Unrest in Britain 1774 - 1819

The problem of the monarchy and the American Revolution

During the years 1774-1819 social and political uncertainty affected the country at every level:

  • King George III (1738-1820), who had come to the throne in 1760, suffered intermittent periods of mental illness, and after 1811 was permanently incapacitated, at which point his son (later George IV) became Prince Regent. The King's instability inevitably had its effect on government and his behaviour was sometimes wayward and unpredictable, leading to a degree of political instability

  • During the reign of George III, the American Revolution of 1774 took place. Under the slogan ‘No taxation without representation', the demands of the colonists drew further attention to the shortcomings in the English system of government, and for many English radical thinkers, the Revolution and America's independence in 1776 represented the promise of change in the home country.

The French Revolution and government anxiety

The French Revolution and the subsequent civil conflicts caused alarm in the British government. It was clear that the population of Paris – usually described in England as ‘the mob' – had played a key part in overthrowing the establishment. Conscious of the volatile nature of the London crowd and the first signs of working-class political organisations, including the earliest Trades' Unions, the government acted in various ways to repress the expression of political dissent:

  • In 1798 the government extended its control over newspapers

  • In 1799 and 1800 the Combination Acts limited the power of industrial workers to make collective demands on their employers

High food prices and the economic effects of the French wars led to food riots and other kinds of social unrest in 1800 and 1801, heightening anxiety about the possibility of major political conflict and leading to repressive measures being taken at any sign of popular unrest.

The French Wars

Government and popular feelings about France were exacerbated by the French Wars, which lasted for over twenty years. France first declared war on Britain in 1793 and although the Peace of Amiens brought a Napoleonpause in the conflict, fighting was resumed in 1803 and continued until 1815. Fears of a French invasion of Britain were prevalent throughout the next twenty years, and, indeed, French troops landed in Ireland in 1798. Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general who seized power in 1799 and declared himself Emperor in 1804, led his country in a series of wars that extended into the Middle East. He was planning an invasion of England in 1804-5, when he was defeated at the sea-battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His disastrous Russian campaign weakened his power and he abdicated in 1814 and was banished to the island of Elba. He escaped and returned to France and the French wars only came to an end with his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Moves to abolish slavery

During this period, the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade was the main issue that united rather than divided political and religious opinion, and the supporters of abolition were drawn from a wide range of political groupings and religious allegiances. It is important to remember that, throughout the eighteenth century in England, there was a wide-spread consensus in favour of slavery. The British had large investments in the Caribbean, where the sugar plantations depended upon slave labour. The same was true of the cotton plantations of the American South, which also traded with Britain. Yet the abolitionist movement developed very quickly in the last three decades of the eighteenth century, drawing its strength from:

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a Tory MP for nearly forty years and a deeply committed Evangelical Christian:

  • He founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787.

  • Over the next twenty years, he made several attempts to introduce a law banning the trade throughout the British Empire, and was finally successful in 1807

  • He then devoted his energies to the abolition of slavery itself but met strong opposition, largely for economic reasons. It was only in 1833, the year of Wilberforce's death, that an act abolishing the ownership of slaves in the British Empire was passed into law.

Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a supporter of abolition and is a good example of how the campaign cut across established opinion. In both religious and political terms, Wollstonecraft was very distant from Wilberforce and his closest associates, but her belief in liberty and human dignity made her sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

Popular unrest: the Luddites and Peterloo

LudditesHand-workers in trades such as weaving felt threatened by the introduction of new machinery and from 1811 machine-wrecking riots took place in the Midlands and the North of England. The rioters became known as Luddites (because public documents attacking the introduction of machinery were signed ‘King Lud' or ‘Ned Lud') and their activities continued until 1818. The government reacted by imposing severe penalties on convicted rioters and machine-breakers. Both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were sympathetic to the Luddites and the grievances of the hand-workers, and Byron made a speech on their behalf in the House of Lords in 1812.

In 1819, a peaceful crowd gathered in St. Peter's Field in Manchester to listen to Henry Hunt speak about political reform:

  • The local militia attempted to seize banners carried by some members in the crowd

  • The cavalry were ordered to charge

  • Eleven people were killed and four hundred injured

The incident became known as Peterloo and it led to the passing into law in the same year of the Six Acts, which placed yet further restrictions on the press and the right to public assembly.

The Luddites and Peterloo are only the best-known examples of popular unrest in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

  • in 1800 and 1801 there were food riots and other protests at the economic hardships caused by the French wars.

  • for similar reasons rioting broke out in East Anglia and the manufacturing area of northern England in 1816.

  • there was further unrest in 1817.

A Poor Relief Act in 1819 seemed to acknowledge the existence of a genuine problem and alleviated some suffering. Generally, however, the official response to popular protest during this period is one of fear and repression, deriving in part from the spectacle of events in France, but intensified by the ways in which the increasing industrialization and urbanization of England were leading to the emergence of new political allegiances.

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