Chapter 19 An Era of Expansion and Reform

Section 1 Reform Movements in Great Britain

The Industrial Revolution brought great wealth and power to Great Britain, but it also created many economic and social problems.  The spirit of reform seized Great Britain, as the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, a new religious vitality, and industrial problems caused many people to seek solutions to society's problems.  Just as many nations looked to Britain as a model for industrialization, in the 1800s they also looked to Britain as a model for reform.

The Anti-Slavery Movement

The first great reform movement in Britain was directed against the slave trade. By the end of the 1700s,[3] Britain had become the world's greatest slave-trading nation.  Britain transported as many as 2.5 million Africans into slavery, and it had created some of the most prosperous slave colonies in the world.[4] In the early 1800s, however, Britain turned its back on the slave trade and became the strongest opponent of slavery.   Great Britain led the abolition movement to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the world.[5]

            Few people had openly opposed slavery until some Enlightenment writers began attacking it.  As Enlightenment ideas spread, discussions about liberty often became linked with slavery.  Anthony Benezet, an American abolitionist, criticized Great Britain for being so proud of its liberties while profiting from the slave trade: 

“How [can] many of those [who] distinguish themselves as Advocates of Liberty remain insensible and inattentive to the treatment of thousands and tens of thousands of our fellow men, who...are at this very time kept in the most deplorable state of slavery...[?]”[6] 

            Criticism of slavery also came from religious circles.  In the late 1700s, Britain underwent a religious revival.  The evangelical movement, as this revival was called, grew enormously in the first half of the 1800s.  People began to see their faith as a deeply personal experience, and began to emphasize the importance of conscience and moral conduct in their lives. Such feelings were particularly strong among nonconformists—Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England.  Many of them not only believed slavery was immoral, but also had the time, money, and influence to campaign on behalf of enslaved people.[7]

            The key to abolition, however, lay in Parliament. William Wilberforce, a philanthropist and devout evangelical Christian from Yorkshire, led the antislavery movement in Parliament. “The great influence of his connexions,” Sharp wrote of Wilberforce, “added to an amiable and unblemished character, secure every advantage to the cause."[8] Even with such leadership, however, it took many years for Parliament to outlaw the slave trade. Nevertheless, by 1807 the abolitionists had persuaded Parliament to ban the slave trade in the British Empire.[9]

            In the years that followed, the Royal Navy did its best to suppress the slave trade on the high seas, while the British Government slowly convinced other countries engaged in the trade to outlaw it. Meanwhile, reformers began to press not only for abolition of the slave trade but of slavery itself. Finally, on August 1, 1838, the British Parliament passed a law emancipating, or freeing, all slaves in the British Empire.[10] Antislavery activists soon turned their attention toward freeing slaves in other countries, particularly in the United States.

Political and Economic Reforms

The anti-slavery movement was but the first of many successful reform movements in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s. As the Industrial Revolution transformed society, other groups also began to demand reforms in a wide variety of areas. As prosperity from industry put more and more people into the growing urban middle classes, pressures particularly built up for both industrial regulation and political reform. 

Beginnings of industrial regulation. As industrialization and urbanization developed in Britain, many people became increasingly aware of the conditions under which workers and their families had to live. Growing numbers of humanitarians denounced the exploitation of children and even pregnant women in factories. Even some factory owners found the situation intolerable. In the early 1800s, for example, Robert Owen, the English socialist and factory-owner, began to agitate in Parliament for laws limiting the use of children in factories. In the Factory Act of 1819, Parliament passed a law prohibiting the use of children under 9 years old in factories, and limiting the time children from 9 to 12 could work to 12 hours per day.

            Such limited reform did little to improve the system, however, and calls for reform increased. Writers like Charles Dickens helped to paint a grim picture of the conditions in factories. Beginning in 1833, Parliament began to pass more laws regulating the uses and hours of women and children in both factories and mines. In 1842, for example, women and children were prohibited from working underground in the mines altogether. To enforce the regulations, Parliament also provided for government inspectors who would regularly investigate conditions in factories. With only a few inspectors and little funding for the regulatory system, however, abuses often continued.

