Daily Archives: August 1, 2015

The United Kingdom in the 1820s.


In 1820 George IV succeeded as king. He had been Prince Regent on and off for many years. He was not especially popular. His lack of thrift was notorious. He was rumoured to have married a widow named Mrs Maria FitzHerbert. Mrs FitzHerbert was a Roman Catholic. Anti-Catholic bigotry was widespread in the United Kingdom at the time. The Act of Settlement disbarred any Catholic or any person married to a Catholic from the succession to the Throne. However, all royal marriages require permission from the sovereign. Since George III had never authorised this marriage it was illegal. In spite of George IV’s love affair with Mrs FitzHerbert he was dead set against Catholic Emancipation.  George IV had long since fallen out of love with Mrs FitzHerbert by the time he inherited the Throne. He had none of this father’s strait laced nature. His prurience led him to affairs with several others.

The impetuous George IV matured little when he became king. He was still a man who embraced almost every vice from grossly irresponsible spending, morganatic marriage, alcoholism, gross feeding and drug abuse. He was suspected to take laudanum – a derivative of heroin which was then perfectly legal as a recreational drug. His dissolute lifestyle meant that by the time he became king he was extremely overweight and infirm. Some thought he was suffering porphyria like his late father. It became plain that his reign would be a mere stopgap before one of his brother’s inherited the Throne.

With trademark profligacy George IV organised an astonishing spectacular coronation. It cost 20 times what his father;s coronation had. It was typical of his quixotic nature to do this in a time of fiscal difficulty. He was not inclined to cut back despite the fact that extravagance would be a gift to radical orators.

George IV banned his wife Caroline of Brunswick from attending his coronation. His estranged spouse had dwelt in her native Germany for years. He detested his wife and she him. George IV began an ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to divorce her. Again this demonstrated his usual impulsiveness. Intermediaries could not succeed in inducing them to arrive at a compromise. He accused her of adultery. Attitudes were fairly relaxed about male heterosexuality but for a woman to commit unchastity was regarded as grossly iniquitous. Many felt that this allegation against Queen Caroline was bogus and she garnered much empathy from her own sex.

Many people felt that George IV was foolish to attempt this divorce. It dragged the monarchy’s reputation through the mud. The charges were unproven but nevertheless Caesar’s wife was no longer above suspicion.

The death of a monarch required a general election in those days. One was held. The Tories were returned with the Earl of Liverpool as Prime Minister again.

Many Latin American countries became independent. The UK was eager to see this come about. British diplomatic pressure told on Spain. The United Kingdom also traded with rebel republics despite Madrid warning the British not to because this was helping the rebels. The Spanish Navy was no match for the Royal Navy and the Spanish knew it. This is why Spain took no action against the UK. She was having enough trouble struggling to suppress independence movements. Whilst Spain retained vast domains in the Americas there was always a chance that the Spanish might start ruling effectively. Spain was still a potential superpower. With the lost of most of her colonies Spain was no longer a credible rival. These new republics were grateful for British assistance. They were also excellent trading partners.

The United Kingdom’s foreign policy was still handled by Viscount Castlereagh. He has gone down in history as one of the UK’s ablest Foreign Secretaries. He was in the habit of picking up street walkers. On one occasion he brought a prostitute home and got into bed with her. Only then did he discover that she was in fact a he. Lord Castlereagh was then preoccupied with the thought that he would be blackmailed for alleged sodomy which was a death penalty offence. He could not live with the shame. He cut his throat. At that time sodomy was punishable by death. This was no idle threat. In one year more men were executed for ”the most detestable act of buggery” (as the statute put it) than murder – that was 1812. J Enoch Powell later wrote an academic paper on it.

The new Foreign Secretary was another son of Erin – George Canning.

In the early 1820s there had been much radical agitation in the United Kingdom. This was a carry over from the upsurge in reformist protest after the Napoleonic Wars. Radicals wanted Parliament to be overhauled so as to grant more men – or even all men – the right to vote. They wanted parliamentary divisions to be equal in population. They wanted the House of Lords to have its power reduced. They wanted to see the Corn Laws done away with. They wanted the Combination Act to be repealed. They wanted to see restrictions on the freedom of the press curtailed. The government resisted these demands with some difficulty. Tories were mostly against these demands. Some Whigs were radically inclined and all Whigs were receptive to at least some of these demands.

