The 1850s opened with Ireland being depopulated. Ireland had been decimated by the Great Hunger. Much of the population had shifted to Great Britain. Penniless Irish people arrived in Great Britain especially in towns near the west coast. Anti-Catholic prejudice had far from disappeared. The transmigrants were overwhelmingly Catholic. The Irish transmigrants were met with some distaste by many of their compatriots. ”No Popery” was a traditional rallying cry of anti-Catholics.
Disraeli was struggling to make the Conservatives fit to govern. He was seen with some scepticism by some of his own party. There were some absurdly snobbish attitudes within the party and a leavening of prejudice towards those who ate unleavened bread. Disraeli’s Christianity did not entirely dispel the ethnic animus against him. Anti-Jewish sentiment must not be exaggerated. He was still leader of the Conservatives in the Commons. This was unthinkable in any other country at the time. A few of them regarded him as a plausible rogue. There is something to this attitude.
THE GREAT EXHIBITION
Prince Albert was eager than there be an exposition of the manufactures of the United Kingdom and several other countries. The Prince Consort also brought the Christmas Tree tradition with him from Germany. That is why a tannenbaum is seen in houses throughout the anglosphere. He did not invent the cock ring!
In 1851 the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations opened. It took place in Hyde Park, London. The nations showing their wares included India, the United States, Prussia, Russia, France and so on. It was the brainchild of Prince Albert.
An enormous glass pavilion was built to house it. It had live trees inside. A journalist dubbed this glass construction ”Crystal Palace.” The name stuck.
The improvements in transport had enabled many people to come to London. The railways transported hundreds of thousands of people to London.
This was to be the first World Expo. These are going to this day.
After the Great Exhibition was over the Crystal Palace was dismantled moved to Sydenham in South London. It was carefully reassembled. There is stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1938. Sydenham became known as Crystal Palace because of the building. A football team takes its name from that.
Prince Albert felt that the UK was behind Germany in education, science, technology, music and culture. He undertook to raise the British level in these sectors.
The Great Exhibition was rip roaring success. The proceeds from it were used to purchase land south of Hyde Park. This is where the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, Imperial College London, the Royal College of Music and Royal Albert Hall all now stand.
At the outset of the decade the Whigs were in office with Lord John Russell as Prime Minister.
In February 1852 Lord Russell fell as Prime Minister. The Earl of Derby became Prime Minister of a Conservative Government. Lord Derby had once been a Whig. In 1834 he had defected from the Whigs to the Conservatives and taken his supporters with him. This had been known as the Derby Dilly. In fact back then he had been Lord Stanley and only heir to the earldom but alliteration made this tag better.
Lord Derby’s government was known as the ”Who who” administration. The very elderly Duke of Wellington was part of it. By that time the Iron Duke had almost lost his sense of hearing. When the names were listed he asked ”Who?” to each one. However, it was also an accurate indication of how virtual unknowns were being appointed to the cabinet. Most of the intellectual wing of the Conservative Party had broken away with Peel. Most of the cabinet had never been ministers before. Disraeli was made Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was one of the few households names among the cabinet.
Lord Derby called a general election in June 1852. The result was inconclusive. Although the Conservatives emerged as the largest party they were well short of a majority. The Whigs, Peelites, Free Traders and Repealers held the other seats.
The minor parties refused outright to support the Conservatives. The Earl of Derby led a minority government. It limped on until December 1852.
In December 1852 the Whigs returned to office. In fact they were in coalition wit Free Traders( Peelites) and Radicals. This was the embryo of the Liberal Party. The Prime Minister was the Earl of Aberdeen. Lord Aberdeen was an old boy of Harrow and had gone on to St John’s College Cambridge. Like Lord Palmerston he had originally been a Tory. The Earl of Aberdeen had been a distinguished minister but then he had been know by the junior title Lord Haddo. As in the heir to the Earldom of Aberdeen is called Lord Haddo.
Lord Aberdeen was too easygoing and retiring to be an effective Prime Minister. His government was especially fractious in that it was comprised of three different parties. To some extent they were mutually antagonistic. It is surprising that his government lasted at all. If he had attempted to stamp his authority on it then perhaps it would have broken in sunder. The situation was aggravated by the fact that his cabinet, of necessity, contained Viscount Palmerston. Lord Palmerston was a jaunty and colourful figure. He made little secret of his ambition to be First Lord of the Treasury. The Foreign Office suited his vanity and vaulting ambition. He was something of a maverick and had a habit of announcing policy without getting the approval of the cabinet. Viscount Palmerston was a prima donna and this sorely tried the patience of the Prime Minister of the day.
