Privilege – 2

It is now time to look beneath the cloud and see how ordinary folk were living in Georgian England. The poor had very few choices to make and very little control over their own lives. As J.L. and Barber Hammond say in The Village Labourer : « The upper classes… considered that it was the duty of the poor man to adapt himself, his tastes, his habits, and his ambitions, to the arrangements of a society which it had pleased Providence to organise… » 28. As we shall see, these humble souls had God and the Church ranged against them, as well as the aristocracy and the Government.

Pitt abandoned his scheme for reforming the Poor Law, excusing himself by saying that he had no experience of their conditions. This, lest we forget, was the same man who died owing £40,000. So, for once, he was telling the truth. Fox was far more sympathetic. Considering Whitbread’s Bill of 1795, he said that « it was not fitting in a free country that the great body of the people should depend on the charity of the rich. »29

In fact, the condition of those at the bottom of the social pyramid seemed to be getting worse year on year. The country was going through the throes of both the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution as well as the chaos and disruption that resulted from the wars against France and Napoleon. The Agrarian Revolution was accompanied by a spate of enclosures that stripped from the poor many of their ancient rights. Common fields and woodlands vanished and the jobs they had provided vanished too. Small farmers lost their land and itinerant labourers lost employment. This also led to another insidious development – the landless workers and farmers sank even deeper into the social abyss. To the wealthy they were even further beneath contempt, out of sight and out of mind : « Writing towards the end of the ancient regime, Cobbett maintained that in his own lifetime the tone and language of society about the poor had changed very greatly for the worse, that the old name of ‘the commons of England’ had given way to such names as ‘the lower orders,’ ‘the peasantry,’ and ‘the population,’ and that when the poor met together to demand their rights they were invariably spoken of by such contumelious terms as ‘the populace’ or ‘the mob’. » 30

William Cobbett

The results of all this were manifold : « In short, by degrees beginning about fifty years ago the industrious part of the community, particularly those who create every useful thing by their labour, have been spoken of by everyone possessing the power to oppress them in any degree in just the same manner in which we speak of the animals which compose the stock upon a farm. This is not the manner in which the forefathers of us the common people, were treated. »31

In villages prior to enclosure everyone knew their neighbours and rubbed shoulders with them on a daily basis. Small farmers, cottagers and labourers all lived a similar existence. Some had domestic plots of land on which they grew vegetables and crops for subsistence while on other occasions they might do part-time work on someone else’s land. Most of them would have been on first name terms and the concerns of one – the weather, the quality and price of land, the condition and health of stock etc. – would be the concern of them all. They would also have met socially and there was a definite sense of community and belonging. Now, everything seemed to be changing for the worse : « This is perhaps only another way of saying that the isolation of the poor was becoming a more and more conspicuous feature of English society. »32

On March 17th 1821, the very year that Napoleon died (after all, wasn’t everything supposed to be his fault?) Cobbett wrote about this matter to Mr. Gooch : « I hold a return to small farmers to be absolutely necessary to a restoration to anything like an English community ; and I am quite sure, that the ruin of the present race of farmers, generally, is a necessary preliminary to this… The life of the husbandman cannot be that of a gentleman without injury to society at large. When farmers become gentlemen their labourers become slaves… You, Sir, with others, complain of the increase of the poor-rates… But, you seem to forget, that, in the destruction of the small farms, as separate farms, small-farmers have become mere hired labourers… Take England throughout three farms have been turned into one within fifty years, and the far greater part of the change has taken place within the last thirty years ; that is to say, since the commencement of the deadly system of PITT. Instead of families of small farmers with all their exertions, all their decency of dress and of manners, and all their scrupulousness as to character, we have families of paupers, with all the improvidence and recklessness belonging to an irrevocable sentence of poverty for life. »33

As if the contrast between the rich and the poor were not clear enough :« The eighteenth century was the century of great mansions, and some of the most splendid palaces of the aristocracy were built during the distress and famine of the French wars. »34 As a result of all this :« The rich and the poor were thus growing further and further apart, and there was no one in the English village to interpret these two worlds to each other. »35

At the same time, the clergy in the Established Church of England knew which side their bread was buttered on and they were very anxious to be thought well of by the aristocracy whose habits they aped and whose social occasions they also loved to grace with their presence. Meanwhile, in their sheer misery and in a world that was turned upside down, the common people might try to turn to the only thing that could give them a little comfort and hope – their parish church and a fragile belief in a benevolent God. But there was precious little comfort and succour to be found within the cold dark mansions of the Almighty.

