Monday, 29 September 2008

Peel, reform and opposition


The Tory party, decimated in the general election in late 1832, was in a demoralised state. It had been marked as the party that opposed reform. The reality was less stark. Unquestionably there were die-hard opponents of reform among the Tories. The ultras-Tories in Lords and Commons, outraged by Catholic emancipation in 1829, opposed parliamentary reform, municipal reform, church reform, factory reform and poor law reform. They lost on every issue.

Peel’s attitude to reform

Peel was not amongst them though he did oppose reform on principle as a significant challenge to constitutional order. However, he did not condemn the principle of reform entirely but believed the Whigs had gone too far. In March 1831 he said in the debates in the House of Commons  “I do not hesitate to avow, that there might have been proposed certain alterations in our representative system, based on safe principles, abjuring all confiscation and limited in their degree, to which I would have assented.”  Later in December 1831, he stated “I am satisfied with the constitution under which I have lived hitherto, which I believe is adapted to the wants and habits of the people.... On this ground I take my stand, not opposed to a well-considered reform of any of our institutions which need reform, but opposed to this reform.”

The clearest statement of Peel’s attitude to reform, however, came in his response to the King’s speech at the opening of Parliament in early 1833: “He was for reforming every institution that really required reform; but he was for doing it gradually, dispassionately and deliberately, in order that reform might be lasting....” This was a bold statement: the strategy of reforming to conserve. Change, if it could be shown to be necessary, was justifiable but must reinforce not undermine the Constitution and Britain’s governing elite. He accepted the reform of Parliament in 1832 as a fact of life but committed himself and his party to protect the institutions of the country such as the Crown, the Established Church and the Union with Ireland. This position was not designed to pacify the ultra right in the party. Opposition for its own sake, Peel recognised, would not restore the fortunes of the Tories. He needed to dismiss the widely held view that the Tory party was reactionary and supported by only a small, unrepresentative part of the population. In Parliament, Peel adopted the tactic of ‘constructive opposition’ to Grey’s and later Melbourne’s government. Instead of voting against each measure, he decided that the best tactic was to judge each issue against his principles and vote accordingly. In the 1833 Parliament, Peel only voted three times against the government. This distanced him from the ultra-Tories who wanted to see the end of the Whig government at any price. However, Peel believed that for the Tories to regain office, they had to be seen in a more positive light than the ultra-Tories’ tactics demonstrated. Opposition for opposition’s sake did not show this; principled and constructive opposition did.

Peel was dedicated to good government by men of efficiency and integrity. His was an executive view of power where authority lay in the hands of the elite with the education and expertise acting in the national interest. Government was there to govern. Public opinion had its place but Peel was concerned to reassert the proper balance between executive authority and extra-parliamentary influence that he believed had been altered by the crisis over reform. Like most of his contemporaries, Peel was not a democrat. The ‘people’, he believed, did not have the necessary education or judgement to make critical decisions. If Parliament surrendered to outside pressure, the quality of its judgements would be weakened and the interests of the nation jeopardised.


Electoral disaster for the Tories in the December General election.


Peel made a statement that he would support the Whig government when it acted in defence of law, order and property.


Stanley and Graham left the Whig government over the Irish Church question. William IV dismissed Melbourne’s government [November] and Peel became Prime Minister of a minority Tory government; the Tamworth Manifesto.


Ecclesiastical Commission set up. Tories gained seats in the General election but Peel is defeated by an alliance of Whigs, Irish MPs and Radicals; return to opposition.


Peel worked for greater co-operation between Tories in the two Houses of Parliament.


Peel, Stanley and Graham co-operated enhancing Peel’s position as Conservative leader; further gains in the General election.


Merchant Taylor’s Hall speech emphasised Conservative support for preserving existing institutions in State and Church.


Bedchamber Crisis


Disagreements between Peel and Wellington over various issues; Wellington persuaded to abandon opposition to Whig Canada legislation. Conservative unity maintained.


Whigs defeated on vote of no confidence [June] leading to a General Election [July]. Conservatives win and Peel became Prime Minister of a majority government.

Peel in the 1830s was not a leader of the opposition in its modern sense. He did not see his role as providing ‘loyal opposition’ to Whig measures and made it clear that he was prepared to support legislation aimed at maintaining law and order and property in 1833. Neither was he the official leader of the Tories, at least before the end of 1834. The Ultras were a problem for Peel. They distrusted each other. The Ultras feared that Peel would ‘rat’ again as he had in 1829 over emancipation. Peel did not trust the Ultras to act responsibly rejecting their view that politics should be determined largely by the interests of English landowners.

Peel and his notion of ‘constructive’ opposition 1832-34

Though he opposed reform in 1832, Peel was quick to recognise that there was no going back. Reform was here to stay. As early as January 1833, Peel wrote that ‘I presume the chief object of that party which is called Conservative…will be to resist Radicalism, to prevent those further encroachments of democratic influence which will be attempted…as the natural consequence of the triumph already achieved’. The move from the use of Tory to Conservative as the party label was crucial. In the popular mind, ‘Tory’ was associated with a bigoted and selfish opposition to all proposals for improvement and an uncompromising defence of the privileges and monopolies enjoyed by institutions connected to the Anglican, landed elite. For Peel, the term ‘Conservative’ allowed for the possibility of cautious change designed to reconcile those institutions with the prevailing attitudes of the modern world. To argue that this represented at attempt to ‘modernise’ the party neglects the extent to which the ‘Conservatives’ of the 1830s were an extension of the ‘liberal’ Tories with their reformist agenda of the 1820s.

However, in two important respects, Peel’s analysis of the consequences of reform in 1832 proved accurate. First, Peel predicted that reform would generate further demands for change. For many Radicals, the Reform Act did not go far enough and they called for an extension of the franchise, the secret ballot and triennial parliaments. This posed a real threat to the aristocratic and landed elite and given that radical sentiment was strong opposed to the power of this group, Peel believed that there would be calls for the reform or abolition of the House of Lords and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In addition, he expected a broad assault on the position of the Church of England from Protestant nonconformists who already had considerable electoral influence. Secondly, he rightly identified a fundamental weakness within the Whig government and argued that it would quickly come to rely for its continued existence on the support of a diverse alliance of interests in parliament and outside. In fact, from 1835, the Whigs governed only because they had the support of the Irish MPs led by O’Connell and a ragbag of backbench Radical MPs.

It is therefore surprising that Peel preferred to support rather than oppose Whig ministers in parliament. In March 1833, he defended the government’s Coercion Bill to combat agrarian unrest in Ireland and in July efforts were made to ‘whip’ Conservative MPs in order to save the Whigs from defeat on a radical motion for triennial parliaments. Peel only voted against the Whigs in three of the forty-three parliamentary divisions in the 1833 session. The following year saw the Conservatives come to the rescue of the government on two occasions. On the biggest questions, such as poor law reform in 1834 and reform of the municipal corporations the following year, Peel either actively supported the government or did not interfere. Peel was determined to resist the temptation of entering into opportunistic alliances with the radical or Irish MPs simply to embarrass the government. Choosing to shield ministers from the attacks launched by his own nominal supporters.

It suited Peel’s purpose to see ministers coming under attack from their own backbenchers. His underlying strategy is explained in letters written to his friend Henry Goulburn in 1833 and 1834 respectively: ‘Our policy ought to be rather to conciliate the goodwill of the sober-minded and well-disposed portion of the community and thus lay the foundation of future strength’ and ‘My opinion is decidedly against all manoeuvring and coquetting with the Radicals, for the mere purpose of a temporary triumph over the Government…If it [the government[ breaks up…in consequence of a union between Radicals and Conservatives, in my opinion, the Government which succeeds it will have a very short-lived triumph.’

However, he recognised that nothing could be more suicidal for the Conservatives than opposition for opposition’s sake since it simply drove the Whigs closer into the arms of the radicals and this did not suit Conservative interests. Peel’s policy of supporting the government was designed to perpetuate divisions between Whigs and radicals and thus prevent radical ideas from gaining ground among Whig ministers. Peel’s long term aim was to subtly promote the gradual disintegration and ultimate collapse of the government’s substantial parliamentary majority. Some Whig MPs were already, by the beginning of the 1833 session alarmed at the sight of their leaders coming under pressure from radicals and Irish MPs. Peel reckoned that these moderate Whigs could well move across to become Conservative supporters.

Although Peel may have had a clear idea of what ‘constructive opposition’ meant, it arguably shows the difficulties he faced in the period between the Reform Act and the minority Conservative administration of 1834-5. Peel was undoubtedly the dominant figure on the opposition front-bench but he was not in any official sense ‘leader of the opposition’. It was not until he was asked to form a government in December 1834 that he truly became the leader of the Conservative Party. Peel could not command the loyalty of opposition MPs: in March 1833 more than half of the Conservative MPs voted for a radical motion on currency reform to which Peel was strongly opposed. He also faced the continuing antagonism of the Ultras, estranged since Peel abandoned the Protestant cause in 1829 by introducing Catholic Emancipation. Peel made no attempt to gain their support and rejected the suggestion of a rapprochement in 1831 since he had no intention of building up an opposition party reliant on ultra support.

