Reformist: Elizabeth Fry

For it was on the 21st May 1780, Elizabeth Fry was born to John and Caroline Gurney, a prominent Quaker banking family in Norwich.  Little did they know as they held their child for the first time, she would grow up and lead a movement into penal reforms of the prison system.

In 1798, after hearing the American Quaker, William Savery preach, Elizabeth started concentrating her energies on those in need.  Over the next few years, collected old clothes for the poor, visited the sick, and taught local children to read in her home.

On the 19th August 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a partner in Gurney’s Bank.  For it wasn’t until 1813, when Elizabeth visited Newgate Prison at the suggestion of Stephen Grellet, that her life was to take a new direction.

Upon a visit to the prison, she was horrified by the site; upwards of 300 women and children, housed together in cramped conditions.  They slept on the floor, in the clothes they stood up in, no bedding or night-clothes supplied.

From that day forth she became a regular visitor to Newgate Prison, supplying the inmates with clothes.  In the early day’s a school and chapel was established, and later compulsory sewing duties, as administered and supervised by Matrons.

In 1817, Elizabeth Fry and Thomas Buxton formed the association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.

The following year Thomas Buxton, was elected an MP, and promoted Fry’s work in the House of Commons, and she in turn was invited to give evidence at a Committee on London Prisons.  She expressed her concerns about the cramped conditions she had personally witnessed.  Where young, old, hardened criminals and first time offenders had to share the same cells or dormitories together.  Although the committee accepted her views, they strongly disapproved of some of her comments, including her views on capital punishment. One part of the law, allowed prisoners convicted of 200 minor offences, could be executed, which brought her into direct conflict with the ruling body.

Lord Sidmouth, campaigned against Fry’s comments, that they could harm the existing prison system, and her suggestions that women prisoners should not be executed, took away the fear of punishment, for the hardened criminal element.  Sir Robert Peel, replaced Lord Sidmouth as the new Home Secretary in 1822, and with a more sympathetic ear introduced reforms, including the 1823 Gaols Act, and regular visits by a Prison Chaplain.

By this time the exploits of Elizabeth Fry, had made her a household name up and down the country.

In 1824, whilst on holiday in Brighton, she was alarmed by the large number of beggars on the streets, and discovered poverty was ripe in the town.  Being well known for her reform of prisons, she started the Brighton District Visiting Society, attracting many volunteers from all walks of life.  Very soon more of these societies, were springing up in towns the length and breadth of the country, offering help and assistance to the poor.  Fry campaigned for the homeless in London, promoted the reform of workhouses and hospitals.

In 1840, she started a training school for nurses at Guy’s Hospital, where they tended to their patients spiritual and physical needs.  A group of her nurses went with Florence Nightingale, when she attended to the wounded during the Crimean War.

On the 12th October 1845, she died, having become a symbol of compassion and justice, following a few years of declining health, and was buried at the Society of Friends graveyard at Barking.

Her achievements were recognised, when her portrait appeared on a series of £5.00 notes, issued in 2002.

England: Last Public Execution

In 1864 the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, brought in an act, which would see an end to public hangings, with the last ones taking place in 1868.

On Thursday 2nd April 1868, 25 year-old Frances Fiddler was the last woman to be hung in a public execution, which took place in front of Maidstone Prison.

Her crime which carried the death sentence was that she wilfully murdered Louisa Kiddler-Staples her 12 year-old step-daughter by drowning her in a foot of water, by holding the child’s head under.

Fiddler died a hard death, according to reports, as she struggled some two to three minutes before her body went limp.  A sight witnessed by the 2,000 people who had attended her hanging, watching her life being extinguished.

On Tuesday 26th May 1868 Michael Barrett was the last man to be hanged by Public Execution on English soil.

Barrett’s crime was that on the 13th December 1867, he did intentionally attempt to free fellow Fenian (Irish Republican) one Richard O’Sullivan Burke, by blowing a hole, in the prison wall at the Clerkenwell House of Detention in London.  His act caused the death of seven people, and injured many more.

Six people were arrested for this crime, the first Irish bombing on English soil.  Barrett was the only one convicted on 6th April 1868 at the Old Bailey.  He was hanged on 26th May 1868, in front of a large crowd that turned out to watch.

On the 29th May 1868, the Capital Punishment Act, ended the practice of public executions, and from that day forth executions would take place within the prison grounds.

English Writer: Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was born on the 18th September 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire.  Samuel was first born to parents Michael Johnson, bookseller and magistrate and Sarah Ford.

Johnson lived with shelves full of books, and found much enjoyment in reading, and his interest developed whilst attending Lichfield and Stourbridge Grammar Schools.  In 1728 he studied languages and law at Pembroke College, Oxford until 1731, with the death of his father.  With limited funds with no completed training, sought a position as a teacher.  Unable to find permanent teaching position, drifted into a writing career.

On the 9th July 1735 married Elizabeth ‘Tetty’ Jervis nee Porter, twenty years his senior at St.Werburgh’s Church in Derby.

Leaving Elizabeth and her three children behind, travelled to London to further his education.  After a short time was joined in London by Elizabeth his wife.  With little money in his pocket, he sought employment at the “Gentlemen’s Magazine,” and was hired by publisher Edward Cave in 1738 as a journalist, and also worked for “The Adventurer 1752-1754” and “The Idler 1758-1760.”

In 1747 having acquired a literary reputation, was commissioned to write the “Dictionary of the English Language” which was published on the 15th April 1755.

Elizabeth his beloved wife had died in 1752, and Francis Barber, a former Jamaican slave joined his household as a servant.

In 1762, Samuel Johnson received an annual pension of £300 from King George III of England.

