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Child Labor In The Victorian Era Essay

, Research Paper

The earliest and most persistent movement for social reform concerned child labor. Children formed an important component of the industrial labor force because employers could pay them lower wages. From a very young age they worked the same hours as their parents in the same difficult conditions. Parliament first limited the hours children could work in textile factories in 1833, following a public outcry over a parliamentary inquiry into working conditions for children. The law prevented children under nine years of age from working more than nine hours per day. In 1842 a law extended this protection to children working in mines.

Limitation of the hours that children worked fed naturally into the movement for child education. In the 1860s less than one in seven British children had any formal education, and literacy was declining. Elementary schools were operated by private individuals or religious societies and were financed by charitable donations, personal grants, or fees paid by students. The Education Act of 1870 mandated that local districts establish public schools supported by local taxes. An act of 1881 finally made education compulsory for children aged five to ten.

Another area of reform centered on improvements in public health and in living conditions, particularly in the crowded industrial towns. Social reformer Edwin Chadwick was the primary leader in establishing boards of health, creating standards for drinking water, and overseeing the construction of effective sewage disposal systems. Social legislation aimed at improving safety and sanitary conditions in the workplace also made headway in the general movement for social reform.

Trade Unions The most significant issues for workers, such as wages, hours, and working conditions, could only be addressed by organizations of workers themselves. Efforts at trade union organization went back to the late 18th century, but they were isolated and sporadic until socialist Robert Owen founded the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1833. Although this experiment quickly failed, it raised the prospect of a national organization of all workers.

In 1868 leaders of individual unions formed a Trades Union Congress to coordinate action among the unions, even though the formation of unions was illegal at the time. Up to that time, only highly skilled workers such as engineers had formed successful unions and bargained collectively. In 1871 the government formally recognized the existence of unions and their right to strike, although picketing remained illegal. In addition, the responsibility of unions for the acts of their members continued to threaten their financial existence. A strike by London dockworkers in 1889 secured an incontestable victory for the labor movement. Despite the use of nonunion workers and threats from the police and the government, dockworkers held firm until they won a minimum wage. Following the strike, the labor unions became a force in British politics. At the beginning of the 20th century, representatives from unions and other labor organizations formed the Labour Party to secure the election of politicians sympathetic to labor issues. During the 20th century Labour emerged as one of the two major political parties in Britain.

To protect the interests of landlords, Parliament passed the Corn Laws of 1815, which placed taxes on imported grain. The repeal of the income tax in 1817 benefited merchants and manufacturers. At the same time, however, Parliament shifted the major burden of taxes onto commercial and industrial businesses, whose owners were largely unrepresented in Parliament. The poor resented new taxes passed on consumption goods such as tea, beer, tobacco, and sugar, which were the few luxury items in their lives.

There was increasing sentiment for radical reform among leading intellectuals. The ideas of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who in his philosophy of utilitarianism preached that the aim of government should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number, were particularly influential. Romanticism in poetry-led by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron-stressed natural freedom over the constrictions of the traditional world. There were only two real areas of progress in these years, however. The first was the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833. The second was in matters of religion. In 1828, under increasing pressure from dissenters (Protestants who were not members of the Church of England), Parliament repealed the Test Acts. These acts had barred dissenters from working in government jobs and the professions, and from attending universities. In the following year, after a long struggle in Ireland, Parliament removed the legal restrictions that had prevented Catholics from holding public office in the United Kingdom. The issue of Catholic emancipation was so divisive that it split the Tory Party.

With the Tory Party divided, the Whig government of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, took office in 1830. Grey’s government finally instituted parliamentary reforms that restructured the outdated electoral system. Prior to Grey’s reforms, only voters who owned sizable areas of land in a patchwork of districts created during medieval times could elect members to the House of Commons. This system denied the vote to merchants, manufacturers, and skilled laborers who did not own land. Regions that had been prosperous hundreds of years earlier were overrepresented in Parliament while many new urban centers had no representation at all. Some parliamentary seats were virtually owned by individuals. One town represented in Parliament had disappeared under the sea.

G5Agitation for Political Reform The Reform Bill of 1832 was the first successful attempt to correct these inequities. Although the bill was a moderate compromise, it was defeated twice in the House of Lords; only when King William IV threatened to create a number of new Whig peers in the House of Lords was allowed to pass. The act decreased the amount of land one had to own to qualify to vote, especially in towns. It redistributed nearly one-quarter of the seats in the House of Commons, mainly from the agricultural southwest to the industrial northwest, but this was still far too few seats to reflect the redistribution of population. More than 250,000 adult males were added to the electoral rolls, but still only 20 percent now had the vote in England; the figure was 12 percent in Scotland, and 5 percent in Ireland.