His efforts to establish a broad, central coalition by wooing moderate Whigs was partly designed to neutralise the ultra. By early 1834, there were signs that this strategy was about to pay dividends. Internal Cabinet disputes over Irish policy culminated in May with the resignations of four ministers (Lord Stanley, Sir James Graham, Lord Ripon and the Duke of Richmond) raising expectations of an imminent ministerial collapse. This appeared to vindicate his constructive opposition to the government and his unwillingness to enter into alliances of convenience with radical and Irish MPs. He believed that moderate Whigs would be drawn into Conservative ranks only if his party acted responsibly in opposition.

Peel adopted a non-partisan approach to opposition politics. It represented a realistic response to the fact that, in the immediate aftermath of the Reform Act, the Conservatives were only a small minority in the House of Commons. It gave him the opportunity to establish his leadership on terms acceptable to himself and to stamp his personal authority on the Commons.

Was there a two party system in the 1830s?

Although the 1830s saw increasingly clear party divisions between Whigs and Conservatives, some important riders must be made.  Voting records in the Commons suggest that most MPs now voted consistently according to the wishes of their party leaders. However, a substantial number did not and some, though reducing in number continued to reject party labels. In this sense, Britain in the 1830s did not have a ‘two party system’ in the modern sense. The powers of the monarchy, though significantly diminished, had not disappeared completely. Peel became prime minister in 1834 because William IV dismissed the previous government, the last occasion, though this was not known at the time that the monarch would dismiss a government with a majority in the Commons. The monarch in the 1830s was more than a titular position and the notion of the ‘King’s minister’ was not an empty one. Peel’s perception was that he did not become prime minister because he was a leader of a party in the Commons but because he was appointed by the King. This may be a subtle constitutional distinction but it was central to Peel’s view of the role of ministers and did not alter between then and the end of his career. He saw himself as an executive servant of the Crown first and the leader of a party second.

In the 1830s, both major political parties were a fairly loose coalition of interests. Historians sometimes talk about the ‘Whig-Radical’ party in the 1830s. No such party existed. The ‘Radicals’ were a group of politicians who supported a wide range of political causes including nationalism or separatism for Ireland and further political reform; some were democrats, others were not. What they had in common was a belief in the importance of extra-parliamentary pressure and agitation to achieve their objectives. What they were not, in any meaningful sense was a ‘political party’.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Peel to 1832

In 1856, six years after Sir Robert Peel’s death, the journalist Walter Bagehot, wrote that[1]

“No man [Sir Robert Peel] has come so near our definition of a constitutional statesman -- the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man.... Of almost all the great measures with which his name is associated, he attained great eminence as an opponent before he attained even greater eminence as their advocate. On the corn-law, on the currency, on the amelioration of the criminal code, on Catholic emancipation....He was not one of the earliest labourers or quickest converts.... His intellect, admirable in administrative routine, endlessly fertile in suggestions of detail, was not of the class which creates, or which readily even believes an absolutely new idea...”

Peel is generally recognised as the founder of modern Conservatism. He saw the need for the Tory party to adapt itself to the post-reform system after its disastrous showing in the 1832 general election. In successive elections in the 1830s the Conservatives increased their representation in the House of Commons soundly defeating Melbourne’s Whig government in 1841. Peel was prepared to put nation above party and on two occasions introduced policies that attacked the basic tenets of Toryism. In 1829 he ‘ratted’ on its spiritual core by pushing through Catholic Emancipation. Seventeen years later he confronted its belief in the need for protection for agriculture by repealing the Corn Laws[2].

Peel to 1832


Born in Bury, 5th February, first son of a cotton manufacturer Robert Peel


To Harrow School


Undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford; academically gifted


MP for the Irish seat of Cashel City, County Tipperary, a borough with only twenty-four voters


Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies in the Tory government of Spencer Perceval


In May 1812, Liverpool became prime minister and invited Peel to join the Irish administration as Chief Secretary. Peel held the post for six years, the longest in the nineteenth century and served three lord lieutenants. Nothing in Peel’s upbringing gave him the historical imagination to question the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland, and he cheerfully joined a regime that was locked into reliance upon penal laws and the Protestant ascendancy. As chief secretary he was required to attend to business upon both sides of the water. In Ireland he stage-managed the election of sound Protestants to parliament in 1812 and 1818, and persuaded Whitworth to dissolve the principal organisation representing Catholics, the ‘Catholic board’, in 1814. In London, politicians were, in the eyes of the administration in Dublin, embarrassingly soft about Catholic claims for political rights and Peel opposed every proposal for relief. He delivered an outspoken expression of the case against the Catholics in 1817[3]. Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign power, he was not prepared to erect the influence of the pope into ‘a fourth estate’, and he tied his belief in the future of the Union to his faith in the exclusive principle. What religion suggested was confirmed by political economy. Ireland was, in Peel’s opinion, a primitive and backward land, and at this stage in his career Peel appears to have felt that in the long run the best hope for the country was that popery was something which a more prosperous people would grow out of. In the meantime, Peel had to cope with the secret societies, the intimidation, and the crimes that resulted from the alienation of seven-eighths of the population. Like other chief secretaries he called for troop reinforcements and renewed an Insurrection Act in 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1817. More promisingly, he declared that he would always prefer an army of police to an army of soldiers, and established a new Peace Preservation Force, controlled by the government in Dublin. In 1817, he responded to a famine by the procurement of food and the distribution of money.  As chief secretary Peel proved his capacity to serve the lord lieutenant as ‘his friend, his adviser, [and] his representative in parliament’. But the office had also begun to shape his life in other ways. His conduct in Ireland brought him the sobriquet ‘Orange’, bestowed by Daniel O’Connell, and led, in 1815, to a challenge to a duel, which did not take place, in Ostend. Peel was to carry with him for ever after a settled dislike for the great Irish patriot and all his ways. Peel’s antagonism to Catholic claims for relief secured him the invitation, brought by Charles Lloyd, to stand, in preference to George Canning, for one of the two Oxford University seats in 1818. Peel was elected, but he had, perhaps, allowed himself to be miscast. His Protestantism ran deep. But he acknowledged that Ireland had been misruled in the past. He had found the jobbing aristocracy with a ‘vortex of local patronage’, and loyalist associations distasteful, and he had spoken out in favour of the Protestant ascendancy because he had been called upon to govern Ireland ‘circumstanced as Ireland now is’.


Speaks in Parliament against Catholic Emancipation; becomes MP for Oxford University


Resigns as Chief Secretary as he was ‘tired’ with the post. Peel left Ireland in August 1818 and did not rejoin Lord Liverpool’s administration until January 1822.


In the meantime he chaired a committee considering the expediency of requiring the Bank of England to resume paying gold, on demand, for its notes, and in due course he drafted the report and introduced the bill embodying the committee’s proposals. The evidence taken before the bullion committee in 1811 had shown that the over-issue of paper currency since the suspension of cash payments in 1797 had resulted in a depreciation of the pound and a rise in the price of gold. The question was, did this matter? In 1811, the house had decided that the answer was yes, but not while there was a war on, and Peel himself had voted against resumption. Post-war experience persuaded him that over-issue also led to speculation, crises, unemployment, and political unrest. Now Peel thought the committee’s first responsibility was to protect the public creditor, who was morally entitled to be repaid in the coin which he had lent and not in a depreciated one. The committee moved swiftly into a consideration of the when and how the accumulation of a reserve of gold, and the successive steps by which, starting with the larger notes, paper was to be made convertible into gold bullion, a process completed by May 1823. In grappling with the theoretical complexities of an issue and effecting a solution, Peel was to have no equal


Returns to government as Home Secretary. Contemporaries gave Peel credit for reducing the number of offences that carried the death penalty. But there was no fall in the number of execution, and the most striking achievement of his period at the Home Office, and perhaps of his whole career, was the consolidation of the criminal law. He began in 1823 where his predecessor, Lord Sidmouth, had left off, with the law relating to prisons. The following year he attended to the laws relating to transportation, and began to coax the Scottish judges towards a reform of Scottish criminal law. In 1825 he consolidated eighty-five laws relating to juries into a single act. In 1826 he proposed to consolidate the laws relating to theft. Out of 14,437 persons in England and Wales charged with various crimes in the course of the previous year, 12,500 (at least) had been accused of theft, which was the most important category of crime. Consolidation was needed because, year by year throughout the eighteenth century, specific acts (he cited the stealing of hollies, thorns, and quicksets) had been made into crimes instead of species of acts. There were now ninety-two statutes relating to theft, dating from the reign of Henry III, and Peel sought to unite them in a single statute of thirty pages. Upon this occasion his attempt to reduce the law to a single act proved to be too ambitious, and the bill emerged, finally, as four separate acts in 1827.

