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Making history

During the 19th century Britain underwent a period of political and social reform, influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, the onset of industrialisation, and accelerating urbanisation.
Inquiry into the slave trade, 1792 - opens new window
Inquiry into the slave trade, 1792
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The slave trade

Following the publication in 1791-2 of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, radicals in Britain eagerly embraced the view that every individual possessed inalienable natural rights. Yet an inquiry conducted in the same year showed that Britain was playing a leading role in the slave trade, although ownership of slaves constituted a complete denial of the most basic human rights. As a result, the anti-slavery movement gathered momentum, and evangelical and nonconformist groups led a long-standing campaign to abolish slavery.

Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834 - opens new window
Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834
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Poor Law reform

Another important piece of social legislation during this period was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Previously, help for the poor had been administered in parishes by locally appointed overseers and monitored by the local Justices of the Peace. In 1834 the government attempted to centralise the provision of poor relief. The new system was influenced by the utilitarian view that poor relief encouraged laziness - those wanting help now had to enter the workhouse, where conditions were deliberately harsh.

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