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The years of power and danger



 

By the end of the century, Britain's empire was political rather than commercial. Britain used this empire to control large areas of the world. The empire gave the British a feeling of their own importance which was difficult to forget when Britain lost its power in the twentieth century. This belief of the British in their own importance was at its height in the middle of the nineteenth century, among the new middle class, which had grown with industrialisation. The novelist Charles Dickens nicely described this national pride. One of his characters, Mr Podsnap, believed that Britain had been specially chosen by God and "considered other countries a mistake".

 

The rapid growth of the middle class was part of the enormous rise in the population. This growth and the movement of people to towns from the countryside forced a change in the political balance, and by the end of the century most men had the right to vote.

 

The aristocracy and the Crown had little power left by 1914.

 

However, the working class, the large number of people who had left their villages to become factory workers, had not yet found a proper voice.

 

Britain wanted two main things in Europe: a "balance of power" which would prevent any single nation from becoming too strong, and a free market in which its own industrial and trade superiority would give Britain a clear advantage. It succeeded in the first aim by encouraging the recovery of France, to balance the power of Austria. Further east, it was glad that Russia's influence in Europe was limited by Prussia and the empires of Austria and Turkey. These all shared a border with Russia.

 

Outside Europe, Britain wished its trading position to be stronger than anyone else's. It defended its interests by keeping ships of its navy in almost every ocean of the world. This was possible because it had taken over and occupied a number of places during the war against Napoleon.

 

After 1815 the British government did not only try to develop its trading stations. Its policy now was to control world traffic and world markets to Britain's advantage.

In spite of its power, Britain also felt increasingly anxious about growing competition from France and Germany in the last part of the century. Most of the colonies established in the nineteenth century were more to do with political control than with trading for profit.



 

The concerns in Europe and the protection of trade routes in the rest of the world guided Britain's foreign policy for a hundred years. It was to keep the balance in Europe in 1838 that Britain promised to protect Belgium against stronger neighbours. In spite of political and economic troubles in Europe, this


 

 


policy kept Britain from war in Europe for a century from 1815. In fact it was in defence of Belgium in 1914 that Britain finally went to war against Germany.

Until about 1850, Britain was in greater danger at home than abroad. The Napoleonic Wars had turned the nation from thoughts of revolution to the need to defeat the French. They had also hidden the social effects of the industrial revolution. Britain had sold clothes, guns, and other necessary war supplies to its allies' armies as well as its own. At the same time, corn had been imported to keep the nation and its army fed.

 

All this changed when peace came in 1815. Suddenly there was no longer such a need for factory-made goods, and many lost their jobs. Unemployment was made worse by 300,000 men from Britain's army and navy who were now looking for work. At the same time, the landowning farmers' own income had suffered because of cheaper imported corn. These farmers persuaded the government to introduce laws to protect locally grown corn and the price at which it was sold. The cost of bread rose quickly, and this led to increases in the price of almost everything.

 

The general misery began to cause trouble. People tried to add to their food supply by catching wild birds and animals. But almost all the woods had been enclosed by the local landlord and new laws were made to stop people hunting animals for food. A man found with nets in his home could be transported to the new "penal" colony in Australia for seven years. A man caught hunting with a gun or a knife might be hanged, and until 1823 thieves caught entering houses and stealing were also hanged.



 

In order to avoid the workhouse, many looked for a better life in the towns. Between 1815 and 1835 Britain changed from being a nation of country people to a nation mainly of townspeople.

If the rich feared the poor in the countryside, they feared even more those in the fast-growing towns. These were harder to control. If they had been organised, a revolution like that in France might have happened. But they were not organised, and had no leaders.

 

Reform

 

The Whigs understood better than the Tories the need to reform the law in order to improve social conditions. Like the Tories they feared revolution, but unlike the Tories they believed it could only be avoided by reform. Indeed, the idea of reform to make the parliamentary system fairer had begun in the eighteenth century. It had been started by early radicals, and encouraged by the American War of Independence, and by the French Revolution.

 

Workers revolt

 

Since 1824 workers had been allowed to join together in unions. Most of these unions were small and weak. Although one of their aims was to make sure employers paid reasonable wages, they also tried to prevent other people from


 

 


working in their particular trade. As a result the working classes still found it difficult to act together.

In 1834, there was an event of great importance in trade union history. Six farmworkers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle joined together, promising to be loyal to their "union". Their employer managed to find a law by which they could be punished. A judge had been specially appointed by the government to find the six men guilty, and this he did. In London 30,000 workers and radicals gathered to ask the government to pardon the "Tolpuddle Martyrs". The government, afraid of seeming weak, did not do so until the "martyrs" had completed part of their punishment. It was a bad mistake. Tolpuddle became a symbol of employers' cruelty, and of the working classes' need to defend themselves through trade union strength.

 

The radicals and workers were greatly helped in their efforts by the introduction of a cheap postage system in 1840. This enabled them to organise themselves across the country far better than before.

Britain's success in avoiding the storm of revolution in Europe in 1848 was admired almost everywhere. European monarchs wished they were as safe on their thrones as the British queen seemed to be. For much of the nineteenth century Britain was the envy of the world.

 

Family life

 

In spite of the greater emphasis on the individual and the growth of openly shown affection, the end of the eighteenth century also saw a swing back to stricter ideas of family life. In part, the close family resulted from the growth of new attitudes to privacy, perhaps a necessary part of individualism.

 

Except for the very rich, people no longer married for economic reasons, but did so for personal happiness. However, while wives might be companions, they were certainly not equals. As someone wrote in 1800, "the husband and wife are one, and the husband is that one". As the idea of the close family under the "master" of the household became stronger, so the possibility for a wife to find emotional support or practical advice outside the immediate family became more limited.

 

One must wonder how much things reduced the chance of happy family life. Individualism, strict parental behaviour, the regular beating of children (which was still widespread), and the cruel conditions for those boys at boarding school, all worked against it. One should not be surprised that family life often ended when children grew up. As one foreigner noted in 1828, "grown up children and their parents soon become almost strangers". It is impossible to be sure what effect this kind of family life had on children. But no doubt it made young men unfeeling towards their own wives who, with unmarried sisters, were the responsibility of the man of the house. A wife was legally a man's property, until nearly the end of the century.


 

 


In spite of a stricter moral atmosphere in Scotland which resulted from the strong influence of the Kirk, Scottish women seem to have continued a stronger tradition of independent attitudes and plain speaking.

 

Chapter 20

 


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