James Boswell a Scottish lawyer met Johnson, and in 1773 the pair spent three months travelling across Scottish Highland and Hebrides, each writing accounts on their travels.  Johnson became leader of London’s Literary World, and friend to many notable artists and writers.

Samuel Johnson died on the 13th December 1784, and was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Selection of Samuel Johnson Publications:

Biography: Richard Savage – 1744

Biography: Life of Edward Cave – 1752

Dictionary of English Language – 1755

Political: The False Alarm – 1770

Fairy Tale: The Fountains – 1766

Poem: London – 1738

The Patriot – 1774

Poverty in the 19th Century

Life in the 19th century was hard for those who had the misfortune to live through it.  Families tended to be much larger than these times, people having ten children or more.  However, it was an accepted part of life, that some would die in their early years, from childhood diseases.

It was hard to put food on the table, for work was scarce, housing prices, ever increasing, and wages low.  Families were forced to share rooms to pay the rent.

The situation in Britain was not helped by those fleeing Ireland in their thousands, amidst their country’s potato famine, and settling here.  So the demand for work and housing grew out of control, and poverty became part of everyday life.

What didn’t help was people’s attitude to those worse off than themselves.  They believed in a state of self-help, through hard work and thrift.  If you were poor, it was your own fault, and you were to blame for your poverty…nobody else.

By the end of the 19th century, poverty accounted for at least twenty-five per cent of Britain’s population.  Most living below subsistence level, of which some ten percent were unable to afford basic necessities.  Some were lucky enough to put a meal a day on the table, whilst others went for days without food, hoping for charity from friends and neighbours.

It reminds me of a story, my mother and grandfather often spoke of.  Aunt Jane lived in Helstone, Cornwall and had ten children, during one of the worst times of this country’s period of poverty.  As the story goes to the best of my memory, if any of her neighbour’s were out of work, she would cook an extra fruit or meat pie, so they had food on the table, and the little ones would not go hungry.  It was her way of instilling charity into her own children.

In 1834, the Poor Law came into effect, it was the Victorian answer, how to deal with poverty.  It became the responsibility of parishes, to join together, creating regional workhouses, where aid could be applied for.

Civil liberties were denied, husbands, wives and children were separated from each other, and their human dignity was destroyed.  They were given unpleasant hard work, and wore uniforms depicting what they were…  The true poor often went to great lengths to avoid these places, for it was said, they were no better than prisons.

Charles Dickens father got into debt, and the family was imprisoned in one of these workhouses, and for years afterwards he became a champion for the poor.

William Booth formed the Salvation Army in 1878, which went out and administered help to the poor and needy.

Some schools provided poor and malnourished children with a free breakfast.  For a child who was hungry could not learn; that was a guaranteed way of getting pupils to attend school.

The Boot Fund was formed in 1890, a charity providing boots or shoes for poor children.

More and more people’s consciences were pinged by the sight of poor and destitute children living rough, on the streets of London.  They were forced to live by their wits, and crime was the name of the game if they were going to eat. 

Just like “Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens” and the character Fagin, who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole.

Poverty in England has been with us many centuries, and people’s attitude towards poverty has changed over the centuries.  For in the 18th century at least fifty per cent of the population lived below the bread line, and wore nothing upon their feet.  By the 19th century it had improved, and only twenty-five per cent were in dire need.  With the coming of the 20th century, people had come to accept poverty as part of life.

If we look at the country today, we can’t say poverty has been eradicated, it has improved with the passing of each century… but it will never be wiped out in our times…

19th Century Industrial Revolution

The living conditions of those who lived in our cities and towns of the 19th century, suffered badly from the multi-tier system.  On one hand you had those people who lived in comfortable houses and employed servants.

Whilst the housing stock for the poor consisted of houses built back to back.  Living room and kitchen downstairs, with two bedrooms upstairs, and they only had windows on the side of the house.  Another form of dwelling was the one-room cellars, where the poorest of the poor lived.  They were damp and poorly ventilated, and they would sleep on straw, for they had no money to buy beds.

Flushing lavatories which we take for granted did not come into use, until the latter years of the 19th century.  If you were one of the large number of poor people at that time, early designs were rather basic, and showed lack of hygiene.  They used a cesspit, which required regular emptying.  Later in the century, they used Earth Closet (A pale with a box containing earth.  When one pulled the lever, so earth would cover the contents of the pale).

19th century streets were often unpaved, and hardly ever cleaned.  Rubbish, hardly ever collected and left to pile up on the streets.  Most of it was organic, and over time would turn into a black and sticky substance, which would be used as a fertiliser.

One of the first improvements in London was the installation of Gas Street Lights in the Pall Mall area in 1807.  By the 1820’s they were being introduced to many towns and cities up and down the land.  By the 1840’s they would be installed in the homes of the rich of that time, replacing the oil lamps, and by the 1870’s most homes would have gas light.

The standard method by which cooking was undertaken, was by means of an open fire, by the 1820’s all that changed, giving way to the Range Iron Cooker.

Crime was rife in London, which led to the first police in Britain; the Metropolitan Police created by Sir Robert Peel, the then Home Secretary in 1829.

For it was in 1829, the first horse-drawn omnibuses started running in London, and by the 1860’s and 1870’s we were to see horse-drawn trams running in many towns and cities.

England was rife with diseases and life expectancy was low, with its highest mortality rate amongst young children.  For it was in 1831-32 and again in 1848-49 cities and towns would suffer severe outbreaks of cholera, killing thousands in its wake.

In 1837 the Telegraph was invented.  The first cable was laid across the channel in 1850, and by 1866, it was possible to send messages across the Atlantic Ocean.  Then in 1840 Rowland Hill invented the Penny Post, and it was the sender who paid the postage charges, as we do today.