Some revolutionaries were committed to achieving their objectives by force. In 1820 several plotters were arrested at Cato Street in London. This was known as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Thistlewood was the ringleader. He and his confederates had planned to kill the cabinet as they cabinet dined at the house of one of their members. They would then establish a ”committee of public safety” such as had existed in revolutionary France to run the country. Radicals like the Cato Street Conspiracy were particularly exercised by the Six Acts and they were furious about the Peterloo Massacre.

Thistlewood and his co-conspirators were all hanged. The Cato Street Conspiracy like many such cabals was riddled with government spies.

In 1822 Shelley drowned at Leghorn, Italy. The radicals had lost one of their most vehement polemicists. The radicals also found new causes such as Greek Independence. Lord Byron went off to fight against the Ottomans and died of an illness while on campaign.  The generation of radical activists that had risen to maturity in the Napoleonic Wars was dying. As the economy improved in the mid 1820s this took some of the wind out of the radical sails.

In 1822 George IV went to Scotland. His visit to North Britain was organised by the most celebrated writer of the epoch – Sir Walter Scot. Scot was the sort of Tory after George IV’ s own heart. His romantic neo-mediaevalism evidenced in his novels and poetry imagined the sort of society that George IV hankered after. This chivalrous atavism was at odds with his very inglorious life. A series of choreogrpahed public events made the tour of Scotland a resounding success. No monarch had visited Scotland since 17th century. This was the event that more or less invented Highland dress. Much kudos accrued to the monarchy in Scotland because of this visit. George IV showing himself there did much to allay radical sentiment north of Hadrian’s Wall. Many things are named in his honour in Edinburgh such as George IV Bridge.



One of the rising stars of the Tory Party at the time was Sir Robert Peel. Peel was the son of a Midlands manufacturer. In modern terms the head of the family was a multimillionaire. Robert Peel had attended Harrow and then Christ Church, Oxford. At university he had covered himself in glory – graduating in Mathematics. Peel entered Parliament for the Irish seat of Cashel. He was against most of the people in the town having the vote because they did not own enough realty but also because they were Catholics.

Peel was appointed Home Secretary in 1822. The government was increasingly anxious about the rising tide of crime and radical agitation. This disorder was partly explicable by the fact that many soldiers and sailors had been demobilised at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The agricultural Revolution had meant many labourers were no longer needed on farms. They drifted into towns in search of work in manufactories, mills and mines.

There was much social dislocation. The villages were close knit communities. The church had often been a focal point of communal life. Squires – in the idyll – were kindly and father-like to their tenants. Factory owners were seldom like that to their workers. For the new industrial middle class it was all profit and loss. Factory workers could fall into a furnace or be trapped in a machine injuries and even deaths were common. Healthy and safety at work did not exist. This distressed some Tory paternalists such as Oastler and Sadler. They spoke of factory children being ”sacrificed on the altar of avarice without even the consideration shown to a negro slave.”

In London the upswing in crime was especially marked. There were many affrays. Parliament had previously examined the possibility of establishing a police force such had existed in France and some German states for centuries. Parliament concluded that a police force was incompatible with a free society. A police force would be corrosive of personal liberty. It was the sort of state agency that could be misused to quell permissible dissent and to bring in a dictatorship. It would resemble the army of Charles I. There was much vitriol directed at those who advocated the establishment of the police.

There were parish constables. These were men employed by the parish and paid out of parish rates (a local tax on property owners). Parish constables’ pay was abysmal and their performance was usually in line with this. They tended to be middle aged to elderly and unable to find other gainful employment. They were figures of fun. They sat in guard boxes at night and often feel akip. It was a wheeze for young rogues to come along and tip up a guard box with a slumbering constable in it. They were no match for tough criminals especially if the criminals were armed. They had almost no investigative skills or methodology. As criminal gangs became larger and slicker it was ever more difficult for these amateurish constables to cope. The speed of public transport and increased international travel made it easy for sophisticated criminals to evade arrest.

In the countryside if a crime was reported there was often a hue and cry. A shout would go out for all able-bodied men to pursue the suspected criminals. They would be apprehended by citizen’s arrest.

