Gateway to the Classics: The Hanoverians by C. J. B. Gaskoin
The Hanoverians by  C. J. B. Gaskoin

From Waterloo to Sevastopol

1. After Waterloo

When the long conflict with Napoleon ended, England expected, not unreasonably, a time of prosperity and peace. Yet the twenty years after Waterloo, more than all others in her recent history, were full of trouble, disorder, and distress. And for this the Napoleonic struggle itself was largely responsible.

The war was over, indeed, but the bill had still to be paid. The National Debt had risen from under 240,000,000 to over 860,000,000, and millions a year had to be levied in taxes simply to pay the interest on it.

And the peace itself ruined many people. In agriculture it threatened to lower the high price of corn, which had hitherto enabled the farmers to pay large rents and yet make a profit. For now, not being liable to capture at sea, foreign corn could come more freely, and with farmers instead of soldiers tramping through the fields of Europe there was more to come. Parliament met the danger by the Corn Law of 1815, which shut out foreign grain except when wheat was very dear. This, however, failed to save the farmers, but terribly injured the poor, especially in crowded manufacturing towns. For though wages were falling the price of food was kept up by law.

Trade and manufactures also suffered from the peace. Foreign manufacturers, like foreign farmers, could again compete with Englishmen, and so the foreign demand for English goods fell, especially as the Corn Law prevented England from taking in exchange the wheat which Europe would have sent her. Particular industries, too, such as gun-making, which had flourished during the trade war, found nearly all their business suddenly gone. And farmers and manufacturers alike, having less money and less work, began to dismiss their men, till the land teemed with unemployed, whose ranks were further swelled by thousands of soldiers and sailors whom the nation no longer needed.


Government workers at the stamp office, London.

Meanwhile village life suffered from the effects of a well-meant but disastrous system of poor relief. For twenty years the magistrates of England—since wages were low and corn was dear—had made "allowances" to labourers out of the rates, raising their weekly income to an amount varying according to the size of their families. The results were appalling. Farmers, knowing that the rates would make good the difference, paid ever lower wages, or even dismissed their men and hired them again as cheap "pauper labourers" from the parish. Labourers, relying on large allowances, married early. The idle, since allowances were paid without regard to merit, were encouraged in idleness. And the clergy, small freeholders, and other ratepayers were half ruined by the ever-increasing rates.

In such conditions riots and conspiracies were to be expected. All saw that something was wrong: few understood either the causes or the cure. Some traced all the mischief to the machines which displaced human labour and thus caused unemployment. So, even during the war, machines were smashed by riotous gangs. Others blamed the system which gave no representation in Parliament to the poorer classes, especially in towns. So there was a constant clamouring for Parliamentary reform. A few held the reigning ministers themselves responsible. So the "Cato Street Conspirators," in 1820, plotted to murder the whole Cabinet at dinner, but were discovered and defeated.


Fashions of the year 1830.

Meanwhile the Government did little, except to pass the famous "Six Acts" of 1819—stern measures of repression which left the grievances untouched. It was itself in a difficult position. The fight with France had destroyed the old party divisions. It had made the Whigs a small body, discredited by Fox's violent support of the French Revolution. It had made the Tories a huge, unwieldy body, without common beliefs or aims, except resistance to Napoleon abroad and popular movements at home. For some years after Waterloo the Cabinet was divided against itself on half the questions of the day—Catholic Emancipation, Free Trade, even foreign policy.

The character of George IV—Prince Regent from 1810 to 1820, and then king till 1830—was a further trouble. It made the Crown detested. It made the worthless ministers still more unpopular, especially when they supported a Bill for divorcing George's much-wronged wife. And, so far as he possessed political power, it hindered all reforms.

In all the story of England under his rule there were, perhaps, only four bright spots. One was her refusal to let the Spanish colonies in America be forced back under the despotic monarchy of Spain. Another was her tardy assistance to the Greeks in their revolt against Turkish tyranny. The third was the reform of the Criminal Law, especially the abolition of the death penalty for scores of small offences, and the establishment of an excellent police force instead of the useless old night-watchmen. This was largely due to Robert Peel, whose name is still preserved in the nicknames—"Bobby "and "Peeler"—of the police whom he created.

The last was the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and all laws against Roman Catholics, who were now excluded only from the throne and from three or four high political offices. This was the work of George IV's last ministry, in which Wellington was Prime Minister and Peel Home Secretary. Both really disliked Catholic Emancipation, but through fear of war in Ireland they yielded at last themselves and forced the king to yield also. A year later George IV died.

2. The Whigs and Reform


The famous Reform Bill of 1832 receiving the King's assent by Royal Commission.

