The British Reform Movement: Social, Political & Economic Reforms

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  • 0:03 Urban Reform
  • 2:16 Parliamentary Reform
  • 3:17 Corn Law
  • 4:04 Chartist Reform
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

The first Industrial Revolution led to fundamental changes in all aspects of society, from work patterns to living conditions. In this lesson, we will discuss the reform movements aimed at solving the problems of inequality, parliamentary reform, and unhealthy urban areas.

Urban Reform

One of the earliest areas of reform was a response to the unclean and dangerous living conditions in industrial cities. But what exactly is a reform movement? Well, a reform movement is an attempt to bring about social change. This change is usually a gradual one, which separates it from a revolutionary movement that happens suddenly. Some reform movements we'll discuss further will include:

  • Child labor reform
  • Urban reform
  • Chartist reform
  • Parliamentary reform

The reason we know about the appalling conditions in the industrial cities is due to the work of social investigators. For instance, by observing the dirty appearance and stunted growth of child laborers, many reformers began to ask why. Why did working children appear to be smaller and more prone to illness than non-working children? How did this represent a danger to society? In response, activists jumped to action in various ways.

Many reformers were from financially affluent families. They viewed the problems of the poor as threats to their own lifestyle. For instance, the rising rates of crime and outbreaks of disease had the potential to make their lives more difficult, as well. One example was cholera, a deadly disease that had been affecting European cities in the 1830s and 1840s. Because the disease became more prominent in the overcrowded cities, wealthy city dwellers began to call for reform, too.

Since the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, the social problems created by this change were observed by British reformers early on. Edwin Chadwick was a reformer with a background in law. He was most noted for his work with the Poor Law Commission. During this time, he initiated a three-year investigation into the living conditions of Britain's working class.

His work culminated in a thorough Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in 1842. He reached many conclusions, such as that atmospheric pollution and overcrowding explain the rampant outbreaks in the industrial cities. He realized that the sanitation systems in the cities needed reform. Among these changes were better sewage systems, removal of waste from streets, and the improvement of water supplies.

Parliamentary Reform

During the Industrial Revolution, many workers were faced with severe poverty. They were unable to leave this desperate situation because they had no political power in England. Wealthy male landowners were the only people who had any political impact. With the exception of a few reformers, these men were mostly out of touch with the plight of the workers and their families.

At this time, Britain had two major political parties. The Tories were mostly members of the aristocracy, and the Whigs were mostly merchants. The makeup of the government also favored the landowners. For instance, the House of Lords was made up of aristocrats who served for life, and the House of Commons was made up of landed aristocrats, industrialists, and merchants.

Change finally occurred in 1830 when the Whigs gained a majority and introduced the Reform Bill of 1832. The Reform Bill did the following:

  • It redistributed the districts to reflect population changes.
  • It changed voting qualifications, which gained many middle-class men voting rights.

The Corn Law Controversy

Beginning in 1815, the British government passed a series of Corn Laws intended to keep corn prices high. Why would anyone want to keep these prices this way? Well, the legislation was originally imposed to protect British farmers from cheap foreign imports. However, the laws had consequences for the working class, who had to pay these high prices. With their already low wages, workers had little, if anything, left to purchase anything else.

The Corn Laws really only helped the farmers and the nobility who owned the farmland. Finally, in 1828, reform began. The price of corn was not fixed, but depended on the price of foreign imports, which could be imported freely as long as domestic grain was sold at a minimum of 73 shillings per quarter. The Corn Laws were repealed completely in 1846.

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