Peel’s talents were never more apparent than during this process of consolidation. In 1824, a select committee had recommended that consolidation and amendment should be kept distinct. Peel decided that they were not separable. He interpreted consolidation to mean the collection ‘of dispersed statutes under one head’ followed by the rejection of what was ‘superfluous’, the clearing up of what was ‘obscure’, the weighing of ‘the precise force of each expression’, and ‘ascertaining the doubts that have arisen in practice and the solution which may have been given to those doubts by decisions of the courts of law’[4]. Where he found any gap ‘through which notorious guilt escapes’ (he instanced the theft of stock certificates in the funds which was not at that time an offence), he would remedy it[5] . In Peel’s hands, then, a consolidating act was a reforming act which incorporated case law and supplied omissions. As he turned from one aspect of the law to another, Peel circulated drafts of his consolidating bills among the judges, and took pains to win their support, flattering Lord Eldon with a bag of game (which perhaps he had shot himself). He succeeded because nine-tenths of criminal law was statute law, which judges loved to criticise, and one-tenth, only, common law, the anomalies of which judges might seek to preserve.

On 9th March 1826, Peel’s method of presenting a case came to maturity in his great speech on theft[6]. There was an apology (a preference really) for a topic which could ‘borrow no excitement from political feelings’ and might appear ‘barren and uninviting’. There was a reference to a hypothetical fresh start (‘if we were legislating de novo, without reference to previous customs and formed habits’). There was a glance at more radical proposals for ‘rapid progress, which is inconsistent with mature deliberation’, and a promise that, if he was allowed to have his way, there would be ‘no rash subversion of ancient institutions’ and ‘no relinquishment of what is practically good, for the chance of speculative and uncertain improvement’. His own proposals were then presented as a middle way ‘between the redundancy of our own legal enactments and the conciseness of the French code’. Finally he avowed his ambition to leave behind him ‘some record of the trust I have held’, and to connect his name with ‘permanent improvements’ to the institutions of the country.


Liverpool resigned because of ill health. Peel refused to serve in a government led by Canning who favoured Catholic emancipation


Death of Canning in August 1827 and failure of the Goderich government results in Wellington becoming prime minister; Peel returned as Home Secretary. At the Home Office, Peel resumed consolidating where he had left off. In 1828, he dealt with the law of offences against the person, reducing it from fifty-seven acts to one, and in 1830 he turned the twenty-seven acts relating to forgeries punishable with death into a single statute. Even more important in his eyes, he began at last to make progress with the police. In 1822, a committee had refused to recommend any reform. In 1828, Peel secured a new inquiry into the police of the metropolis, and the following year he was able to legislate. He had already given an indication of the way his mind was working when he praised the small force of full-time professional magistrates and constables established in London in 1793. But this efficient superstructure rested upon a complex of autonomous parochial and district watches. Peel resolved to create a unified body under the control of the home secretary and paid for out of a general rate. The new force started patrolling the streets on 29th September 1829. They were not there to carry out sophisticated criminal detective work, but to restrain the thousands of vagrants, thieves, prostitutes, and drunks who tried to beg, steal or earn a living upon the streets of the capital, and to keep order. Peel’s ‘vigorous preventive police’ carried truncheons but not firearms and their secret (or innovatory) weapon was their military discipline. This ‘unconstitutional’ police force, as it was called in the Chartist petition, was bitterly resented, and there were many assaults upon policemen at first. But a force of just over 3000 men won control of the streets. Like so many of Peel’s reforms this one lasted. Fears of the police developing into a secret police on the continental model proved to have been exaggerated, and hostility to the very idea of an efficient police force ebbed away. By the mid-century, the policeman’s image was becoming a friendly, neighbourly one and constables were being called ‘bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ after Peel.


As leader of the House of Commons, Peel was obliged to grapple with the Catholic question. In 1827, the Protestants had won the annual vote in the House of Commons. The following year, when the protestant dissenters and the Roman Catholics, in effect, came to terms, the government was heavily defeated on a motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and it was defeated again on a motion for Catholic emancipation. The first defeat was easy to deal with: Wellington and Peel gave way and brought in a bill of their own. The second was compounded by the rise of the Catholic Association and the defeat of Vesey Fitzgerald, a popular Protestant landlord and government minister, by O’Connell, who was not eligible to take his seat, at a by-election in County Clare. The protestant ascendancy had collapsed, and emancipation was now imperative. The only question was whether it should be undertaken by the king’s present ministers or by a new political combination. Once again Peel offered to resign and once again he was persuaded to stay. That decision taken, he offered to vacate his seat for Oxford University. His friends re-nominated him, but at the end of February he was defeated in a poll by Sir Robert Inglis by 609 votes to 755, and the government had to ask Sir Manasseh Lopes to vacate his pocket borough at Westbury in Peel’s favour. Peel was aware, then, when he rose on 5th March 1829 to introduce the cabinet’s bill to emancipate the Catholics, that he would be asked why he saw ‘a necessity for concession now, which was not evident before’. He answered that it was the condition of Ireland. ‘[The protestant] Reformation in Ireland’ had hitherto ‘made no advance’, and after twenty years he was convinced that ‘the evil’ was ‘not casual and temporary, but permanent and inveterate’. The time had come when less danger was to be apprehended from ‘attempting to adjust the Catholic Question, than in allowing it to remain any longer in its present state’. ‘I yield…unwilling to push resistance to a point which might endanger the Establishments that I wish to defend’[7]. He ignored O’Connell, and saved face by announcing that the details of the measure had not been discussed with the Roman Catholics themselves. Catholics were to be allowed to enter both houses of parliament and to hold any office other than monarch, Lord Chancellor, and (more strangely) lord lieutenant of Ireland. In return, Peel asked the Irish to accept the disfranchisement of the 40s freeholders and a reduction of the electorate. The government did not ask for any control over the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops, because no British government, Peel said, could enter into negotiation with the Papacy


Peel lost office with defeat and resignation of Wellington’s government


Peel opposed Whig proposals for parliamentary reform


After the resignation of Whigs, Peel refused to serve in a Tory government pledged to reform [May]; Tories lost many seats in the first post-reform general election [December]

[1] W. Bagehot ‘The Character of Sir Robert Peel’, 1856, in Norman St. John-Stevas (ed.) Bagehot’s Historical Essays, 1971, page185.

[2] L. W. Cowie Sir Robert Peel, 1788–1850: a bibliography, Greenwood, 1996 provides an excellent overview of work on Peel. N. Gash Mr Secretary Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830, 1965, 2nd ed., 1981 and Sir Robert Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830, 1972, 2nd ed., 1986 remains the standard modern biography. Speeches of the late Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, delivered in the House of Commons, 4 volumes, 1853, Memoirs by the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, ed. Lord Mahon [P. Stanhope] and E. Cardwell, 2 volumes, 1856–7, C. S. Parker, ed., Sir Robert Peel: from his private papers, 3 volumes, (1891–9), Life and letters of Sir James Graham, ed. C. S. Parker, 2 volumes, (1907) and The private letters of Sir Robert Peel, ed. G. Peel, 1920 give Peel’s voice. Correspondence and diaries of J. W. Croker, ed. L. J. Jennings, 3 volumes, 1884, The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, ed. L. Strachey and R. Fulford, 8 volumes, 1938, A. R. Wellesley, second duke of Wellington Despatches, correspondence, and memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, duke of Wellington, K.G.: in continuation of the former series, 8 volumes, 1867–80, The Creevey papers, ed. H. Maxwell, 3rd ed., 1905; reprinted, 1923, The letters of Queen Victoria, ed. A. C. Benson, Lord Esher [R. B. Brett], and G. E. Buckle, 9 volumes, 1907–32, T. Martin The life of the prince consort, 5 volumes, 1875–80, volumes 1–2 · B. Disraeli ‘Character of Sir Robert Peel’, Lord George Bentinck: a political biography, 2nd ed., 1852, pages 302–320, W. Bagehot ‘The character of Sir Robert Peel’, Biographical studies, ed. R. H. Hutton, 2nd ed., 1889, pages 1–39 and F. P. G. Guizot Memoirs of Sir Robert Peel, 1857, translated from the French provide invaluable contemporary comment. G. J. Shaw-Lefevre Peel and O’Connell: a review of the Irish policy of parliament from the Act of Union to the death of Sir Robert Peel, 1887 and S. Buxton Finance and politics: an historical study, 1783–1885, 2 volumes, 1888 look at particular aspects. G. Kitson Clark Peel and the conservative party, 1832–1841, 1929 remains essential Donald Read Peel and the Victorians, 1987 looks at Peel’s reputation. Important papers include: D. E. D. Beales ‘Peel, Russell and reform’, Historical Journal, volume 17 (1974), pages 873–882, D. R. Fisher ‘Peel and the conservative party: the sugar crisis of 1844 reconsidered’, Historical Journal volume 18 (1975), pages 279–302, R. Boyd Hilton ‘Peel: a re-appraisal’, Historical Journal volume 22 (1979), pages 585–614, I. D. C. Newbould ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party, 1832–1841: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review, volume 98 (1983), page 529–557, F. Herrmann ‘Peel and Solly: two nineteenth-century art collectors and their sources of supply’, Journal of the History of Collections, volume 3 (1991), pages 89–96 and V. A. C. Gatrell, ‘Mercy and Mr. Peel’, The hanging tree: execution and the English people, 1770–1868, 1994, chapter 21.