The short reign of William IV (18301837) contrasted strongly with his brother's dismal days. William himself, if rather undignified and eccentric, was kindly and well-meaning. And the reign was full of reforms made by the Whigs, who quickly overthrew Wellington and ruled England once more, after nearly fifty years of exile from office.

First came the famous Reform Bill of 1832, stoutly resisted by Wellington and the other Tory peers, till, to prevent a revolution, the king agreed to create, if necessary, enough peers to carry it through the House of Lords. And then the Whigs—nearly three to one in the first reformed Parliament—abolished abuse after abuse which had lived so long only because the French Revolution, as we have seen, had frightened away all reform.

They abolished slavery throughout the Empire, freeing existing slaves, but binding them to work a certain number of years for their old masters, who received 20,000,000 as partial compensation for their enormous losses by the change. They made a first effort towards national education by granting money to various societies engaged in building schools. They passed a Factory Act, abolishing some of the hardships suffered by children. And then, by the Poor Law of 1834, they rearranged the whole system of poor relief.

A Poor Law Board in London was created to watch over all the local authorities, and see that the Poor Law worked in the same way throughout the kingdom. The mischievous "allowances" vanished. The practice of maintaining idle able-bodied men at the expense of their neighbours was ended. Henceforth only the aged and infirm might receive "relief" in their own homes. Able-bodied men in poverty might indeed still get assistance, but only by labouring in workhouses; and life in workhouses, though healthy, was intentionally made so unattractive that no sober man would prefer it to honest paid work. Lastly, the Whigs abolished many abuses in the government of towns.

But the country was growing weary of reforms. It had no great affection for the Whig leaders. It was coming more and more to admire their great opponent, Sir Robert Peel. He was actually Prime Minister for a few months in 1834-35. But, failing to secure a majority in the Commons, he soon resigned. Hence, when William IV died in 1837, and his niece Princess Victoria succeeded, it was a Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, that gave her fatherly instruction in her duties. Melbourne presently resigned of his own accord, and Peel was offered the Premiership. But as he could not induce the Queen to dismiss the Whig ladies at the Court and appoint instead the wives and daughters of Tories, so that her attendants might not prejudice her against her new ministers, he retired. And once more the Whigs ruled till, in 1841, a General Election gave Peel a large majority. Then, becoming Prime Minister, he quickly gained the respect, even the affection, of the Queen.

3. Sir Robert Peel


Sir Robert Peel.

Peel belonged by birth not to the aristocracy which had so long ruled England, but to those commercial classes which were now daily becoming more important in politics. His father—another Sir Robert—a wealthy manufacturer, secured the passing of the first Factory Act in 1802. He was a staunch Tory, and the younger Robert, trained in the Tory principles of Pitt, held office in three Tory ministries before forming a Government of his own.

But more than once Peel found himself forced by circumstances to examine his inherited opinions carefully, and, having examined them, to give them up.

These changes, which really showed his broad-mindedness and honesty, were declared by his enemies to prove his dishonesty and want of principle. And even his own followers often thought the same. His acceptance of Catholic Emancipation after years of opposition had already disgusted many: his acceptance of Free Trade was presently to disgust many more.

But meanwhile, under William IV, Peel had been turning the "Tory" into the "Conservative" party. Owing to the French Revolution a Tory had come to mean a man opposed to all changes, good or bad—a man whose only argument was that what had been good enough for his father was good enough for him. But this was not at all like the Toryism of Pitt in his early days, or of Peel himself, the reformer of the criminal law.

So Peel—accepting the Reform Act of 1832, and supporting the Poor Law Act of 1834—called himself not a Tory but a Conservative. And by a Conservative he meant not a man who denied the need of reform, but one who insisted that reformers must be cautious, and preserve uninjured the great national institutions in Church and State. The Conservative must differ from the Whig—now called a Liberal—because the Liberal thought first of reform and only afterwards of preservation. And he must differ still more from the extreme Liberal or Radical, whose very name announced his eagerness to pull evil things up by the roots.

Peel was supported not only by the old Tory classes—the squires and clergy—but by the shrewd and cautious middle class, which had received the vote in 1832. In some ways he held a stronger position than any Prime Minister before or since. He was undisputed master in his own Cabinet. He was free from all danger of such interference by the Crown as had baffled Pitt. And he firmly refused to be dictated to by his own party.

Parties, he said, were led too much by their tails, rather than their heads. But "heads see and tails are blind," and—conscious of his own superior knowledge and ability—he claimed the right to act always as he himself thought best for the country, whether or not his action agreed with old Conservative traditions. This claim to independence eventually destroyed his power, but first it enabled him to do great service to his country.