The first railway line was from London Bridge to Greenwich, opening in 1836.  Railway lines were laid, the length and breadth of the country.  Many stations were created; Euston Station in 1837, Paddington Station in 1838, and so the list of new stations continued; Victoria, King’s Cross, Euston, and Paddington, just to name a few.

With the 1840’s came a new law by the councils, banning cellar dwellings, and the new construction of back to back houses.

Medical advances made their mark in the 19th century, when in 1847 James Simpson discovered anaesthetics and went on to use chloroform in operations.  Then in 1853 the hypodermic syringe was invented by the French, and in 1865 Joseph Lister discovered antiseptic surgery.

One disease which was very common during the 19th century was that of consumption, now better known as tuberculosis.  Signs of decline started around the 1850’s, and has been reducing ever since.  All these years on, this dreadful disease rears its ugly head from time to time.

Raw sewage flowed through London’s gutters, and eventually emptied out into the River Thames, this same water its residents would drink.  It is no wonder Cholera broke out from time to time, as it did in 1831-32 and again in 1848-49.

Dr. John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead, proved in 1854 that the disease cholera was spread by contaminated waters.

In 1858, Parliament had to go into a period of recess, for the smell from the River Thames became unbearable.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette (Engineer) put a plan into effect; 2100km of sewers, tunnels and pipes were laid across London, and would take twenty years to complete.  This created a cleaner environment, and healthier lifestyle.  From then on, towns and cities started the mammoth job, of digging sewers across the land.

In the 1870’s and 1880’s saw the introduction of purpose built bathrooms, built into the home, whilst others had a tin bath, and washed in the kitchen, a practice that continued well into the 1970’s at least.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and the first telephone exchange opened in 1879.

With the invention of the Electric Light Bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879; cities and towns changed to electric street lights.  This was the first step into seeing electric lights being used in the home…

With the coming of the 1880’s, gas fires came into use within the home, followed by the gas cooker in 1890.

Louis Pasteur invented pasteurisation, a way of sterilising liquids and went on to invent vaccination for anthrax.  Immunization against diphtheria was invented in 1890, and a vaccine for typhoid in 1897.

The use of X-rays was discovered in 1895, allowing doctors to investigate patient’s inners, rather than blindly opening them up to investigate the probable cause.

With the 19th century, Britain saw the transformation of its capital; London, into a financial global and trading capital.  It went on to display itself to the world at the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at Crystal Palace.

Charles Dickens, one of our renowned writers spent much of his life walking the streets of London.  His readers would experience the sights, sounds and smells as he had observed them in his daily travels.  For he would immerse his readers in the perfect stage, as he weaved his fiction.

The streets of his time would be filled with vendors selling their wares, pick-pockets, prostitutes, drunks and beggars.  Fortunately for us, London has changed, since those days, cleaning itself up, and creating a healthier lifestyle for its inhabitants.  Would you not agree?

19th Century Child Education and Employment in England:

In 19th century England, eighty per cent of the population were working class, and would have lived below the bread-line.

Education was not free, except for the poorest of families, and that counted for a high percentage of children.  Many families, thought it was more important to send their child out to work, and put food on the table, than send them to school, to get an education.

In the early part of the 19th century, Parliament passed an Act to curtail child labour, but enforcing it proved impossible.

1833, was a turning point, when a new law was passed, banning children under nine, working in textile factories.  Reformers had been publicising children’s working conditions, comparing their way of life as cheap labourers, and were treated like slaves.  What a co-incidence, the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1833-34.

Grants were provided to church schools, to educate the poorest of children.  Dame schools were also setup, offering reading, writing and arithmetic undertaken by women, but it has been suggested, these were no more than a form of child minding services.

In 1844 a law came into force, making it illegal for children under the age of eight, to work in coalmines.  Then the Factory Act of 1847 stated women and children could only work ten hours per day.

Workers had reached a time, when they needed somebody to speak on their behalf, and so the national trade unions were formed in 1850-1860 for skilled craftsmen.  The TUC wasn’t formed until 1868.

Fosters Education Act of 1870 was a time when the Government was forced to take responsibility for the education of England’s children; schooling should be provided for all children.  The exploitation of children had gone on for much of the 19th century, including the barbaric practice sending small boys up chimneys for the purpose of cleaning them.  In 1875 a law came into force, banning this practice.

The unskilled workers became an organised union in 1880.

Compulsory school attendance for five to ten year olds came into force in 1880, as attitudes towards children changed, and so the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) was founded in 1889.  In 1891 school fees were abolished.  Then in 1899 the school leaving age was raised from ten to twelve.

It was a far different lifestyle for those that had money.  Middle Class families would send their sons to grammar schools, whilst their daughters went to private schools, being taught the finer attributes in life for their future; music, dancing and sewing.  Upper Class families on the other hand would send their sons to public schools like Harrow or Eaton, and their daughters would be taught by a governess.

With Government legislation and the NSPCC children’s lives were beginning to see a change by the latter part of the 19th century.

No longer were they being treated as little adults, and their childhood being exploited by ruthless businesses.  They were free to live the life of a child, attend school and gain an education for their future.

Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

Notes from the U.K.

Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and universal suffrage. So if (as I assume) you slept through them in some half-forgotten history class, it’s time to catch up.

They not only matter, they’re interesting.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom

The Napoleonic Wars and the politics of wheat

Let’s start with the Napoleonic Wars. That’s 1803 to 1815, and I had to look them up too. I don’t actually know anything. I just ask Lord Google questions and arrange the information he gives me, usually in odd patterns and after filtering the sites he suggests, because he does try to slip me some losers. 

I also have a growing stash of books on British history. Some are more useful than others.

Where were we?