[3] Hansard 1, 36.404–23

[4] Hansard 2, 14.1236

[5] Hansard 2, 14.1222–3

[6] Hansard 2, 14.1214–39

[7] Hansard 2nd series, volume 20, columns 728-80

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Sir Robert Peel 1830-1850: Bibliography


R. Boyd Hilton A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846, Oxford University Press, 2006 should be regarded as the essential textbook; chapters 4, 6 and 8 are essential on Peel. R. Brown Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850, Routledge, 1991 and Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850, Routledge, 1991 cover the subject in depth from a  ‘British perspective.   In addition see the following:   A. Briggs The Age  of Improvement, Longman, 1959,   N. Gash Aristocracy and People:  Britain 1815-1865, Edward Arnold, 1979, E.J. Evans The Forging of the Modern State: Early industrial   Britain   1783-1870,  Longman, 3rd ed., 2003, N. McCord British History 1815-1906, OUP, 1991 and M. Bentley Politics Without Democracy 1815-1914: Perception  and Preoccupation in British Government, Fontana, 2nd ed., 1999. G. Kitson Clark The Making of Victorian England, Methuen, 1966 is readable and essential for context.

Whigs and Tories

On   the question of political parties see E.J. Evans Political  Parties in Britain 1783-1867,   Methuen, 1985, F. O’ Gorman The Emergence of the British Two-Party System 1760-1832, Edward Arnold, 1982 and B.W. Hill British Parliamentary Parties 1742-1832, Allen and Unwin, 1985.  On the Tories see R. Stewart The Foundation of the Conservative Party 1830-1867, Longman, 1978, B.I. Coleman Conservatism and the Conservative Party in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Edward Arnold, l988 and R. Blake The Conservative Party from Peel to Major, Heinemann, 1997.

For the Whigs see J. Parry The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain, Yale University Press, 1993, Donald Southgate The Passing of the Whigs, 1832-1886, Macmillan, 1962 and R. Brent Liberal Anglican Politics: Whiggery, Religion and Reform 1830-1841, OUP, 1987. G. Finlayson England in the Eighteen Thirties, Edward Arnold,   1969, A. Llewellyn The Decade of Reform: The 1830s, David & Charles, 1972, I. Newbould Whiggery and Reform 1830-41: the politics of government, Macmillan, 1990 and P. Mandler Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform, OUP, 1990 are useful for the Whig reforms.

John Prest Politics in the Age of Cobden, Macmillan, 1977 interprets the politics of the 1830s and 1840s as a continuous registration conflict in which the Conservatives first seized the initiative and then lost it to the Anti-Corn Law League and to the Reformers.

There are three important papers on the 1841 election: R.H. Cameron ‘The Melbourne Administration, the Liberals, and the crisis of 1841’, Durham University Journal, volume 69, (1976), pages 83-102B. Kemp ‘The General Election of 1841’, History, volume 37 (1952), pages 146-152 and B. Jaggard The 1841 British General Election: a Reconsideration’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, volume 30, (1984), pages 99-114.

Peel in government

Norman Gash Politics in the Age of Peel: A Study in the Technique of Parliamentary Representation, 1830-1850, Humanities Press, 1977 and Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics 1832-1852, OUP, 1965 provide the best analyses of the operation of the electoral system after 1832 but should be read in conjunction with D.C. Moore The Politics of Deference, Harvester, 1976 for an alternative perspective.

Norman Gash Mr Secretary Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830, 2nd edition, London, 1985 and Sir Robert Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830, 2nd edition, London, 1986 remains the most extensive biography. This needs to be read in conjunction with the revisionist paper by Boyd Hilton ‘Peel: a Reappraisal’, Historical Journal, volume xxii, (1979), pages 585-614

For Peel and his role in the development of the Conservative Party in addition to the general works cited above see: G Kitson Clark Peel and the Conservative Party: A Study in Party Politics,
, G Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1929 and the following articles by Norman Gash ‘Peel and the Party System’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, volume 1, (1951), pages 47-59 Norman Gash ‘The Organisation of the Conservative Party 1832-46’, Parliamentary History, volumes i and ii, (1982, 1983), pages 137-159, 131-152, David Close ‘The Rise of the Conservatives in the Age of Reform’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, volume 45, (1972), pages 89-103 and I.D.C. Newbould ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative Party, 1832-1841: a Study in Failure?’ English Historical Review, volume xcviii, (1983), pages 529-557.

For Peel’s ministry see T.L. Crosby Sir Robert Peel’s Administration 1841-1846, David & Charles, 1970. M.J. Daunton Trusting Leviathan; the Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914, Cambridge, 2001 is excellent on Peel’s fiscal policies. G. Kitson Clark ‘Hunger and Politics in 1842’, Journal of Modern History, (1953) remain invaluable on the crisis of 1842. Philip Harling The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’: The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain 1779-1846, Oxford University Press, 1996, pages 228-254 considers Peel’s ministry. On Peel’s policies see: R. Stewart ‘The Ten Hours and Sugar Crises of 1844: Government and the House of Commons in the Age of Reform’, Historical Journal, volume 12, (1969), pages 35-57, D.R. Fisher ‘Peel and the Conservative Party: The Sugar Crisis of 1844 reconsidered’, Historical Journal, volume xviii, (1975), pages 279-302, J.H. Treble & J.T. Ward ‘Religion and Education in 1843: Reaction to the Factory Education Bill,’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History, volume 20, (1969), pages 79-110 and P.J. Welch ‘Blomfield and Peel: A Study in Cooperation between Church and State, 1841-46’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, volume 12, (1961), pages 71-84.

J B Conacher The Peelites and the Party System, 1846-1852, David & Charles, 1972 and Wilbur Devereux Jones & Arvel B Erikson The Peelites 1846-1857, Ohio, Ohio State University Press, 1972 consider Peel and his supporters after repeal in 1846.

The crisis of 1845-1846

C.R. Fay The Corn Law and Social England. Cambridge, 1932 remains the most valuable discussion of the nature of the Corn Laws while D.G. Barnes A History of the English Corn Laws 1660-1846, 1930 takes a broader approach. T. L. Crosby English Farmers and the politics of protection 1815-1852, Harvester, 1977 examines the protectionist position while A. Gambles Protection and Politics; Conservative Economic Discourse, 1815-1852, Boydell, 1999 considers the development of Conservative economic thinking. A. Gambles ‘Re-thinking the Politics of Protection; Conservatism and the Corn Laws, 1830-1852’, English Historical Review, volume 113, (1998), pages 928-952 and A. Macintyre ‘Lord George Bentinck and the Protectionist Case; A Lost Cause?’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, volume 39, (1989), pages 141-165 consider the Protectionist case. G.L. Mosse ‘The Anti-League, 1844-46’, Economic History Review, volume 17, (1947), pages 134-142 is the only study of the Protectionist organisation that opposed the Anti-Corn Law League. R. Stewart The Politics of Protection: Lord Derby & the Protectionist Party, CUP, 1971 examines the role of those opposed to Peel’s ‘modernisation’ of the tariff system.

W.H. Chaloner ‘The Agitation against the Corn Laws,’ J.T. Ward (ed.), Popular Movements 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1970, pages 135- 151 is a good, if brief introduction. Norman McCord The Anti-Corn Law League, Allen and Unwin, 1968 is the standard study and Norman Longmate The Breadstealers: The Fight against the Corn Laws 1838-1846, Temple, 1984 is a good narrative account. However, both need to be read in relation to the revisionist study by Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrrell The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League, Leicester University Press, 2000. Biographies by W. Hinde Richard Cobden: A  Victorian Outsider, Yale, 1987,   R. Edsall Richard Cobden: Independent Radical, Harvard, 1987 and Keith Robbins John Bright, Routledge, 1979 contain much on the Anti-Corn Law League.

Lucy Brown The Board of Trade and the Free Trade Movement 1830-42 remains invaluable on the development of policy. G.S.R. Kitson Clark ‘The Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Politics of the Forties’, Economic History Review, 4th series, volume 4, (1951), pages 1-13 and ‘The electorate and the repeal of the corn laws’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, volume 1, (1951), pages 109-26 places repeal in context. F.A. Dreyer ‘The Whigs and the Political Crisis of 1845’, English Historical Review, volume 80, (1965), pages 514-537 considers the role played by Russell and the Whigs. W.O. Aydelotte ‘The Disintegration of the Conservative party in the 1840s,’ W.O. Ayedelotte, A.G. Bogne & R.W. Fogel (eds.) The Dimensions of Quantitative Research in History is valuable on how Conservatives voted during Peel’s government. Lucy Brown ‘The Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League,’ A. Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 342-371 is the only real study of the relationship between the two central pressure groups in the 1840s.

