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Samuel B. Harding

A Period of Reform (1815-1837)

The sixty years' reign of George III. came to an end in 1820. During the last nine years of his life, he was permanently insane, and the government was carried on by his eldest son, George IV., as regent.

The reign of George IV. in his own right lasted from 1820 to 1830. He loved to be called the "First Gentleman in Europe," but he was far from being a gentleman at heart. Both before and after he became King, he led an evil and dissipated life. His attempt to gain a divorce from his wife, Queen Caroline, whose life was far less blameworthy than his own, made him very unpopular with his subjects. Before he became King he had been a great Whig; but after his father's power had passed into his hands he forgot all his liberal principles, and became an extreme Tory.

He was succeeded by his brother William IV., who ruled from 1830 to 1837. Until late in life there seemed little likelihood that William would succeed to the throne, so he was bred up to a sailor's life. He went to sea, as a midshipman, when he was fourteen years of age, and he showed a great liking for naval service. His bluff sailor-like ways gained him great popularity, both as prince and as King; but he lacked dignity of manner, and showed little ability as a ruler. Like his brother, George IV., he left no heir to the throne, and when he died the crown passed to the daughter of a younger brother. Queen Victoria, whose long and eventful reign will be described later.


William IV

The last years of George III., and the reigns of George IV. and William IV., were filled with questions of reform in the government. Bad times followed the close of the wars with France, and for a number of years taxes and the price of food were high, while great numbers of the people were out of employment. Ignorant people sometimes formed mobs, and broke machines used in manufacturing, which they fancied were the cause of their lack of employment. "Hampden Clubs" and other societies were formed among the people to work for political reforms, and these alarmed the Tories with fears of revolution, like that which had taken place in France.

In 1819 a meeting was called by the reformers in St. Peters Field, at Manchester. Probably fifty thousand persons, or more, gathered there, bearing banners with the words, "Unity and Strength," "Annual Parliaments," "Universal Suffrage," on them. Many of the men had been drilled to march in step; but they were without weapons, except some who carried about sticks.

One of their leaders tells us that his old employer called to him, as they marched through the streets, and said, anxiously, that he "hoped they intended no harm."

"No, no, my dear master," was the answer, "if any wrong or violence takes place, they will be committed by men of a different stamp from these."

The meeting had scarcely opened, however, and the chief speaker begun his address, when the magistrates ordered mounted soldiers to arrest the speaker, and to break up the meeting.

"Forward!" was the command; and as the trumpet sounded, the soldiers dashed into the struggling multitude of unarmed people. In ten minutes the vast crowd was scattered. To accomplish this, five or six persons were killed, and fifty or more were wounded.

This "Peterloo Massacre" caused great indignation among liberal-minded people. It led the government, on the other hand, to pass very severe laws against political meetings, against speaking or printing criticisms of the government, and against drilling private persons. The chief effect of all this was to show the leaders of the Whig party that, unless they joined with these "Radicals," in reforming the government and in taking it out of the hands of the Tories, either liberty would be lost, or there might be a revolution which would upset all social order and government.

The wisest of the Whigs, therefore, took up in Parliament the cause of reform, and soon their efforts began to be crowned with success.

The first great reforms were to repeal the laws which forbade anyone to be a member of Parliament except those who worshiped according to the Church of England. Protestant Dissenters had long been allowed to sit as members of Parliament, in spite of the law, but it was not until 1828 that this was made legal. The next year the laws which kept Catholics out of office were also repealed.

The repealing of the laws against the Catholics was chiefly the work of an Irish Catholic leader named Daniel O'Connell. He was a great public speaker, and with the aid of the Catholic priests he organized the small Irish voters, so that they no longer voted for candidates named by their landlords, but for men favorable to their own cause. The Tory party, the leaders of the Church of England, and perhaps a majority of the English people, were opposed to the Catholic claims, and raised the cry of "No Popery," and "Church and King." George III. had been led to believe that the oath which he had taken as King to "uphold the Church of England" forbade him consenting to laws favorable to the Catholics; and when Pitt had proposed such laws it had brought on one of George's fits of insanity. George IV. now held the same ideas, but people cared less for his opinions.

