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1834 to 1848

Children huddling before soccer

Canadian children huddle before playing football. The Welfare State hurts children most of all. In contrast, Friendly Societies (see below) put a safety net under families and individuals, and are organised like teams. They become popular about the same time that British sports like football and rugby are formalizing their rules.

Photo: Honuart@istockphoto.com


Brits force Parliament to recognise their right to govern their towns. They are appalled at industrial working conditions for children, and improve them, and they insist that mothers have rights.


The economy and greedy landowners have reduced farm workers' wages to desperately low levels. Six farm workers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle – James and his brother George Loveless, Thomas Standfield and his son John, James Hammett and James Brine – decide to establish a lodge of the Friendly Society of Agriculture Labourers so they can bargain collectively.  They run into the grim wall of landowner James Frampton. 

Their trade union is legal, but Frampton accuses them of taking an oath to the union, which is illegal according to an obscure law. Arrested and convicted, the Tolpuddle Six are convicted, and transported to the Penal Colony of New South Wales.

Brits hear of it, and are incensed. Demonstrations erupt. Lord John Russell, who had been a leader in the fight for the Reform Act, demands that the the Tolpuddle Martyrs be freed. He argues that if being members of a secret society and administering secret oaths were a crime, "the Duke of Cumberland as head of the Orange Lodges was equally deserving of transportation.” Under intense public pressure, the government commutes the sentence, and in 1836 the Martyrs are freed.


After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century, the poor, the old, widows and orphans were left without resources. In 1563 Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter, enacted poor laws, which legally obliged parishes to look after the poor. The programme was parish-based so the people who were helped were known to the community. Those who were able to work had to work, and the parish helped them find work. The poor who could not work were housed. By the 17th century those who said they could not find work were housed in workhouses, and given work to do.

The workhouses could be beastly. In 1832, Parliament sent out a group of commissioners, led by sanitation and public health campaigner Edwin Chadwick, to interview both those who distributed aid and those who received it. Their findings, according to James Bartholomew, created a sensation. They included these observations:

The welfare system damages the character of those who receive the benefits. Men and women who once tried to earn a living demand hand-outs from the parish.

The system creates self-perpetuating dependency, even among those who try desperately to avoid this fate.

The system discourages savings, since no one with savings can receive benefits, and tempts honest people to commit fraud. An example is the person who receives relief on account of sickness, and shams illness to continue to receive benefits.

The system is abused by workers, employers, and landlords. Parishes are compelled to pay the difference between artificially low wages and the wage standard, and between what renters can pay, and what landlords charge.

The welfare system encourages unmarried motherhood and unresponsive dads because mothers receive a stipend for each child, and do not depend on a father to help provide.

Persons on benefit often live unfulfilled, purposeless, and unhappy lives.

The commissioners also observe that when a parish only gives benefits to those living in a workhouse, the numbers decline dramatically, since only the really old and ill choose to stay. "New life, new energy" floods into the person who goes out and finds work.

The commissioners propose, and Parliament approves, reforms that some might consider draconian: Virtually all benefits paid to people outside the workhouse are eliminated, and the benefits that are paid are not so large they become more attractive than a job. This "tough love" gets many people working. Around the same time, Friendly Societies that financially protect families against death, illness and unemployment begin growing at a phenomenal rate. (See below for details.)

By the end of the 19th century industrial production in Britain is "5.4 times what it had been in 1834," according to Bartholomew. "There was a major rise in the wealth of the average Briton despite a vast increase in population. . .Average wages, after adjusting for inflation, rose 50% between 1880 and the end of the century." Unemployment is low. In short, welfare reform brings about beneficial changes, including an almost incredible increase in charity. Almost everyone gave something, to such an extent that "The combined incomes of London charities came to more than the revenues of several European governments". Brits had avoided what Professor Jitendra Singh of the Wharton Business School would later call "the socialist trap".

Small town of Whitby, England, full of people outside on a sunny day

Brits realise that local self-government is their natural
right, not a right granted by government. (A "right" granted by government can be taken away.) Rights include local decision making for local schools, local police, the local hospital and local housing. People who are governed from afar, with money doled out from a central power, lose both rights and local oversight, and face failing schools and hospitals and escalating crime rates.

Photo: Andrew_Home@istockphoto.com


Friendly Societies began around 1803, but took off in numbers after the reform of the Poor Laws. Brits want to protect themselves, and they do so by starting Friendly Societies. Members pay in regular sums to their society, which pays out a lump sum to a member hit by devastating illness, death or unemployment. The societies grow out of religious groups, schools, and even friends meeting in a pub. Millions of Brits join, and friendly societies spread to America, Canada, and Australia.

Because the members know each other, fraud is rare. Because there are so many societies, and no one is compelled to join, Friendly Societies create freedom of choice. Because of their structure, Friendly Societies create equality. Every member is equal to every other, no matter his wealth or professional degrees, and the office of chair rotates.

They are subsequently destroyed in Britain when the politicians decide to erect a Welfare State. Friendly Societies have not been forgotten, and could be reborn.


London was self-governing as long ago as the 12th century, but many other British towns do not have their own self-governing councils. Since local self-government is the bedrock of freedom (as the Frenchman de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, also published in 1835) the Brits insist on having it. Once again Henry Brougham is in the thick of it, urging Parliament to grant this freedom.

In the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 Parliament grants 178 towns the freedom to have and run their own councils. It is, of course, a problem when Parliament feels it “grants” freedoms that already belong to the people. However, it was responding to a vigorous demand from the towns.