            Despite such abuses, as the new regulations took effect, and sometimes even without them, the general standard of living for workers as well as other classes steadily rose. Shorter hours and better working conditions actually proved to increase workers’ efficiency. As productivity increased, so too did their wages. More working-class families could afford items their parents could only have dreamed about. They were eating better—more meat, fish, milk, cheese, and eggs—and their health also improved so that death rates began to fall. After about 1850, many could even afford to open savings accounts. The middle and upper classes were even better off. Such developments convinced many that the classical economists were not entirely right—perhaps some government regulation was helpful. 

The Reform Bill of 1832. The growing wealth produced by the industrial revolution also led to increasing demands for political reform. Seats in parliament were still primarily in the hands of land-owning aristocrats. Industrial cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, on the other hand, had no representatives at all.[11] Throughout Britain, only wealthy male property owners could vote and Catholics, Jews, and nonconformists could not hold political office. In addition, members of the House of Commons were not paid for their services, so public office was largely restricted to men of great wealth.[12]

            By the 1830s, demands for reform were too strong for the aristocratic elite to ignore. Throughout Europe, liberalism was challenging the old aristocratic and conservative order, and England was no exception. The middle class wanted political power to match their growing economic power.[13] As unrest increased throughout the country, eventually Parliament gave in and agreed to change the electoral laws. 

            The Reform Bill of 1832 gave industrial cities representatives in Parliament for the first time.  It also gave the vote to middle-class men, increasing the number of eligible voters by about 50 per cent, and significantly reduced the power of the landed aristocracy. However, political leaders continued to assume that only men with property and education would be responsible voters. Consequently, the bill provided that only men with a certain amount of property could vote. This requirement effectively prevented working-class men from voting. Women too continued to be excluded from voting.           

Chartism.  Frustrated that the working-class had been left out of the new reforms, in 1836 William Lovett, a shopkeeper, drew up a reform plan called the People's Charter. The Charter called for universal manhood suffrage and equal electoral districts to provide more equal representation for everyone in the country. It also called for paying members of Parliament so that even workingmen could afford to enter politics. Chartists, as Lovett's followers became known, saw the vote as a way to improve their daily lives. As one put it: 

“Universal suffrage means meat and drink and clothing, good hours, and good beds, and good substantial furniture for every man and woman and child who will do a fair day's work.”[14] 

            Although after 1848 the Chartist movement effectively died out—largely due to improving economic conditions and rising living standards of most workers, and an increasing reputation for violence among the Chartists that discredited the movement—over the next several decades successive governments gradually enacted most of the Charters’ demands. 

Anti-Corn Law League. Chartism faded but the desire for further reforms did not. In 1839, for example, many working-class veterans of the Chartist movement joined together with members of the middle-class to form the Anti-Corn Law League. The Corn Laws had been imposed in 1815 by wealthy landowners who at the time still controlled Parliament. They strictly limited the importation of cheap foreign grain. This helped landowners maintain their profits—but it also kept the price of food high. As middle-class and working-class people protested together, the League also became a forum for other radical reform proposals such as universal male suffrage and free trade.

            Although Parliament resisted the League’s demands at first, in 1845 the failure of Ireland’s potato crop raised the specter of mass starvation. As food prices began to rise dramatically, not only in Ireland but in England as well, in 1846 the conservative British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel abandoned his own party’s support for the Corn Laws and instead led a coalition of parties to repeal them. With cheap foreign grain imports, England escaped famine.

Later political reforms. The consequences of the repeal of the Corn Laws were far-reaching. Out of the controversy Britain’s first two modern political parties emerged from the factionalized politics that had previously prevailed—the Conservatives, who wanted to preserve the best traditions of the past while slowly accepting modern reforms, and the Liberals, who adopted a more utilitarian approach to solving society’s problems. Both parties eventually came to embrace free trade. Both, especially the Conservatives, also came to realize the need to include more people in the political system.