In September 1852 the Duke of Wellington died. He was accorded a state funeral. The only non-royal person to have been granted this distinction before was Lord Nelson. Prince Albert suggested setting up a school in the name of the Iron Duke. This was done. Wellington College was founded in Berkshire with a view to training boys for the army. This is not to be confused with Wellington School which is in the town of Wellington in Somerset.
In 1848 there was a revolution in France. This warmed the cockles of radical hearts. Louis-Philippe had been ousted. In June 1848 there had been a mass shooting of protestors by General Cavaignac in Paris. On an unseasonably cold day socialist demonstrators had foregathered in the capital. 1848 was the year of revolutions. Cavaignac coughed and remaked ”ma sacree tough” – ”my damn cough.” The trouble was this was a homonym for ”massacre tous” – ”massacre all.” That was his explanation. Gen Cavaignac has been dubbed the Butcher of June. This did not stop him contesting the presidency – indeed it was the allure of his candidacy. Some of the propertied classes thought he had just what it took to keep the proletariat in order.
There was a tussle at Widow McCormick;s Cabbage Patch in Ireland. But for that the United Kingdom was peaceable. It was an astonishing contrast to the upheaval in Europe.
Railway building carried on apace in the 1840s. Each railway required an act of parliament. This involved much greasing of palms. Railway proprietors became very affluent indeed. Railways were far from universally acclaimed. Those who had operated stage coaches or canals recognised that their enterprises would be hit hard by trains. Moreover, some people saw trains as being noisy, dangerous, filthy and bringing immoral influences. When a railway was built near Eton the school had a clause inserted into the relevant Act of Parliament mandating the company to employ a sufficient number of persons to keep the boys away from it. Oxford and Cambridge Universities did not want railway stations in their towns. They did not manage to prevent railway lines being built to these places but they succeeded in having the stations sited further from the centre than they otherwise would. The main railway nexus of mid south England would have been Oxford. This is where the east-west and north-south lines would bisect. Instead it was sited at a village called Swindon after the Varsity used its political influence. Oxford University returned two Members of Parliament until 1950.
The 1849 Revolution in France had led to the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as President of France. He was the putative nephew of Napoleon I. Napoleon I was known as Napoleon the Great by some. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was supposedly the son of Louis Bonaparte – younger brother of Napoleon I. Louis Napoleon had briefly been King of Holland. However, this Louis was well known to be totally homosexual. It is wisely believed that Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was the son of one of his mother’s lovers and not her husband. For the sake of simplicity he shall be called Napoleon III from now on. Napoleon III came up with a mishmash of an ideology called Bonapartism. He wrote a tome ”The Principles of Bonapartism.”. His uncle and other relatives had had no coherent set of beliefs other than their own aggrandisement. He pretended to care for the poor and composed a book entitled ”The Extinction of Pauperism.” He had launched two farcical attempts to seizing power and spent two terms in gaol. 1848 provided this implausible generalissimo with his main chance.
In 1851 Napoleon III launched a coup d’etat. He declared himself dictator and then emperor. Viscount Palmerston immediately recognised the new regime without waiting for the say so of the cabinet. The British were worried that he would repeat the anti-British policies of his supposed uncle. At first he did all he could to allays such suspicions. In fact this was a mere postponement of Franco-British enmity. Napoleon III turned out to be run of the mill. He lacked his putative uncle’s genius or imagination. Louis-Philippe was granted asylum in the United Kingdom.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s putsch was lampooned by Karl Marx in his essay ”the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” 18th Brumaire was the month when Napoleon I had seized power. Revolutionaries still liked to use the French revolutionary calendar. In relation to Louis-Napoleon’s coup Dr Marx quoted an unnamed German philosopher, ”History repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
In 1852 the Earl of Aberdeen attempted to expand the franchise further. This met with the approbation of Radicals but few others. Lord John Russell – Finality Jack in 1832 – had changed his view. He wanted the 1852 Reform Bill passed. It was defeated partly because Viscount Palmerston led the Whigs to vote it down. The Tories were naturally against it.
Lord John Russell’s second ministry had to grapple with foreign policy. In 1853 Russia went to war against the Ottoman Empire. The United Kingdom had long seen Russia as a potential nemesis. Russia had a considerable navy. She was also outspoken in her ambition to smash the Ottoman Empire and seize Constantinople (Istanbul) control the Bosphorous. This would give her a warm water port. She wanted Middle Eastern territory. It was suspect that the Tsar had designs on India.
