In Dark Days of Georgian Britain, James Hobson challenges the long established view of high society during the Regency, and instead details an account of a society in change.
Often upheld as a period of elegance with many achievements in the fine arts and architecture, the Regency era also encompassed a time of great social, political and economic upheaval. In this insightful social history the emphasis is on the life of the every-man, on the lives of the poor and the challenges they faced.
Using a wide range of sources, Hobson shares the stories of real people. He explores corruption in government and elections; "bread or blood" rioting, the political discontent felt and the revolutionaries involved. He explores attitudes to adultery and marriage, and the moral panic about homosexuality. Grave robbery is exposed, along with the sharp pinch of food scarcity, prison and punishment. It is not a gentle portrayal akin to Jane Austen's England, this is a society where the popular hatred of the Prince Regent was widespread and where laws and new capitalist attitudes oppressed the poor. With Hobson's illustrative account, it is time to rethink the Regency.
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About the Author
James Hobson has taught and written about History as teacher for twenty-five years. His first book was The Dark Days of Georgian Britain, a social history of the Regency period. His other interest is the civil war – studying this as his specialism under Professor John Morrill while at the University of Cambridge.
Read an Excerpt
The Darkness Years
This year has been a very uncommon one. The spring was exceeding cold and backward or rather there was no spring, the summer was cold and wet, or rather we had no summer. The Crop was very bad and unproductive. The Harvest was very late, the crop was not well got in. A Scarcity has taken place. The Quartern loaf is 1/6, other articles in proportion.
There never was so many beggars as thee is at present in our streets. Taxes are high and are levied with Severity. Petitions for a reform have been presented to the Prince Regent from London and other Cities, and have not been well received. Neither trade nor commerce are revived. Tradesmen and labourers are out of employ and are in a state of Starvation. The Regent and his ministers do not seem to care for the grievances under which the Nation groans under, and seem to be deaf to a reform of flagrant abuses that universally exist in the expenditure of the Public money.
Diary of Edward Lucas of Stirling, 31 December 1816.
The title of this book is more than a metaphor. The period 1810 to 1820 was one of the darkest and coldest in the last 200 years. The causes are well known now; in April 1815 there was a colossal eruption of Mount Tambora, in present-day Indonesia. It was the biggest explosion on our planet for 80,000 years, pushing ash and pumice into the air, but more importantly, pushing sulphur above the atmospheric level of the weather. The sulphur became sulphuric acid. The earth cooled, harvests were decimated and trade and transport were hugely affected. Between 1809 and 1820 there had only been one really good harvest in Britain, that was in 1815, just before the eruption. 1816 was the worst; it was 'The Year Without A Summer'; forty days of rain in spring in most of the country; frosts in June and July; orange and brown snow in winter; and bright yellow and reddish-brown sunsets, as clearly shown on Turner's painting from this period.
The cause was not known at the time, although it was suspected by some that the weather was outside of normal variations. The Leicester Journal commented in July 1816, 'such inclement weather is scarcely remembered by the oldest person living'.
The temporary cooling was made worse by a cyclical increase in sunspots called the 'Dalton minimum', which also reduced global temperatures. On some days in July 1816 the sunspots could be seen quite easily with the naked eye and some people panicked, thinking the end of the world was approaching. The poor harvests, and the lack of availability of food from the foreign markets which were experiencing the same freak weather effects, increased the price of food, causing riots, misery and repressive measures from the government. The consequences of Tambora can be clearly seen in the early chapters of this book.
These are also the darkness years because of the consequences of Britain's first 'total war'. Britain has experienced two of these in the last century and nobody today is in any doubt about how serious they were. The Napoleonic War is outside our folk memory, but it was a war to the death; a struggle which threatened every aspect of the British state. Britain went to war against a revolutionary enemy, and for most of the time, especially when sympathy with France waned, it was a war of national survival.