There is an old saying in English that : ‘It never rains but it pours,’ and many ordinary families found themselves swamped by a tsunami of misfortune. Many parsons were not to be found in their parish churches and the vast majority of them were utterly indifferent to the predicament faced by thousands of their fellow mortals. The old habit amongst aristocratic families was to send the oldest son into the Army and the second son into the Church. And to these entitled people it was the wealth that went with these sinecures that was of concern, not the lives of those who went to church on Sunday. On paper, the grand Anglican Establishment might be expected to have more than a passing interest in the souls of their flocks, but, in reality, they proved beyond all doubt that they themselves did not have a heart :« The association of the Anglican Church with the governing class has never been more intimate and binding than it was during the eighteenth century. This was true alike of bishops and of clergy. The English bishop was not a gay Voltairean like the French, but he was just as zealous a member of the privileged orders… »36 There was a clear distinction here on either side of the Channel :« In the Revolution the common clergy were largely on the side of the peasants. Such a development was inconceivable in England. »37

Clerical benefices were tossed around and dealt with like playing cards in a game that only benefitted the rich. Many already fantastically wealthy people garlanded themselves with one glittering sinecure after another :« There were three Pretymans dividing fifteen benefices, and Wellington’s brother was Prebendary of Durham, Rector of Bishopwearmouth, Rector of Chelsea, and Rector of Therfield. This method of treating the parson’s profession as a comfortable career was so closely entangled in the system of aristocracy, that no Government which represented those interests would ever dream of touching it. »38

The filthy rich appeared to be making a clean sweep of everything. To add insult to injury, it was the poor who were then preached at – they simply could not be left alone to wallow in their many miseries – the great and the good also liked to tell them how to behave : « In one respect the Church took and active part in oppressing the village poor, for Wilberforce and his friends started, just before the French Revolution, a Society for the Reformation of Manners, which aimed at enforcing the observance of Sunday, forbidding any kind of social dissipation, and repressing freedom of speech and of thought whenever they refused to conform to the superstitions of the morose religion that was then in fashion. This campaign was directed against the license of the poor alone. »39 Ah what bliss is was that dawn to be alive – and to be a hypocrite was very heaven.

The rich could get away with murder – and they did – witness that flogging of 800 lashes, leave alone the 2,000 dead at Copenhagen in 1807. It was like a time-travelling early version of 1984. Good was what the upper classes called good and benefitted them the most while bad was what they disliked and what might harm their interests. But punishment was usually meted out to those far below them in rank and station. Wellington liked to brag about how the playing fields of Eton inspired his men at Waterloo, even though none of the 45,000 Prussians who saved his bacon on that day actually went there. However, in public schools they did have whipping boys, and the elites that flourished in them and gained power soon learnt how to put the blame for things that went wrong on somebody else.

Wilberforce has had a good press because of his principled stand against slavery and there is a museum in his honour in Hull on the east coast of England. However, this fixation of his with cowing the poor, suppressing their voices and bludgeoning them with his own form of righteous religion reflects rather badly on him. It was hypocritical to the nth degree : « Men like Wilberforce and the magistrates whom he inspired did not punish the rich for their dissolute behaviour ; they only found in that behaviour another argument for coercing the poor. As they watched the dishevelled lives of men like George Selwyn, their one idea of action was to punish a village labourer for neglecting church on a Sunday morning. »40 A bit like the man who loses an argument with his wife going immediately to give his dog a good kicking. The result of all this litany of woe is lamentable and reminds one that ‘the good old days’ were only so if one was very rich, and in power : Thus all the influences of the time conspired to isolate the poor, and the changes, destructive of their freedom and happiness, that were taking place in their social and economic surroundings, were aggravated by a revival of Puritanism which helped to rob village life of all it natural melody and colour.41

One man who tried to give them a voice and to speak up on their behalf was William Cobbett already mentioned above. In 1795 he was :« a fierce champion of English institutions, and a fierce enemy of revolutionary ideas… »42 However, unlike Coleridge, Stoddart, Wordsworth and Southey who began as ‘men of the people’ but who later sold their souls for the glint and lucre of patronage, Cobbett’s damascene conversion went the other way :« In 1810 Cobbett was rapidly making himself the most powerful tribune that the English poor have even known. »43 His paper the Political Register was inaugurated in 1802. He was still a Tory then but the more he studied society, the greater his opinions diverged from what they had been before : « He saw in 1816 that the nation had to choose between its sinecures, its extravagant army, its ruler’s mad scheme of borrowing at a higher rate to extinguish debt, for which it was paying interest at a low rate, its huge Civil List and privileged establishments, the interests of the fund-holders and contractors on the one hand, and its labourers on the other. »44

