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Social Condition of Great Britain


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The light which falls upon the condition of the British people during the earlier years of the century serves mainly to discover sights of woe. England rendered illustrious to all ages the splendid fighting capabilities of her people. She vindicated for herself a foremost place among the European nations, because she proved that she was just, wise, and energetic beyond the others. But her glories were bought with a great price. The social condition of her people had fallen very low, and the war suspended all effort for its elevation.

When she first engaged in the war, Great Britain had a population of fourteen million. Notwithstanding the lavish expenditure of life, she had grown steadily, till in 1815 she numbered twenty million. While the war lasted, the condition of the people was not intolerable. Out of four or five million adult males, one million were in the closing years of the war withdrawn from the competition for employment, and dedicated to the business of fighting. Agriculture and our rapidly growing manufactures employed the others, at a rate of wages which ordinarily furnished a decent maintenance. The unskilled labourer earned eleven shillings in Scotland, and thirteen to fifteen shillings in England. Carpenters, masons, and bricklayers received seventeen to eighteen shillings in Scotland, and twenty-two to twenty-five shillings in England. Even the hand-loom weaver enjoyed tolerable comfort. He earned thirteen to seventeen shillings in Scotland. At Bolton, where the work called for greater skill and delicacy, a diligent weaver received twenty-two to twenty-five shillings in requital of his weekly labour.

During the commercial agitations which followed the close of the war, the wages of the trades connected with building suffered little. Those operatives who had to do with spinning and weaving were less fortunate. The demand which the war created for their products ceased. The power-loom had recently entered upon its career, and the poor hand-loom weaver was called to take the first step in his downward progress. His wages sank about one-half. The reward of his daily toil of sixteen or eighteen hours ranged from ninepence to one shilling and fourpence, and often he was unable to obtain the privilege of working even at these miserable rates. Long years of suffering followed to those whose fortunes were embarked in this sinking ship. The hungry weavers invoked the help of Parliament. They begged to be sent to Canada. They proposed that the terrible power-loom should be restrained by law; and when that was denied them, they rose in their despair and lawlessly overthrew the machines which were devouring the bread of their children. They craved that a legal minimum of wages should be fixed, adequate for the maintenance of a family. Unfortunately it was beyond human power to grant their prayer. A better weaver than they had arisen. The hand-loom had to be put away among the rubbish of the past, and the poor workman had to endure a life of ever-deepening want till he died.

The war brought much prosperity to those who had to do with land, and to the mercantile classes. Rents advanced till at the close of the war they had more than doubled. The landowning class rose to a height of splendour hitherto unexampled. Nor had the farmers less reason to be satisfied. Their grain enjoyed a monopoly, and the prices which they obtained enabled them to become rich. Many lucrative contracts were enjoyed oy the merchants. The manufactures of the country were in excellent request, and the foundations of many large fortunes were then laid.

But although the wages of labour remained high throughout the years of war, the purchasing power of the labourer diminished. At the close of the war, a working-man could not acquire one-half of the commodities which his labour yielded to him twenty years before. Prices of food and clothing rose, under war influences, to an extreme point. Wheat, which in 1792 was so low as forty-seven shillings per quarter, rose in 1801 to one hundred and eighty shillings. During some weeks of that year the quartern loaf sold at one shilling and tenpence. Throughout the war wheat averaged eighty-four shillings per quarter. We had then no foreign grain to relieve us in our straits. Government occasionally reinforced our too scanty supplies by a measure which not even the necessities of the time can vindicate. The grain-ships of neutral powers were stopped on the high seas, and a forcible sale of their cargoes exacted.