Peel's ministry was a time of peace in Europe. In the East a Chinese war secured Hong Kong; an Indian war secured the Punjab; and an Afghan war led only to disaster. At home something was done for factory workers and something for Ireland. But by far the most famous of Peel's measures were his great Free Trade Budgets. He found the nation's income less than its expenditure. He determined to put this right by immensely reducing the taxes on exports and imports, relying, like Pitt before him, on such a growth of trade in consequence as would make the lower duties far more profit-able than the old. And to supply the deficiency, meanwhile, he revived Pitt's plan of an income tax, though he fixed it at a lower rate, charged it only on incomes over 150, and hoped eventually to abolish it.

The result more than fulfilled his expectations. Every year trade grew and the revenue increased. So in 1845 he abolished, with great success, all export duties on British goods, and import duties on over four hundred articles. But he was preparing trouble for himself in his own party. The country gentlemen who sat behind him in the Commons were growing ever more uneasy. Deriving their wealth from agricultural rents, they resented the lowering of duties on foreign cattle and dairy produce; for it threatened their tenants—the farmers—with foreign competition and a fall in prices, which would mean in time a fall of rents. Already, for several years, Richard Cobden of Manchester, and the Quaker orator and manufacturer, John Bright of Birmingham, had been leading the Anti-Corn Law League in its demand for the repeal of the corn duties. And Peel, declaring that he wished "to make England a cheap place to live in," seemed dangerously like a Corn Law repealer. So a mutiny began.

The rebels were urged on by Benjamin Disraeli, who, though himself neither a country gentleman nor an Englishman by birth, was better able than any English squire to give effective voice to their feeling. He was a master of scorn and mockery, and no attacks on Peel were more damaging than the bitter taunts of this rebellious follower. 'The Prime Minister's Conservatism,' he declared, 'was a hypocrisy; he had betrayed alike his party and his nation; a thief in political life—he had "caught the Whig statesmen bathing, and walked away with their clothes"—for, though in name a Conservative, he was in policy a Whig.'

And presently the starvation of Irish peasants drove Peel to advance even faster than he wished along the course which he had chosen. He had indeed long known that sooner or later the Corn Laws must go, but he naturally shrank from once again leading the attack on an institution which he had long defended, as he had led it in the case of Catholic Emancipation. But the Irish famine of 1845 forced him to act at once. His colleagues resisted him, and he resigned. But the Liberals could not form a Government, so Peel became Prime Minister again, pledged to "Repeal," and, backed by the Opposition, carried it through Parliament.

But this triumph of his policy was the death-knell of his power. It was won by the help of opponents and in the teeth of many friends. And in the very hour of victory he fell. For the angry country gentlemen took a prompt revenge. The same night that his Repeal Act passed the Lords in 1846 his "Coercion Bill" for Ireland was thrown out in the Commons. The country gentlemen, in their turn, had voted with the Liberals. Three days later he resigned, never to return to office, and, after generously supporting his successors for some years as a private member of Parliament, he died in 1850 from the effects of a riding accident in Hyde Park.

4. Russell and Palmerston

For the next twenty years the Liberals ruled England almost continuously. Their chiefs were Lord John Russell, a member of the old Whig House of Bedford, and Lord Palmerston, an Irish peer famous mainly for his spirited defence of the rights—perhaps, occasionally, even of the wrongdoings—of English subjects abroad. Each in turn was Foreign Secretary while the other was Prime Minister. Neither wholly approved the other's policy. Russell, as Premier, backed by the Queen, condemned Palmerston's habit of acting independently in foreign affairs, and once, for so doing, even compelled him to resign. Palmerston, when he was supreme, refused the reforms at home which Russell wanted. Once a different Liberal leader had to be chosen because neither of these two would serve under the other. And three times, owing to Liberal quarrels, a Conservative ministry, headed by Lord Derby but guided by Disraeli, held office for a short space, though never possessing a majority in the Commons.

These twenty years were a stirring time in Europe. In France a Kingdom was overthrown in favour of a Republic, which presently became an Empire. In Germany Prussia fought her way to the headship of the German nation, her king soon after being elected German Emperor. In Italy the brilliant statesman Cavour and the heroic soldier Garibaldi overthrew the Bourbon tyrant in the south and the Austrian foreigner in the north, and built up an Italian nation. In the Austrian Empire, Hungary—in the Russian Empire, Poland—struggled like Italy, though vainly, for freedom and independence as a nation. And beyond the Atlantic—in the United States—North and South waged a terrible civil war over the question of slavery and the rights of individual States.

But for England it was at home almost a time of barrenness. National feeling in Ireland was partly responsible for a little Irish rising at the beginning of the period and the Fenian outrages at the end, but that was all. And, when in 1848, the champions of liberty set every throne on the Continent rocking, England saw only the absurd conclusion of the "Chartist Movement." For ten years Radicals had demanded a "People's Charter," intended to secure to all men equal representation in Parliament. And now a great army of London "Chartists" was to carry to Parliament a petition said to bear five million signatures.