The debate on the impact of repeal is best explored in: Susan Fairlie ‘The Nineteenth Century Corn Law Reconsidered,’ Economic History Review, 2nd series, volume xviii, (1965), pages 562-575, S. Fairlie ‘The Corn Laws and British Wheat Production, 1829-1876,’ Economic History Review, 2nd series, volume xxii, (1969), pages 88-116, D.C. Moore ‘The Corn Laws and High Farming’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, volume xviii, (1965), pages 544-561 and E.L. Jones ‘The Changing Basis of British Agricultural Prosperity, 1853-1873,’ Agricultural History Review, volume 10, (1962), pages 102-119. J. Prest ‘A Large amount or a Small? Revenue and the Nineteenth Century Corn Laws,’ Historical Journal, volume 39, (1996), pages 467-478 provides an interesting perspective.

Three studies that cover most of the century which have things to say about middle class radicalism and the Anti-Corn Law League: D.A. Hamer The Politics of Electoral Pressure: a study in the history of  Victorian reform agitation, Harvester, 1977, chapter 5, Paul Adelman Victorian Radicalism: the middle-class experience 1830-1914,  Longman, 1984 and A. Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain, Croom Helm, 1987.  P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure From Without in Early Victorian England,   Edward Arnold, 1974 contains some invaluable essays on pressure group politics.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Where to go next?

The past few months have seen my blog focus on the social developments of the nineteenth century.  I am now in the process of rewriting this material and updating it to take account of more recent research to create an e-book that I intend to make available through my website and through my blog.   Having recently acquired a Sony Reader and downloaded some books from various sites on the Internet, I am increasingly convinced that this provides a good and cost-effective way of making materials more readily available to interested individuals.  I have already converted my study of nineteenth century women and some of the sources for Norman history into the requisite pdf format.  The big advantage of doing this is that it is easy to update materials in line with recent publications and, as a result, to give the materials an immediacy that is impossible in the printed format.  Reprinting a book or producing a second edition can take a considerable amount of time; revising an e-book is far easier.

This brings me to where I go next with my blog.  I intend to start looking at different aspects of nineteenth century politics beginning with Sir Robert Peel's career from 1830 through to his death two decades later.  That this also covers much of the period when Chartism was the major force in British radical politics is not coincidental since I think it is important to understand the political context within which Chartism developed and the impact that the policies of successive governments had on the movement.  How important, for example, was Gareth Steadman Jones' view of the 'mellowing of the state' associated in part by Peel's administration on the ways Chartists reacted to government policies on social and economic issues and how far were those policies refracted through the medium of Chartist aspirations?  As a result, it may be possible to access just how valid Jones' view actually is.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Religion, theology and science: understanding the ‘crisis of faith’

This period was marked by bitter and prolonged controversies precipitated by such things as the intellectual polemics of the Tractarians, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the provocative theological symposium Essays and Reviews (1860) and its milder successor Lex Mundi (1889) and the publication of the Vatican Decrees in 1870. Poets and novelists portrayed the trauma of the loss of faith in individuals, and the editors of newspapers and serious journals provided a forum for a religious elite that grappled with questions of doubt and disbelief very publicly. Articulate Victorians were preoccupied with the future of religion almost to the point of morbidity.

However, these articulate individuals did not constitute a cross-section of their society. They were the talented, well educated and the kind of people whose beliefs and values were recorded either by themselves or others. It is therefore no easy task to generalise from what they wrote and what was written about them, to the attitudes of the whole society. Was their ‘crisis of faith’ part of a new phenomenon of ideological secularisation that set the Victorian age apart from earlier periods of English religious history? If it was, can the decline of religion after 1900 be attributed, at least in part, to the gradual erosion of religious practice by this tide of doubt and disbelief?

A ‘crisis of faith’?

The intellectual ferment of the second half of the nineteenth century differed from that of earlier periods in important aspects of tone and substance and in the extent to which it implicated the ordinary church-going population as well as the religious intelligentsia. It was the percolation downwards of theological uncertainty into the ranks of ordinary believers that marks the Victorian period off from the doubt and disbelief of Hanoverian society.

Radical and potentially subversive ideas were popularised in Victorian society and this added a new dimension to the relationship between the Churches and the wider intellectual world. Victorian laymen, judged by the diet served them in popular religious newspapers, periodicals and sermons, were capable of considerable theological subtlety, but even those who were less subtle could be caught up in the crises of Darwinism and biblical criticism. The popularisation of controversy involved many of the rank and file of Church and Chapel communities in earnest debate and soul-searching. Indeed, it was the involvement of the general public in Victorian religious controversies, as much as the controversies themselves, those contemporaries often found noteworthy.

What was novel was the emergence of popular theological speculation within the Churches. Popular infidelity was not new, but in the past its very hostility to the Christian tradition had militated against its chances of subverting the faith of the church-going population. In its most famous articulation, the Age of Reason of 1794, Thomas Paine had set out to lay an axe to the roots of popular religiosity and he had reached a wide audience. As City Mission workers found in the late nineteenth century, a strong undercurrent of proletarian secularism, Paineite in the bold invective and blunt ribaldry with which it was expressed. This augmented the more urbane secularism of people like Charles Bradlaugh, George Jacob Holyoake and Annie Besant.[1] But the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was not precipitated by such counter-religious propaganda. It was not secularists but devout Christians that were its most effective proponents. The controversial Essays and Reviews of 1860 was the work of six Anglican clergymen and a devout layman.

There were profound misgivings in all the Churches that the traditional tenets of belief and faith were being questioned in an attempt to come to terms with wider intellectual tendencies that were anathema to some of their brethren. The most famous Victorian Baptist, whose periodical The Sword and the Trowel brought tensions to a head among Baptists in 1887, published a series of articles accusing radicals of the denomination of virtual apostasy. Similar crises occurred in Wesleyanism in the early 1880s when Rev. W.H. Dallinger was prevented from delivering the Fernley lecture advancing the synthesis of Methodist theology and evolutionary theory. Among Congregationalists similar problems arose as the result of the airing of advanced theological opinions during a meeting associated with the autumnal session of the Congregational Union held in Leicester in October 1877. Despite the tensions that the popularisation of these issues generated and the obvious fascination they held for denominational editors, preachers and pamphleteers, controversy was less significant within the Churches than the absence of permanent division. The ‘crisis of faith’ was contained and produced very little actual loss of faith. While there were notable cases of apostasy, doubt generally led not to disbelief but to theological revision of one kind or another.

Declining recruitment: a factor in the ‘crisis of faith'

The decline of religious adherence in modern English society was not caused by the loss of existing members. Membership retention has not been a major problem. From the 1830s, when various churches associated with the Baptist Union began compiling statistics, a growing number of English religious organisations have collected and collated data on aspects of recruitment and loss. A similar picture emerges in each case. While they have been growing rapidly, religious organisations have had a high turnover in membership: losses by expulsion, lapsing and leakage were offset by extremely rapid recruitment. But as their growth rates have declined, so did membership turnover. In Wesleyanism, for example, annual losses of total membership were 14.1 per cent of the total membership in 1880-81 but only 6.8 per cent in 1932. However, in 1881 it had attracted enough new members to offset the loss, by 1932 losses greatly exceeded new member. Recruitment rather than loss was the crucial variable in the process of decline.

What were the links between the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ and the growing inability of the Churches to draw new members from the broader society? The intellectual tensions occasioned by theological revisionism and Darwinian theory did not produce any significant rate of defection among existing adherents. The reason for this lay in the strong social and cultural pressures that existing among Victorian Christians to reach some sort of ideological compromise. The heat was generally taken out of the crises by an almost irresistible imperative towards accommodation with the wider intellectual world, an imperative as much social as intellectual. In a society that was no longer dominated by a pervasive religious belief, there was a distinctively modern religious-cultural preoccupation with making the Christian faith relevant.

The quest for relevance is a characteristic of neither church type religion, in which relevance is assured by social domination, nor of sect type religion that involves an acceptance of cultural marginality. It is a preoccupation of denominational type religion. It is essential for the survival of denominations that depend on the voluntary allegiance of members who adhere in general to the prevalent ideas and intellectual fashions of their age. Victorian Christianity’s attempts to come to terms with biological and geological science, social science, archaeology, comparative religion, historical scholarship and philosophical theology can be seen in this light. The alternative to achieving some kind of ideological accommodation was the increasing marginality and cultural isolation of organised religion within English society. The ‘crisis of faith’ was part of the broader process of secularisation.

