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Human Rights

glossary document index

A complete list of all the supporting documents for the time periods between 1215 and 1945.

1815 - 1848

Economic distress and popular radicalism

The immediate effect of the end of the French Wars in 1815 was economic distress. Industry contracted, as did European markets. This meant that newly returned soldiers and sailors were unemployed or working for low wages. Increasing demands for political rights could be seen through the rising number of 'Hampden Clubs'. The original Hampden Club was formed in 1812 by the veteran campaigner Major John Cartwright. Towards the end of the French Wars, Cartwright had toured the country arguing for political reform, resulting in the formation of large numbers of the clubs. These were especially concentrated in the midland and northern counties. By 1816 'popular radicalism' had returned with democratic ideals and criticisms of government corruption.

In addition, the end of the French Wars prompted a return to political meetings and riots, such as the 'Spa Fields Riot' in London in 1816, failed insurrections - such as the attacks on gun shops and the Tower of London in 1816, and the rising at Pentrich in 1817. A few months before the events at Pentrich, a Lancashire weavers' march from Manchester to London, petitioning for reform and against economic distress, was broken up by troops. As significant as the risings and disturbances were the discussions of democracy in rural and out of the way places. It was certainly a popular ideal.

Peterloo Massacre

Perhaps the best known demonstration for political rights at this time is known to us as the 'Peterloo Massacre'. The reform meeting at St Peter's Field in Manchester in August 1819 followed two years of revived interest in the radical press, mass petitioning and a revival in trade unionism, still illegal at this time. It has been estimated that perhaps 100,000 people met at St Peter's Field to hear Henry Hunt and others speak in favour of political reforms and rights for the poor. When Hunt arrived the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were sent by the magistrates to arrest him. They slashed their way through the crowd killing 11 and injuring hundreds.

Cato Street Conspiracy

Poster regarding a number of escaped prisoners arrested for 'combining' as a 'trade union' to raise wages Ref:HO 52/1, folio 439Repressive legislation following Peterloo discouraged many reformers from capitalising on the revulsion felt by many about the killings. However, one group at this time decided on insurrection rather than reform. In 1820 the Cato Street Conspirators (named after the street where they last met) led by Arthur Thistlewood, planned to assassinate the Cabinet and have their heads placed on poles or spikes. Their plan was reported to the Home Office: the 'conspirators' were arrested and five of them were later executed.

The 1820s were certainly less violent. In November 1820, the Government was forced to give up its attempt to take away some of Queen Caroline's rights and privileges. Her short term victory brought protesters against the Government to the streets but had little to do with any demands for popular rights: her death the following year brought the affair to a close.

County meetings were still called by Whigs to argue for reform. A campaign against the Combination Acts successfully ended in their repeal in 1824, although the following year, a second act seriously limited trade union activity and fell far short of providing the right to strike. Until this time it was an offence to join together to raise wages.

Irish Catholics

In 1793 legislation had given Irish Catholics the right to vote but not to sit in Parliament. Following the Irish Act of Union in 1800 (which came into operation in 1801) both William Pitt 'The Younger' and Lord Castlereagh resigned their government positions when King George III refused to accept religious equality. In 1823 Daniel O'Connell founded the Catholic Association with the aim to removing discrimination against Catholics. In 1828 O'Connell was elected for County Clare but being a Catholic, he could not take his seat as an MP in the House of Commons. To avoid the possibility of a series of disturbances or an uprising in Ireland the 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act granted Catholic emancipation and O'Connell took his seat.

Abolition of Slavery

In 1823 a new Anti-Slavery Society formed to argue for the abolition of slavery. Over the next 10 years, more than 70 separate women's Anti-Slavery Societies came into existence, with the Sheffield Female Society the first to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves. These women's societies were more radical than the national Anti-Slavery Society: through their influence the Anti-Slavery Society dropped the words 'gradual abolition' from its title. In 1831 the Society presented the House of Commons with a petition seeking the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves". This period saw a massive debate on slavery. Added to the moral and legal arguments against slavery - that it was un-Christian and illegal under British law - were economic reasons; that it was expensive and inefficient.

The continued resistance of slaves themselves in the 18th and 19th centuries was an essential component of the abolition movement. The 1833 Emancipation Act outlawed slavery in the British Empire and committed the British Government to pay compensation to the slave owners. From 1834, when the Act came into operation, until 1838, slaves were still indentured to their former owners as apprentices.

1830s: Swing Riots and Reform

The 1830s began badly for the Government with numerous acts of arson, machine breaking and the sending of threatening letters. Popularly known as the 'Swing Riots', this series of disturbances engulfed parts of rural England in the second half if 1830. Prompted by a decline in the prices of agricultural produce and wages, the introduction of threshing machines and an influx of Irish labour, the rioters wished to restore their standard of living.

Most of the attacks collectively referred to as the 'Swing Riots' took place in rural South and South East England, but some took place elsewhere. Some were aimed at industrial rather than agricultural targets, such as the attacks on Buckinghamshire paper mills. Most 'Swing' activity was not overtly political but was phrased in terms of a defence of 'traditional rights' of an era long since past.