Townspeople are responsible for directing vital services like the police, the water supply, street lighting, and education.  The Municipal Reform Act establishes that taxpayers have the right to elect the councillors who will serve on town councils, and hold them accountable.


On May 1, the Chartist Movement publishes a people's charter with six demands: 

  • The right of all men to vote
  • A secret ballot for every voter
  • Annual parliamentary elections
  • Electoral districts equal in population
  • Abolition of property qualification for MPs
  • Salaries for MPs (so working class representatives can afford to sit in Parliament). 

The campaign gains over 1,250,000 signatures, and presents the petition to Parliament in 1839. Outrageously, MPs refuse to even consider it.  By 1842 the Chartists have collected 3 million signatures (out of a total population of 27 million) from peaceful Brits, but their petition is once again rejected out of hand. Strikes follow. Troops are deployed. A number of Chartists, who include Thomas Cooper, a self-educated shoemaker and poet, are jailed.

It is exhausting to fight for freedom when success takes generations, but sometimes there is no other way but to be in it for the long haul, to fight for freedom for our children and grandchildren. Chartism, once viewed as a despairing cry against poverty and the Machine Age, realised many of its ideals decades later. The Labour Party will say as much in the 1960s when it admits at a party conference that its rationale for existence – eradicating poverty – has disappeared.


Witty, dark-haired, beautiful Caroline Norton might have been a heroine in one of the comedies written by her grandfather, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her family is financially straitened, and to help them she reluctantly agrees to marry a man she doesn’t love. Caroline quickly finds her husband dull, repressive, and violent, but she adores their three children, and begins to write and publish poetry. She becomes a close friend of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who helps her husband find a job. 

Caroline's husband abuses her, and threatens to accuse her and Melbourne of adultery. Melbourne refuses to buy him off, and Caroline is afraid to leave her husband because, according to law, children are the property of their father. If she leaves, she cannot take the children with her, and her husband can deny her access to them. 

Lord Melbourne becomes PM, and George Norton is urged to bring a suit against him by Melbourne’s political enemies.  The adultery case is brought to trial, but the jury returns a verdict against Caroline’s husband, who then takes his revenge by refusing to allow her to see their children.

Caroline launches a campaign. She writes "The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father", explaining that under the present law, a mother has no rights at all. With the help of MP Thomas Talfourd she succeeds in winning passage of a reform bill in the House of Commons, but the Bill fails in the House of Lords.

Undaunted, Caroline writes "A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Law of Custody of Infants", and sends a copy to every MP. Due in part to her appeal, Parliament passes the Custody of Children bill. This gives mothers custody of children under seven and rights of access to older children. Tragically, Caroline's husband has taken the children away, and one of her sons dies of an illness before she can reach his side.


American slaves who escaped from their plantation and were able to cross into Canada became free. They took the route north following the north star, and were aided by Christians in the northern states who helped them reach freedom via the underground railroad. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, it became riskier to help. It is estimated that Canada gave sanctuary and freedom to at least 35,000 people.


Expanding the right of male property owners to vote has left renters high and dry.  Parliament passes the Municipal Act to give renters who pay rent of at least £10 annually the right to vote in municipal elections. This right extends only to men. At this time women cannot vote in Britain or, indeed, anywhere in the world.

tropical fruits

The fruits of free trade include markets for producers
and lower food costs for people. In Britain, where the term "corn" means "grain" – the primary grain crop – that is, bread for people to eat, the struggle to allow free trade in corn went on for years. Its success was a major victory for free trade.

Photo: PaulCowan@istockphoto.com


In 1815, to protect farmers and landowners and boost corn (grain) prices, the British Parliament introduced legislation that taxed cheaper foreign grain imports. These tariffs raise the price on wheat coming into Britain from overseas, and consequently raise the price of bread. Farmland becomes more valuable, farmers make more money, but poor and middle class Brits suffer from higher food costs.

In 1838, John Bright and Richard Cobden establish the Anti-Corn Law League. They travel across Britain, making speeches, hammering ideas about free trade into the minds of their listeners, organising monster petitions, and registering voters. Cobden is the steady, rational speaker. Bright, the younger man, is the greatest master of English oratory in several generations.

Prime Minister Robert ‘Bobby’ Peel, the man with the "moonlit smile" who had established Britain’s first police force, comes to believe the Corn Laws have to be repealed, and he is willing to fight his own party to do so. The fight is fierce. Opponents to eliminating the tariffs included the Chartists, who feared reducing the price of corn will reduce the wages of agricultural workers.

This early struggle for free trade is won when Brits show the voting muscle they had gained with the Reform Act of 1832. With the help of Opposition Leader Lord John Russell, Parliament ends the Corn Laws in 1846.

The result is quite unexpected. The tariffs had distorted the market in many unseen ways. Freeing the market generated an unforeseen tide of prosperity.


Work has changed in Britain. Families who previously worked together on farms are now toiling in mills. Around this time, Richard Oastler and Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Lord Shaftesbury (a descendant of the first Shaftesbury, who started political parties), become evangelical Christians. Inspired by their faith Oastler and Cooper throw themselves into the cause of freeing young children from working long hours in factories and mines. They focus their efforts on reform legislation, and succeed in winning Parliament's approval.

The statue of Eros on Picadilly Circus. The god of love is about to release his shaft.

Over the course of decades, Lord Shaftesbury pushes Parliament to pass a series of bills – the Mines Act (1842) and the Ten Hours Act (1847) – that reduce the number of hours children work. He is remembered in
Piccadilly Circus in the statue of Anteros, 'the god of love returned', releasing his shaft. 

Photo: track5@istockphoto.com

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