In this term paper we will discuss about the political reforms that took place in Britain during 1850-1868.

‘We live in anti-reforming times’, wrote Gladstone in 1860. There is certainly a contrast between the heroic legislating of 1832-50 and the quiet consolidation of 1850-68. But there was no area in which the reforms of the previous period were not somewhat extended.

Law reform continued, though, as usual, the landmarks in the process are difficult to pick out. As for the police, at length it was made compulsory in 1856 for counties to establish forces, to be run with the aid of a grant of part of the cost from the central government, provided that inspectors declared them to be efficient.

The building of prisons proceeded, and in 1865 they were placed under the more direct supervision of the Home Office instead of the local authorities. This was the period when the lawlessness of the early nineteenth century was effectively tamed.


Although the range of indictable offences grew, as legislation invaded new fields, the number of trials in relation to population fell after the early ‘sixties. In 1867 transportation, and in 1868 public executions, were abolished, marking a further stage in the advance of humanitarianism and civilization.

In Public Health legislation there was considerable development. It used to be thought that the lapse of the original General Board of Health in 1854 marked a withdrawal of central, or any, control, and that only the Public Health Act of 1875 restored the situation.

In fact the work of the Board was well continued after 1854 under a Committee of the Privy Council, and the extension of regulation proceeded up to the important Act of 1866, in which much that had previously been permissive became compulsory and additional powers were given to health boards.

The Act of 1875, it emerges, was little more than a measure of consolidation. In 1853 vaccination was made compulsory. With all this activity mortality rates scarcely fell. It was presumably an achievement that they did not rise further. In 1860 was passed the first significant measure directed against the adulteration of food.


Factory legislation was steadily widened also. The most important Act was one of 1867, covering all workshops employing more than fifty people and a large variety of named occupations. The Poor Law was significantly modified in 1865, when the pauper’s need to have a parish of settlement in order to qualify for relief was abolished. The State’s education grant rose to around £1,000,000 per annum as the purposes for which it could be given were extended.

Municipalities, too, slowly extended their sphere of operations. Seven towns owned their gas supply in 1850, 49 in 1870. Many more water companies than that were publicly owned, and there were a growing number of public libraries, baths, washhouses and parks. The greatest changes were being carried through in London, largely by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the first local authority for the Capital as a whole, set up in 1855.

In the ‘sixties the construction of the Victoria Embankment was in progress, reclaiming land from the Thames, at once improving the drainage, creating a thorough-fare and providing parks additional to those purchased in other parts of London. An Act of 1866 made it possible to preserve the remaining commons in the metropolitan area.

The City of London, with Liverpool and Glasgow, was making small beginnings in compulsory slum clearance and the provision of model working-class dwellings. Local government expenditure per annum (excluding poor relief) rose, as more amenities were provided, by £ 8,000,000 between 1840 and 1870, of which £ 5,000,000 represented town improvements. The confusion of authorities increased almost as fast.


After the Education Act of 1870 there were in England and Wales:

52 counties, 239 municipal boroughs, 70 Improvement Act districts; 1,006 urban sanitary districts, 41 port sanitary authorities, and 577 rural sanitary districts; 2,051 school board districts, 424 highway districts, 853 burial board districts, 649 unions, 194 lighting and watching districts, 14,946 poor law parishes, 5,064 highway parishes not included in urban or highway districts, and about 13,000 ecclesiastical parishes. The total number of local authorities who taxed the English taxpayer was 27,069, and they taxed him by means of 18 different kinds of rates.

Further, they were elected or appointed in a variety of ways. Britain was a much-governed country by this time, but the administrative system was far from rational. Benthamite models had been applied in certain fields, but not over the whole area of government.

The Church of England lost during this period a few more of its privileges and powers as an Establishment. In 1857, after debates of inordinate length in which Gladstone spoke a hundred times against the measure, an Act was passed to make civil divorce a generally available process.

In the same year jurisdiction over wills and marriages was withdrawn from the ecclesiastical courts. A magnificent series of legal battles over the making and levying of church rate in Braintree, in which over a period of sixteen years twenty-six judges and eight courts considered the question, four deciding one way and four the other, culminated in the judgment of the House of Lords in 1853 that, while it was a parish’s duty to repair its church, a rate for that purpose could not be levied if opposed by a majority of the vestry.

This made it almost impossible to impose church rates over most of the country. Finally, in 1868, the new alliance of Whigs, Liberals, Radicals, Irish and Nonconformists in the House of Commons, under the leadership of Gladstone, carried a Bill abolishing compulsory church rates, which the House of Lords accepted.