However, the riots should be seen in the context of a government under pressure to extend political rights. Although in early November 1830 the Tory leader Wellington declared against parliamentary reform, the Government was defeated a few weeks later. This led to his resignation and the formation of a new administration under the Whig, Earl Grey. Over the next 14 months, campaigns inside and outside Parliament were waged. There aims were to increase the numbers of people entitled to vote and to redistribute some seats from the poorly populated 'rotten boroughs' to the new urban centres such as Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester.

Reform Acts

The period also saw increased activity within the trade union movement often linking their demands with the reform movement.

The Whigs' first two bills failed, prompting riots in several parts of the country. This period also saw the establishment of middle class political unions arguing locally in favour of reform. The third bill was eventually passed; in the Lords only when the king agreed to Grey's request to create a large number of Whig peers. The 1832 'Great Reform Bill' increased the United Kingdom electorate from around 500,000 to around 800,000.

Political rights of the poor

The reform undoubtedly extended political rights to large numbers of previously unenfranchised people. However, overwhelmingly the poor and working class people were still excluded from political representation. The weakness of the Reform Act of 1832 for those with no vote was quickly demonstrated by two events.

The first was the conviction and sentencing to transportation of the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' in March 1834. These were a group of Dorset agricultural labourers who swore not to work below a certain wage. They were convicted for the illegal swearing of oaths to each other, but it was clear that the crux of the matter was the combination of rural workers in the aftermath of the Swing Riots.

The second was the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act (the 'New Poor Law') later in the same year in England and Wales. The New Poor Law introduced a national system of relief based on a deterrent workhouse designed to repel all but the most desperate of claimants. Families were to be divided within the workhouse, inmates were to undertake pointless labour (such as picking oakum) and all of the conditions in the workhouse were to be below that of the poorest independent labourer, as this page from 'The Glorious Working of the Whigs' depicts.

Organised resistance to the New Poor Law drew support from the already existing Short Time Committees, formed to reduce the hours worked in the numerous industrial factories. Anti-Poor Law agitations reached their peak in 1837 and 1838 when the Poor Law Commissioners turned to the industrial north and midlands.


The anti-Poor Law riots and demonstrations provided the focus for the movement that would dominate the next decade: Chartism. The inadequacy of the 1832 Reform Act was seen in the injustices of the treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the introduction of the New Poor Law and the continuing long hours and poor conditions of early industrial life. Chartism drew together a variety of concerns, aims and aspirations of ordinary working people and expressed these through its own newspapers, such as the Northern Star, which at its peak sold over 50,000 copies a week.

Chartism was a working class movement and was most active between 1838 and 1848. The aim of the Chartists was to gain political rights and influence for the working classes. The movement got its name from the formal petition, or 'People's Charter', that listed the six main aims of the movement. These were:

  • a vote for all men (aged over 21)
  • the secret ballot
  • no property qualification to become an MP
  • payment for MPs
  • electoral districts of equal size
  • annual elections for Parliament

With their overtly 'political rights' demands, the Chartists were more strident than their Anti-Corn Law League contemporaries. The corn-laws had been devised to protect landowners and farmers from the competition of cheaper foreign grain; the effect was to artificially keep food prices higher. The Anti-Corn Law League, formed in 1838 by Richard Cobden and John Bright, eventually saw the abolition of the corn-laws in 1846. The demands of Chartism were more far reaching and, unlike the repeal of the corn-laws, did not fit government economic thinking on free trade. The Chartists presented three petitions to Parliament - in 1839, 1842 and 1848, but each of these was rejected.

The movement was more popular and influential at certain times in its history. In early 1839 the Chartists established a National Convention to oversee their petition. The presentation of the petition was initially delayed and, before it was presented and rejected, there had been several disturbances. Following its rejection, several attempted insurrections or risings took place. The most famous was that at Newport in Monmouthshire where several thousand people had gone to rescue Henry Vincent, one of the Chartist leaders, from jail. As they reached the Westgate Hotel, troops opened fire and in the ensuing battle, over 20 people were killed. Those captured during the rising were tried; three were sentenced to death but their sentences were later commuted to transportation.

Over 500 Chartists were arrested during this initial phase but in 1842 a second round of petitioning began. When these were rejected by Parliament there was a 'general strike' in some of the manufacturing districts during the summer. The failure of the 1842 petition and the strike wave that followed saw some fragmentation of Chartism with various competing ideas: 'Knowledge Chartism', Temperance Chartism, and (perhaps the most well known) the Chartist 'Land Plan'. This aimed to sell 100,000 shares using the money to buy estates which would then be parcelled out by lot among members.

The last great Chartist petition was delivered in 1848: it was claimed to have had six million signatures. The plan was to deliver it to Parliament after a peaceful mass meeting on Kennington Common in London. The Government sent a significant military force, and although reports on the numbers of people attending the meeting vary, most state that less than was expected actually attended. The demonstration was considered a failure and the rejection of this last petition marked the beginning of the end of Chartism. Although the Chartist movement ended without achieving its aims, many of the political points it raised and passionately argued for were included in later reforms of the second half of the 19th century.

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