The law-makers of that time were gentlemen who owned land and let it out for rent to the -men who tilled it. During the war there could be no serious incursion of foreign grain, for millions of the men who ought to have been peacefully ploughing and reaping were expending their energies in the slaughter of one another. But with peace there might come wheat from abroad, and a consequent decline in rents. In order that the farmer should continue to pay his accustomed rent, it was needful that wheat should continue extravagantly dear. The operation of natural laws would now have given the people cheaper food, but this would have been calamitous to the land-owner, and must be prevented. So in the year 1815 a new corn law was passed, the object of which was to make the poor man's bread dear that the rich man's rental might be high. No foreign grain was to be imported, until wheat in the home markets had been for six months at or over eighty shillings per quarter. The object of this arrangement was to keep the price of wheat steady at a point not far from ninety shillings, a price which could not fail to satisfy the land-owner and the farmer, however it might fare with the consumer of their wares. For thirty years this corn law (Modified, not beneficially, into the sliding scale of 1828) was a blight and a curse to the British people. Practically it came very nearly to this, that if our own fields did not produce grain enough to supply our wants, we were obliged to content ourselves without it. In other words, poor people had to go on short allowance, and many of them had to die. Famines were of frequent occurrence. It is told of Paisley, during a time of scarcity, that the town was often utterly without grain or meal, and that when a dealer was fortunate enough to secure a small supply, the hungry people crowded in eager competition to his shop. In Edinburgh, under the prevalence of scarcity, one in every eight of the population was maintained by the charity of the others; and a proclamation of the magistrates regulated the amount of bread which each family was expected to consume. The careful authorities prohibited the sale of bread until it had been twenty-four hours out of the oven, that the waste in cutting might be diminished.

When bread was dear work was often scarce, and the misery endured was dreadful. And men explained it all by saying that the country was over-peopled. They perversely shut out the boundless supplies of food which the world was longing to send them, and then bemoaned the deficiency. Philosophers speculated upon methods for restraining the increase of the population; and they looked forward with hopeless despondency upon the constant growth of a population for whom already there was not sufficiency of food. It seemed to many observers as if nature, like some poor men, was bringing into the world a larger number of children than she had the means to rear. It was not corn alone which the legislators of that time rejected. The law was yet more peremptory in its exclusion of beef. Corn was admitted on some terms; cattle, living or dead, were admitted on none. It was a prevailing belief of theorists that to be safe a country should produce the whole of its own food, and of agriculturists that the shutting out of foreign competition was an arrangement which yielded financial results highly satisfactory to the land-owner and the farmer. Between theorist and practical monopolist, an increasing population ran no inconsiderable risk of perishing from want.

Taxation was monstrous, for expenditure had long been boundless. Towards the close of the war we had a million of armed men in our pay, and we hired poor foreign governments, by huge payments, to equip their subjects for the same bloody work in which we ourselves were engaged. When the war began we had been spending twenty million sterling, and our debt was two hundred and sixty-eight million; at its close we were spending one hundred and seven million, and our debt had grown to the amazing sum of eight hundred million. During the brief interval of peace between the war with our revolted colonies in America and the war with France, our expenditure was little over twenty shillings for each of the population; now it is at the rate of 2, 7s. But in 1814 it had risen to 6 for each person in the country - a rate of government expenditure unknown upon the earth excepting then. Our gifts to foreign powers, during the years from 1793 to 1815, were sixty-eight million, including a sum of two hundred thousand pounds which we generously bestowed on the restored King Louis, that he might with becoming dignity seat himself upon the throne of his fathers.