Prisons existed in every country and sizeable town. They were privately run. A governor was paid by the town or county to run the prison and how he did it was up to him. He had to pay for the upkeep of prisoners out of his salary. Therefore it made sense for him to run it with as much economy as possible. Prisoners would be fed as little as possible as rarely as possible. Wealthy prisoners were allowed to have food brought in, to have their own cell, wear their own clothes, have their own furniture and live with their wives and children. They could receive as many visitors as they liked for as long as they liked. Some professionals managed to practise their professions in prison. They had to pay the governor for the privilege of course. Poor prisoners were treated abominably. They were stuffed into dank cells without sanitation. Men and women were not separated. Men outnumbered women 20 to 1. Female prisoners were usually prostitutes. They were gang raped by the male prisoners. Prisoners often died quickly of infectious diseases, lack of hygiene and malnutrition.

Peel reformed prisons. They would no longer be run for profit. They would be His Majesty’s Prisons. There would be uniformed prison officers. There were prison regulations. Prisoners were to be treated the same regardless or rank of wealth. They would be fed, kept clean, required to wear a uniform and do prison work. Visits and letters were limited. These could be suspended in the case of misbehaviour. Men and women would be kept apart. All this cost the state money whereas previously it had not.

Peel began to see the need to set up a police force. When he was Secretary of State for Ireland there had been a Peace Preservation Force.

The crime situation became so grave that in 1822 Parliament was persuaded to pass the Metropolitan Police Act. The Police of the Metropolis was only for London because London was regarded as being exceptional. Its huge and growing population, its political importance and its frequent outbreaks of agitation and politically actuated crime made it exigent that the police should be founded in this city.

The police would wear a uniform and carry a truncheon. It was decided that they would not have firearms. Guns would militarise them and mean that criminals raised guns more often. There was no need to raise the stakes. There were no gun licences in those days so this decision not to arm the police is even more significant than it at first appears. The police were to be reputable men who by their conduct earned the respect of the populace. The police soon gained in experience and developed a system of training new officers. They learnt special techniques to deter and detect crime. The crime level in the United Kingdom started to fall considerably. The police became adept at handling crowd situations. There was no repeat of the Peterloo Massacre. The police must operate on an unmercenary basis. They were adequately paid and bribery was forbidden. It had been rife amongst impecunious parish constables who sometimes even assisted thieves.



In Ireland there was a noisy and ever growing movement for Catholic Emancipation. The Roman Catholic community in Ireland comprised over 70% of the population. Outside of Dublin and eastern Ulster this Catholic majority was even higher. Those who wished to see Catholics granted the right to become Members of Parliament formed an organisation called the Catholic Association. The Catholic Association despite its name was open to people of any religious denomination so long as they agreed with the aims of the organisation. The leader of the Catholic Association was a Kerry barrister named Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell came from a land owing Catholic family that had evaded the penal laws by having its land nominally owned by a Protestant friend. Daniel O’Connell had been educated in France and he had witnessed the Revolution there. This imbued him with a lifelong loathing for violence. He was passionate about reform and very much against revolution. He had even enlisted in the militia in 1798 to prevent revolution in Ireland.

The Earl of Liverpool was against permitting Roman Catholics to sit in Parliament. Catholics were excluded by the Test Act. This test did not mean a written examination. It meant and oath to attest one’s belief in the established church. To become an MP or to serve in the House of Lords one had to take an oath that was designed to be unacceptable to Roman Catholics. It required the person swearing the oath to say that he believed that the King was the head of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Church of Ireland and the Pope had no authority in the British Isles.

Lord Liverpool argued that as the monarch was head of the churches established by law and Parliament controlled these churches it would be quite wrong to allow Catholics into Parliament. They would then control a church they detested and wished to abolish. Catholicism was associated in the minds of some with absolutism such as prevailed in many Catholic lands like Spain, Portugal, France and many Italian states. The same was true of many southern German states and Austria. This line of reasoning had some merit but overlooked times when Spain had had a Cortes and France an Estates General. Poland had an elected kingship and a Sejm (parliament) there were Catholic lands with parliamentary governments. Moreover, in some Protestant countries there was no link between the Reformed religion and parliamentarianism. In Prussia and many northern German states there was an absolute monarchy.

Anti-Catholic invective had declined a little in the 1820s. Catholic countries had recently been stalwart allies of the United Kingdom. These were Spain, Portugal, certain minor German states, some Italian states and Austria. Protestant ones such as Prussia, the United States and the Netherlands had been foes. The French aristocrats who had sought refuge in the UK had been Catholics almost without exception. They had been seen not to have horns. Those who purported that Catholicism was inimical to the British way of life did not make much sense.

Lord Liverpool did make some minor concessions to Catholic sentiments. He promoted Catholics to senior ranks in the army and the Royal Navy such as Catholics had not held since the time of James II.