The Napoleonic Wars. Before…

View original post 1,828 more words

The 19th Century Corn Laws

In 1813, a committee was set up in the House of Commons, and they passed “The Corn Laws” in 1815, to keep bread prices high by blocking all types of grain from abroad, protecting English farmers from cheap imports.

It’s all about sliding amounts of money in one’s pocket, and how it relates down the chain from production to supplier to the shop, and eventual sales.  If prices are high in the shops for food, it costs more to buy it, then they have little money for clothing, thus clothing sales are reduced, so stock is sold cheaply, the working man’s wages go down.  Factories close, mills close, then there is no work.  On the other hand, if food prices are kept low within the shop, there’s more money for clothes, higher demands, higher wages, and more work.

How did we get into this mess?  It all started during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British set up a blockade, in an attempt to isolate the Napoleonic Empire, thus creating hardship for the French.  During which time Britain was protected from imports, and farming became very lucrative.

With the end of the war, and blockades removed, the Government had to protect their own, from cheap imports.  The Importation Act of 1822, stated grain could be imported, only when domestically harvested corn rose to 80 shillings per quarter.

Those who gained from the Corn Laws were landowners, who owned profitable farmland, who wanted to see the Corn Laws remain in place.  Parliament showed no interest in changing the law at present, but that was likely to change.

The first change took place in 1828, when the Duke of Wellington, now appointed Prime Minister devised a sliding scale rate of duty for imported grain.  When domestic grain was 52 shillings per quarter or less, the duty equalled 34 shillings and 8 pence, and when the price increased to 73 shillings, the duty decreased to one shilling.

The Anti Corn Law Association, wanted to see changes in the law, and in 1836 constantly pressed for changes.  Then in 1840 an ally, the MP Charles Pelham Villiers published a blue book on the effects of the Corn Laws.  This was enough to force a change, and Robert Peel reduced import duty to 20 shillings if and when domestic prices fell to 51 shillings or less in 1842.

In the years up to 1844, harvests were good, but all that changed in the latter part of 1845, with a poor harvest, and the Great Famine of Ireland.

Parliament was recalled on the 27th January 1846, and Robert Peel announced that the Corn Laws would be abolished on the 1st February 1849, following three years of gradual reductions, leaving only one shilling duty per quarter.

Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck opposed such a move, claiming it would weaken landowner’s powers, both socially and politically.

On the 25th June 1846, Robert Peel was defeated in the Commons by 292 to 219 on his “Irish Coercion Bill” and on the 29th June forcefully resigned his post as Prime Minister.

Additional Note:  The Corn Laws relate to all types of grain.

Victorian Britain

Victoria became queen at the age of 18 after the death of her uncle, William IV. She reigned from 1837-1901. Her reign was a period of significant social, economic and technological change, which saw the expansion of Britain’s industrial power and of the British empire.

20 June 1837: Victoria ascends to the throne after the death of William IV

Victoria became queen at the age of 18 after the death of her uncle, William IV. She reigned for more than 60 years, longer than any other British monarch. Her reign was a period of significant social, economic and technological change, which saw the expansion of Britain’s industrial power and of the British empire.

1838: Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ is published

Charles Dickens was one of the greatest Victorian novelists. ‘Oliver Twist’ was, like many of Dickens’ other novels, originally published in serial form and brought to public attention contemporary social evils. Dickens’ other works included ‘The Pickwick Papers’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Great Expectations’.

8 May 1838: People’s Charter advocates social and political reform

The People’s Charter advocated democratic reform on the basis of six points: one man, one vote; equal electoral districts; payment of members of parliament; elections by secret ballot; removal of property qualifications for MPs; and parliaments elected every year. ‘Chartism’ gained substantial support among working people during the next decade and presented three national petitions to parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1849. It was the most significant radical pressure group of the 19th century.

1 August 1838: Slavery is abolished in the British empire

In 1834, slaves in the British empire started a period of ‘apprenticeship’, during which they were obliged to work without pay for their former owners. Abolitionists campaigned against the system and in the Caribbean there were widespread protests. When the apprenticeship period ended in 1838, over 700,000 slaves were freed in the British Caribbean. Plantation owners received about £20 million in government compensation for the loss of their slaves. The former slaves received nothing.

17 September 1838: London-Birmingham railway line opens

This line, which connected London to the Midlands for the first time, had been planned since 1833, with sections opened in 1837. The completion of the Kilsby Tunnel enabled the full 112-mile line, designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson, to be opened. London-Birmingham was the first railway line into the capital city, with passengers disembarking in the newly-designed Euston station. The line precipitated the first of the great railway booms.

7 May 1839: Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne resigns and sparks a political crisis

When the Whig prime minister, Viscount Melbourne, resigned over a constitutional matter concerning government in Jamaica, Victoria asked Sir Robert Peel, as leader of the Tory opposition, to form a government. Peel refused to do so, apparently because the queen refused to dismiss her pro-Whig ladies of the bedchamber. Melbourne resumed office. Peel was probably waiting for an opportunity to take office in more favourable circumstances, as he did in 1841.

10 January 1840: A uniform postage rate of one penny is introduced

Britain’s postal system was expensive, complex and open to abuse. As a response to widespread discontent, a committee of enquiry was set up in 1835. In 1837, Rowland Hill proposed a uniform post rate of one penny, irrespective of distance. His proposals were implemented three years later. In the decade after the implementation of the ‘penny post’, the volume of letters sent in Britain increased five-fold to almost 350 million a year.

June 1840: Vaccination for the poor is introduced

Parliament enabled local poor law authorities to provide vaccination at the expense of ratepayers. Battles over the ethical and practical issues involved lasted for the remainder of Victoria’s reign. Some authorities were reluctant to pay, even after infant vaccination was made compulsory in 1853. Further tightening of the regulations in 1867 and 1873 saw a number of anti-vaccination campaigns. In 1898, parents were allowed a certificate of exemption for their children on grounds of conscience.