When peace returned, our expenditure fell to fifty-two million, which was at the rate of 2, 12s. for each person. It was a welcome relief from the load which men had borne so long. But public finance was as yet imperfectly comprehended, and taxation was so imposed as to produce the maximum of evil. Bread was taxed, not to yield revenue, but avowedly to increase rental. Sugar and tea were so taxed that during the forty years which intervened between 1791 and 1831, while population had grown, from fourteen million to twenty-two million, the consumption of sugar had grown no more than from two hundred and ninety ounces to three hundred and fifty-eight ounces for each individual, and tea no more than from twenty-four to twenty-six ounces. The rate of consumption of tobacco had slightly lessened. The building of houses was so discouraged that the consumption of bricks and glass was actually declining. A heavy tax on malt made beer so costly that, during the thirty years which followed 1791, the use of that beverage had fallen off by fifty per cent. This was no calamity had the fact stood alone; but a more deadly stimulant took the place of the comparatively inoffensive beer. Between 1821 and 1831 the consumption of spirits had more than doubled. There was a tax on windows, which yielded a million and a quarter annually, and which caused the building up of windows, and a consequent shutting out of the sunlight, to the serious diminution of human comfort and health (This very injurious tax was not abolished till 1851). Paper was taxed from three halfpence to threepence per pound. This article was made to yield a revenue three times larger than the wages of all the work-people employed in its manufacture. Newspapers were taxed fourpence each copy, partly to yield revenue, but still more to render them too costly for the use of poor people (The newspaper is the natural enemy of despotic government, and was; treated such in England Down to 1765 the duty imposed was only one penny; but as newspapers grew the influence the restraining tax was increased from time to tamp, until m 1815 it reached the maximum of fourpence). Salt was taxed to the extent of forty times its cost. One of the cheapest and most indispensable articles was thus made so expensive that the poor could with difficulty obtain it. On the coast, people habitually used the water of the untaxed ocean for the purposes of their simple cookery. It was estimated that a poor weaver, in that hard time,, paid nearly half his income to government in direct and indirect taxation. The prudent man who insured his house against fire, or his goods at sea against shipwreck, suffered the discouragement of a tax which ranged from one shilling and threepence to five shillings per cent. He who desired to promote his business by an advertisement in the newspapers, was charged three shillings and sixpence for the privilege. From the medicines of the sick Briton government wrung an annual sum of fifty thousand pounds (Sidney Smith did not caricature when he wrote: "The schoolboy whips his taxed top; the beardless youth manages his taxed horse with a taxed bridle on a taxed road; and the dying Englishman, pouring his medicine which has paid seven per cent, into a spoon which has paid fifteen per cent., flings himself back upon his chintz bed, which has paid twenty-two per cent., and expires in the arms of an apothecary, who has paid a license of one hundred pounds for the privilege of putting him to death. His whole property is then immediately taxed from two to ten per cent. Large fees are demanded for burying him in the chancel; his virtues are handed down to posterity on taxed marble; and he is then gathered to his fathers - to be taxed no more.").

The criminal laws were savage, and they were administered in a spirit appropriately relentless. The feeling of the time was so entirely in favour of severity, that Edmund Burke said he could obtain the assent of the House of Commons to any bill imposing the punishment of death. Every class strove to have the offences which injured itself subjected to the extreme penalty. Our law recognized two hundred and twenty-three capital offences. Nor were these mainly the legacy of the dark ages, for one hundred and fifty-six of. them bore no remoter date than the reigns of the Georges. It seems, at first, that there can scarcely be two hundred and twenty-three human actions worthy even of the mildest censure (Sir Samuel Romilly asserted that there was no other country in the world "where so many and so large a variety of actions were punishable with loss of life."), But our stern fathers found that number worthy of death. If a man injured Westminster Bridge, he was hanged. If he appeared disguised on a public road, he was hanged. If he cut down young trees; if he shot at rabbits; if he stole property valued at five shillings; if he stole anything at all from a bleachfield; if he wrote a threatening letter to extort money; if he returned prematurely from transportation, - for any of these offences he was immediately hanged. The criminal class has become, in recent times, a most painful embarrassment. Our fathers experienced no similar difficulty. They solved the problem by putting to death, with little discrimination, every rogue, great or small, on whom they could lay their hands. Judge Heath avowed from the bench the theory which seemed to govern the criminal policy of the time. There was no hope, he said, of regenerating a felon in this life. His continued existence would merely diffuse a corrupting influence. It was better for his own sake, as well as for society, that he should be hanged. In 1816 there were, at one time, fifty-eight persons under sentence of death. One of these was a child ten years of age. The hanging of little groups of men was of constant occurrence. Somewhat earlier it had been even worse. "A fortnight ago," wrote Charles Wesley in 1776, "I preached a condemned sermon to about twenty criminals; and every one of them, I had good grounds to believe, died penitent. Twenty more must die next week." Men who were not old when the battle of Waterloo was fought were familiar with the nameless atrocities which it had been customary to inflict on traitors. Within their recollection, men who resisted the government were cut in pieces by the common executioner, and their dishonoured heads were exposed on Temple Bar to the derision or pity of passers-by. It seemed, indeed, as if society were reluctant to abandon these horrid practices. So late as 1820, when Thistlewood and his companions were executed for a poor, blundering conspiracy which they were supposed to have formed, the executioner first hanged and then beheaded the unfortunate men.

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