History of Great Britain

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In 1837 the elderly William IV was succeeded as monarch by his 18-year-old niece, Victoria. She and her husband, Albert, came to symbolize many virtues: a close-knit family life, a sense of public duty, integrity, and respectability. These beliefs and attitudes, which are often known as Victorian, were also molded by the revival of evangelical religion and by utilitarian notions of efficiency and good business practice.

Chartists and Corn Law Reformers

The Whig reform spirit ebbed during the ministry of Lord Melbourne, and an economic depression in 1837 brought to public attention two powerful protest organizations. The Chartists urged the immediate adoption of the Peoples Charter, which would have transformed Britain into a political democracy (with universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, and secret ballot) and which was somehow expected to improve living standards as well. Millions of workers signed Charter petitions in 1839, 1842, and 1848, and some Chartist demonstrations turned into riots. Parliament repeatedly rejected the Peoples Charter, but it proved more receptive to the creed of the Manchester-based Anti-Corn Law League. League leaders such as Richard Cobden 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. Sir Robert Peels Conservative ministry succeeded Melbourne, and became active in reducing Britains tariffs but brought back the income tax to make up for lost revenue. In the winter of 1845 and 1846, spurred by an Irish potato blight and consequent famine, Peel proposed the complete repeal of the Corn Laws. With Whig aid the measure passed, but two-thirds of Peels fellow Conservatives condemned the action as a sellout of the partys agricultural supporters. The Conservatives divided between Peelites and protectionists, and the Whigs returned to power under Lord John Russell in 1846.

During the Peel and Russell years the trend toward free trade continued, aided by the 1849 repeal of the Navigation Acts, and a system of administrative regulation was gradually established. Women and children were barred from underground work in mines and limited to 10-hour working days in factories. Regulations were also imposed on urban sanitation facilities and passenger-carrying railroads, and commissions were set up to oversee prisons, insane asylums, merchant shipping, and private charities. Attempts to subsidize elementary education, however, were hampered by conflict over the churchs role in running schools.

Mid-Victorian Prosperity

From the late 1840s until the late 1860s, Britons were less concerned with domestic conflict than with an economic boom occasionally affected by wars and threats of war on the Continent and overseas. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London symbolized Britains industrial supremacy. The 10,600-km (6600-mi) railroad network of 1850 more than doubled during the mid-Victorian years, and the number of passengers carried annually went up by seven times. The telegraph provided instant communication. Inexpensive steel was made possible by Henry Bessemers process, developed in 1856, and a boom in steamship building began in the 1860s. The value of British exports tripled, and overseas capital investments quadrupled. Working-class living standards improved also, and the growth of trade unionism among engineers, carpenters, and others led to the founding of the Trades Union Congress in 1868. In the aftermath of the Continental revolutions of 1848, a Britain governed by the Peelite-Liberal coalition of Lord Aberdeen drifted into war with an autocratic, expansionist Russia. In alliance with the France of Napoleon III, Britain entered the Crimean War in 1854. Parliamentary criticism of army mismanagement, however, caused the downfall of Aberdeen. He was replaced by Lord Palmerston, a staunch English nationalist and champion of European liberalism, who saw the war to its conclusiona limited Anglo-French victory in 1856. In 1857 and 1858, the Sepoy Mutiny was suppressed, and Britain abolished the East India Company, making British India a crown colony. In contrast, domestic self-government was encouraged in Britains settlement colonies: Canada (federated under the British North America Act of 1867), Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony (South Africa). Britain maintained a difficult neutrality during the American Civil War (1861-1865). It encouraged the unification of Italy, but witnessed with apprehension Prince Otto von Bismarcks creation of a German Empire under Prussian domination.

The Gladstone-Disraeli Rivalry

During the 16 years after Palmerstons death in 1865, the rivalry of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli dominated British politics. Both had begun as Tories, but in 1846 Gladstone had become a Peelite and had thereafter gradually moved toward liberalism. As Palmerstons chancellor of the******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************** ultimately came up with the Reform Bill of 1867, which Disraeli successfully piloted through the House of Commons. The measure enfranchised most urban workers. It almost doubled the English and Welsh electorates and more than doubled the Scottish. It also launched the era of mass political organization and of increasingly polarized and disciplined parliamentary parties.

: 14/02/2008