The State asserted its dominance over the Church in ecclesiastical appointments also. With the exception of a few ardent supporters like Gladstone, the Oxford Movement, strong among the clergy, was unpopular among laymen inside and outside the Church, the more so as it became more ritualistic in this period.

The Prime Ministers of the day, especially Palmerston, who was a relative and close friend of Shaftesbury, virtually debarred High Churchmen from preferment. The only gain made by clericalism in these years was the revival of Convocation, strictly of the two Convocations of Canterbury and York. These clerical assemblies had met only formally since 1717.

Year by year through the ‘fifties the meetings became less purely formal, and from 1861 both Convocations met regularly and transacted business. The achievement, however, was more symbolic than material.

At length the two ancient Universities were reformed, though most moderately. The Oxford Act was passed in 1854, the Cambridge Act in 1856. Practically all the teaching posts remained restricted to unmarried priests of the Church of England, but within this limit they were opened for competition. Dissenters were to be admitted to first degrees.

These changes helped to make possible a notable improvement of standards, particularly at Balliol College, Oxford, and some broadening of the curriculum. In both Universities the establishment of courses in science was accompanied by the introduction of courses in Arts subjects other than classics and theology, such as philosophy and history.

In 1855 the Civil Service was partially reformed. The body of government servants was already clearly divided into Parliamentary and party-political on the one hand, and non-Parliamentary and non-partisan on the other. But it was as yet undecided that a Civil Servant must refrain from all public, as well as strictly political, advocacy: Chadwick was only one of many who have been called ‘Statesmen in Disguise’ since their activities included much public campaigning.

The body of government servants outside Parliament was ill-organized. It was not under the control of one authority. The pay was poor. There was little or no division of labour within each office. Many of the appointments were made by patronage. It could be said that ‘Admission into the Civil Service is indeed eagerly sought after, but it is for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable, that it is chiefly desired.’

The most effective and best- recruited group of government servants were technically not part of the central administration until 1858, namely the servants of the East India Company. Their talent was genuinely sought, as witness the careers of James Mill, Macaulay and Grote, the historian of ancient Greece, but even so it was not until 1853 that the Company decided to restrict all its posts to successful competitors in written examinations.

Home government departments had improved in efficiency during the century. A Treasury circular of 1833 had boldly declared that ‘My Lords deem it important that all offices under the Crown should be filled by persons competent to perform the duties of these situations.’ Individual political heads had proved reformers, like Graham at the Admiralty.

The great surviving sinecures had been abolished by the Whigs of the ‘thirties. But general measures of reform were not officially proposed until 1853.

In that year two Civil Servants, Northcote and Trevelyan, reported that the Service should be reformed in the following way:

It should be placed under Treasury control, be recruited by competitive examination, be better paid and pensioned; promotion should be by merit, and the Service should be divided into administrative, executive and clerical grades, in order to separate the most from the least responsible duties.

In 1855, under the stress of public indignation at the incompetence revealed during the Crimean War, the Government made some concessions. There were to be examinations for entry to all departments, run by a Civil Service Commission, but they were not to be fully competitive. Within the Cabinet Peelite concern for efficiency, inherited from Pitt and Liverpool, was largely overborne by Whig love of patronage.

Until the Second Reform Act of 1867, which will be treated later, constitutional change was slight. But a serious attempt was made to limit corrupt practices at elections in 1854, though without much success; practising Jews were admitted to the House of Commons in 1858; and in the same year the first and least important of the Chartists’ demands was met, the abolition of the property qualification for M.P.s.

When Gladstone said that the times were against reform, he was in the midst of battles over finance. As Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1852-55 and from 1859-66, he fought to prevent war and defence expenditure stopping progress towards Free Trade.

He won. In order to pay for the Crimean War without incurring large debts, he raised income tax to 1s. 2d. in the £. His successor took it to 1s. 4d. in 1855-56, the highest figure it reached between 1816 and 1915. In the Budgets of 1853 and 1860 Gladstone was able to reduce tariffs to the point that only 16 articles continued to make an important contribution to the revenue.

The Budget of 1860 was associated with an Anglo-French commercial treaty, negotiated by Cobden, seen by both him and Gladstone as a contribution to peace as much as to Free Trade, under which British duties on French wines and French duties on British manufactures were reduced.

One of Gladstone’s proposals for 1860, the repeal of the paper duty, had to be deferred because of the opposition of the House of Lords, but was carried in 1861, the Commons denying the Lords a right to amend budgetary details. This completed the repeal of the ‘taxes on knowledge’; the advertisement duty had gone in 1853, the stamp duty in 1855. In this field the shade of Peel continued to conquer.

Home››Term Paper››