            In 1867, led by their leader Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservatives passed a second Reform Bill. This new reform extended the vote to all male heads of households—a measure that roughly doubled the number of voters and that enfranchised most city industrial workers. In 1872, Parliament enacted the secret ballot, which made it easier for people to vote as they liked without fear of retaliation from an employer. Finally, a third reform bill in 1884 extended the vote practically to the entire adult male population. Although women were still excluded from voting for Parliament, the movement toward full democracy had begun.

Women's suffrage. Throughout the 1800s, women gained political experience working on various reform movements. They had been instrumental, for example, in the last stages of the abolition movement. However, they soon learned that they would have to campaign on their own behalf to improve women's lives. Supported by other reformers like John Stuart Mill, they successfully campaigned for the rights of married women to control their own property, to have equal access to divorce and child custody, and to have access to higher education.  Achieving these reforms without the vote, however, was difficult:


“There are women in my country who have spent long and useful lives trying to get reforms, and because of their voteless condition, they are unable even to get the ear of Members of Parliament, much less are they able to secure those reforms.”[15]


Signing petitions, lobbying politicians, and publishing journals promoting women's suffrage, by the end of the 1800s women of property, both single and married, had gained the right to vote in practically all local elections and even to stand as candidates in some. Parliament itself, however, remained closed to them. For some women, the time had come to pursue a more militant strategy.

            [BIO]  Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst, a dynamic activist from Manchester, led the more aggressive wing of the women’s suffrage movement.  Born in 1858, she held a series of municipal offices before focusing her attention on women's suffrage. With the help of her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela, she established the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to campaign for the vote.[16] Soon, the tactics of the WSPU included holding demonstrations and marches, some of which had nearly half a million participants.[17]

            When the government continued to ignore the issue of women's suffrage, the WSPU adopted more militant tactics: breaking windows, cutting telegraph wires, even carving the words "Votes for Women" in the greens of golf courses.  For these destructive acts, many suffragettes went to prison.  Emmeline Pankhurst herself was arrested and released 12 times in 1913,[18] and when she went on hunger strike, like many other suffragettes, she was forcibly fed. Devoted to the cause, however, many suffragettes saw such hardships as martyrdom. As Pankhurst put it:


“We know the joy of battle.  When we have come out of the gates of Holloway [Prison] at the point of death, battered, starved, forcibly fed as some of our women have been, their bodies bruised, they have felt when the prison bars were broken and the doors have opened, even at the point of death, they have felt the joy of battle and the exultation of victory.”[19]


            Militant tactics energized the movement, but as with Chartism, violence convinced many people that women were not responsible enough to have the vote. Before her death in 1901, even Queen Victoria was “anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights,’ with all its attendant horrors.”

            Meanwhile the moderate women's suffrage groups continued to use more peaceful tactics. Eventually, in 1918, Parliament granted the vote to women over the age of 30. Not until 1928, however, did women gained the right to vote on the same basis as men—just a few weeks before Emmeline Pankhurst died. [END BIO]

The Problem of Ireland

One major reform that Britain was unable to achieve was a solution to the troubles in Ireland.  In 1801 the Act of Union joined Ireland and Great Britain—an act bitterly resented by Ireland’s majority Catholic population. After the union, the British considered Ireland to be an integral part of Great Britain. Most of the Irish, on the other hand, saw their country as part of Britain's empire.

             Irish nationalism increased during the 1800s. The Irish resented most aspects of British rule. Most of the farmland in Ireland was owned by absentee British landlords, many of whom charged high rents, even during periods of economic depression or famine.  Several times in the mid-1800s, the potato crop failed and famine swept Ireland.  The worst, known as the Great Famine, lasted from 1845 until 1846[20] causing many people to emigrate, primarily to the United States.  Those who remained demanded new land laws and self-government.