August 1841: Sir Robert Peel forms a Conservative government

The Whig government under Viscount Melbourne faced increasing financial and public order difficulties, and Sir Robert Peel forced a general election after defeating the Whigs on a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won a Commons majority of more than 70. This was the first election in modern times when one political party with a parliamentary majority was defeated by another which gained a workable majority of its own.

June 1842: Income tax is introduced for the first time during peacetime

Income tax was levied for the first time during peace by Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative government at a rate of 7d (three pence) in the pound. The tax threshold was an income of £150 per year, thus exempting virtually all the working classes. The tax was not extended to famine-torn Ireland until 1853. Direct taxation was unpopular in Victorian Britain. Many 19th-century finance ministers toyed with the idea of abolishing income tax, but it proved too convenient and too lucrative to lose.

18 May 1843: Church of Scotland splits over separation of church and state

More than 450 ministers of the Church of Scotland walked out of the church’s general assembly in Edinburgh to form the new Free Church of Scotland. Sometimes known as ‘the disruption’, the split concerned the relationship between church and state in Scotland. Those leaving the church, led by the evangelical Thomas Chalmers, believed that a religious organisation should have a clearly religious head and should reject lay patronage.

September 1845: Irish potato famine begins

In September 1845, the potato crop which had previously provided approximately 60% of the nation’s food needs, began to rot all over Ireland. The potato blight struck again the following year. What began as a natural catastrophe was exacerbated by the actions and inactions of the British government. It is estimated that about a million people died during the four-year famine, and that between 1845 and 1855 another million emigrated, most to Britain and North America.

30 June 1846: Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel resigns after the Corn Laws are repealed

Sir Robert Peel’s famous reforming Conservative government came to an end shortly after legislation to repeal the Corn Laws was passed. This measure removed protective duties which had helped to keep the price of bread high. He championed it despite opposition from most of his own party, and the motion was carried by Whig votes. Peel never took office again and was remembered as the prime minister who gave the working classes cheaper bread.

5 April 1847: World’s first municipal park opens in Birkenhead, Merseyside

Birkenhead, on the opposite bank of the Mersey Estuary from Liverpool, was the venue for the world’s first man-made park, complete with lakes, hillocks and meadows. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, who also designed the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Many such parks followed as Victorians sought to provide open spaces in or near the centre of urban areas.

13 May 1848: Irish nationalist John Mitchel is arrested for treason

John Mitchel came to prominence during the Irish potato famine. In March 1848 he founded a journal, ‘United Irishman’, which called for Irish independence and gave practical tips on how to attack British troops. Charged under the Treason Felony Act, he was sentenced to 14 years transportation. This episode helped set Irish resistance to British occupation on a more violent path.

July 1848: Public Health Act aims to reduce death rates

Following pressure from the administrator Edwin Chadwick and the findings of the Health of Towns Commission, parliament passed legislation to improve urban conditions and reduce death rates. Local boards of health were established in places where the population’s death rate exceeded 23 per 1,000. The act was seen as an unwelcome intrusion by central government and proved very unpopular. The central Board of Health was wound up in 1858.

1849: Important artists establish the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English artists who rejected what they considered as the effete symbolism and lack of reality of paintings dating from the 16th-century European Renaissance. They aimed to revert to what they saw as the directness and sincerity of medieval painting. The most important artists of the movement were Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. They were championed by the art critic and writer John Ruskin.

5 March 1850: Robert Stephenson’s Britannia Tubular Bridge is opened

The Tubular Bridge provided a rail link from the mainland of north Wales, near Bangor, across to Anglesey and on to Holyhead for ferries to Ireland. Its designer, Robert Stephenson, constructed two main spans with rectangular iron tubes 460 feet long. The bridge itself was 1,511 feet overall and novel in construction, since the box sections were constructed on shore and then floated into the straits to be lifted into place.

March 1851: Census reveals the extent of Welsh support for the Nonconformist church

In addition to the population census of England and Wales, a census was taken of places of worship. This revealed that around 80% of Welsh worshipers went to Nonconformist chapels and only 20% to the established church. Awareness of this numerical superiority greatly encouraged the demand for the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales. Partly due to the opposition of the Conservative party and the House of Lords, this did not take place until 1914.

1 May 1851: The Great Exhibition opens at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London

This event was the brainchild of Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and was designed to provide a showcase for the world’s most advanced inventions, manufactures and works of art. It was housed in the massive 19-acre Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton. The event attracted almost six million visitors during the five summer months it was open. Many ordinary people travelled to London for the first time on cheap-rate excursion trains.

28 March 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia and the Crimean War begins

The Crimean War was fought between the Russians and an alliance of the British, French and Turks who feared Russian expansion in the Balkans. Notable battles included those at Sebastopol, Balaclava (which saw the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade) and Inkerman. Russia was forced to sue for peace, and the war was ended by the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. British troops casualties were as much from poor equipment and medical care as from fighting the Russians.

10 May 1857: Members of the Bengal army mutiny in India

Following a series of insensitive British demands, members of the Bengal army mutinied in Meerut and marched towards Delhi, which they took two days later. It was re-taken in September. Lucknow was twice besieged before being finally relieved in November. British authority was not fully restored until July 1858 and the events of the mutiny were characterised by great brutality on both sides. The mutiny led to the end of East India Company rule in India and its replacement by direct British rule.

30 January 1858: Britain’s first permanent symphony orchestra is founded

Charles Hallé, the pianist and conductor, founded the orchestra which still bears his name. Based in Manchester, the orchestra gave its first concert in the city’s Free Trade Hall. This development indicated the growing importance attached to providing elevating cultural activities for the citizens of Britain’s towns and cities.

