enforce their agreements. Working-class activity with economic rather than political aims was also becoming more continuous and pacific.
All these activities were essentially the sphere of the more skilled workmen, men of some education, standing and financial security. The line between these men and the rest of the working classes was in many ways more important than the lines usually discerned between the upper, middle and lower classes.
Below this line, sporadic riots and violent strikes remained the means of expressing feelings of grievance. Above it, the artisans were, from one point of view, betraying their fellow-workers, adopting the organizations and methods, and even the attitudes, of their social superiors, in accepting that change must come slowly, by legal and peaceful means, without expropriation, and that political rights must be earned by good conduct; from another point of view, they were making the exclusiveness of the ‘Establishment’ seem preposterous and preparing the way for the political and social emancipation of all working-men.
Secondly, of course, the new industrial towns were for the most part outside the ‘Establishment’. Unlike London and the old county towns they were not centres where the landed interest gathered for social and administrative purposes; nor were they, like lesser ancient towns, bound to agriculture.
Many were governed, quite inappropriately, as villages, and many were short of parishes, churches, clergy and social amenities. It was not until the next period that the impact of the Industrial Revolution became a general concern of politicians and writers, but already the great new towns aroused alarm and wonder.
Contemporaries were struck by the rift which was appearing between the class of manufacturers and capitalists on the one hand and the class of workers on the other in towns where factory industry was well- developed. Manchester was the type of the town which was not in any real sense a ‘community’, and its class divisions as well as its lack of government and of Parliamentary representation reduced its direct influence.
Birmingham, on the other hand, where small-scale industry predominated, was a town of better relations between the classes, and therefore well-qualified to become the centre of the Reform agitation in its later stages. Liverpool, by chance, was an incorporated borough, and fittingly became a centre of Liberal Toryism, with Canning and Huskisson as its M.P.s.
It was also a model municipality, using its large revenue from port dues, in addition to rates, for a wide range of purposes: to construct docks; under Acts dating from 1748, to light, cleanse, widen and police the streets; to build Anglican churches and schools associated with the Church of England; even to lay out public walks and gardens, and to provide public baths.
Towns in general were related to the ‘Establishment’ in a most complex way. Those which had special status as ‘cities’ or incorporated boroughs, about 200 altogether, many of them tiny, often had governments as undemocratic, Anglican, corrupt, inefficient and anomalous as could be imagined.
However, they all had some measure of independence of the county, appointing some J.P.s of their own; and the greater towns might rank as counties themselves. The City of London had far the most important corporation. In the eighteenth century, as in Charles I’s reign, it had set itself up as defender of the liberties of the subject, whether against King or Parliament, and its legal privileges and its economic power were so great that Governments had often had to bow before them.
In the early nineteenth century, though the Capital was relatively less important both politically and economically, it still presented a unique problem to the ‘Establishment’. The literacy rate was much higher there than in the rest of the country, and the circulation of news and political information far better.
Before the railways made nationwide political action easier, London was the natural leader of the forces of protest. Like the City Corporation of neighboring Westminster, that of London was unusually democratic, and often expressed the opinions of the urban lower classes.
The M.P.s for the two Cities was commonly popular leaders. So this was almost a rival ‘Establishment’, commercial, bourgeois and radical. It was nonetheless propertied, inefficient and anomalous. There were by now large urbanized areas beyond the Cities’ boundaries, many of them governed by parish vestries with radical views.
The whole county of Middlesex was dominated by urban influences, and returned popular M.P.s to Parliament. But the power of the two Corporations was too great to permit municipal reform in the Capital until long after the general reforms of the 1830s.
To confuse the picture further, in nearly all towns which lacked the privileges of incorporation and in many which possessed them, there had been established during the second half of the eighteenth century, under local Acts, bodies usually called ‘improvement commissioners’ to pave, light, cleanse and police the streets.
There were about 300 of them, nearly 100 being in the metropolitan area outside the Cities. The Manchester Police Commissioners were uniquely adventurous, and actually themselves supplied gas to the public before the death of George III.