As the Catholic Association became more popular and held more enormous public meetings its demands became harder to resist. Many in Great Britain became convinced of the case for reform.

The issue of Catholic Emancipation was so divisive that Lord Liverpool agreed that his Cabinet would suspend collective cabinet responsibility on this one issue. On all other issues they must speak with one voice. They must publicly defend government policy on all other issues. Anyone who found any aspect of government policy unconscionable must resign forthwith. However, on Catholic Emancipation the Cabinet ministers would be permitted to speak for or against. In this way be maintained a united cabinet. Those who supported allowing Catholics into Parliament were called ”Catholics” despite the fact that they all belonged to the Anglican Church of the Church of Scotland. Those who were against allowed Catholics into Parliament were known as ”Protestants.”

In 1827 Lord Liverpool’s wife died. Liverpool himself fell ill and suffered a stroke. In April 1827 he resigned as Prime Minister and died the following year.

Lord Liverpool was succeeded by George Canning. Canning was a dashing Irishman who came from an upper class family that had fallen on hard times. As Canning himself said he was an Irishman born in London. The family’s finances were so straitened that his mother was obliged to take to the stage. This was regarded as deeply embarrassing for a family of his class. Women had only be allowed to act for a few decades. Actresses were little better regarded than prostitutes and many of them dabbled in both professions.

Canning’s affluent uncle came to the rescue. George Canning had attended Eton where he came into his own academically. His unmatched intellect propelled him to prominence and his enchanting oratory and remorseless logic swept  all debaters before him. He proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford. Christ Church was then THE college for aristocrats to attend. His tremendous grasp of the classics enabled him to compose some first class Latin poesy. Canning came down from Oxford and threw himself into both legal practice and Toryism with equal vigour.

Canning had been a staunch ally of Lord Liverpool for years. It was therefore no surprise that Lord Liverpool had advised George IV to appoint Canning as Prime Minister.

Canning was a moderate Tory. He was inclined to agree to Catholic Emancipation. Perhaps his Irishness made him well disposed to Catholic Emancipation since most of his countrymen were Catholics. On the other hand the Duke of Wellington was also Irish (and a former MP for Trim, Co Meath no less) took the opposite view. However, Canning would not agree to Parliamentary Reform. Tory Ultras considered Canning to be too liberal and refused to serve under him. Canning was obliged to bring some moderate Whigs into his Cabinet.

Canning caught cold at the funeral of the Duke of York. This lead to a rapid decline in his health. He died after a mere 4 months in office. He is often said to be the shortest serving Prime Minister. This is untrue since some Prime Ministers in the 1750s such as Earl Waldegrave served for just a few days.

Lord Goderich succeeded George Canning as Prime Minister in August 1827. It was three PMs in one year!

Viscount Goderich was a mild-mannered Old Harrovian. He was a Yorkshire land magnate of a calm disposition and temperate views. He was a compromise candidate. Some people had thought that George IV would appoint the first Whig Prime Minister in over 40 years. This was not to be. The Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel were both obvious candidates for the Premiership. However, their refusal to serve under Canning had done them no good. They were also left field. They were both dead against Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform. Both causes were starting to look inevitable. Lord Goderich had some Whigs in his cabinet like the previous two Premiers. These Whigs pressed him to bring in some limited reforms because these were desirable in themselves but also as a means of satiating reformist sentiment and thus reducing street protest.

Radical activity picked up in the late 1820s. This was partly owing to frustration at no change being made in a reformist direction and also due to another economic downturn. Viscount Goderich was not a convincing leader and had no clear idea how to respond. The Ultra Tories fulminated against him for not being outspoken in opposition to any modicum of reform. Whigs were irritated that he would not introduce some needed changes.

George IV was in a bad way. His health was failing just when the country needed a monarch of vigour and in possession of his faculties. His obesity had made him bed ridden. His mind was going. Some believed he had been struck down by porphyria which had incapacitated his father intermittently.

The Duke of Wellington – previously the darling of the Tory Ultras – began to intimate that perhaps some minor reforms might not be a bad idea. Indeed it was becoming reckless to disregard the loud public demand for reform. The consequences of not reforming might be violent revolution.

In January 1828 Viscount Goderich stepped down as Prime Minister. His career was for from over. He would serve in almost every cabinet for the next 30 years. He was to hold most senior posts in the British state.

George IV had lost confidence in Lord Goderich. Parliament had never had great confidence in him.