But the zeal of the demonstrators was fatally damped, partly by Wellington, who guarded London with armed troops backed by two hundred thousand "special constables," and partly by the weather, which was miserably wet. And the great petition, taken to Westminster in three cabs, proved to contain not five but less than two million names, many even of these being fictitious. Thus "the People's Charter" died of ridicule, and later and more sober attempts at Parliamentary Reform failed also, though in time almost all the proposals of the Chartists became law.

Nor did England share actively in any of the many movements for national freedom abroad. Indeed, the only war she waged in Europe—the Crimean War with Russia in 1854-56—was fought to aid the tyrannical Sultan of Turkey. England feared that Russia would seize Constantinople and so control the eastern Mediterranean. She foolishly believed that Turkey would agree, without coercion, to rule her Christian subjects better. And so, allied with France, she joined the Sultan, and attacked Russia in the Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea.

The war, however, was thoroughly mismanaged. Three great battles were fought—at the Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman. Each proved the bulldog courage of the English soldier, but none had any great results. Only, at Balaclava, three incidents occurred which rank among the most glorious memories of the British Army. First the 93rd Highlanders—an infantry regiment—standing alone in line, repelled, simply by their fire, a charge of Russian cavalry. Then the Heavy Brigade of cavalry, only three hundred strong, hurled itself against two or three thousand Russian horse, and cut its way triumphantly through. Lastly, the "gallant Six Hundred" of the Light Brigade made their magnificent charge into the "jaws of death," against a whole army.

Down a valley two miles long they galloped, under the double fire of enemies on either side, right on to the Russian batteries, whose shot and shell had torn their ranks as they came, and then they turned and galloped back again, leaving more than half their number dead or wounded on the ground. The famous comment of a French general summed up at once the moral splendour and the practical uselessness of the deed: "It is magnificent; but it is not war!"

For the rest, the siege of Sevastopol, the great Crimean fortress, taxed heavily the resources of both French and English. Throughout it was mismanaged. The Russians were allowed time to fortify a place originally very weak. The positions of the Allies were badly chosen. And the English troops, even more than the French, suffered frightful hardships.

The War Office, not expecting a winter campaign, had made no provision for it; and besides it had forgotten, in forty years of peace, how to clothe and feed an army. So, frozen and starved, the soldiers perished by hundreds in the trenches, or crowded the hospitals with the sick and dying. And the hospitals themselves were only scenes of misery and disorder till the heroic Florence Nightingale brought out her band of nurses, and began that work which opened a new chapter in the care of the sick and wounded in war.

And when at last Sevastopol fell, and peace was made, France and England gained nothing, and Russia accepted limitations on her power only till a good opportunity came to cast them off.


A view at the Great Exhibition of 1851

For English commerce and English colonies, however, this was a prosperous time. Gladstone, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Liberal ministries, continued the Free Trade policy of Peel, reducing the number of imports still paying duty from 419 to 48. A wise commercial treaty was made with France. And meanwhile railways, steamships, and telegraphs had made communication between distant places ever easier. So England's trade and wealth increased by leaps and bounds, the more rapidly because other countries, especially America, were distracted from commerce by war.

In 1851 Queen Victoria's husband—the Prince Consort, her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, whom she had married in 1840—arranged a great Exhibition in London. The "Crystal Palace"—a huge building of glass and iron—was erected in Hyde Park, and there were shown specimens of natural products and manufactures from every quarter of the globe. All the nations were represented, and the Prince dreamed that now, perhaps, they would cease from war, and give themselves instead to friendly rivalry in industry and trade.

His hopes of peace were, indeed, dismally disappointed, for even before his death, only ten years later, three wars were waged in Europe. Yet the Exhibition did good work in fostering trade and showing its ever-increasing importance in national and international affairs. It showed, too, how fast the colonies were developing, for half the treasures in the Exhibition came from British lands. Canada and Australia were indeed gaining enormously in wealth, population, and liberty. More than three million emigrants left the Mother Country in some twenty years, and most of them settled in her colonies.

Again, the period was remarkable in the history of science. The great inventions by which, in the eighteenth century, the forces of nature were harnessed for the service of man, were continued. But further, men like Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick in geology, William Hooker in botany, Michael Faraday and John Tyndall in chemistry and physics, and many others in other branches of science, now earned fame by revealing much that had hitherto been Nature's secret as to the history of the earth and of the plants and animals upon it. Above all, in 1859, after many years of patient study, Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of Species, which, more than any other book ever written, changed the opinions of the scientific world on such subjects. And in the footsteps of Darwin followed an ever-growing band of disciples, who built on the foundations which he had laid.

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