Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Palmerston: Foreign Secretary, Liberal imperialist


Lord Palmerston engraving
Public domain


If the 1840s was Peel's decade, the following decade belonged to  Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s Whig government and later Prime Minister.


Early career

Palmerston was the eldest of five children of the 3nd viscount. He inherited his peerage in 1802 at the age of seventeen, and as it was an Irish peerage, he always sat in the Commons. The family owned East Sheen in London, Broadlands in Hampshire and 10,000 acres in County Sligo. The name of the title was taken from the village of Palmerston on the family estates outside Dublin. 


Although he is always seen as a Victorian politician, intellectually and culturally he was a product of the Georgian age. He was educated first at Edinburgh University and then at St John’s College Cambridge, where he identified himself as a supporter of Pitt the Younger. In the general election of 1807 he contested Pitt's old seat, Cambridge University. He lost, but on the following day he was returned for Newport, a pocket borough on the Isle of Wight. However, he sat for the university from 1811 to 1831.


In 1809 he became secretary at war (a non cabinet post) in Spencer Perceval's Tory government. He continued to serve as secretary for war in the administrations of subsequent prime ministers, George Canning, Viscount Goderich and the duke of Wellington. But he resigned from Wellington’s government in May 1828 over its refusal to allow even moderate parliamentary reform. After twenty years of being continuously in government, he now found himself on the opposition benches. From being a Tory he became a Whig.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Sir Robert Peel: turncoat or statesman? (1)

'Sir Robert Peel', by 
William Pickersgill
Public domain

The age of Peel

The Reform Act of 1832 had given the vote to more middle-class people and enfranchised great industrial cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. In the long term this was  a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. The working classes were still disenfranchised, and the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role which only ended with the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Most nineteenth-century prime ministers sat in the Lords. There were, however, some notable exceptions.

The dominant politician of the 1830s and 1840s was Sir Robert Peel and some historians have described the period as 'the age of Peel'.  Unlike most Victorian politicians he came from a manufacturing background. In his lifetime he became hugely controversial. His most significant achievement was to modernise the Tory party in the wake of its stunning defeat in 1832, but having built up his party, he proceeded to destroy it when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. 


Early career

Peel was the son of the calico printer, Sir Robert Peel, who had been made a baronet and become a member of Parliament. Peel the younger entered Parliament in 1809 as member for the Irish seat of Cashel and at a time when party divisions were hardening, he identified with the Tories. In 1812 he became Chief Secretary for Ireland and in the election of that year he acquired a new seat, Chippenham, Wiltshire. (Note: nineteenth-century politicians chopped and changed their seats with a frequency that would be unthinkable today!)

Sir Robert Peel: turncoat or statesman? (2)

Sir Robert Peel,
saviour and destroyer of his party

Peel's triumph? 

The 1840s should have been a triumphant decade for Peel. He had reformed his party after its defeat of 1832 and won the election of 1841.

There was however, a lurking problem.

  1. The Conservative vote was overwhelmingly agricultural and deeply committed to agricultural protection.
  2. Peel himself was increasingly in favour of free trade and his government's budgets saw a steady reduction in duties. Would the Corn Laws be next?


The Irish famine

It is usually believed that it was the Irish famine that converted Peel to free trade, but it is now clear that this simply provided him with an excuse. 

There are posts on this distressing and still controversial subject here and here
Scene at Skibereen, Cork, 1847

By the autumn of 1845 Ireland  was facing a great social and humanitarian catastrophe. On 15 October, Peel wrote to the Lord Lieutenant that the only practical remedy was 
‘the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food - that is the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence’.
But this was not the real issue. Cheaper bread was not the answer to the immediate problem. The Irish could not afford to buy any bread. The only thing that could save them was food relief on a massive scale. The Corn Laws were therefore an irrelevancy.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Queen Victoria's Hindustani diary

Osborne House has a fascinating display focusing on Queen Victoria's relationship with Abdul Karim, the munshi, who tutored her in Hindustani. You can view it here.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in 1859
by Winterhalter
Public domain


Why Victoria?

Victoria would never have existed but for the death in childbirth of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, in November 1817. Her totally unexpected death created a succession crisis. One by one the Prince Regent's brothers discarded their mistresses and looked for wives in an effort to provide a legitimate heir.

In 1817 Edward duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, abandoned his long-standing mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and began to pay court to Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoire was the thirty-year-old widowed elder sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Princess Charlotte's widower. She already had two children, Carl, Prince of Leningen, born 1804 and Fedora, born 1807.

When Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819, her birth went virtually unnoticed. It was by no means certain that she would inherit the throne, as her father had three elder brothers and her parents’ next child might be a son. She was baptised Alexandrina Victoria after her godfather, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and her mother, and in her early childhood was known as ‘Drina’. For a while both names were thought unacceptably foreign.

When she came to the throne with the death of William IC in May 1837, Britain had its first female sovereign since the death of Queen Anne in 1714. One immediate and significant result was the severing of the link with Hanover, which did not allow female succession.


Albert: uncrowned king?

In February 1840 Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The engagement had brought into the open the problems of defining the status of the consort of a reigning queen. The precedents were not happy: Philip of Spain, the husband of Mary I, had been deeply unpopular, and George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, had been a nonentity. The queen reluctantly accepted the advice of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, that Albert should not receive the title of King Consort.
It was not until 1857 that he was given the title of Prince Consort.


Victoria and Albert in 1854

Faced with the discouraging precedents, Albert had to carve out a role for himself. He proved a highly interventionist consort. Victoria's nine pregnancies gave him the opportunity to take on many of her duties, and the two of them worked together at their despatches at adjoining desks. When Sir Robert Peel was struggling for his political life in January 1846, Albert went to the Commons to lend him moral support – retrospectively, a very partisan gesture. He was never popular, and even his key role in the Great Exhibition was controversial.