The industrial and rural poor had no representation in Parliament at all. Not only did they have no voice, nearly everything that was said in the House of Commons and the House of Lords seemed to go against their best interests. When the poor resorted to the only forms of protest available to them, gatherings, strike and marches, they were beaten into submission by ruthless force as at Peterloo in 1819 after having been accused of fomenting revolution. This claim was reinforced by the egregious use of agent provocateurs who were paid to encourage trouble and strife amongst the poor and then disappear, leaving them to suffer the inevitable consequences. Too often history just seems to be about kings and queens, conquerors and great military leaders, the history of the common people is often completely unknown, ignored or simply unwritten. As the Hammond’s indicate, the beginning of the C19th was certainly no golden age for them : « During the years between Waterloo and the Reform Bill the governing class was decimating the village populations on the principal of the Greek tyrant who flicked off the heads of the tallest blades in his field ; the Game Laws, summary jurisdiction, special commissions, drove men of spirit and enterprise, the natural leaders of their fellow men, from the villages where they might have troubled the peace of there masters. The village Hampdens of that generation sleep by the shores of Botany Bay. »45

They then compare this country in 1830 with the countries in Europe that had ‘suffered’ under Napoleon : « … Europe had been overrun by war, and England alone had escaped what Pitt had called the liquid fire of Jacobinism. There had followed for England fifteen years of healing peace. Yet at the end of all this time the conquerors of Napoleon found themselves in a position which they would have done well to exchange with the position of his victims. The German peasant had been rescued from serfdom ; Spain and Italy had at least known a brief spell of less unequal government. The English labourer alone was the poorer ; poorer in money, poorer in happiness, poorer in sympathy, and infinitely poorer in horizon and in hope. »46 His standard of living in 1830 was less than it had been in 1795.47

Yes, it was all Napoleon’s fault, or perhaps, as Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara, the rich farmers, politicians and aristocrats just ‘don’t give a damn’.

The condition of the poor in the rapidly growing towns and cities was just as bad, if not worse. At least there was fresh air in the countryside and that was still free. When multitudes of impoverished people were crammed into damp, derelict squats and hovels in giant metropolises disease could spread with alarming rapidity. Ill-fed, weak and emaciated people who were forced to drink filthy fetid water would soon succumb to typhoid and cholera, and in those days it was a case of no work no pay, there was precious little charity amidst the dark satanic mills. The industrial Revolution made this country great but it decimated and destroyed the working poor who pulled shifts of twelve hours or even more amidst the noisy, clanking machinery, with no thought given to personal safety at all. Even the children were forced to do whatever work they could find in order to feed their families. It was indeed, a hand-to-mouth existence. And the common people seemed to be getting even poorer. In contrast the salaries of judges were raised three times by Act of Parliament in 1799, 1809 and 1825. The wages of upper class officials had also gone up substantially.

Landlords and those in the governing class had done extremely well. Throughout the land mansions and palaces had appeared like a glittering rash, and superb libraries and art galleries blossomed within these illustrious habitations. Rest assured that M’lud Wellington was living with the ‘dignity’ to which he had grown accustomed. So much for freedom and equality and those much vaunted and cherished English liberties, in truth the rich and the poor seemed to be living in parallel universes.48

As well as the great social and economic changes caused by the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, the ordinary folk of Britain had to endure the consequences of decades of senseless warfare against France and Napoleon. It should come as no surprise therefore, that when Fox did not live long enough for England to benefit from Napoleon’s offers of peace :« Napoleon never ceased to deplore the impossibility of coming to any reciprocal terms with England so long as Pitt’s influence was in the ascendant, and he and a large public in France and in this country profoundly believed that Fox had not only the desire but the following, and all the diplomatic qualities to bring it about. Any close, impartial student of history, free from the popular prejudices which assailed Napoleon’s origin and advent to power, cannot but concede the great possibilities of this view. »49

Of course, at the top of the social, economic and political pyramid was the King George III and he despised Fox so much that peace with France was virtually impossible. After the death of Fox there was no chance at all of a cessation of hostilities on the British side. In contrast, Napoleon liked to keep his emotions under control. Napoleon believed that to :« Surmount great obstacles and attain great ends.(sic) There must be prudence, wisdom, and dexterity. We should do everything by reason and calculation, estimating the trouble, the sacrifice, and the pleasure entailed in gaining a certain end, in the same way as we work out any sum in arithmetic by addition and subtraction. But reason and logic should be the guiding principle in all we do. That which is bad in politics, even though in strict accordance with law, is inexcusable unless absolutely necessary, and whatever goes beyond that is criminal. »50