However, the good work done by most of these bodies was narrowly restricted in scope: they covered small areas, and made no attempt to provide such amenities as parks, libraries, houses, schools and baths. They usually consisted of a group of more or less self-appointed and self-perpetuating local notabilities, though during the 1820s some became elective, as pressure for representative government grew.
The third force in this category is Nonconformity. The Dissenters fall into two main groups, the ‘old denominations’ of Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, and the newer Methodists. To these should be added the Quakers and the Unitarians, smaller and theologically more extreme groups of great importance.
The Presbyterians as such were in decline, and tending to merge with the Unitarians. The Congregationalists and the Baptists were advancing, but not so rapidly as the Methodists, the body evoked by John Wesley in the eighteenth century, with a theology scarcely distinguishable from the Anglicanism of the day, but socially not acceptable to the ‘Establishment’.
The total number of Nonconformists was already great, 2,000,000 at the very least, and growing fast. The Methodists especially tended to be most numerous in places where there was inadequate Anglican provision, that is, often in new industrial areas; but there were Dissenting strongholds in many other places, around London, in East Anglia and the Fens, and in the South-west.
One of the contributions of Nonconformity at this period was the secondary education offered by the ‘dissenting academies’, not confined, as most Anglican education was, to divinity and classical literature, and more progressive in its methods. However, since they were an underprivileged minority, much of Dissenters’ energy was spent on trying to improve their legal position.
Here the denominations were able to exert pressure through a long-standing body, the Protestant Dissenting Deputies. Though it had something of a national status, this group was elected from the London area only, a commentary on the state of eighteenth-century communications.
The Government treated it with respect, and it supplemented the efforts of the small number of Nonconformist M.P.s. When there was a move in 1811 to restrict itinerant preaching by statute, the Deputies were joined in protest by a short-lived national Protestant organization, a portent of what would prove possible later in the century.
Not only was the Bill defeated, but in the result some gains were recorded, such as the legal toleration of Unitarians granted in 1813. The Deputies were again prominent in securing the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. By 1832 Nonconformity was ready to move over to the offensive against the Church of England and the whole ‘Establishment’.
Next must be considered the growth of ‘the middle classes’ and of middle-class consciousness. The factory system contributed to distinguishing owners from labourers. But the middle classes are wider than the class of manufacturers, and their numbers increased as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries professions other than the Church and the Bar were consolidated and grew in ‘respectability’.
Attorneys, for instance, were universally disparaged in the early eighteenth century. By the time of Waterloo they were cultivating the name ‘solicitor’ and were much more highly regarded and better organized. The Law Society was incorporated in 1831.
Some branches of the medical profession showed the same development, and the story can be extended to engineers, architects and others. There were more well-to-do manufacturers, merchants and professional men than ever before; and there were more people living wholly or partly on interest derived from stocks and shares, mostly government stock.
In 1823 the number of people with money invested in government securities exceeded 288,000. . . . There were . . . about 53,000 people drawing dividends exceeding £50 a year— and, incidentally, just about the same number of people employing one or more male servants (a rather larger number— 72,000—owned a carriage). More than 148,000 people kept a horse for pleasure, and more than 40,000 had more than one.
These were the people for whom Jane Austen wrote, not careless of property, but with more goods and money than land, conscious of their professional skill and sobriety, valuing it more highly than mere birth and extravagant sports, the people who were taking over Bath from the aristocracy and helping to make Brighton the fastest-growing of all towns in this period.
Together, they contributed to the growth of the ‘public’. The idea of the public arises when relationships within society become manifestly incomprehensible in terms of personal relationships, and when the state of communications and education makes the number of persons able to form a reasonable opinion on national affairs too great to be included within an ‘Establishment’.
This situation had existed for some time in Britain before 1815. But the fact and the notion of the ‘public’ developed considerably between Waterloo and the First Reform Act. By the ‘Establishment’ the public, as well as the ‘people’, was still conceived narrowly, as ‘the well-informed and weighty parts of the community’, but this category was widening all the time.
The circulation figures of the stamped, respectable newspapers, assisted by the use of steam to drive the printing machines, rose more rapidly than the population. The size of their readership now made it possible for them to emancipate themselves from the control hitherto exercised by the Government through subsidies.
