Great Britain during and after the Napoleonic wars

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Poor Law remaining in force, people who could not help being poor could be given money or go to a workhouse run by a parish. In the early 19th century most of the parishes were too poor to take care of the ever-increasing amount of the poor. The British society faced a serious social problem. Something was to be done, and in 1834 the old Poor Law was amended.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 stated that no one fit to work was to receive money at home. Parishes were grouped into "unions", and each union had to have a workhouse, and pay for it out of the rates. The principle of the new Poor Law was simple: every person in need of relief must receive it inside a workhouse. Workhouses had been places mainly for the reception of the aged, the disabled, of children and of all those too helpless and too defenceless to avoid being put there. In 1834 they became the only alternative to starvation for the poor.

The condition of a pauper in a workhouse was to be "less eligible" than that of the least prosperous workers outside. In the sinister language of the Poor Law Commission of 1834, the able-bodied inmate must be "subjected to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious". At a time when millions of people were on the verge of starvation, this object could only be achieved by making the workhouse the home of meanness and cruelty. Families were divided, food was poor and scanty and the tasks imposed were hard and boring, oakum picking and stone breaking being among the most common.

The administration of the Act was deliberately removed as far as possible from popular control by the appointment of three Commissioners who became the most detested men in England. People dreaded the workhouse and tried to protest. In some places workhouses were stormed and burnt after fierce clashes between people and troops. In many of the northern towns it was ten years or more before a workhouse was built. The mass agitation, however, died about 1840 and the Poor Law was put in force both in the rural and industrial areas.


5. The Corn Laws


The object of the Corn Laws of 1815 was to keep the price of wheat at the famine level it had reached during the Napoleonic Wars, when supplies from Poland and France were prevented from reaching England. All wheat imports were forbidden when the price fell below 50 s. the quarter.

From the beginning the Corn Laws were hated by everyone except the landowners and farmers, and even the latter found that in practice the fluctuation in wheat prices was ruinously violent and that the market was often manipulated so as to rob them of the profit they might have expected to make.

Attempts in 1828 and 1842 to improve the Corn Laws by introducing a sliding scale were not successful. Opposition to the Corn Laws, coupled with demands for Parliamentary Reform, were widespread, but died down after 1820 to be revived again by the coming of industrial depression of 1837. This time it was an agitation not so much of the mass of the people as of the industrial bourgeoisie anxious to reduce labour costs.

In 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was formed. League leaders such as Richard Cobden and John Bright expected the repeal of tariffs on imported food to advance the welfare of manufacturers and workers alike, while promoting international trade and peace among nations. The League's agitation produced a considerable effect on the workers. Unprecedented in scale and lavishly financed this agitation had all the advantages that the railways and cheap newspapers could give. Whenever Cobden or Bright spoke their words were widely reported in dozens of papers and the League orators were able to move swiftly and easily all over the country.

In the light of this continued pressure, combined with the plain fact that the growth of population was making it impossible for England to feed herself, the hesitating steps were taken towards Free Trade after 1841.

The first of these steps was dictated by the confused finance. Many tariffs and duties were swept away and replaced by an income tax which was both simpler and more productive, and in the long run less burdensome upon industry. The effect of these tariffs disappearance was to leave the Corn Laws as an isolated anomaly, increasingly conspicuous and increasingly difficult to defend.

Sir Robert Peel, who was Prime Minister then, made a thorough study of the situation and realized that the belief common among landowners that vast stores of wheat were lying in the Baltic granaries ready to be poured into England was a pure fantasy. He knew that the surplus of corn for export in any country was still small and that the most the repeal of the Corn Laws would do would be to prevent an otherwise inevitable rise in prices which might have had revolutionary consequences. He managed to force through the repeal against the will of the majority of his own supporters in June 1846.


6. The Railway Age


The 18th century was a boom time for building roads. At the beginning of the century it took over three days to make the journey from London to Exeter or Manchester. By the end of the century the same journey took about 24 hours by coach. That became possible thanks to the network of new roads built by privately owned Turnpike Trusts. Until the beginning of the 19th century, however, British roads were still poor. They were badly rutted and became practically impassable in wet weather. Around the turn of the century engineers Thomas Telford and John McAd-am devised methods of building uniform, smooth, and durable roadbeds on which heavy goods could be carried in carts and wagons without destroying the roads. But still barges remained best for transporting heavy goods, and towards the end of the 18th century engineers constructed a system of canals that linked the larger rivers.

Water transport was rather slow, greater speeds were demanded. The idea of railway emerged as a result of the development of steam locomotives, but building locomotives and rail systems was so expensive that railroads were not widely used in Britain until the 1830's.

The first practical locomotive was constructed in England in 1804 by Richard Trevithick. It had smooth wheels operating on smooth metal rails. At first the railway was looked on mainly as a means of carrying goods, but it was soon discovered that the steam engine was capable of far higher speeds than had been imagined and that it could carry passengers more quickly and more cheaply than the stage coach.

After the successful trials of the Trevithick locomotive, a number of moderately successful locomotives were built in England, primarily for use in mining. In 1823 the Stockton-Darlington Railway was opened. In 1829 the much more important line connecting Manchester and Liverpool came into existence. It was not until 1829 that a locomotive was developed for use in a railway carrying both passengers and cargo. In that year The Rocket, a locomotive designed by the British engineer George Stephenson, won a competition sponsored by the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad.

The Rocket pulled a load of three times its own weight at a speed of 20 km/hr and hauled a coach filled with passengers at 39 km/hr. This performance stimulated the building of other locomotives and the extension of railroad lines. Investors saw railroads as a profit-making venture and poured vast amounts of capital into building rail systems throughout the nation.

A regular fever of railway building, accompanied by a speculation boom and much gambling in stocks and land values, set in. In the years 1834-1836 about 10,000,000 was raised for railway construction. First in the industrial areas, then on the main routes radiating from London and then on the minor branches, thousands of miles of track were laid down.

Much of the capital expended on these works brought in no immediate profit, and in 1845 there was a severe crisis extending to many branches of industry and affecting a number of the banks. This crisis soon passed, being rather the result of speculative optimism than of any real instability of the railway companies, and was followed by the new outburst of building.

The railway building marked the beginning of a tremendous increase in all branches of heavy industry, especially in such key industries as coal mining and iron. The output of pig iron was 678,000 tons in 1830; in 1852 it was 2,701,000 tons. Coal output rose from 10,000,000 tons in 1800 to 100,000,000 tons in 1865.

Britain was the first country to create a railway system. It also started to build railways in countries all over the world, which proved to be a very profitable business. Railroads played an especially important role in the colonial and semi-colonial countries that had not a sufficiently dense population or money enough to build for themselves. Such railroads were usually not only built by British contractors but financed by loans raised in London.

The immediate internal effect of the railway boom was to create a large demand for labour, both directly for railway construction and indirectly in the coal mining, iron and steel and other industries. In the second place, the railways made it much easier for workers to get from place to place, to leave the villages and find a factory town where work was to be had.

In 1801, 20 per cent of Britain's people lived in towns. By the end of the 19th century, it was 75 per cent. London especially was like a great