2 May 1859: Devon and Cornwall are linked by a revolutionary new bridge

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Saltash railway bridge across the River Tamar was a suspension bridge comprising two huge wrought iron trusses in the form of a parabola. This bridge afforded much speedier transport to England’s most remote western county. An unbroken line from London to Penzance was completed in 1867. Opened only four months before Brunel’s death, the Saltash became the only suspension bridge to carry main-line trains.

24 November 1859: Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ is published

Charles Darwin’s masterwork, which argued that all species evolved on the basis of natural selection, resulted from more than 20 years’ research following a five-year journey around Cape Horn in HMS ‘Beagle’. The book created an immediate stir, since Darwin’s theory appeared to contradict the bible’s creation story and call into question ideas of divine providence. Despite the influence of Darwin’s work, very few Victorian scientists took up an atheistic position as a result of reading it.

8 February 1861: Post Office savings scheme for ordinary people is launched

In the debate that led to the introduction of the Post Office Savings Bank, the chancellor of the exchequer, William Gladstone, stated that the Post Office, which contained almost 3,000 money-order offices, would offer a convenient way of encouraging small sums to accumulate in secure accounts. This initiative accorded with the Liberals’ policy of encouraging habits of thrift and industry among what Gladstone called ‘the humbler classes throughout the country’.

14 December 1861: Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, dies aged 42

Albert’s premature death from typhoid plunged Victoria into a long period of mourning and withdrawal from public life, during which a republican movement gained popularity. Albert had been both a restraining and a guiding force on his headstrong wife and, although never popular with the British public partly on account of his German origins, he was an able and energetic man who played an important part in the scientific and intellectual life of his adopted country.

13 February 1862: Education funding becomes linked to pupils’ results

Since 1833, the state had funded education for the poor in schools run by churches. Expenditure increased rapidly, especially after the first education inspectors were appointed in 1839 and a pupil-teacher scheme of training was implemented from 1847. By the early 1860s, an economy-minded Liberal government wanted the state to get value for money. Grant payments were linked to pupils’ success in basic tests in reading, writing and arithmetic. The system was dubbed ‘payment by results’.

16 March 1867: Joseph Lister writes on antiseptics in ‘The Lancet’

Joseph Lister, while Regius Professor of Clinical Surgery at Glasgow University, began experiments designed to reduce high hospital mortality rates from septic inflammation. Working on French biologist Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, he used carbolic acid as an antiseptic barrier on patients, reducing mortality on a male accident ward from 45% to 15%. Despite initial scepticism, Lister’s methods were refined and then widely adopted. He is regarded as the founder of modern surgical practice.

15 August 1867: Second Reform Act doubles the electorate

This Reform Act was passed by a minority Conservative government led by Frederick, Earl of Derby. Its orchestrator was Benjamin Disraeli, who permitted larger extensions to the franchise than the Liberals would have countenanced. It virtually doubled the electorate, enabling one-third of adult males in Britain and one-sixth in Ireland to vote in parliamentary elections. In a few urban constituencies, working men were an electoral majority. A separate act for Scotland was passed in 1868.

9 December 1868: William Gladstone becomes prime minister for the first time

William Gladstone headed a Liberal government after defeating Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservative government in a general election. Gladstone’s ministry survived until 1874 and is credited with passing many reforms, especially relating to administration, the army and public health. Gladstone was to form three further administrations, resigning as prime minister for the last time in March 1894.

26 July 1869: William Gladstone disestablishes the Church of Ireland

The established Church of Ireland was Anglican, although only about 3% of the Irish population belonged to it – the vast majority being Roman Catholic. William Gladstone’s legislation put church property into the hands of commissioners, who could use it for ‘social schemes’, including poverty relief and the expansion of higher education. Irish bishops no longer sat in the House of Lords. The act was designed to reduce tensions and increasing lawlessness in Ireland.

17 November 1869: Suez Canal opens, linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea

Britain had opposed the building of the Suez Canal by an international company, but changed its position in 1875 when Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservative government bought 40% of the Canal Company’s shares. The canal then became of vital strategic interest, particularly as a route to India and the Far East, and was protected by British troops from 1883.

17 February 1870: New law introduces secular school boards

This bill, introduced by the Liberal member of parliament WE Forster, was to extend opportunities for education available to the children of the poor. The act permitted new school boards to be set up where existing education provision in ‘voluntary schools’, controlled by the churches, was inadequate. A substantial growth in school building resulted, particularly in urban areas. The act did not make schooling compulsory.

1 August 1870: Irish Land Act gives rights to tenants

Ireland’s Landlord and Tenant Act, passed by William Gladstone’s government, attempted to address a key grievance. The act provided for compensation to tenants evicted by landlords and it gave legal protection to customary tenant right. Tenants were also allowed to purchase their holdings if they could afford the cost.

9 August 1870: Women obtain limited rights to retain their property after marriage

This act changed the previous legal situation, in which all property automatically transferred to the control of a husband on marriage. It granted some limited separate protection to a married woman’s property and also permitted women to retain up to £200 of their own wages or earnings. Similar changes did not take effect in Scotland until 1877.

18 July 1872: Voting by secret ballot is introduced

William Gladstone’s Liberal government introduced voting by secret ballot five years after the Second Reform Act had substantially increased the size of the electorate. This realised one of the key points of the reforming ‘Chartist’ petition of 1838. Voting in secret was not uncontroversial. The proposal was fiercely contested by the House of Lords, which considered it ‘cowardly’ and ‘unmanly’. It was first employed at a by-election in Pontefract in August of the same year.

1 May 1876: Victoria is declared empress of India

India came under direct British government control in 1858, when the remaining authority of the East India Company was dissolved. The Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, suggested to the queen that she should be proclaimed empress. His motive seems mainly to have been flattery. Despite objections from the Liberal opposition, who were not consulted, the title was endorsed and Victoria used it officially from 1877.

