Daily Archives: August 8, 2015

The United Kingdom in the 1860s


The decade opened with as Viscount Palmerston Prime Minister of a Liberal Government.  Palmerston as ever sat in the House of Commons. Lord Palmerston was to prove a more responsible and accomplished Premier the second time around. He also left a legacy of noteworthy legislation.

In 1861 the American Civil War broke out. The UK briskly declared neutrality. The British attitude is encapsulated in the following doggerel,

”Though with the North with sympathised/ It must not be forgotten/ That with the South lay stronger ties/ And they were made of cotton.”

Many Confederates fondly imagined that the United Kingdom would assist them. She might declare war on the United States. Some Confederates wanted to re-establish the colonial relationship with the United Kingdom. This sat oddly with the claim that the Confederacy embodied the true spirit of the American Revolution. But times had changed and they could say that the United Kingdom would now respect their liberty. The UK had not abolished slavery in America when it ruled the Thirteen Colonies. The United Kingdom had outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. This fact seems to have been lost on many Confederates. Rather than becoming a series of colonies against some hoped for a relationship such as Canada had with the UK.

Confederates believed that their cotton was crucial to the British economy. The UK would be obliged to assist them – to at least trade with them. A British embargo against the North would bring the war to a close.

The Confederates overestimated the importance of cotton to the British economy. Moreover, America was not the only place in the world to grow cotton. The United Kingdom started purchasing cotton from Egypt and India. Egypt was closer than the Confederate States of America and the Mediterranean was not as stormy as the Atlantic.

Some Lancashire mill workers were out of work at the outset of the war because cotton from Egypt had not yet come. Most of them still wanted the North to win. They recognised that the war was mainly about slavery and no secession. They saw this as a moral issue and worth suffering for. Their political awareness and their fortitude in suffering for a cause impressed Gladstone. W E Gladstone publicly expressed his belief that the Southern states were permitted to break away from the USA. He also said that slavery was a non-issue. His father had owned slaves in several plantations in the West Indies.

A Confederate warship made it to the United Kingdom. It was called the Alabama. It was fitted out in the UK. It then went to raid Northern merchant ships. The US Government was incensed that the United Kingdom had allowed a Confederate ship to be refitted in a British shipyard.

Telegrams were exchanged between the two governments. A particularly disrespectful one was seen by Prince Albert. He insisted on toning it down lest it provoke war. Some credit him with single handedly averting war. He died in December 1861.

Queen Victoria went into mourning on the death of her husband. Though the marriage had been to some extent arranged there is no question that they tenderly loved one another. Prince Albert is known to have been faithful to her despite the fact that philandering was par for the course among men of his class. Victoria was so down in the dumps that her low spirits seemed to affect much of the epoch. People called her the Widow of Windsor. She had been known for her gaiety in her youth. She wore black for years and seldom attended public functions. This led to a growth of republican clubs.



One of the most important pieces of legislation from this epoch is the Offences Against the Person Act  (OAPA). By the person it means the body. It still remains on the statute book. It restated that fact that abortion was illegal. It set out what was to happen in the case of various types of assault. It categorised assaults. It also abolished the death penalty for sodomy. Sodomy was still punishable by many years in prison. Gross indecency still attracted a short prison sentence under this act.



The economy was growing. Lord Palmerston was at the helm. All seemed well for the Liberal Party. There were wars on the continent – the Danish War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Piedemontese War. This made the UK seem like a haven of tranquility and propserity. Trade disruptions on the continent were short and did little to harm the UK economy

Napoleon III was increasingly assertive. Some feared he would seek to imitate his uncle Napoleon I and build a fleet with a view to invading the United Kingdom. The British Army and the Royal Navy were expanded accordingly. There were extensive manoeuvres.

Napoleon III got himself mired in a protracted and unwinnable war in Mexico. He placed an Austrian prince, Maximilian, on the Imperial Throne of Mexico. This is not as preposterous a notion as it may appear. Newly independent countries usually sought a monarch. This was true of Greece and Romania at this time. Many French troops were fighting there. France suffered heavy losses and the economic toll was hard to bear. In the end Maximilian was beaten and executed by firing squad. He was the younger brother of Franz-Josef. Franz-Josef had thought the venture madcap and insisted on his brother renouncing all his Austrian titles before setting out for Mexico. It is from this war that the Zorro legends come.

