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Reforms in Britain, 1870-1914

By 1870 Britain was the world's most industrialized and most urbanized power — with Germany and the United States not far behind. Victoria's monarchy was restricted by Parliament and politics was dominated by two parties: the Conservatives (Tories) and the Liberals (Whigs). The Reform Act of 1832 had given the middle classes the vote, and the middle classes benefitted. The middle classes replaced the political control that had long been exercised by the aristocracy, and the historian Walter E Houghton (1904-1983) was to write that "once the middle-class attained political as well as financial eminence, their social influence became decisive.")

Respectability was big with the middle-class: trust in business dealings, avoidance of a wastrel lifestyle, reckless gambling and heavy drinking, observing the Sabbath, responsibility, discipline in the home, self-examination and attention to the continuing need of personal self-improvement.

But alongside Christian reverence, doubts about the accuracy of the Old Testament had been growing. Disbelievers call themselves "freethinkers" or "secularists." They were interested in progress through science and in measuring and discovering solutions to social problems. Among them was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Another was Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890), a leader in urban sanitation and public health and instrumental in establishing the English Poor Laws system (to be replaced by the welfare system that followed World War II).

Into the 1860s, social problems persisted. Populations were increasing and people were crowding into urban areas such as London, living in small rooms in tenement buildings, with a shared water pump and outhouses. The PBS drama Victorian Slum House describes them as seeking "to make a living by matchbox making, wood turning and the rag trade, work once done by their impoverished forebears."

There was the Reform Act of 1867, introduced by the conservative Benjamin Disraeli (Prime Minister in 1868) and supported by Liberals. The Act extended the vote to common workers: adult male householders in towns and cities and adult males there paying at least a minimum amount of rent as lodgers. It gave to industrialized areas that had been unrepresented in Parliament a new representation.

In 1870 there was the Education Act that set up school districts, with primary schools to be built in areas where one did not already exist. The local school board had the right to compel children to attend these schools and to charge a nominal fee. By 1874 over 5,000 new schools had been founded.

Meanwhile, William Gladstone (the liberal prime minister between 1868 and '74), opened enrollment at Oxford and Cambridge universities to Catholics, Jews, and non-believers. Also he abolished the sale of army office commissions, ended imprisonment for debt, replaced the patronage system in civil service with competitive examinations, legalized labor unions, and he freed Ireland's Catholics from having to support Protestantism's Anglican Church of Ireland.

In 1872 there was the Secret Ballot Act which historian Marjorie Bloy (The Victorian Web) writes "greatly reduced the power of Landlords in determining the outcome of elections." Nevertheless when recession came in the 1880s and piece workers were receiving less money for their work, the landlords didn't adjust their rents downward. And in Ireland, British landlords described as "greedy" were evicting poor Irish farmers, and these Irish were flocking into London's slums.

While the poor — adults and children — were working 12 hours per day doing piecework, many who were better off still believed that the working poor were the victims of their own behavior: laziness, alcoholism or wasting the money that they had. There was the belief that markets determining wages and other circumstances regarding employment was the natural order of things, that government had no business trying to regulate matters, that some people had it better than others simply because they were superior. But journalism was beginning to make those who were better off more aware of the realities faced by the working poor, and attitudes were beginning to change.

BBC History Magazine writes of slum clearance schemes in central London between 1878 and 1899. The slum clearing,

led to 45,334 men, women and children being evicted. Those, at least, are the official figures; the real numbers may be much higher, because it was in the slum landlord’s interest to evict as many people as he could before the official valuation of his property – empty rooms having greater letting potential than houses filled to the rafters. There is no figure for those thus ‘winkled out’, but even the official number is huge – equivalent to the population of Rotherham in the 1890s.

The plight of people in rural areas was also addressed. In 1884 another Reform Act gave poor farmers and laborers in the countryside the vote and established "one man, one vote" for males over 25.

According to A Web of English History "The period of conservative governments between 1895 and 1905 had meant a slowing of reform.

In 1900 it was estimated that 30% of the population lived on the edge of starvation. There were also great inequalities of income and wealth.

women were complaining. The issue of votes for women remained. In 1906 there were those known as the suffragettes agitating for the vote for women and for other women's rights.

The Liberals had returned to power in 1905 (until 1922), and the Web of English History writes:

In 1908 a pension of five shillings was introduced for those over 70. This reform was of great significance as it freed the pensioners from fear of the workhouse.

To pay for welfare benefits, the Liberals increased taxes on the rich. This was resisted by the conservative House of Lords, and its rejection of the 1909 budget led to the Parliament Act, which ended the House of Lords having the power to veto legislation rising in the House of Commons.

By 1910 the trade union movement was growing in Britan, and there was concerned that unless conditions improved workers might turn to rebellion. The economies of Germany and the United States were catching up with Britain's, and there were liberals in Britain impressed with Bismarck's social legislation. In 1911 the National Insurance Act was introduced, which provided insurance for workers in time of sickness (twenty years after similar legislation in Germany). In Britain, unemployment benefits were provided to workers in some industries (shipbuilding for example).

In 1912, coal miners strikes were followed by Parliament creating the Coal Mines Act, which gave minimum wage protection to coal miners. In 1913, five additional wage boards were set up that covered hollow ware making, shirt making, sugar confectionery and food preserving, tin box making, and linen and cotton embroidery, along with a portion of the laundry industry.

In 1914, Local Authorities received grants from the government to provide maternal and child welfare services.

CONTINUE READING: Overseas Empire at the Beginning of 20th Century

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