As we have seen, if you are at the very bottom of the social pyramid it is extremely hard to extricate yourself from that predicament. The vast majority of the poor were illiterate. To improve both their economic and social status they needed an education. Of course, they had no funds to spare for this themselves as they lived such a wretched day-to-day existence, meanwhile, the state had no intention of providing a universal education system. The very opposite was the case. The country’s elite as a whole not only detested their social inferiors as a group, they were dead set against them ‘bettering themselves’ as we English say. Here is a quote from a High Tory in 1827 :« As education has increased amidst the people, infidelity, vice, and crime have increased. At this moment the people are far more vicious and criminal, in proportion to their numbers, than they were when comparatively uneducated. The majority of criminals consist of those who have been ‘educated.’ »51 This comment reveals an innate fear of the masses as a whole, and a more specific reaction to their middle-class and more vocal leaders like Cobbett and Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. Those at the very top had a dread and loathing for ‘organised labour’ and in particular those brave individuals who spoke up on behalf of the common folk. Things were very different for the blue-blooded oppressors of the poor. It wasn’t so much that they were ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’, it was more like a silver shovel. Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge and toured Europe as a young man. At the age of twenty-one he was given a seat at County Down in Ireland. It was thought that his election cost the Marquis of Londonderry £60,000. In 1794 Castlereagh also got the seat of Tregony in the House of Commons. Henry Addington, Lord Sidmouth went to Winchester School before going on to Oxford University. He was only thirty when Pitt suggested he become Speaker in the House of Commons. For this one post he was paid a salary of £6,000 a year and with this instant fortune he purchased a large estate for himself in Reading. Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool, was educated at Charterhouse and then Christ Church, Cambridge. At the age of twenty he was given the seat of Appleby, a pocket borough owned by Sir James Lowther. The Mother of Parliaments had a very privileged brood. The average wage for a working man at the time was 10 shillings a week, less than £30 a year. These scions of the British aristocracy gave themselves the equivalent of millions of pounds a year in today’s money and begrudged the poor a few extra pennies a week to pay for bread and the bare necessities of life.52

Lord Sidmouth

The early C19th was a very hard time for the common people. As noted above, the Agrarian Revolution forced a lot of people to leave the land and seek jobs in the burgeoning new industrial towns and cities. But the industrial Revolution in turn led to the hated Factory System that bled the impoverished workers dry. Industrial unrest and terribly low wages were exacerbated by the rise of the new machines which put thousands of workers out of their jobs. The group known as The Luddites sprang out of this general hardship. It was named after the mythical Ned Ludd and its object was to turn back time and give the workers more control and say in their own lives. Starving, and unemployed and underemployed men, became machine breakers. In their desperation, worried to death about their half-starved families and the constant decline in their parlous standard of living, they resorted to violence as no other recourse was left open to them. Factories and the dwellings of the Masters were also attacked and burnt. The employers and the Government responded with brute force and hundreds of men were hanged, hundreds more were transported to Australia – the land Captain Cook claimed for George III in 1769 – the year that Napoleon was born.

To be continued…


  1. Hammond J.L and B. The Village Labourer Vol. II p.8 (Guild Books, Longmans, Green & Co.
    London, 1948) First published October 1911
  2. Ibid. p.10
  3. Ibid. p.11
  4. Ibid. p.11
  5. Ibid. p.11
  6. Ibid. p.12-13 Italics and capitals as in original
  7. Ibid. p.15
  8. Ibid. p.15
  9. Ibid. p.17
  10. Ibid. p.19
  11. Ibid. p.21
  12. Ibid. p.23
  13. Ibid. p.23-24
  14. Ibid. p.25
  15. Ibid. p.35
  16. Ibid. p.35-36
  17. Ibid. p.37
  18. Ibid. p.40
  19. Ibid. p.42
  20. Ibid. p.42
  21. Ibid. p.42
  22. Runiciman op.cit. p.127
  23. Ibid. p.128
  24. BBC Radio For Schools Spring Term 1973 Urban Life In Britain [1832-1850] p.3
  25. Spartacus Educational See pages on Lord Castlereagh; Lord
    Sidmouth; Lord Liverpool and Pocket Boroughs