By the 1830s Sunday newspapers sold in aggregate 110,000 copies, which, given the punitive stamp duties, probably meant over a million readers. The Times sold 10,000 a day in the 1820s. Another symptom of this development was the appearance of societies in enormous numbers dedicated to all sorts of subjects and causes, such as the improvement of the condition of chimney-sweeps, missionary activity abroad, most notably the abolition of slavery.
Circulating libraries multiplied. Some progress was made in the provision of amenities like museums, almost entirely by private benefactions. The Dulwich Art Gallery dates from just before Waterloo, the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge from just after. In the late 1820s the rebuilding of the British Museum began. The many London club foundations on either side of 1830 are part of a similar process.
Among the respectable public, as well as among the working classes, there was a strong body of opinion in favour of radical reform. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke also attacked British sympathizers with the revolutionaries. Over the whole of Europe during the eighteenth century the dominant trend of educated opinion had been that of the ‘Enlightenment’, progressive, inclining to believe in the perfectibility of Man, sceptical about mystery and miracles, expecting society to work as an elaborate mechanism rather than a complex organism.
It was widely held that there were laws of politics not much more subtle than those of physical science as then conceived. If men would only take cognizance of the conclusions of rationalist writers, they would have a blueprint for the improvement, if not the perfection, of society.
The test of a law, like the test of an action, was not tradition nor religious doctrine, but ‘utility’. Despite the powerful impact of Burke’s criticism and of the ‘excesses’ of the French Revolution, this attitude survived, and spread again during the 1820s. The thinker who is most often taken as its main respectable representative or advocate in early nineteenth century Britain is Jeremy Bentham.
In his twenties, in 1776, he had published A Fragment on Government, ridiculing the traditional attitudes of the Common Lawyers as expressed in Blackstone’s Commentaries. For Bentham, the law should not grow by accretion of precedents. Anomaly was indefensible. Parliament or some other single source of law must remodel the whole system by the test of ‘utility’.
His main concern was always the reform of the law, but in later life he became more interested in deeper constitutional questions. In 1818 he brought out a pamphlet announcing his conversion to the view that Parliament, before it could carry through effective reforms, must itself be drastically reformed and universal adult male suffrage introduced.
In the 1820s he gathered a number of able followers round him, most notably James Mill, and through the Westminster Review (founded in 1824) they influenced a wide public, while at meetings of their Political Economy Club Whig statesmen were indoctrinated.
In 1828 they established a non- sectarian College in rivalry to Oxford and Cambridge, which became University College, London, in 1836. It must not be supposed that Bentham had many personal followers or readers.
But he was the most productive, long-lived and down-to-earth of a group which was of great importance in that it had some influence on public opinion at large, more on political leaders, and more still, on practical administration. They were known as the Philosophic Radicals. Certain points should be noted about their thinking.
They were individualists in the sense that, unlike Burke, they wished to abolish groups like old corporations and parties which intervened between the individual and the government, considering them all ‘sinister interests’.
They were less radical than their fundamental doctrines might have led them to be about the social order – they did not question the institution of property or demand its redistribution. They were anti-clerical and sometimes anti-religious.
And, though they were associated with economists who thought State intervention in the economy undesirable, they were quite prepared to give rein to the power of the State in social legislation on such matters as the provision of schools and the control of factories.
It must be pointed out that the relationship between the Industrial Revolution and these rising forces was not a simple cause-and-effect relationship, except, more or less, in the case of the great towns. Though industrialists were often Dissenters, and so were the majority of the churchgoing inhabitants of the new cities, the affiliation was incomplete.
The strength of the growing professional middle class was in the South, in the established towns and the suburbs of London. Friendly societies were strongest in Lancashire, but trade union activity was, if anything, more evident outside the factory towns than in them.
Middle-class radicalism, though tied to Dissent, was not tied to the industrial North. Methodism at this period was not on the whole reformist. Cobbett, the most influential of the popular political writers of the period, cut across every line.
Further, it was not the classic split between Capital and Labour, which signified in politics. There was a more important division, between the ‘Establishments’— what Cobbett called ‘the Thing’—and the rest. Workmen at this time were fighting the entrenched landed interest in Church and State rather than their employers.