13 July 1878: Congress of Berlin aims to settle European problems

Britain, represented by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Cecil, Marquis of Salisbury, signed a European treaty which attempted to settle problems between states in the Balkans and, in particular, to reduce perceived threats to European stability from Russian expansion. Cyprus was leased to Britain from Turkey, strengthening its position in the Mediterranean. Disraeli declared that he had brought back ‘peace with honour’.

28 December 1879: Tay Bridge collapses in gale force winds

During a Force 11 gale on the River Tay, the two-year-old, two-mile railway bridge collapsed and 75 train passengers plunged to their deaths. It was the biggest structural engineering disaster in Britain. The subsequent enquiry apportioned most of the blame to the bridge’s builder, Sir Thomas Bouch, for failing to take sufficient account of the effects of wind force. The bridge was rebuilt and opened to rail traffic in July 1887.

2 August 1880: Education becomes compulsory for children under ten

Although WE Forster’s act of 1870 had greatly expanded education opportunities, and an act passed in Benjamin Disraeli’s government of 1876 had set up school attendance committees, significant gaps remained. AJ Mundella introduced a bill on behalf of William Gladstone’s Liberal government which made school attendance compulsory from ages five to 10. State expenditure on education, about £1.25 million a year in 1870, rose to £4 million, and would reach £12 million by the end of Victoria’s reign.

24 August 1880: National Eisteddfod Association holds its first meeting

The eisteddfod, as a competition of Welsh bards and minstrels, had a long history dating back to at least the 10th century. In modern times, it developed as a celebration of Welsh culture and identity from the 18th century. After the formation of the National Eisteddfod Association, a national gathering was held annually, alternating between the north and the south of Wales.

17 January 1881: Sir William Armstrong’s home becomes the first to use electric light

The mansion created at Cragside in Rothbury (Northumberland) by the Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw was designed to incorporate every modern convenience. Built for the engineering magnate Sir William Armstrong, it was called ‘the palace of a modern magician’. Swan’s new electric lamps were powered by water from a local stream through a dynamo-electric generator.

16 August 1881: Second Land Act reforms Irish property law

The second Land Act created a Land Commission for Ireland which could decide the level of ‘fair rents’. The act also granted free sale of land and security of tenure. William Gladstone’s Liberal government hoped, optimistically, that this legislation would take the sting out of violent agitation in Ireland.

6 May 1882: Two British government officials are murdered in Dublin

The recently appointed chief secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary TH Burke were stabbed to death in Phoenix Park, Dublin. The perpetrators were members of the ‘Invincibles’, an extremist branch of the ‘Fenian’ revolutionary organisation. The murders outraged the public in Britain and, much against his will, provoked Prime Minister William Gladstone into maintaining harsh coercive policies in Ireland.

1 January 1883: Married women obtain the right to acquire their own property:

The 1870 Married Women’s Property Act had been widely criticised for failing to provide sufficient safeguards for married women. A further act provided something approaching equality for women since it allowed women to acquire and retain any property deemed separate from that of their husband’s. They also received the same legal protection as husbands if they needed to defend their right to property.

December 1884: Third Reform Act stops short of creating a male democracy

The third Reform Act created a uniform franchise qualification based on the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1868. As a consequence roughly two-thirds of adult males in England and Wales, three-fifths in Scotland and half in Ireland were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Large numbers of adult males, such as servants, most members of the armed forces and children living in their parents’ houses remained disenfranchised. This act, therefore, stopped some way short of creating a male democracy.

17 December 1885: Rumours emerge that William Gladstone supports ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland

Acting on information supplied by his son Herbert, newspapers carried reports that Prime Minister William Gladstone would support ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland. Although Gladstone did not confirm the reports, his Liberal government, which returned to office in February 1886, drew up proposals for Home Rule. These provoked cabinet resignations, a split in the Liberal party and a Conservative election victory in July.

1 April 1889: New local government authorities take up their duties

Under the Local Government Act passed by the Conservatives the previous year, responsibility for poor law relief, roads, bridges and asylum was transferred to newly-created county councils. London had its own county council, while boroughs with populations over 50,000 became ‘county boroughs’ with the same powers as county councils. Scotland had its own Local Government Act passed on 26 August 1889 and coming into effect in 1890. This established a similar system of county and town councils.

March 1894: Parish councils are created

The Local Government Act required all parishes with a population over 300 to elect parish councils; smaller parishes could apply to their county council to have similar status. Women could vote in parish council elections. Under the act, almost 700 urban sanitary districts were reorganised as urban districts and a similar number of rural districts were established. In Scotland, a separate local government act of 1894 replaced existing ‘parochial boards’ with elected parish councils.

2 August 1894: Death duties are introduced

Death duties, the predecessor of the present inheritance tax, were proposed by the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, Sir William Harcourt. They replaced earlier taxes on estates. They also equalised liability between real (estate) and personal property. Duties were paid at a variable rate depending on size. They became an important revenue-raiser but were fiercely resented by many landowners, already feeling the pinch as a result of depressed agricultural prices.

2 July 1897: Guglielmo Marconi is awarded a patent for radio communication

The Italian-born physicist Guglielmo Marconi conducted a number of communication experiments in southern Britain in 1896-1897, and the award of a patent followed his first communication across water from Lavernock Point, South Wales, to Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel. He established the first transatlantic signal in December 1901. His work inaugurated the ‘Wireless Age’.

October 1897: Women’s suffrage campaign gains momentum

The first organised activity in support of votes for women dates from the 1860s, but pressure grew rapidly in the late 1880s. A turning point was the merger of the National Central Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The NUWSS co-ordinated a range of regional activities. Its president, Millicent Fawcett, opposed violence and promoted her organisation as law-abiding and above party politics.