The question came to a head when O'Connell was himself elected to the House of Commons, in 1829. He was a catholic, and could not take the oaths which were required of all members of that body. But, if he were not admitted to Parliament, all Ireland would burst out into revolt. So, the King's chief ministers—the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel—used their influence to pass a bill which gave Catholics the same political rights as Protestants.

This was a wise step, but it angered their Tory followers and weakened their party. It made it easier for the Whigs, soon after this, to get control of the government and to pass a yet greater reform measure.

This was the reform of the representation in the House of Commons itself. Many of the members, in that body, represented what were known as "rotten boroughs"—that is, towns which never had much population, or which had so declined that they were no longer populous. Some places which sent representatives were mounds and ditches, without any inhabitants, or were towns which had years before been swallowed up by the sea. Sometimes they were called "pocket boroughs," because the lord of the land practically named the members himself—carried them around "in his pocket," so to speak. On the other hand, many of the great manufacturing towns, which had sprung up as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and no representative in Parliament. Some members of the House of Lords practically appointed as many as eleven members each in the House of Commons, while the great majority of the people, both in the towns and in the country, had no right of voting, even for a single member. Those who did have the right frequently sold their votes to the highest bidder, when they were not forced to vote as their landlords commanded them. It was generally known that seats in the House of Commons could be bought for a certain sum of money.

For a long time, all proposals to reform Parliament were successfully resisted. But when the Duke of Wellington, in 1830, declared, as head of the government, that these arrangements were the very best that could possibly be invented, his statement was too much even for his followers.

"What is the matter?" asked the Duke of a friend who sat by him, as loud murmurs arose in different parts of the House.

"Nothing," was the reply, "except that you have announced your own downfall."

So it proved, for, soon after this, Earl Grey became the head of a Whig ministry, in Wellington's place. The cause of Parliamentary reform was now taken up in earnest, and a Reform Bill was introduced in the House of Commons. It was bitterly opposed, and its fate was long doubtful. In a letter to a friend, the historian Macaulay, who was himself a member of the Commons, gives this description of the passing of the first vote in its favor:

"Everybody was desponding. 'We have lost it! I do not think we are two hundred and fifty; they are three hundred.' This was the talk on our benches. As the count of our number proceeded, the interest was insupportable. 'Two hundred and ninety-one, two hundred and ninety-two—' We were all standing up, and counting with the tellers. At 'three hundred' there was a short cry of joy; at 'three hundred and two,' another. We knew that we could not be severely beaten.

"First, we heard that they were three hundred and three; then that number rose to three hundred and ten; then went down to three hundred and seven. We were all breathless with anxiety, when one of our side, who stood near the door, jumped up on a bench and cried out—

" 'They are only three hundred and one!'

"We set up a shout that you might have heard to Charing Cross, stamping against the floor and clapping our hands. No sooner were the outer doors opened, than another shout answered that within the House. All the passages and stairs were thronged by people who had waited, until four o'clock in the morning, to know the result. I called a cab, and the first thing the driver asked was—

" 'Is the bill carried?'

" 'Yes, by one vote.'

" 'Thank God for it, sir!'

"And away I rode, and so ended a scene which will probably never be equated."

But the battle was not yet over. This House of Commons had to be dismissed, and a new one elected, before the bill finally passed the body. Then the House of Lords rejected it. The House of Commons then passed the bill a second time; and such an agitation broke out among the people that, in the end, the Lords gave way. In June, 1832, the great Reform Bill became law.

By its provisions, many of the small boroughs lost their representatives in Parliament, while the great manufacturing towns gained representation. At the same time the "franchise," or right to vote, was made more liberal, so that small farmers and shopkeepers secured the vote. Later laws, passed in 1867 and in 1884, further reformed the House of Commons, so that it is now practically as representative of the people as our Congress, and the right to vote is almost as general as with us.