Denominations do not have the control over their members of either churches or sects. Membership does not exclude other commitments and denominational life is only one of a variety of associational activities. The denomination must compete for the energies and time of individuals with other recreational, social, cultural and vocational activities. The transition to denomination means that the organisation could no longer expect or demand from its members’ levels of participation once regarded as normal. In fact the membership’s beliefs and values were increasingly moulded by ‘worldly’ associations as by ‘religious’ ones. There was a decline in commitment, especially evident among Nonconformists. The Church of England had long had the capacity to accommodate people willing to worship in church but unwilling to tolerate too intense or too disciplined a religious life. The pervasive nature of Nonconformity to its adherents, especially falling attendance at weekday prayer, preaching and class meetings, was beginning to decline by the early 1850s. By 1900 many denominational leaders felt that the ‘Means of Grace’ were fighting a losing battle to rival ‘the social party, the secular concert or the tennis club’. The choices facing Nonconformity were stark. On one side was the growing worldliness of religion where recreational activities went alongside and often were more important that spiritual ones. The alternative was alienation both from the wider culture and from the great majority of Victorians and Edwardians who were prepared for accommodation with the changing spirit of the times. It was the worldliness of accommodation rather than the alienation of reaction that was the norm.

The Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was simply a matter of the Churches coming to terms ideologically with the secularising tendencies within the wider culture. But the rapprochement was only partially successful. What was a ‘crisis of faith’ for believers was for outsiders a ‘crisis of plausibility’ and the failure of the Churches to deal effectively with the latter crisis clearly inhibited their capacity to maintain an adequate rate of recruitment from the broader society.

The crisis of plausibility

Far more important for the future of English religion than the specific challenges of Darwinism or biblical criticism, or the internal adjustments that these challenges demanded of the Churches, was the gradual divergence, increasingly evident after 1860, between religious and secular modes of interpreting reality. Previously there had been something like a consensus between believers and unbelievers about the plausibility of the religious worldview. Religious definitions of reality had been credible even to those who had rejected or ignored them. This was not the case in the cultural milieu of modern industrial England. Commentators were insisting well before 1900 that the most serious threat to English religion was not the incompatibility between specific aspects of science and religion. It was the growing tendency for people without much knowledge of theology or interest in it to become alienated from the modes of thought and definitions of reality that made religiosity explicable and relevant.

Two powerful forces were operating in society to produce this fundamental secularisation of the values and beliefs of the population outside the Churches. First, there was a popularisation of the ‘scientific spirit’. Increasingly after 1850 science increasingly dominated popular definitions of reality. The scientific ethos as a popular philosophy tended to stultify all forms of metaphysical thinking, despite the fact that many of the scientists putting forward these views were themselves Christians. Secondly, popular materialism emerged as a major social force. There is a significant link between the economic changes that occurred after 1750 and the growing secularisation of society. Poverty, scarcity and disease had been the common lot of all but the fortunate few in pre-industrial societies. But in nineteenth century England, for the first time in history, the material wealth of a whole society began steadily and persistently to improve. The self-sustaining economic growth of a maturing industrial society and economy had already undermined attitudes and values that had taken shape amidst the poverty and relentless economic insecurity of generations before the Industrial Revolution.

The crisis of plausibility produced by the emergence of industrial society in England made its presence felt early in the Victorian period. From a previous situation in which people had taken for granted that the world was ‘a vale of tears that must be passed though on the way of eternal bliss or damnation’, there was beginning to emerge ‘the idea that the world was susceptible to systematic improvement through the application of sustained human effort and intelligence’. Increasingly the Churches were becoming estrangement from modern English society, though this was not brought home fully until the experience of the First World War. Victorian fears about the alienation of the working-classes from organised religion, though grounded in the definition of religiosity as attendance, were not to prove groundless. It was becoming increasingly apparent that for the middle and upper-classes, religion was becoming an increasingly irrelevant activity and cultural influence. The denominational compromises of the Victorian churches in their search for illusory relevance undermined their evangelical verve just as the crisis of plausibility undermined their influence on wider society. In seeking to understand why religious adherence declined after 1850, science and theology provide only part of the answer.

[1] S. Budd Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960, Heinemann, 1977, Edward Royle Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791-1866, Manchester, 1974 and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866-1915, Manchester, 1980 are the best introductory works. On Holyoake and Annie Besant see the respective biographies by Lee E. Grugel, Philadelphia, 1976 and Ann Taylor, OUP, 1992. P. Knight The Age of Science, Blackwell, 1986 places the Darwinian dispute in its nineteenth century context while the monumental biography Adrian Desmond and James Moore Darwin, London, 1991 is a major study of this enigmatic figure.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Sociology of faith

Religious practice, to most churchmen, was synonymous with Sunday attendance. But when attendance was measured, as in the 1851 Religious Census, results were disconcerting. Church going was influenced by a wide variety of social and geographical circumstances. Attendance was higher in Scotland than England and highest of all in Wales. Within England it was higher in the countryside than in the towns, though this should not be exaggerated. There were considerable variations between regions, but undoubtedly the strongest influence was that of class.

Religion never simply reflected class divisions: none of the larger churches was the preserve of any single group or class; all cut across class lines. However, class had a bearing not only on the mere fact of attendance at church but at what church people worshipped in, and more importantly on the content and character of their religiosity and on the place religion had in their lives. Among the gentry and aristocracy there was a sense that the Anglican Church deserved support precisely because it was part of a social order in which they had a privileged position. They attended partly to set an example to their inferiors and sent the bailiff round if a tenant was absent. They gave large amounts of money to build and restore churches, working with the clergy to promote Anglican interests -- and their own. The rural labouring piety of the 1850s crumbled in the 1870s and 1880s, not because of ‘irreligion’, but because of the enforced migration and collapse of archaic community structures brought about by the agricultural depression. Falling land values also eroded the status and social prestige of the Anglican clergy who were from the 1880s sliding inexorably downwards from the lesser ranks of the landed gentry into the urban lower middle-class.

It was in the middle-classes that the Victorian religious boom had the biggest impact. Religion was the opiate not of the masses but of the bourgeoisie, and their heavy involvement in church life was one of the distinctive features of the British religious scene. It was in the middle-classes that religion was most strongly sustained by social pressure: regular church attendance and keeping the Sabbath were felt to be essential for a family’s respectability. Yet external motives were far from being the only ones and deep and genuine religious commitment evidence in this and other classes in Victorian society should not be underestimated. Middle-class religiosity, despite a good deal of variation in church going, reveals some common themes. Religion was treated as a family matter. Husband, wife and children formed a religious unit not only at church but at home, in family prayers and grace before meals. Middle-class people also tended to regard their church as a social centre, where they could meet others of similar outlook and join in the various recreational and philanthropic activities and where young people could meet suitable partners of the opposite sex. By the 1870s the integrative function of Nonconformity was waning, as economic tensions rose, and as issues like Empire, feminism and Irish Home Rule split Nonconformists into rival political allegiances. Moreover, the lower middle-class, the backbone of nonconformity, was changing in character and there was a world of difference between the religious outlook of superior artisans and small shopkeepers of the 1850s and the office-workers of 1900. For the former, religion was often an expression of solidarity with the local community. For the latter it was often an expression of separateness and difference and increasingly likely to take the form, if not of Anglicanism, then of a more refined and anonymous suburban Nonconformity than had been common forty years before.

As for the urban working-class, now the majority of the population, the common view was simply that they rarely attended church and that they were therefore ‘spiritually destitute’. The obsession of churchmen and the middle-classes with Sunday attendance meant that they overlooked the fact that working-class people came into contact with the churches on a great many occasions and that they had religious notions of their own, however unorthodox. To many working-class people the churches were alien, middle-class institutions where people like themselves, lacking good clothes and unable to afford pew rents, felt out of place. Church-goers tended to be regarded as snobs and hypocrites and an member of the working-class going to church was liable to be condemned for putting on airs and setting himself above his neighbours. Social pressure did as much to deter church going in the working-class as it did to encourage it in the middle and upper-classes.

The great majority of the working-class, neither regular attenders nor total strangers to the churches, considered themselves Christian. Recent studies in oral history suggest that contemporary surveys probably underestimated the piety of the poor and that outside London as many as a fifth of the Edwardian working-class may have attended churches on a more or less regular basis. Most married in church; many mothers up to 1914 insisted on being ‘churched’ after giving birth; and most had their babies christened. Most working-class children went to Sunday school. Children looked forward to the summer treat as one of the high points of the year; the Sunday school anniversary, particularly in nonconformity, was a major festival. Many children received religious instruction in church day schools. The elaborate pomp of working-class funerals, popular resistance to the spread of cremation and the universal fear of the pauper’s grave, suggest no lack of interest in the resurrection of the body and prospect of everlasting life. The working-classes also looked to the churches and to Anglican parsons in particular for charity. Most urban churches set up extensive welfare schemes, doling out food, blankets, money and Bibles, even if such charity was only a degree less shameful than going to the workhouse. Working people dealt with the churches on their own terms, taking what they wanted and ignoring the rest.