10 October 1899: Second Boer War begins in South Africa

After the First Boer War in 1880-1881, the Boers (farmers of European descent) of the Transvaal forced the British government to recognise their independence. But the Boers refused to recognise the rights of the British (many prospecting for gold) in the Transvaal, leading to the Second Boer War. Although the Boers had initial military successes, the war ended in May 1902 with a Boer surrender. It was costly and unpopular war and Britain received much international criticism for its use of concentration camps.

22 January 1901: Victoria dies and is succeeded by Edward VII

Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight at the age of 81. As queen-empress she had ruled over almost a quarter of the world’s population. Although wilful and narrow-minded in some respects, she established firm precedents for a hard-working ‘constitutional monarch’, operating as a head of state above the fray of party politics. Her death, coming so soon after the end of the 19th century, was truly the end of an era.

The Lady with the Lamp: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale was born on 12th May 1820 in Florence, Italy.  Her parents William Edward Nightingale born William Edward Shore, and Mother Frances Nightingale.

William’s mother was the niece of Peter Nightingale, and upon his death, he left his entire estate at Lea Hurst in Derbyshire to William Shore as it was then.  Under the terms of the will he assumed the name and arms of Nightingale.

In February 1837 while staying at Embley Park, one of the family homes, Florence believed she had received a calling from God, to devote her life to the service of others.  This was to cause much distress for her mother and Francis her sister.  For it was expected of her to become a wife and mother … not a servant.  For it was not the expected thing at that time for affluent English women to do.

Against her family wishes she educated herself in the science of nursing, her family may not have approved, but nothing was going to stand in her way.  She believed it had been a calling from God who had set her on this path, and she was doing his will.  Nothing nor anybody was going to stand in her way. 

In 1847 she contacted the former Secretary at War; Sidney Herbert and they were to become lifelong friends.  When he became the new Secretary at War at the time of the Crimean War, he and his wife assisted Florence in undertaking nursing in the Crimea.

Nightingale travelled to Greece and Egypt in 1850 and in her writings referred to the beauty of the Nile.  She was overcome by the sheer beauty, and what buildings and temples stood for, and how they related to the common man.

Upon her visit to Thebes, she wrote in her diary of being called to God, to undertake his work.  Later that year, she visited the Lutheran religious community at Kaiserswerth – am – Rhine in Germany.  Whilst there had the opportunity of seeing Pastor Theodor Fliedner, and his deaconesses tending the sick and deprived.

From that time forth her life changed dramatically.  She was to receive four months of medical training, whilst at the institute.  She also went on and published a work: The Institution of Kaiserswerth on the Rhine for the Practical Training of Deaconesses.

For it was Florence Nightingale took up the post of Superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street on 22nd August 1853.  A post which she would hold until October 1854, for it was no more than a stepping stone of grander things to come.

Florence Nightingale was destined to make a name for herself during the Crimean War; her name would go down in history.

When news reached Britain of the poor conditions, she knew her time had come, and stepped forward accordingly.  On 21st October 1854, she took 38 nurses, 15 Catholic Nuns to the Crimea.

Nightingale’s team of helpers, arrived at Selimiye Barracks in November 1854, and found soldiers suffering, limited medical supplies, hygiene if any.  Then coming face to face, with military officials, who saw her as nothing more than an interference.

Nightingale made a plea to The Times, asking the government to provide a solution to these poor conditions.  This led to the construction of pre-fabricated hospitals designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  The final result was Renkioi Civilian Hospital, under Dr.Edmund Alexander Parkes.  Nightingale intervention saw the death rate drop from 42% to 2% by improving hygiene standards.

The Times nicknamed her; The Lady with the Lamp, and it stuck.  When the medical staff had retired for the night, and silence and darkness hovered across the wards.  Soldiers remembered Florence Nightingale offering comfort, by visiting each and every patient.

On the 29th November 1855, the Nightingale Fund was established, its aim to train nurses, for war work and beyond.  Thousands of pounds were donated to the fund.

On the 9th July, the Fund had set up the Nightingale Training School at St.Thomas Hospital, and the first batch of fully trained nurses, started work on 16th May 1865 at the Liverpool Workhouse infirmary.

One of Nightingale’s achievements had been the introduction of qualified nurses into England’s workhouses, thus the sick were treated by trained nurses.  Her work served as an inspiration for nurses, her name would never be forgotten.

During the American Civil War, the Union Army asked for her advice, nursing in the field.  They rebuked her suggestions, but a volunteer body; United States Sanitary Commission was formed.

In the 1870’s, Nightingale mentored Linda Richards; she became America’s first fully trained nurse, and went on to become a nursing pioneer in the USA.

In 1882 several Nightingale nurses had become matrons at St.Mary’s Hospital, Westminster Hospital, Royal Victoria Hospital, and it had become a growing trend across the country.

Florence Nightingale was to receive awards for her work at home and in the field:

1883 Royal Red Cross

1904 Lady of Grace of the Order of St.John

1907 Order of Merit

1908 Honary Freedom of the City of London

She did have several important friendships, which meant a lot to her.  An Irish Nun, Sister Mary Clare Moore, with whom she worked in the Crimea.  Mary Clarke an English woman she met in 1837.  In both cases it is said, she kept up a prolonged correspondence which lasted till her end.

On 13th August 1910, aged 90, Florence Nightingale died peacefully in her sleep.  Her grave can be found at St.Margaret’s Church, East Well, Hampshire.

She had never wanted popularity; she just fought for better medical standards.  She became a pioneer in the world of nursing, and offered better hygiene standards for all, in our hospitals.