The suffering was immense, especially amongst the poor, and the state was nearly bankrupted in an attempt to repel Napoleon and defend the balance of power in Europe. However, the darkness years really started when the war was won; the suffering did not stop when the war ceased.
For almost a generation the war with France had been a national focal point in the same way the Second World War was. Following both world wars of the twentieth century, people expected change and improvement, but after the war with Napoleon, these things did not happen. Indeed the opposite happened. The end of the First World War brought the commemoration of the sacrifices of the many, and a promise of a 'land fit for heroes'; a consequence of the Second World War was a welfare state for all. You will look in vain for cenotaphs and commemorations about the Napoleonic War however. Victory was celebrated but the victors were not. There was no improvement in life after Waterloo. Those lower orders who thought peace would end their problems were whipped up into a fury which disrupted life for a very turbulent five year period.
These were the darkness years because life in Britain was changing and people did not know how to respond. The population had doubled between 1751 and 1821 causing panic and deep pessimism about the future; there was a genuine belief that starvation was on the way – not the near starvation that kept the poor in check, but actual national calamity. Thomas Malthus was the prime source of this fear and uncertainty. His Essay on the Principle of Population was in print every year from 1798 to 1817. It suggested two possible futures: either the population increase would lead to mass starvation as agriculture failed to feed the new mouths, or disease, famine and war would hold back population growth. The government was so worried that it took some action – there was a nationwide head count organised in 1801 and another in the midst of a desperate war in 1811.
Malthus's pessimism encouraged many of the ruling classes to change their attitude towards the poor. Malthus regarded unemployment as just another word for overpopulation, and he believed that the vast increase in the number of poor families with poor children was caused by early marriage and encouraged by generous welfare policies. Like many aspects of life in the Regency, the old ways were not working and nothing new was appearing to take its place. William Cobbett, a radical reformer who used his newspaper the Political Register to attack the government and its actions, and a man to whom hate came easily, told Malthus that he loathed him more than anything in the world.
The population rise led to new urban areas which ushered in new ways of living, disrupting the traditional ways of doing things. Prior to this, people had mostly lived in small units, where problems were locally based and could be solved face to face, and where the rich felt a responsibility for the poor. It was a hierarchical society, but one based on consensus and some shared values. There were laws forbidding new machinery and other laws guaranteeing hours of work, rates of pay, and protecting apprenticeships. These were swept away in the Regency period, and the social mobility and prosperity needed to mitigate the problems caused did not arrive until later. Although people at the time would not recognise the term – as then you were either a child or an adult with nothing in between – the Regency was the 'awkward adolescence' of modern British industrial society.
To our eyes, the political figures of the Regency were unappealing, and this was magnified by the fact that they lived in a time when critical public opinion had some effective outlets. The Prince Regent was one of the most unpopular members of the royal family in British history. This is partly due to his long list of personal failings, of which we could cite greed, arrogance, and insensitivity as the main three jostling for first place. The major members of the government, Lord Liverpool the prime minister, Lord Sidmouth the home secretary and Viscount Castlereagh the foreign secretary are also unappealing from the modern perspective. They were certainly reactionary – they looked backwards – and they severely curtailed the political freedoms for the population in the darkness years.
The police, justice, finance and welfare systems were no longer fit for purpose, but they were applied with increasing severity during the Regency period by politicians such as Liverpool, Sidmouth and Castlereagh. There was a crime wave caused by poverty and resentment, and a welfare system that was out of control. Reform was about to happen; there were parliamentary inquiries into prisons, poverty, and child labour, and this was the age of William Wilberforce and Elizabeth Fry. There were debates about voting, trade unions and the death penalty. One of the reasons why we consider this an age of darkness is that a new dawn of reform and improvement was approaching – just not yet.
The years after 1820 were slightly better. Austerity slackened a little. Food prices fell and diets improved, slowly. The justice system was reformed. Rights to free speech and agitation were restored. The first reform of parliament happened in the 1830s and the Poor Law was improved administratively, if not humanely. Even the grave robbers were put out of business. Some people continued to be desperate for food, but agricultural improvement saved Britain from the Malthusian trap of mass starvation.