The reform of Parliament caused a real revolution in the government, though a peaceful one. For fifty years the Tories had been in almost constant control. Now, for thirty-five years, the government was almost continuously in the hands of the Whigs, and they used the opportunity to pass many needed reforms.

One of these was the abolition of slavery throughout all the British possessions.

Shortly before our Declaration of Independence, the English courts declared that slavery could not exist in Great Britain, and that as soon as a slave set foot on its soil he became free. Then, in 1807, a law was passed which forbade British vessels to take part in the slave trade, and forbade entrance of additional slaves into the British colonies.


A Spinning Factory

This action was largely due to the efforts of two great-hearted English reformers, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, who gave the greater part of their lives to working, first, against the slave trade, and then against slavery itself. They formed anti-slavery societies, collected evidence, and in speeches and pamphlets aroused the consciences of Englishmen to the terrible wrongs of slavery.

In 1833, their labors were at last completely successful. Parliament passed a law that all slaves throughout the British possessions should be set free on August 1, 1834, and that their masters should receive, from the British government, an amount equal to $100,000,000. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, English traders and sailors had taken a principal part in carrying African slaves to other countries. It was only right, therefore, that Great Britain should now take the chief part in ridding the world of this curse.

The condition of children who worked in the mines and factories was very bad at this time, and Parliament passed laws in regard to this subject also. Many parents practically sold their children to the owners of factories, who worked them for such long hours and under such bad conditions that they either died or were injured for life. One young man, aged nineteen, testified before a committee of Parliament, in 1832, as follows:

"What time did you begin to work at a mill?"

"When I was six years old."

"What sort of a mill was it?"

"A wooden mill."

"What were the hours of work?"

"We used to start at five, and work till nine at night."

"What time had you for your dinner?"

"Half an hour."

"What time had you for breakfast and drinking?"

"A quarter of an hour at each end of the day."

"How were you kept up to your work, during the latter part of the day?"

"The overlooker used to come with a strap, and give us a rap or two."

"Did they strike the young children as well as the older ones, the girls as well as the boys?"



Children Working in a Mine

"State the effect upon your health of those long hours of labor."

"I was made crooked with so much standing." Here the witness showed his legs, which were very crooked.

"How tall are you?"

"About four feet, nine inches."

"Were the children unhappy? Have you seen them crying at their work?"


"Had you time to go to a day school, or a night school, during this labor? Can you write?"

"No, not at all."

"What effect did working by gaslight have upon your eyes?"

"It nearly made me blind."

As a result of such testimony, Parliament passed a "Factory Act" in 1833, which forbade the working in factories of children under nine years of age. Later acts entirely stopped the employment of women and children in mines, where their condition was even worse than in factories. Gradually the hours of work in the factories were cut down, and better conditions established. At the same time, it was ordered that factory children should spend at least a part of each day in school, in order that they might not grow up entirely uneducated. In this way only could the introduction of the factory system of manufacturing be prevented from becoming more of a curse than a blessing to the great body of the people.

A reform of the criminal law was also begun at this time. The old criminal law was very harsh, and provided the penalty of death for more than two hundred offenses. These included such offenses as injuring Westminster bridge, picking pockets, and unlawfully killing deer, as well as serious crimes. Changes in the law now began, which ended by leaving only murder and treason punishable with death. These reforms not only made the law less barbarous, but also made its penalties more certain. Now that its provisions were more reasonable, judges and juries did not hesitate so much to punish those who committed crimes.

Many other important reforms were carried out. These included, among others, a reform of the system for relieving distress among the poor, which was very much needed; and also a reform of the manner of governing the cities. It would take too long to go into the details of these, and other measures. But it should ever be borne in mind that one of the first and greatest of the results which followed the giving of more power in Parliament to the people was the clearing away of old abuses in the government.

Instead of the disorder and anarchy which the Tories feared would come from the Reform Act, there came a period of active good government, and a time of general prosperity for the whole country.