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Citizenship 1789-1906

1789 - the year of the French Revolution - was an important date for Europe. For many historians, it marks the beginning of modern European politics and society. But the events in France were not widely welcomed in Britain, as political unrest spread across the Channel, threatening the monarchy and government and challenging a whole range of established ideas.


Eradicating electoral corruption, 1821 - opens new window
Eradicating electoral corruption, 1821
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French Revolution

The French Revolution was to play an important role in many of the political, social and economic changes that transformed Britain during the 19th century - not least because people began to think of themselves as 'citizens'. Previously the concept of citizenship hadn't been part of British people's lives, but the idea soon became linked with political radicalismGlossary - opens new window and the growth of political and social rights.

Why the changes?

At the end of the 18th century Britain was not a democratic nation. With fewer than one in eight Englishmen entitled to take part in elections, only a fraction of the people in Britain had the right to vote. If you were a woman or working-class you were excluded from the electoral process, and so were most middle-class men. Among the elite ruling class, many were opposed to change and had no desire to alter Britain's ancient 'constitution', since political reform would mean they had to give up some of their privileges.

French Revolution
Anti-Catholic and anti-Whig poster, 1830 - opens new window
Anti-Catholic and anti-Whig poster, 1830
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At this time there was prejudice against minority groups - particularly Catholics, who faced persecution and discrimination in their day-to-day social and political lives. Also, Britain was still involved with the African-Atlantic slave trade, despite anti-slavery campaigning in the early 1780s. The population was now growing rapidly and, without electoral reforms, by the 1790s Britain had become increasingly undemocratic.
In the 19th century a series of Reform Acts were brought in, mainly entitling more men to vote, and the number of voters rose from little more than 200,000 to over 8 million. The Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) lifted the ban on Catholics holding public office. Then four years later the Slavery Abolition ActGlossary - opens new window finally made slavery illegal and gave all slaves within the British empire their freedom. With these changes, new parts of the British community were given civil and, in some cases, political rights.
Letter complaining about poster - opens new window
Letter complaining about above poster
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French Revolution Yet democratic progress could not be taken for granted. There were still barriers to the rights boldly proclaimed by the most famous document of the French Revolution, the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man'. Yet even after the third Reform Act (1884), the right to vote was still based on what property a person owned rather than the principle of universal suffrageGlossary - opens new window. During the 1830s and 1840s the radical Chartist movement called for universal suffrage and annual elections. The ruling elite rejected these views, but gradually the rights of trade unions grew, enabling them to represent the views of the working class effectively on various political and economic issues.
Not all groups were as lucky. Women, for example, had no voting rights whatsoever in parliamentary elections. Non-white 'citizens' of the British empire lacked political power and were denied representative government - usually on the pretext that they were not yet ready to take on the complex system of constitutional government enjoyed in Britain.
Chartist poster, 1842 - opens new window
Chartist poster, 1842
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French Revolution

Economy and society

In the late 18th century, Britain entered a period of rapid economic change known as the 'industrial revolution', and during the 19th century became the world's strongest economic power. By this time Britain had thriving export industries (particularly in textiles), vastly improved transport networks, and an expanding empire.

This was a period of massive growth, as witness the Great Exhibition held in London's Hyde Park in 1851. Although promoted as a celebration of 'the works of industry of all nations', the emphasis was on the achievements of Britain and its empire. The exhibition was a phenomenal success, attracting 6 million visitors during the five months it was open.
'Labour at the gate' (poster), 1905 - opens new window
'Labour at the gate', 1905
Document (154k) | Transcript
French Revolution

What did the industrial revolution achieve?

There are many arguments regarding the causes and consequences of Britain's industrial revolution. In the long term, it undeniably led to higher living standards for the vast majority of the British population. However, this growth was uneven. In the 1830s and 1840s, when ChartismGlossary - opens new window was at its peak, Britain was far less prosperous than in the 1850s and 1860s. Moreover, those who benefited from the successes of industrialisation did not include the working classes.

Statistics reveal that, despite claims of 'wealth...; within the reach of all', 19th-century Britain suffered from increased inequality. The commercial and manufacturing middle classes thrived thanks to the successful campaign for 'free trade' based around the Anti-Corn Law LeagueGlossary - opens new window. But not everyone in Britain's rapidly growing population was as fortunate. Conditions in many of the large factories at the centre of the industrial revolution were harsh, and poverty in rural areas - particularly between the 1780s and the 1850s - was widespread. As Britain's towns and cities became larger and more industrialised, in the poorer parts dirty and overcrowded living conditions increased.

French Revolution
French Revolution A powerful and wealthy elite dominated Victorian Britain, but by the early 20th century the attitudes of British society were changing. The rights and needs of the lower classes were being addressed, and the (now legal) trade union movement was becoming increasingly influential. With the foundation of of the Independent Labour Party, in 1893, there was increased pressure for more political and economic rights for the working class. Also around this time, children in Britain were given the right to an education, and the worst excesses of child labour were outlawed.
Women in late Victorian Britain did not have the vote and were denied the opportunity of pursuing most of the professions open to men. In the eyes of most men, their rightful place was in the home, where as dutiful wives they would produce and raise children. Even though divorce was available after 1857, very few women applied for divorce because it was a difficult and humiliating experience. By the 1890s, the women's suffrage movement was challenging these prejudices, and during the early part of the 20th century the radical activities of the Women's Social and Political Union (better known as the SuffragettesGlossary - opens new window) turned the issue of women's rights into a major national political issue.
French Revolution

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