The Reform Act of 1832 was a bitter disappointment to many radicals who had hoped for fundamental change. Social discontent in Britain came to mirror the country’s emerging class structure. The wealthy, who had been divided between landowners and capitalists, gradually merged into a single ruling class that dominated the government, the church, and the military. Birth and family connections combined to define its members, who attended elite public schools and universities. The middle classes, which had expanded greatly in the 18th century, now participated in the political process as a result of the Reform Act. Their values of tight-knit families, religious observance, and moral personal conduct were to characterize the coming Victorian era.

The working class became the outsider looking in. By far the biggest class, workers had few rights and little security. The ruling and middle classes looked upon the working class with suspicion and feared their numbers and their potential for violence. However, they also provided the leaders who agitated for reforms in working conditions, political rights, and economic justice that ultimately improved the lives of British workers.

Two important political parties emerged during the 1830s. The Whig faction in Parliament combined with a group of radicals to create the Liberal Party, which devoted its energy to government reform, free trade, and the extension of voting eligibility to a larger percentage of the population. The Conservative Party evolved as the successor to the Tory Party. The Conservatives were staunch supporters of the monarchy and championed the cause of imperialism.

In the mid-19th century two significant reform groups presented their programs to government: the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists. The Anti-Corn Law League championed free trade and advocated the removal of high taxes on imported grains. The Chartists hoped to expand political participation to members of the working class.

Agitation for repeal of the Corn Laws came from middle-class radicals who believed in free trade rather than protection. They argued that the Corn Laws only benefited rich landowners whose profits came at the cost of expensive bread for everyone else. The terrible potato famine in Ireland, which began in 1845 and killed nearly 1 million people, finally convinced Prime Minister Robert Peel to repeal the laws in 1846. The repeal split the Conservative Party, but it made Britain the world’s leading advocate of the principle of free trade.

Chartism championed the cause of workers by demanding that they receive full political rights. In imitation of the Magna Carta, which had secured the rights of the nobility from the Crown in 1215, the Chartists produced a People’s Charter. The charter advocated the extension of the vote to all adult males, the redistribution of parliamentary seats on the basis of population, and the use of the secret ballot. The Chartists presented their program to Parliament in 1839, 1842, and 1848. Each time Parliament decisively rejected it.

Eventually nearly all of the Chartist demands were met. The male electorate was doubled by the Reform Bill of 1867, which extended the vote to many men working in urban areas, and then tripled by the Reform Bill of 1884, which extended the vote to agricultural workingmen. Both bills furthered the redistribution of parliamentary seats, and the bill of 1884 virtually conceded that further reform must be made on the basis of population. The secret ballot was introduced in 1872. It was not until 1918 that all men and women received the vote.

HVICTORIAN ERA Queen Victoria ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. Her reign was the longest of any monarch in British history and came to be known as the Victorian era. As embodied by the monarchy, this era was represented by such 19th-century ideals as devotion to family life, public and private responsibility, and obedience to the law. Under Victoria, the British Empire expanded, and Britain became an increasingly powerful nation. As the country grew into an industrialized nation, the length and stability of Victoria’s reign gave an impression of continuity to what was actually a period of dynamic change.

H1Social Reform As the social consequences of industrialization became more apparent, so did the need for government oversight of working and living conditions in the mushrooming industrial cities. Many social reformers believed that government should restrict the influence of powerful individuals. Others believed in the philosophy of self-help. Self Help was also the title of a mid-century best-seller by social reformer Samuel Smiles. In this 1859 work, Smiles presented short, inspirational biographies of famous men and urged his readers to improve their own lives by following these examples.

The underlying belief of Victorian society was in progress-that things were better than ever before and could be made better still. This belief was the impetus for thousands of voluntary associations that worked to improve the lives of the poor both at home and abroad. It also underlay the charitable foundations created by wealthy benefactors and the public philanthropies of some of the greatest industrialists. Social experiments were conducted by individuals such as factory owner Robert Owen, who founded utopian communities in which wealth was held in common. Novelists such as Charles Dickens were ardent social reformers who brought the intolerable conditions of the workhouses and the factories to the attention of the public in their books. Dickens’s novels Oliver Twist (1837-1839) and Hard Times (1854) are examples of this kind of literature.