Religion and politics

The religious conflicts of the Victorian period were fought out not only in pulpits and pamphlets but also in the political arena. The churches during much of the period did more to mobilise political feeling than the political parties themselves. The antagonism between Protestants and Catholics intensified in a period that saw heavy Irish immigration, the nationalist struggle in Ireland and the adoption of aggressive tactics both by the Catholic Church and by its Protestant opponents. It had its effect at national level on such issues as the Maynooth grant (1845) and Irish home rule; locally, in areas with large Irish Catholic populations, it led to party divisions along religious lines. No less hard-fought were the battles over the established churches. Even the Church of Ireland was a leading issue in the election of 1868 before being disestablished the following year by Gladstone. In Wales, disestablishment was the chief aim of the Liberal nonconformist majority and the central political issue from the 1860s to 1914. But it was England that saw the conflict between church and chapel in its classic form.

On one side were the nonconformists, allied with Whigs and Liberals, seeking to remove their disabilities; on the other were the Anglicans, allied with the Conservatives defending the privileges of the establishment. They clashed at national and especially at local levels where nonconformists entered municipal politics in large numbers after 1835. The struggle to turn the confessional state into a secular state was a long one. The Whig governments of the 1830s did little to whittle down Anglican privileges. It introduced civil registration and allowed nonconformists to perform their own marriages, but compulsory church rates remained in force despite bitter local struggles. In the 1850s the church courts lost their jurisdiction over divorce and wills was abolished. The main breakthrough came with Gladstone’s first government: it abolished church rates (1869) and opened Oxford and Cambridge up to nonconformists (1870). The last disability was removed by the Burials Act 1881 that allowed nonconformist ministers to perform their own funeral services in parish churchyards. But the establishment itself remained a matter for dispute as did a variety of other issues above all the closely related and bitterly contested issue of education. Any attempt to channel public money into denominational schools or to give the Church of England a privileged position in state schools provoked intense opposition from Nonconformity. That England was late in creating a system of public education was mainly due to rivalry and mistrust between the churches. The Education Act 1902, that favoured the Anglicans, spurred a large nonconformist vote for the Liberals in the 1906 general election. By this time, however, religious issues were being replaced by class ones -- the ‘social gospel’ attracted little interest -- and support grew for the notion that the churches should stay out of politics altogether.

Across denominational lines: towards a civic culture?

There was also a Victorian religious culture that cut across denominational lines and that in important respects tended to escape denominational control altogether. Virtually all clergymen regarded the threat of eternal punishment as essential to Christian faith and morals in 1850. Fire and brimstone were the stock in trade of Catholic as well as Protestant preachers. However, by the 1870s this ‘religion of the torture chamber’ began to seem inconsistent with God’s love and was quietly pushed into the background. The churches had to adapt to a moral consensus they could no longer control.

There was also general agreement, among Protestants at least, about public worship. Yet the sermon lost its pre-eminent position shrinking from an hour in 1830 to twenty-five minutes or less by 1914. It was replaced by church music that took a more central role in worship than at any time in the past. The religion of the unadorned word was being replaced by a religion of mood and feeling. Hymns, long established in nonconformity, quickly caught on in Anglican churches and Hymns Ancient and Modern first appeared in 1861. Like ornate ritual, music rekindled the spirit of worship even when the objects of worship were becoming problematic.

Sabbatarianism was a major force in this period. The Lord’s Day Observance Society, founded by Anglican evangelicals in 1831, acted as the main pressure group. Most of its attempts to impose their views by legislation failed but in 1856 it scored a major success in ensuring Sunday closing for the British Museum and National Gallery. The churches were less successful in keeping control of holidays and the holiday calendar. Christmas, in its modern form largely a Victorian invention had less to do with Christianity than with the middle-class cult of the family. The harvest festival, though introduced by high church Anglicans in the 1840s, was essentially pagan in spirit. National days of prayer and thanksgiving fell into disuse. Bank Holidays, created in 1871 by-passed Christianity altogether.

Churches became social as well as religious institutions. Sunday schools alone were a major industry. Membership of Bans of Hope, Boy’s Brigade, Men’s Societies, the Girls’ Friendly Society and the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations ran into millions. Other church activities included literary and debating societies; recreation, including cricket and football teams from which professional clubs like Aston Villa and Everton later emerged; and philanthropy. These activities, however, carried with them a danger of diverting the church from its primary religious role, particularly as they became vulnerable to the expansion of commercial leisure and to the growing provision of welfare by the state. In the 1870s the first signs appeared that the long period of growth was coming to an end. Though membership was still increasing, it failed top keep pace with the growth in population and church going actually began to decline. Such hallmarks of Victorian religiosity as strict Sunday observance and family prayers were being abandoned; the churches condemned but were unable to curb the middle-class practice of birth control. Criticism of Christian doctrine was openly published; agnosticism and ‘secular religions’ won support. Behind the statistics of falling attendance lay a deeper disaffection with the churches and their message.

The decline of the churches has had many explanations, no one of them sufficient by itself. The most general argument is simply that modern industrial society made secularisation inevitable. But this says nothing about the specific causes and processes of decline. The effect of scientific discoveries is difficult to estimate. At the level of ideas it was less the scientific than the moral critique of Christianity that did the most damage. Eternal damnation now seemed cruel and barbaric, the God responsible for it something of a monster; and if the everlasting fire burned no longer, what was the point of seeking salvation. There could be morality, people now believed, without the fear of hell and without religion altogether. A more persuasive argument us that the social pressures that had encouraged middle-class church-going earlier in the century were weakening. In an economy of large firms and professional qualifications attending church to demonstrate one’s moral credentials no longer seemed so necessary. Yet the decline of the churches did not necessarily mean a decline of religion in a broader sense. Those who drifted away from orthodox belief were sometimes attracted to successor faiths like nationalism that themselves had a religious quality and dimension. Queen Victoria’s jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the increasingly elaborate coronations and the cult of Empire were the rituals of a civil religion. For the first time, religious impulses found expression on a large scale outside the churches and outside Christianity, though probably not enough to make up for the decline in the churches themselves.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Religion in decline?

The Victorian age was self-consciously religious. Britain’s greatness, Victorians believed -- its prosperity, political liberties and Empire -- was rooted in Christian and Protestant faith. Yet if religion flourished, it did not bring harmony or good feeling. The transition from religious unity to pluralism brought with it conflict and controversy, with Protestants ranged against each other and against Catholics, evangelical against high churchman, Christian against unbeliever. Nor were the conflicts limited to the religious sphere. Both politics and social life were riven by the clashes of churches and creeds.[1] The churches’ biggest problem, however, was not their disputes with each other but changes in the wider society especially the continued spread of industry and large towns and the deepening class divisions. The churches responded with their characteristic energy and determination, making religion more relevant to British society in 1850 than it had been a century earlier. But despite their best efforts they largely failed to win the allegiance of the urban working-classes and by 1900 they were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well. The portents of decline were apparent long before 1914.

The Church of England: an Anglican revival?

The most important, if least expected development in this period was the resurgence of the Church of England. After the crises of the 1820s and 1830s it belatedly reformed itself, fought back against the nonconformists and regained much of the initiative it had lost. The first round of reforms was imposed from outside, by the Whig governments of the 1830s. Tithes were commuted, the rules of clerical non-residence tightened and resources began to shift from cathedral foundations to needy urban parishes. The church also put its own house in order. A tough, new breed of bishops cracked down on pluralism and non-residence and warned parsons away from the hunting field and magistrates’ bench. In towns, thousands of new churches were built -- though the country parish remained the Anglican ideal -- and by 1900 the number of clergy had doubled.

The clergy played the central role in the Anglican revival. They began to receive professional training and to bring to their work a more energetic and combative approach; in urban parishes they served not only as priests and pastors but as social organisers as well. They set up social and recreational activities, mobilised the laity, though kept control in their own hands, and conducted the services with smooth professionalism. With the church now showing some ‘aggression’ of its own and using some of the weapons of dissent against dissent, it steadily improved its share of the religious market. A slow-moving establishment recast itself as a church militant. The 1830s also saw a new departure in its life. As evangelicalism had revived its Protestant and Puritan traditions, the Oxford movement now revived its Catholic traditions, rescuing them from Protestant contempt and restoring them to the life of the church. Spiritual renewal brought discord in the 1840s when Newman and some of his followers went over to Rome and in the 1850s when the younger Tractarian clergy began to introduce incense, vestments and other ‘Catholic’ ritual practices into their services.

From the 1840s Anglicanism was torn by conflict between its rival ‘parties’. The broad churchmen, liberal in theology and politics were caught in the middle. The Anglo-Catholics, as they later came to call themselves, formed a virtual sect within the church, complete with heroes (but not heroines), martyrs, seminaries, organisations and periodicals. Outraged Protestants reacted with sermons, lawsuits, legislation and even mob violence in a long and futile campaign to halt the ‘ritualist’ plague. Disraeli, denouncing the ‘mass in masquerade’, passed the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 under which five ritualist clergymen were convicted and sent to jail. Though their best known efforts were in slum parishes, where they hoped to win over the poor with their colourful ritual and self-sacrificing pastoral work, it was eventually the middle-classes, especially in London and the south-east, who provided the bulk of their support. The Anglo-Catholics nevertheless brought change to Anglicanism as a whole. Their insistence that communion was the central act of worship and the badge of active church membership, gradually came to be accepted by nearly all sections of the church. The doubling of the numbers of communicants in the decades before 1914, even as attendance declined, was a reflection of their influence.