Disraeli had acquired an affected patrician manner. He was at least accepted by the Conservative Party.

In the summer of 1865 Viscount Palmerston led his Liberals to an electoral victory.

In October 1865 Palmerston died in office. He was succeeded by Earl Russell. Lord Russell was more of a reformer than his predecessor. Lord Russell wanted to extend the right to vote to all of the middle classes and to some of the working class. He sought to introduce such a measure to Parliament. Some of his own party found this so objectionable that they broke away. It was said that they were in the cave of Adullam – a reference to the Bible. These Adullamites then united with the Conservatives,

People mocked Earl Russell again as Finality Jack. They could not resist raising the fact that he had advocated passing the GRA on the ground that it would be last ever amendment of the constitution. It is surprising that he should have sought to do this when the Chartists no longer existed. Some were against giving the vote to more men. They claimed that democracy had caused the American Civil War. It was a ludicrous argument. As though the slaves had democracy! All the wars prior to the American Civil War were not caused by oligarchy according to those against reform.

In the summer of 1866 Lord Russell’s government fell. He was too donnish to hold it together. Infighting was the cause of the downfall.

Lord Derby became Prime Minister of a Conservative Government.  Despite Lord Derby being Premier he was perhaps not the dominant force. As his health failed it appeared that Disraeli was playing a more prominent role. Despite their very different backgrounds the two men had a good rapport. The Earl of Derby was never the most energetic leader which is why their was scope for someone of Disraeli’s conspiratorial nature and dynamism to make his mark. Disraeli introduced the Second Reform Act. It was an extension of the franchise more substantial than the one he had voted against the year before. It had opportunist written all over it. Disraeli relished the cut and thrust of debate. It is a testament to his persuasive skills that he got most of his party to vote through such unconservative legislation. It was not clear how many men would be enfranchised by the Second Reform Act. This was because it depended on property valuations and no one was certain of the value of each house and how many people would come within the purview of the act. The proper name of this piece of legislation is the Representation of the People Act 1867. Benjamin Disraeli said it was ”a leap in the dark” – this is often rendered wrongly as a stab in the dark. He commented that it was a moonlight steeplechase. A steeplechase is a race riding from one church to the next through the countryside. He was remarking on the dangerousness of what he was doing. It was actuated by the Tory sentiment ”dish the Whigs.” It was also a means of outflanking them. The newly enfranchised voters would be grateful to the Conservatives.

France had introduced manhood suffrage. SOme said that the UK was falling behind. In February 1868 Lord Dery retired. He died the next year. Disraeli became Prime Minister.

A British ambassador to Abyssinia offended the Emperor of Abyssinia. He was imprisoned. It was decided that he needed to be freed and Abyssinia taught a lesson. It would also demonstrate to the world that the UK would exact revenge on anyone who wronged them. Disraeli sent an expedition to Abyssinia. Abyssinia was the only country in Africa not to be under the formal or informal control of another. Liberia was an American protectorate. Abyssinia had retained its independence because of its mountain fastness. British and India  troops had to build many bridges on the way. The rescued the ambassador and the emperor committed suicide. The punitive expedition cost millions. The United Kingdom did not annex the country.

Disraeli was soon embroiled in the question of whether or not to disestablish the Church of Ireland. Defending Anglicanism was in the bones of the Conservative Party.

IN December 1868 an election was held. The Liberals won handily – gaining 110 seats more than the Conservatives. So much for the thankfulness of the new voters!



W E Gladstone was at his Welsh house Hawarden (pronounced harden). He was engaged in his hobby – chopping logs. He was informed that he was being invited to become Prime Minister. Without ceasing from his wood cutting he remarked, ”My mission is to pacify Ireland.” This was another one of his great causes.

There had been a rising in Ireland in the Spring of 1868. It did not have extensive support and was easily defeated. Nevertheless, there had been several hundred armed men involved in the rising. Most of them had bolted at the first sight on the police. A few hundred Irish veterans of the American Civil War had returned to Ireland. They were hellbent on using their military competence to cause a conflict in the United Kingdom.