The darkness years of the Regency bears striking resemblance to Britain in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Climate change threatens; childhood seems to be in crisis; relations with Europe and within the nations of the UK are uncertain; the existence of an unpopular ruling elite and the widening gap between the rich and poor are causing tensions; technological change and the destruction of employment is a challenge; an expensive and creaking welfare system may need reform; an unrepresentative electoral system that does not seem to reflect the will of the majority.
We seem to be facing the same challenges in Britain now as 200 years ago. The following chapters explore some of those challenges.CHAPTER 2
The Poor Weavers
There is no better example of misery in the Regency period than the handloom weaver. In 1815 they were struggling; by 1840 they were starving. Weavers had initially prospered after spinning was mechanised, when the Jenny produced ample thread for weavers and demand was high. There was plenty of work in the weaving villages of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland from 1790 to about 1805. William Radcliffe, a textiles entrepreneur noted how well the handloom weaver was doing during this period:
Their dwellings and small gardens clean and neat, – all the family well clad, – the men with each a watch in his pocket, and the women dressed to their own fancy, – the church crowded to excess every Sunday, – every house well furnished with a clock in elegant mahogany or fancy case, – handsome tea services in Staffordshire ware, with silver or plated sugar-tongs and spoons, – Birmingham, Potteries, and Sheffield wares for necessary use and ornament, wherever a corner cupboard or shelf could be placed to shew them off.
The most skilled Bolton muslin weavers at the beginning of the nineteenth century were said to parade the streets with a £5 note in their hats, showing off their week's wages, wearing expensive shirts and leather boots, and excluding less wealthy weavers from their favourite public houses.
By 1810 this prosperity had ended and wages began to fall. Decent workable power looms, first invented in 1785 were slowly being gathered in factories. Wages were pushed down not so much by the power looms themselves, as there were no more than a few thousand in the whole country in the 1810s, but the fact that the owners could turn to machines if workers' pay rose too much.
When the war disrupted trade in the 1800s, individual manufacturers reduced the pay for weavers' labour and goods, forcing other manufacturers to follow suit. Many weavers were unable to switch to better paying bosses because they owed money to their present employer, or did not have the money to re-tool when offered better paid work.
There was also an increasing supply of people who could do their job. Irish textile workers moving to Lancashire and Scotland found it easy to transfer their linen producing skills to cotton. Agricultural workers pushed out of the countryside by the enclosure of farming land used by the poor added to the supply of people who could weave. Manufacturers could enforce lower and lower wages at the same time as food prices were rising. It was a vicious pincer movement on their standard of living.
Weavers used a variety of techniques to improve their quality of life. They petitioned the House of Commons and the Prince Regent. When that failed they demonstrated and marched. When these protests were broken up, they formed trade unions, organised strikes and threatened, or used, violence. The famous machine breaking done by weavers, knitters and croppers in the period 1811-12 were the actions of desperate people. These violent acts of poor workers in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire – 'Luddism' – was the last resort of people who had tried everything else.
The law was the first resort. The weavers of Lancashire and Scotland were initially under the illusion that the House of Commons would enforce minimum wage regulations that already existed in theory. In the eighteenth century it was common for the state to protect workers' conditions. The Spitalfields silk weavers had had the price of their labour regulated by the Justices of the Peace in 1773, admittedly after some vicious rioting and machine breaking – but attitudes were changing and the new general belief was that it was impossible to regulate the value of people's labour. The Weavers Minimum Wage Bill was introduced in the House of Commons but not put to a vote, as there was not a single voice to speak in favour of it. The best advice MPs could offer was to counsel patience and submission to their privations.