King George IV appointed the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister. The Duke of Wellington had been a national hero for his triumph over Napoleon. Since 1815 he had also become a hate figure for radicals. Wellington was notorious for his outright opposition to Parliamentary Reform and Catholic Emancipation. He was an Irishman and well aware of the Irish situation. His right hand man was Sir Robert Peel. Peel had been Member of Parliament for Cashel in Ireland and Secretary of State for Ireland. He understood Irish affairs and was lambasted by some as ”Orange” Peel – as in he was anti-Catholic.

The Tory Government repealed the Test and Corporation Act. These 17th century acts had discriminated against Protestants outside the established churches. There were oaths attesting one’s conformity to the established churches in order to enter Parliament or hold almost any public office such as a magistrate, an alderman (town councillor), mayor and so forth. The same went for officers in the army or navy. Nonconformists began swearing that the king was the head of the established churches because he was – it was a fact. It was not that they approved of any church being established and they were not saying that he was the head of their church. They were simply acknowledging the situation that the monarch was the supreme governor of the established churches. The old laws about receiving communion at least twice annually in the established churches had long since been abolished. The universities (there were only seven of them in the British Isles) also discriminated against nonconformists. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts relaxed this discrimination. The established churches maintained a privileged position. SOme Ultra Tories found such reforms unacceptable. But by making concessions to Nonconformist opinion the Tories prepared the ground for a concession to Catholic opinion.

Wellington was known as ”the iron duke” and not for his iron will as a soldier. Radicals kept smashing the windows of his home – Apsley House, also called Number One London. The duke was obliged to put iron shutters on his windows because people had smashed his windows in protest so many times.

Both Peel and the Duke of Wellington were beginning to reassess their bedrock beliefs.

Peel and Wellington looked at the rising tide of demonstrations with alarm. They had intelligence reports of people planning violent revolution. The newly formed police kept arresting conspirators.

Ireland was convulsed by the Clare by-election. Daniel O’Connell thrice bested William Vesey-FitzGerald. Vesey-FitzGerald had had to resign his seat and seek re-election because he had been appointed to the cabinet. The people of Clare kept electing O’Connell a Catholic knowing that he could not serve as a Member of Parliament – unless he took an oath that was repugnant to the Catholic conscience. Ironically, Vesey-FitzGerald (a Protestant) agree with Catholic Emancipation.

O’Connell was hailed in glowing terms. ”He is the George Washington, he is the Simon de Bolivar of Ireland. Instead of saying God be with you people say O’Connell be with you.” O’Connell’s mesmeric personality and powerful oratory meant that he could enchant thousands at what the pressed called monster meetings.

Hundreds of thousands of people were members of the Catholic Association. The mood was turning uglier. SOme hotheads in Ireland spoke of rebellion. Catholic Emancipation could not be long resisted.

Peel wrote to Wellington. Peel reiterated his view that Catholic Emancipation was perilous but it had some to the stage when refusing it was even more perilous. Therefore the right course of action was to agree to Catholic Emancipation.

In April 1829 Parliament voted through Catholic Emancipation. Both Peel and Wellington voted for it. This led to uproar from Ultra Tories. They denounced the duke and Sir Robert as Judases.

In Ireland the situation immediately calmed considerable. People were overjoyed and O’Connell was hailed as The Liberator.

There were limits to Catholic Emancipation. Roman Catholics could hold every office except Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (commonly called Viceroy) and the most senior ranks in the army and navy. The bar on a Catholic succeeding to the Crown or being the consort of a monarch remained in force.

In Great Britain this move was pleasing to radicals. They generally looked with favour on Catholic Emancipation as an issue of egalitarianism. However, some of them had misgivings because they loathed the reactionary preachments of the Catholic episcopate. The fact that Catholic Emancipation had been granted by a hardline Tory Prime Minister was an immense fillip to radical morale. If a Tory administration could be frightened into allowing this change it could also be frightened into granting Parliamentary Reform. Pittites had been longstanding supporters of Catholic Emancipation. Many Whigs had come around to this position. Only some particularly bigotted Whigs opposed it in 1829. There was a rump of the Whig Party that was partial to Nonconformists – i.e. Protestants who were not part of the established churches. (The established churches being the Church of Ireland, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England) The Whigs who were most sympathetic to Nonconformists tended to be most unsympathetic towards Catholics. The Nonconformists (also called Dissenters) were those who were members of the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Plymouth Brethren, the Peculiar Brethren and so on.