Dawn of Temperance in Britain
A Contextual Walkthrough of a World Turned Upside Down
The latter years of the 18th and the early years of the 19th Century was a period of rising social and political tension.
Revolution was in the air and 'regime change' in France and America encouraged the desire for reform in Britain. The expectations and aspirations of working people were raised. This was in turn the cause of great concern to the ruling elite.
Britain had experienced its own peaceful "Glorious Revolution" with the accession of William & Mary in 1688. Although there was pressure for change in Britain there would be no wholesale bloody revolution in during the Georgian/Victorian periods. The Britain of 1900 was almost unrecognisable from that of 1800.
What had changed?
- a revolution of ideas that would see working people increasingly challenge the established order in a clamour for reform.
- increasing religious diversity.
- the industrial revolution transformed Britain into the "workshop of the world".
- a social and demographic revolution which would see Britain change from largely agrarian based society to one dominated by urban industrial centres with a large disenfranchised and alienated working class.
In the early 19th Century, the end of the Napoleonic Wars saw a downturn in the British economy. Combined with a series of bad harvests and an intransigent landed ruling elite a yearn for reform was spurned as a growing political radicalism sought greater suffrage.
A defining moment on the journey to reform was the "Peterloo Massacre" during a demonstration on St Peter's Fields, Manchester in 1819. A sabre charge by cavalry brought deaths and injury to the protesters. The immediate aftermath saw a Government crackdown on the reform movement but that day the massacre would continue to resonate for decades to come.
This national Chartist movement became the embodiment of this desire for political change and campaigned in the 1830s and 1840s to introduce electoral reform in England and to improve the lot of the working-class, especially in the northern industrial cities. It was based on a six-point Charter, which demanded secret ballots, universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, payment for MPs, that MPs did not require to be property owners, and annual elections.
The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 had firmly enshrined Britain as a Protestant nation. The Church of England remained the dominant force in 18th and 19th Century religious affairs but the religious revolution initiated by John Wesley and his followers had set in motion an unstoppable movement. The reformers sought new ways of worship and new ways of governance. Within Methodism itself schisms would create new religious groups in the Methodist family.
Catholic emancipation in 1829 followed by waves of Irish immigration would swell the ranks of the Church of Rome.
The end of the Napolenonic Wars in 1815 had heralded a downturn in the British economy and resulting deterioration in economic conditions with resulting unemployment and famine.
The introdution of the Corn Laws between 1815 and 1846, which imposed restrictions and tariffs on imported grain made bread an expensive luxury for the urban poor and fuelled political and social unrest and a desire for reform.
Ye coop us up, and tax our bread,
And wonder why we pine;
But ye are fat, and round and red,
And filled with tax bought wine.
Thus twelve rats starve while three rats thrive,
(Like you on mine and me.)
When fifteen rats are caged alive,
With food for nine and three.
Haste Havoc's torch begins to glow -
The ending is begun:
Make haste! Destruction thinks ye slow:
Make haste to be undone!
Why are ye called 'my Lord', and 'Squire',
While fed by mine and me.
And wringing food, and clothes , and fire,
From bread-taxed misery!
Ebenezer Elliot 1831
from the Corn Law Rhymes
Early 19th Century Britain was a nation divided by wealth and power.
Britain's rapid Industrial Revolution saw mass movement from the country to manufacturing towns. The working class was born. Working conditions in the new mills and factories were unpleasant and alien for the workers who had migrated from the countryside to work in the new industries. Living conditions were basic and harsh at best and squalid and dangerous at worst. For many they must have thought they had arrived in hell.
With no welfare state, for working people the only recourse was to seek assistance under the Poor Law.
In times of economic hardship or ill-health that meant one thing: the Workhouse. In England and Wales, a workhouse was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. (In Scotland, they were usually known as poorhouses.)
In order to discourage "idleness, ignorance, and vice;" conditions were not usually favourable in the work houses.