Romania was not a united country at the time. Wallachia (southern Romania) was part of the Ottoman Empire. Moldova was part of the Russian Empire. Transylvania was part of the Austrian Empire. Wallachia’s people were Orthodox Christians and mostly unhappy under Ottoman rule. In October 1853 Russia declared war on the Ottomans. Russian sank much of the Ottoman Fleet in the Black Sea. Russian troops pushed the Ottoman Army out of Wallachia.
France and the United Kingdom were for once seeing eye to eye on an issue. The French also disliked the idea of an overmighty Russia. Napoleon III joined the British Government in warning Russia not to advance further. The French had squabbled with the Russians over whether Catholic priests or Orthodox priests should be custodians of the holy places in Jerusalem. Napoleon III was trying to build a constituency for himself by posing as the protector of Catholicism. Furthermore, the Crimean War appealed to his buccaneering spirit. He would spend astonishing sums of money on this discretionary war. This made a nonsense of his claim to wish to assist the poor.
In February 1854 France, the United Kingdom and Sardinia declared war on Russia. This became known to the British as the Crimean War. This was because the French and British did almost all their fighting on the Crimean Peninsula. This is now part of the Ukraine but was then part of the Russian Empire. At first the war went well for the allies. The Royal Navy made short work of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. A Franco-British force landed and besieged Sevastapol. From cannon captured there Victoria crosses are made. Some superannuated British officers who had served in the Napoleonic Wars found it difficult to grasp that they were not fighting the French.
Then it all started to go wrong for the French and British. The men had insufficient winter clothes. Food arrived late and there was not enough ammunition. The medical services could not cope. Casualties mounted. A nurse called Florence Nightingale went to Constantinople and cared for British soldiers. She went around the wards with a lantern and became known as the Lady of the Lamp. Until then army nurses had been camp followers and often doubled as prostitutes. Florence Nightingale saw to it that they would have training and become respectable. She made sure Parliament knew about the fiasco and the situation was improved for soldiers. Men were dying needlessly. Florence Nightingale visited the British hospital at Scutari in Istanbul. To the Turks this district is Iskaduri. She was horrified by the lack of hygience or decent care. She was able to finance many of the improvements herself. One of the reasons that ministers agreed to see her and to implement her proposals is that she paid for many of them from her vast patrimony.
The Battles of Balaklava and the Inkerman exacted a high toll on the French and British armies. In fact the French committed far more troops than the British. This fact is much overlooked in the UK. Oddly there were no Indian soldiers on the British side. The Crimean War exposed much professional incompetence among the British officer corps. Officers were allowed to buy their commissions. This was easy on the exchequer but did not ensure promotion on the basis of merit and endeavour. There were some colossal cockups. The charge of the Light Brigade has passed into legend courtesy of Alfed, Lord Tennyson. ”There’s not to reason why, there;s but to do an die./ Into the valley of death rode the six hundred. Noble six hundred.”
The word balaclava comes from the Crimean toponym. In those gelid temperatures this piece of headgear was needful.
As the war was prolonged and the death toll rose public opinion faltered. People turned against this war. It was seen as avoidable and costly. The prospects for gain were meagre. The British showing in the war had been unconvincing. There were demonstrations against the conflict but an organised anti-war campaign was not formed. Partly owing to this the jaded Lord Aberdeen resigned. Viscount Palmerston was the new Prime Minister.
Viscount Palmerston was not at all moved by growing public disquiet. He was in his element when directing a war and marshalling an alliance. He was totally committed to outright victory. He planned audacious attacks on St Petersburg. Despite shore batteries and Kronstadt Island protecting the Russian capital he was convinced that the Royal Navy could demolish the city. Lord Palmerston rejected early peace proposals because the terms outlined seemed too mild.
However, the allies were in luck. Nicholas I died. His brother Alexander II inherited the Crown. He was more moderate and willing to make peace. Fatalities had been very high for Russia and the Russian economy could not afford to sustain the war. Austria then threatened to come in on the allied side. At that point Russia was obliged to sue for peace. The allies won.
The Peace of Paris retained Wallachia as a nominal portion of the Ottoman Empire. In fact the Romanians started to rule themselves. Neither the Ottomans nor the Russians were permitted to built defences on the Black Sea. As the Russians had trounced the Ottoman Fleet at the outbreak of the war this was a major setback for the Russians.
The British officers had been shown to be haphazard in their performance. People began to consider military reform. This was not fully implemented until the 1870s. In the meantime the commissariat and medical departments improved drastically because their shortcomings had been so apparent.
There were then over 100 Free Trade MPs. The Free Traders did not belong to either major party but were plainly inclined towards the Whigs. They mostly represented industrial towns in northern England. They took the repeal of the Corn Laws as their starting point. They wanted all tariffs to be scrapped. They believed the free trade would promote the common good and peace.