Had he lived, his political role might have created problems for the monarchy.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Anti-Corn Law League

A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League
in London, 1846
This movement achieved a more important place in national life than any previous radical body. Unlike the Chartists, it represented the interests of an urban middle class. Unlike them, too it was well funded and had precise and limited objectives. 

The Corn Laws were a generic term for a whole system of legislative protection of agriculture. In 1815 there was a prohibition on the import of foreign agricultural products until the price at home reached a high figure (80s a quarter in the case of wheat). In 1828 this absolute prohibition was replaced by a sliding scale of import duties. This legislation was not solely dictated by class interests – there was also the desire to be independent in time of war.

However there was a strong body of opinion opposed to legislative protection for agriculture. In 1830, Ebenezer Elliott, the Sheffield ‘Bard of Free Trade’ published his Corn Law Rhymes

At first this opposition was local and sporadic, but the situation changed in the depression of the late ‘30s when food prices rose. Elliott declared: 
It was born ‘of empty pockets in a respectable neighbourhood’. 
Manufacturing free traders could argue that the Corn Laws had damaging effects throughout the economy: British workmen would agitate for higher wages, which would be spent on food rather than on manufactured goods. The only beneficiaries would be the aristocracy.  

In 1836 an Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London, but it lacked unity of purpose and effective leadership.  However, after the 1837 election the Corn Laws moved to the top of the agenda, not because of the politicians but because, with the onset of an acute manufacturing depression, the cause attracted support in the country.  The topic was brought annually before the Commons by Charles Villiers, Radical MP for Wolverhampton. But the Whig government refused to support him. Melbourne was against any more radical change and declared ‘before God’ that to leave the whole agricultural interest without protection was 
‘the wildest and maddest scheme that has ever entered into the mind of man to conceive’. 

The Chartists


Above is a fascinating early photograph depicting the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April, 1848.

There are some useful web sites on Chartism.

In 1839 Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet Chartism stated,
‘a feeling very generally exists that the condition and disposition of the working classes is rather ominous at present; that something ought to be said and something ought to be done, in regard to it.’
The Chartist movement was the first radical working-class (as opposed to artisan) movement in Britain. It was born out of several factors:
  • The tradition of articulate politically conscious artisan radicalism in London with the encouragement of radicals among the higher classes. This can be dated back to the agitations of the 1770s and was greatly reinforced in the 1790s with the foundation of the London Corresponding Society, the publication of Rights of Man and radical post-war publications such as the Black Dwarf.
  • The increase in radical agitation in the 1820 and 30s. In 1824 a group of working men founded the London Mechanics Institute. These included Henry Hetherington (1792-1849) a radical printer and Owenite socialist and the Cornish cabinet-maker William Lovett (right) (1800-1877). At the height of the Reform Bill agitation in 1831 they founded the National Union of the Working Classes to spearhead the working-class campaign for a real reform bill.
  • The war of the unstamped. Hetherington’s most famous publication was the Poor Man’s Guardian, issued from 31 July 1831 as a periodical in defiance of the Stamp Act (thereby risking imprisonment). Shortly afterwards he was joined by a young Irish lawyer James Bronterre (‘Inebriate’) O’Brien who edited the paper and rapidly established himself as the foremost theorist of working-class radicalism. Led by the Guardian, the unstamped press flourished in London and the provinces, feeding working-class radicalism. In 1835 the stamp was reduced to 1d - this was still too expensive for working-class pockets. The battle over the stamp led to the setting up of a network of organizations and a chain of command that could be revived when the occasion required it.
  • The industrial revolution and the economic and social problems of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. The heartland of Chartism was not London (the site of much previous radicalism) but industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire, though it was a movement of industrial outworkers rather than factory operatives.
  • The ‘great Whig betrayal’. The post-1832 borough franchise disenfranchised many who had previously had the right to vote under the very varied borough franchises of the old system. Along with this went resentment at practically everything the Whigs did between 1830 and 1841, in particular the Poor Law Amendment Act.
The most important aspect of the legacy of the 1830s to Chartism was the sense of unity and purpose built up by a multiplicity of grievances that created a new, radicalized working class presence in the industrial areas. It was symbolized in the formation in June 1836 of the 'London Working Men’s Association for benefiting ... the useful classes’. Behind it lay the belief that social evils were due to bad legislation and were curable by parliamentary reform. In 1836 the LWMA published The Rotten House of Commons, being an exposition of the present state of the Franchise. Bronterre O’Brien argued:
'Knaves will tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you on the contrary, it is because you are unrepresented that you have no property. Your poverty is the result not the cause of your being unrepresented.’


The Peoples’ Charter

The idea of a people’s ‘Charter’ was rooted in the myth of Magna Carta which was held to have been a statement of popular rights against the arbitrary authority of the king. It also referred to the French Constitution of 1814. In May 1838 the People’s Charter was published, primarily the work of William Lovett and the radical tailor, Francis Place. It contained the Six Points


  1. manhood suffrage
  2. annual parliaments
  3. the ballot
  4. payment of MPs
  5. equal electoral districts
  6. the abolition of property qualifications for parliament
At a great rally in Birmingham on 6 August 1838 these arrangements were formally adopted. Similar meetings were held throughout the country. The movement also had a newspaper, the Northern Star (founded 1837), published in Leeds and edited by the demagogue Feargus O’Connor (left), a new voice in the Chartist movement. By the end of 1838 the Northern Star (priced 4½d) was selling 50,000 copies a week.