Some manufacturers actively supported the workers' demand for predictable wages, and often signed their petitions. Regular wage rates prevented conflict and protected the better employers from the unscrupulous ones, who undercut the rest with poor quality goods and low wages. Many bosses also wanted to stop the ludicrous arrangement where the pay offered by some manufacturers resulted in poverty, which had to be alleviated by poor rates paid by all employers, the good and the bad alike.
Workers also had no geographical mobility due to the Poor Law preventing them from getting support outside their home parish. This 1817 petition to the Prince Regent made these points:
In populous towns of Bolton Stockport ... the owners of houses ... pay 10s in the for poor rates the wages of the weavers are frequently as low as 6s to 8s a week and he who receives them thinks himself perfectly justified in complaining to his master of his wages and who shall say he is not when he cannot live where he is and is prevented by law of settlements from seeking a better [place] for his labour. But he receives as much from the Parish which comes ... out of the pockets of the same persons manufacturers who employ him.
It was a new society; one where it was every person for themselves and previous mutual obligations between the rich and poor were dissolving. These weavers were totally dependent on variable wages. The only relationship they had with their betters was an uncertain one based on the selling of their labour in unpredictable national and international markets. There was no longer a fixed price for anything; manufacturers could not guarantee a price when they could not be sure of their markets. Tudor rules for protecting the poor were abandoned; they neither worked nor were very convenient. The Elizabethan Statute of Artificers, which protected conditions and apprenticeships, was declared a dead letter in 1808 at the same time as minimum wages were rejected. This encouraged even more of the desperate poor to learn weaving and further depress wages for all.
Thomas Holden was a typical victim of this new society; the economic and political system was stacked against him. Born in 1792, Thomas was a Bolton weaver and would have seen his family's fortunes decline inexorably as he grew up. The Poor Law prevented him from moving to an area where his labour could be more valuable – unlike the owner's capital, which could migrate to wherever was profitable. The Combination Laws of 1799 made forming a trade union illegal; it was also against the law to swear a secret oath – known as being 'twisted in'. Both were banned by the government because of the implications of conspiracy, violence and treason.
Holden did not have the vote because he was poor, and stayed poor because he did not have the vote. The rejection of the Weavers' Minimum Wage Bill was hardly a surprise. The workers were not represented in parliament; their bosses were mostly unrepresented too. In 1811, a weaver activist reported back on another failed attempt to influence parliament: 'Weavers – had you possessed 70,000 votes for election to sit in the House, would your application have been treated with such inattention?'
In response to parliament's lack of concern, between 15,000 and 40,000 weavers, including many from Thomas Holden's Bolton, held a protest march (or riot, depending on the source) at St George's Field, Manchester in May 1808. They presented their grievances to the magistrates; they were working a fourteen-hour day for eight or nine shillings a week and still did not have enough to live on. They were eventually dispersed by the military with one protestor killed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Days of Georgian Britain"
Copyright © 2017 James Hobson.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Darkness Years 1
Chapter 2 The Poor Weavers 5
Chapter 3 Making Life Worse 14
Chapter 4 Why People Rioted 23
Chapter 5 Bread and Potatoes 31
Chapter 6 The Poor Law 40
Chapter 7 Cold Charity 49
Chapter 8 Old Corruption: The General Election, 1818 58
Chapter 9 All About The Money 66
Chapter 10 The Disgusting Prince Regent? 75
Chapter 11 Arthur Thistlewood - The Gentleman Revolutionary 84
Chapter 12 1817 - The New Peasants' Revolt 95
Chapter 13 Peterloo: Who Killed Joseph Lees? 103
Chapter 14 Peterloo: The Radical Women 112
Chapter 15 The Freeborn Englishman? 121
Chapter 16 The Punishment Didn't Fit the Crime 131
Chapter 17 Retribution 140
Chapter 18 Child Labour 149
Chapter 19 Currency Crisis 160
Chapter 20 Adultery 167
Chapter 21 Regency Body Snatchers 172
Chapter 22 Being Irish 180
Chapter 23 A Rash and Melancholy Act? 189
End Notes 199