Most constituencies in Ireland were either represented by Conservatives or Whigs. The Repeal Association was abeyant. The Conservative or Whigs were Repealers in some cases and not in other cases. The situation in Ireland was very tranquil.
THE OPIUM WAR
Opium poppies were grown in India and many other countries. It could be turned into a drug to be used for palliative care. It could also be abused. It was legal to take it for recreational purposes.
British merchants sold it in the UK, China and many other places. The Chinese Emperor was anxious because many of his subjects had developed a dependency to this injurious substance. He outlawed it. The East India Company complained that this was damaging their trade. The British then declared an embargo on China.
Arrow was a British ship that was seized by the Chinese. The British Government alleged that the Union Flag was insulted when this ship was impounded. The Chinese commander in Canton refused to apologise. The Royal Navy fired on Chinese forts. The Chinese commander called upon the people of Canton to kill all Britishers. Britisher property was set light to. This led to the Second Opium War.
The United Kingdom went to war against China. Eventually the UK prevailed. Viscount Palmerston was a spirited supporter of this war. However, he was not in office to see it come to victory.
This was the era of gunboat diplomacy. It was an expression invented by Viscount Palmerston. As he told Parliament, ”We have no eternal friends and no perpetual enemies. We have only interests which are eternal and perpetual.” Lord Palmerston was a shameless advocate of a foreign policy driven solely by advantaging the country and not grounded on any ethical principles.
THE INDIAN MUTINY
On 10 May 1857 a mutiny broke out in India. This started at Meerut and soon spread to several barracks in north-east India. The Mughal Emperor resided at Delhi. His dynasty was so shrivelled that he was known as the King of Delhi. Mutineers scored some early successes and rallied around the King of Delhi Shah Bahadur.
The revolt broke out partly because of new greased cartridges. Word got around that the grease was from the fat of swine or cattle or both. It was forbidden for Hindus to eat beef and Muslims consider swine to be haram. There were deeper causes such as the annexation of Oudh and a fear that Christian missionaries would attempt to forcibly convert Indians. a rumour was abroad that all but 100 000 Britishers had died in the Crimean War.
The introduction of greased cartridges – though militarily sound – was a foolish move. There had been some unwise and insensitive policies. Soldiers who had refused to use the new cartridges had been awarded lengthy prison sentences. This was unduly stringent. The Mutiny could have been avoided by sager rule.
British civilians were often massacred. No quarter was given to British troops who surrendered. Indian Christians were summarily killed. The mutineers soon controlled a large portion of northern India. Things looked grave for India as crazed religious bigots were murdering religious minorities.
The loyal Indians and the Britishers stood there ground. They were besieged at Lucknow and Canpur. They had some very hairy moments. The newly constructed telegraph summoned help. Railways had barely started in India so soldiers were not transported by train. The Sikhs – who only 8 years before had been conquered – fought steadfastly for British India. In the end the multiracial forces defeated the racist mutineers. British forces hardly had time to arrive out. The back of the Mutiny was broken in 6 months.
Mutineers fled to Nepal. The King of Nepal suppressed them. In gratitude for his fulsome assistance the East India Company returned some land annexed from Nepal in the Nepal War of 1812. There was some skirmishing against Mutineers for up to 2 years after the initial outbreak.
There was much outrage in the United Kingdom about the many atrocities committed by the Mutineers. Some called for Christianity to be evangelised even more vigorously.
In 1858 it was decided to wind up the Honourable East India Company. There would be a Secretary of State for India in the British Cabinet. Queen Victoria announced to Indians that all civil posts were open to all men regardless of race.
SOme Britishers considered Muslims more involved in the Mutiny than Hindus. The Mohammedans comprised about 30% of the population of India but were rather more than 30% of the rebels. This partly reflects the composition of the Bengal Army.
South India was virtually unaffected by the Mutiny.
PRIME MINISTERIAL MUSICAL CHAIRS.
In 1858 Viscount Palmerston passed controversial divorce legislation. He also introduced the Conspiracy to Murder Bill. At the time it was not a crime for a British to murder someone abroad. His bill was narrowly defeated. He resigned.
The Earl of Derby brought the Conservatives back into office.
Derby’s Government only lasted a year. Thereafter Viscount Palmerston returned to office. Palmerston dominated Parliament in a way that Lord Derby never could. He debated with verve and was never at a loss for a reply. He was full of gossip and anecdotes. He had a polished appearance and spoke without notes. He had a talent to improvise which contrasted sharply with those who rehearsed their perorations. Viscount Palmerston’s belligerent manner and sparkling wit mean he deserves to be better known.