            Under their charismatic leader Charles Stewart Parnell, Irish nationalists began to demand Home Rule, or self-government. Conservatives opposed home rule and Liberals split over the issue, however, because the Protestants of Northern Ireland, known as Unionists, opposed it. In 1886 the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone tried, but failed, to get a home rule bill passed.  The government made some reforms, particularly by helping Irish tenants buy their farms, but Parliament would not consider the issue of self-government again until the early 1900s.

Social Welfare Reforms

In addition to these political reform movements, Britain also moved slowly toward social reforms. The success of the anti-slavery movement had convinced many reformers, especially Evangelical Christians and the utilitarians, that government action could be used to improve the living conditions of people. As new factory laws were passed to improve working conditions for women and children, reformers also came to believe that government action could resolve all the other ills of society.

            The first efforts in this direction came about the same time as the first factory acts. In 1834 Parliament passed a new Poor Law to replace the old law that had been in effect since the 1500s, with some modifications in the late 1700s.[21] Under liberal influence, the Poor Law of 1834 was designed to make poor people seek assistance only as a last resort by forcing them to live in workhouses.[22] On the other hand, the system emphasized better education for poor children, and expanded and improved care for the elderly and the sick. The effects of the new law were bitterly contested by its opponents and its advocates. Under public pressure, by 1847 administration of the law had improved and the poor were treated with more dignity and humanity.[23]

            The plight of the poor made people aware of the unsanitary conditions in which most of Britain’s urban-dwellers lived. Edwin Chadwick, a utilitarian and one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the new poor law system, became convinced that disease contributed greatly to poverty, since workers too sick to work did not get paid. To reduce illness, Chadwick called for the installation of efficient drainage systems, modern sewers, and regular garbage collection, as well as the provision of adequate supplies of clean running water to all towns and cities. In 1846 Parliament set up a national board of health to oversee such improvements.

            As prosperity continued to increase, the success of these early reform movements inspired more reformers in the 1880s. Convinced that the continuing problems of poverty could be overcome by simply changing the environment in which poor people lived, some upper middle class reformers established settlement houses such as Toynbee Hall, in poor areas of London. They hoped that poor working-class people would come to these houses and interact with them, absorbing by example the values that would help them out of poverty. Some reformers, such as the socialist Fabian Society, also made up mostly of upper middle class reformers, called for even more government intervention to eradicate the social ills of Britain. The Fabians wanted to let “experts” in all fields decide what policies were necessary to solve specific problems, and then implement them.

            As more and more people became convinced that social well-being could be achieved by government action, in the early 1900s the Liberals enacted a major program of government welfare programs. In 1906 a law gave workers the right to collect workers' compensation when injured on the job. Another bill provided free or cheap meals for children who had no breakfast in the morning. Two years later, the Liberals enacted the Old Age Pensions bill, in order to alleviate poverty among the elderly. In 1911 the National Insurance Act provided medical care and unemployment insurance to workers who made small contributions to a central fund. From the laissez-faire policies of the classical economists, Britain had accepted the idea that the state must be responsible for the well-being of its citizens—the first step toward creating the “welfare state.”


Section 1 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

abolition movement

Emmeline Pankhurst

Jeremy Bentham

Marxian socialism


Robert Owen


William Wilberforce

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:


Sierra Leone

West Indies

1.      MAIN IDEA  How did Great Britain transform itself from being the leading slave-trading nation to the leading abolitionist country?

2.      MAIN IDEA   How did industrialization lead to major economic and industrial reforms?

3.      GEOGRAPHY  What impact did the location of slavery within the empire have on Britain's peaceful transitionfrom slavery to emancipation?

4.      WRITING TO PERSUADE  Imagine that you are a British factory owner in 1830.  Your factory is profitable, and you pay taxes.  However, you do not have the right to vote.  Write a persuasive letter to your member of Parliament outlining why you believe the voting laws should be changed.

5.      DETERMINING CAUSE AND EFFECT  How did British industrialization result in the growing popularity of socialism?