Monday, 23 May 2011

Cobbett and Dickens - Change in England

In this weeks lecture we discussed urban and rural England and how it developed; we also discussed the influential figures of the time (Cobbett and Dickens)

England’s economic stature grew after they became involved in the Napoleonic War in 1800. The implementation of income tax came in to affect in order to fund the war effort. The English inevitably succeeded ad the naval power became absolute in 1805 after all French Ports were blockaded which meant that the French were unable to export any goods. Therefore, England experienced a boom in exports and it came to a point where the British were actually supplying the French.

The Translantic Triangular Trade:

1) British ports send goods to Africa in return for slaves.

2) Slaves sent to America, and traded for cotton.

3) Cotton makes clothes that were then either sold on or sent to Africa for more slaves

This was beneficial to the British economy, but it became harder after the 1833 abolition of slavery act, although it did still continue.

The end of the war saw an end to the boom, and the British government had to do something in order to maintain and economic stability.

Corn Laws – A law, which put a tax on any, imported goods (grains)

What the Corn Laws done were protected the security of English farms, but for the poor who relied on cheap bread, it was bad, as it pushed many below the bread line. This led to extreme conditions in the slum areas of urban cities such as London and Manchester, and many people were falling victim to serious diseases such as Cholera. Anger began to mount against the lower class and this was something the government was fearful of, as they did not want to see a repeat of the French Revolution. They were therefore very brutal in putting down any from of revolt, and generally criminalized the poor. In most cases the government would have the revolting poor deported to places such as Australia, but their fear was shown at the Peterloo Massacre when 60,000 peaceful protesters were shown a barrage of violence after they criticized the fact that only 2% of citizens had the vote; 11 people were killed.

The government was seen as corrupt as it was made up of only the rich, who would have generally been happy with current situations; they were making money because of the Corn Laws and they were living in good conditions. The reform act of 1832 did set about changing this, but it only gave some middle class the vote, which meant it was still corrupt, as the working class still did not have a say. However, in fear of revolution the government had two choices: either pay workers more so they can afford bread, or repeal the Corn Laws so they could afford bread, the latter being the option they took.


Cobbett was extremely passionate when it came to farming and the rural lifestyle. He was extremely un-happy at seeing the majority of the countryside empty and he even argued that the population of England could not be growing, as he cannot see any people, but in fact it had doubled from 8.3 million to 17 million.

Enclosure – when a field would be divided up into common land, cattle would graze.

The landowners gave up enclosure, as they needed bigger fields in order to make way for new technology. This meant the farm workers had to go in search of other jobs that meant they had to migrate to the cities.

In 1830 Cobbett got into trouble for voting for the swing riots. These were riots that opposed the implementation of new technology on farms, therefore driving out the rural laborers.

Cobbett wrote the Rural Rides, which was first published at the political register. Cobbett went on horseback through the countryside of Southeast England and the Midlands in order to highlight the problems of rural England and how the relationship between landowner and worker had deteriorated. After the tax on newspapers meant that few people could afford them he created his works in to pamphlets, which were nicknamed 2-penny trash. It soon got a circulation of 40,000. In the majority of these pamphlets, Cobbett attacked the government and called for a reform, which he got into trouble for. He was tried and imprisoned in Newgate Prison for two years.

The rioting and opposition forced the government into a corner and again in fear of revolution, they implemented the Speenhamland system. This was a means tested system that offered some relief to the poor. It would work on the number of children to the price of bread. However, this was easily exploited by the idle poor and encouraged the poor to have more children. The government needed to implement something more full proof.

The Workhouse:

The Workhouse/Poorhouse was a stigmatized form of relief, which was offered as a ‘last resort’ for the poor. It came about in 1834 when the New Poor Law was implemented; meaning that no able bodied person was to receive any form of support from the government unless it was the workhouse. It would encourage the able bodied to find alternative work, as they made the conditions extremely vile. They would give you the bear minimum for food, money and health. It was divided into sections for children, men and women, and often children found themselves un-blocking heavy machinery, as their hands were the only hands small enough to fit. Jeremy Bentham, who we discussed in the first lecture, was fully supportive of this method, as he believed it to be the greatest good, for the greatest number.

The Andover Scandal:

The workhouse seemed to be a good idea, but it was often taken advantage of by the rich. The workhouse in Andover was put in the limelight when it was revealed that conditions were so poor that paupers were being starved, therefore eating peelings left for the pigs and sucking on the bones they were supposed to be grinding for fertilizer. Any body found misbehaving was also locked in the mortuary for punishment.

Dickens was somebody who attacked the New Poor Law reformation, something that we probably all know about from the famous ‘sir, can I have some more’ quote from Oliver Twist. Dickens was a fan of the life of a city dweller, and was also described as a Champion of the City. He loved the idea of a powerful and rich city, but he was appalled by the conditions of some of the slum areas. He believed that they were too overcrowded and ridden with disease and famine and by writing novels such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit he went about trying to influence the middle class into change, as it was this audience that had the power to change. Even though the lower classes would have agreed with Dickens a lot of them would not have the power to make changes, and the majority were illiterate anyway.

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