The fact that this rising occurred at all troubled Gladstone. He decided that the Church of Ireland needed to be disestablished as soon as possible. Only 30% of the population of Ireland were Protestants and only half of those were communicants of the Church of Ireland. Gladstone had started as a High Tory. He had once been completely committed to maintaining the official status of the Church of Ireland. This was partly for its own sake but also because to disestablish it would weaken the Church of England. Gladstone had pondered this issue deeply. He had considered becoming a clergyman. One of his early books was on the relationship between the state and the church. He said Christianity his pole star. No one questioned his sincerity in that regard.

In 1868 the needful legislation was passed. It did not fully take effect until 1870. Many Conservative fulminated against what was being done. In fact Disraeli had met with Cardinal Manning with a view to doing the same thing a few months earlier. Disraeli did not attempt it partly because his party would not have worn it.

It was ludicrous that such a minority church should have a special status. Liberal recognised this. The position of the Church of Ireland weakened rather than strengthened the Act of Union. The Act of Union stated that ”there shall be one united Protestant Church of England and Ireland.”  This had now been undone. This made the rest of the act more viable.

Liberals were sometimes against privilege. Many of them came from Nonconformists families. In some cases they resented the exalted status of the Anglican Church. Some pushed for its disestablishment.

Gladstone’s policies are often summed up as peace, retrenchment, reform. By retrenchment this means financial cut backs. He had said the candle ends and cheese parings were needed. He considered profligacy to be ”a great moral evil.” These policies were inter-related. War was extremely expensive.

Gladstone wanted to better the lot of the working class. He had helped run a house for those in necessitous circumstances. It still stands by Soho Square. He reformed the system of outdoor relief. He wanted to see local government run more efficiently partly so that it could provide better services for the needy.

W E Gladstone had a curious habit of going to meet prostitutes at night. He would try to persuade them to give up their iniquitous ways and find other employment. He realised that some of them plied this trade out of necessity. He arranged other jobs for some of them. He took ladies of the night back to Downing Street for prayer sessions. He made no secret of this. If there was something to hide he would have been discrete. His activies caused much gossip at the time. One wag commented, ”when you are saving fallen women – save one for me.” W E Gladstone left a note to be read after his death in which he swore he never committed unchastity.

Gladstone’s diary is a superb source for his life and the epoch in general. Perhaps he was tempted by the whores. Every time he met them he would draw a whip in his diary – as though he felt he ought to flagellate himself. In post Freudian times some have interpreted his wood cutting as symbolic self castration.

Gladstone was nothing if not serious minded. He was rarely seen to smile. Queen Victoria complained that he addressed her ”as if addressing a public meeting.” He spoke ”at” people rather than ”to” them. He was also chided because ”there is something about his manner of coming into the room that is unaristocratic.” Gladstone was not an aristo in the strict sense though his father was a baronet. Some scorned him, ”Oxford on top but Liverpool underneath.” Gladstone had originally believed in being an optimate. ”I am an out and out inegalitarian. Wealth, birth, status are at least as important as any of the virtues.” By the 1860s his attitude had changed remarkably. ”I will always back the masses against the classes.”

Gladstone introduced legislation for the three F’s in Ireland. These were fixity of tenure, fair rent and free sale of the remainder of the lease. Viscount Palmerston had been dead against it. He had fulminated, ”Tenant right is landlord wrong.” Lord Palmerston owned extensive states in Sligo so such legislation impacte don his income. Irish nationalists do not like to point this out but the three F’s was bringing Ireland into line with Great Britain. The nationalists wanted to be more British. In Ulster there was Ulster custom so the three Fs were usually agreed to anyway.

Despite Gladstone’s reforms there was a rising tide of nationalist sentiment in Ireland. There was a zestful campaign for the Fenians who had been imprisoned in 1868 to be released. The amnesty campaign attracted support from those who had not advocated the use of violence. In 1873 the Irish Home Government Association was founded. It was headed by Isaac Butt. This organisation later renamed itself the Home Rule Association.