Sunday, 30 November 2008

Further social reform

Asylums and the insane

Ashley also played a significant role in raising the question of conditions in asylums and madhouses and the treatment of their inmates[1]. In 1842, he had secured legislation that empowered the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy to carry out a detailed inspection of all institutions that housed the insane. In 1844, the Commissioners’ report was completed. On the basis of its evidence, Ashley brought forward two bills to reform the administrative machinery concerning the care of lunatics. The general effect of the legislation was to reconstruct the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy by granting them wider powers of inspection, licensing and reporting. It proved a milestone on the road away from the earlier notorious practices of Bedlam and towards modern ideas of mental health services.


Between 1841 and 1846, railway mileage doubled from 1,696 to 3,036 miles, the number of passengers rose from 24 to 44 million and goods receipts rise from £1.56 million to £2.84 million. The dramatic expansion and its associated ‘railway manias’ threatened to bring chaos to the financial markets as investors feverishly sought to profit from railway shares. This growth came at a cost and there were growing concerns about passenger safety with railway companies providing few safety precautions. In 1841, there were 65 accidents resulting in 41 passenger deaths and 92 injuries plus an additional 60 accidents among railway employees resulting in 28 deaths and 36 injuries. These statistics raised important questions about the wisdom of an unregulated railway system.

Regulation of railways[2] went to the heart of the government’s strong commitment to the principles of laissez-faire. It raised two important questions. First, under what circumstances was it justifiable for government to intervene in the operation of the free market? Secondly, if intervention was justifiable, what degree of regulation was necessary to protect the public without inhibiting the economic development of the railways? Peel, for example, believed that railway companies would tend to become negligent once relieved of their responsibilities by government and that the public could be trusted to take care of themselves.

William Gladstone, as Vice President and after 1843 President of the Board of Trade adopted a more interventionist position. The result was two pieces of legislation. In February 1842, Gladstone brought in a bill that made the existing inspection of railway lines prior to their opening to the public more effective. Other provisions required railway companies to report all accidents on their lines and improve some safety procedures, In 1844, the ministry introduced the most famous of all Railway Acts designed specifically to improve the safety and convenience of third-class passengers. Gladstone proposed that railway companies that derived a third or more of their revenue from passengers (and most companies did) were to run at least one train daily with a fare of no more than 1d per mile, that it should stop at every station and run at a speed of no less than 12 miles per hour. Thus began the so-called ‘parliamentary trains’. Further legislation ensured a higher standard of comfort and safety for passengers by licensing the Board of Trade to approve the construction of railway carriages.

The government was less successful in regulating the entrepreneurial aspect of railway development. The 1844 Railway Act had also contained provision for the regulation of boards of management of railway companies. Furthermore, Gladstone proposed regulating railway companies in the same wat as the Bank of England was regulation, that is, by review. If, at the end of fifteen years, the annual divisible profit on the paid-up share capital of any company equalled 10 per cent, the government would have the option of revising the fare and charges of that company. Another provision would have allowed the government the option of purchasing any new railway line, whatever the profits.

If these provisions had passed, they would have represented a significant extension of the principle of state intervention in the operation of the railway network. It is unclear what Gladstone’s justification for this was and the proposals seem to have been personal rather than governmental. In the event, many of Gladstone’s Cabinet colleagues disagreed with him and pressure from thirty railway companies on Peel resulted in twenty clauses being deleted from the bill. Gladstone assured the Commons, in a decidedly apologetic speech on 22nd July 1844, that there had been no intention on the part of the government to become managers of the railway. Rather the intention of the bill had been to reserve the right of the legislature to act on behalf of the general public.

Gladstone’s retreat could not hide the fact that the government had caved in to pressure from the railway interest[3]. The influence of the railway interest is further illustrated by the fate of the Railway Board, established in August 1844. Presided over by Lord Dalhousie, Vice-President of the Board of Trade since Gladstone’s promotion in 1843, its role was to speed the passage of railway bills through Parliament. Instead of each railway line being sanctioned by both houses of Parliament, the Railway Board would receive applications and make recommendations as to which line should be passed, postponed or rejected. By the beginning of 1845, there were already major objections to the Board and criticisms that it was assuming too much authority. There was no defence of the Board by ministers and when Peel withdrew his support, its fate was sealed. The collapse of the Railway Board, in many respects, characterises the government’s railway policy: essentially it was an opportunity lost. It was not until the 1860s and 1870s that there was any attempt by government to exert effective control over the railways.

Assessing social policies

Where does Peel’s government fit in the context of the debate about the growth of government in the first half of the nineteenth century? In broad terms, historians have identified two schools of thought: the theorists and the empiricists.  The theorists claim that the impetus for state intervention derived from Jeremy Bentham and his disciples. They argue that Bentham laid the philosophical foundations for intervention in his principle of ‘utility’. Benthamite publicists publicised his theory and Benthamite civil servants exercise their influence over government to enact utilitarian reforms.  The empiricists deny the importance of theory and argue that, for the most part, government responded to the pressure of events. This, they maintain, accounts for Britain’s erratic and piecemeal reformism.

Peel’s government cannot be regarded as Benthamite in character or that his ministers had marked Benthamite sympathies. However, Peel’s government relied on the investigative powers of Benthamite officials. The Royal Commission on children’s employment contained at least one well-known Benthamite reformer, Southwood Smith as well as Leonard Horner, the factory inspector who was Benthamite in sympathy. Horner’s advice was also sought by Graham during the drafting of the 1843 Factory Bill though Horner actually advised a cautious policy rather than a further extension of governmental intervention. Indeed, it was Ashley, certainly no Benthamite, who urged greater intervention in the factory system.

The empiricist model is perhaps the better guide to the Peel ministry. Peel and his ministers were not social reformers acting on a rational plan for government intervention. They were conscious of the need to balance interests (economic, religious or political) and had no intention of tipping the balance in favour of any single interests. Their approach was cautious and often reactive, being nudged forward by one interest and deflected by another. The problem was that Peel’s executive view of government required administrative solutions to social problems whereas, in reality, those problems needed a resolution that defined the relationship between areas where it was justifiable for the state to intervene and where responsibility should lie with the individual. This, and opposition within his own party, limited the extent to which Peel’s government was capable of innovative solutions to social problems.

[1] On the question of madness and the insane, Roy Porter Mind-Forg’d Manacles, Athlone Press, 1987 is perhaps the best introduction to developments between 1660 and the early 1830s. Andrew Scull The Most Solitary Affliction: Madness and Society in Britain 1700-1900, Yale University Press, 1993, Andrew Scull, Charlotte MacKenzie and Nicholas Hervey Masters of Bedlam: the transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade, Princeton, 1996, Leonard D. Smith ‘Cure, Comfort and Safe Custody’: Public Lunatic Asylums in Early-Nineteenth Century England, Leicester University Press, 1999 and Peter Bartlett The Poor Law of Lunacy, Leicester University Press, 1999 provide greater focus and analysis of the nineteenth century.

[2] On this issue see Henry Parris Government and the Railways in Nineteenth-Century Britain, London, 1958.

[3] On this issue see P. S. Bagwell ‘The railway interest: its organisation and influence, 1839-1914’, Journal of Transport History, volume 7, (1965), pages 65-86.

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