The Victorian period was one of the high points in Nonconformist history. The different groups matched their Anglican rivals in numbers -- in the mid 1880s their combined membership, excluding adherents, was about 1.4 million, much the same as the number of Anglican Easter communicants, while their huge Sunday school enrolments easily surpassed those of the Anglicans. They were largely successful in their campaign to remove their disabilities but it did not become clear until near the end of the period that with political gains there was a loss of evangelical fervour.

In the 1830s and 1840s, however, nonconformity was still expanding rapidly. Carefully planned yet intensely emotional revival meetings produced thousands of conversions and enabled it to keep pace with the increase in population. After 1850, however, as British society stabilised, religious revivals gradually ceased -- the Welsh revival of 1904-1905 was the last -- and growth rates slackened. Recruitment was also affected by competition from the Church of England and by the further spread of factory industry that left fewer of the independent artisans who had flocked to the chapels in the past. As the supply of adult converts dwindled, nonconformists were forced to recruit from within, concentrating on children of existing members; the Sunday school replaced the revival meeting. In the 1880s nonconformity began to decline relative to the total population and in the decade before 1914 there was a fall in absolute numbers.[2]

Nonconformity’s social composition changed little. The core of membership still came from the lower middle and upper working-classes. Not even Primitive Methodism, the most plebeian of the larger churches, made much headway with factory workers. Each of the main denominations could boast its rich businessmen -- such figures as W.H.Lever (Congregationalist), Thomas Cook (Baptist), George Cadbury (Quaker), Jesse Boot (Wesleyan Methodist) and Samuel Courtauld (Unitarian) -- and solid middle-class prosperity was well represented among the leading lights in the chapels. It was often said that such people eventually went over to the social superior Church of England that ‘the carriage only stops for one generation at the chapel door’. Nevertheless, a significant minority of the provincial urban elite were nonconformists, and though socially untypical of chapel-goers as a whole, they did much to give nonconformity its characteristic form -- its energy, its confidence and also its resentment towards the Establishment.

Being a nonconformist always involved more than accepting certain religious beliefs or attending a particular chapel. They were nonconformists by choice and principle and prided themselves on their independence and refusal to defer to authority. At the very least it meant a determination to uphold their faith regardless of legal disabilities or social snobbery. In most denominations they chose their own ministers, paid their stipends and managed chapel affairs with a minimum of interference from outside. Nonconformity also brought with it a social network and public identity. Nonconformists did business with each other, married into each other’s families and come to be known as nonconformists in the local community. From their preachers and denominational press they gained a distinctive perspective on the wider world and its problems. More than a religious commitment, nonconformity involved a way of life and an outlook on life.

At the centre of that outlook was the principle of religious freedom. Nonconformists condemned Anglicanism as a ‘state church’ and argued that there should be ‘free trade’ in religion as there was in the economy. A free and fair competition in religion, they believed, was one they would expect to win, one that would confirm that they and not the Anglicans were the true national church. The ‘nonconformist conscience’ gave them a belief in their role as the arbiters of the nation’s morals and they brought it to bear on all manner of public and private issues, especially on the drink problem. Temperance became, after 1850, not only their favourite moral reform but part of their identity and part of their claim to moral superiority.

As nonconformity prospered it became more settled and dignified. New chapels were larger and more expensive, built increasingly after the 1850s in the Gothic style. Cushioned pews replaced the older wooden ones reflecting a taste for comfort and luxury that marked nonconformity’s ‘mahogany age’. Ministers received academic training and became ‘reverends’. From the 1890s, ‘connections’ or ‘unions’ were replaced by the collective name of Free Churches. In the process much of their former vigour and control over discipline was lost. Services became shorter and auxiliary activities like literary societies and cricket clubs multiplied. The punitive God of old gave way for the kind father who understood and made allowances. Inward experience of sin and conversion faded; everyone had their own spark of the divine spirit. Yet nonconformity helped many thousands of ordinary people lead lives of dignity and self-respect, giving them opportunities for self-improvement and responsibility in the life of their chapels.

Roman Catholicism

Neither the Anglican Church nor its Protestant rivals changed as profoundly as Roman Catholicism. Its devotional life was transformed by the ultramontanism of the continent. From Ireland came the immigrants who increased the Catholic population from 750,000 in 1851 to over 2 million by 1914; the great majority of Catholics were now urban, Irish and working-class. From Anglicanism, finally, came a small but significant stream of converts, of whom Newman and Manning were the best known, bringing new blood into the clergy and the promise of further gains amongst the educated classes. As English Catholicism entered its ‘second spring’ some hoped for nothing less than the ‘reconversion’ of England to Rome.

The arrival of the Irish posed enormous problems for English Catholics. The ‘folk’ Catholicism that had served them well enough in rural Ireland did not hold up for long in London or Liverpool and a high proportion of immigrants lost all contact with the church. Priests carried out what amounted to a ‘devotional revolution’ to prevent further seepage abandoning the cool, restrained piety of the eighteenth century and adopting an unashamedly emotion, almost missionary, approach. Their preaching matched the fervour of Protestant revivalists; their new churches, with the candles, incense, plaster statutes and other props of ultramontane piety, emulated those of Rome or Naples.

Victorian Catholicism was dominated by the clergy. The role of the old Catholic gentry was minimal, nor was there any challenge to the priests from the small, Catholic middle-class. In the poor, inner city parishes, the priests were dedicated, dominant, often paternalist figures, laying down the law to their parishioners as well as bringing them faith and the sacraments. ‘Improvement’ was not ignored, but this was a church of the unskilled, where unlike most Protestant churches, it was no disgrace to be poor and stay poor.[3] Whatever the church’s dreams of reconverting England, its immediate strategies were realistic and defensive. Mixed marriages were condemned; great sacrifices were made to build a Catholic school system. The aim was to shield Catholics from all Protestant and secular influence, to keep them in self-enclosed communities where the church was the focus of social as well as religious identity. Catholicism was an important medium of both Celtic and proletarian culture.

What most Protestants knew of Catholicism was the bold triumphalist ultramontanism of its public stance and its effects on them was to deepen alarm into panic.[4] This was triggered by the appearance of Catholic fellow travellers in the Church of England. When bishops were restored to the Catholic Church in 1850, Cardinal Wiseman provoked near-hysterical charges of ‘papal aggression’; in Stockport in 1852 anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feelings erupted into violence. Many Protestants regarded the pope as antichrist, the mass as ‘idolatry’, the Irish famine as just punishment for the rejection of Protestant truth. They surrounded Catholicism with a kind of religious pornography, dwelling especially on the horrors of the confessional, where priests insinuated ‘impure’ thoughts into the minds of innocent girls and turned wives against their husbands. Good Protestant families felt shame and disgrace when one of their members ‘perverted’ to Rome. Anti-Catholic prejudice flowered in this period and was widespread in every social class.

[1] For the development of religion in the Victorian period see Owen Chadwick The Victorian Church, 2 volumes, 1970, 1972 for the standard reading with A.D. Gilbert Religion and Society in Industrial England, Longman, 1976 for a different interpretation.

[2] There has been considerable debate on the chronology of growth and decline of the various religious groupings in the nineteenth century. Not all historians would agree with the conclusions on A.D. Gilbert on dissent outlined in the text.

[3] The Salvation Army, founded by General Booth in the late 1870s, specifically targeted both its evangelical mission and its social work on the very poor. In part, this was a response to the success of Catholic evangelism.

[4] On this subject see D.G. Paz Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England, Stanford U.P., 1993.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Two more Chartist biographies!

Stephen Roberts The Chartist Prisoners: The Radical Lives of Thomas Cooper (1805-1892) and Arthur O'Neill (1819-1896), (Peter Lang), 2008

The publication of Paul Pickering's biography of Feargus O'Connor earlier this year has been followed by an important study of two neglected but nonetheless important figures within the Chartist movement whose association began as 'Chartist prisoners'.  Thomas Cooper and Arthur O'Neill came to Chartist from different directions: Cooper as a journalist and teacher horrified by working class conditions in Leicester and O'Neill through the emergence of Church Chartism in which he played a dominant role in Birmingham.  Both were imprisoned in Stafford Gaol for seditious offences in 1843 and the friendship forged between them lasted until Cooper's death nearly fifty years later.    Though remembered as Chartists, both Cooper and O'Neill made major contributions in other areas of Victorian life and culture.  Cooper was a journalist and writer of some distinction and his The Purgatory of Suicides is one of the most underrated of nineteenth century working class epic poems.  His religiosity, evident in his youth, soon resurrected itself after 1850 and later in life he became a lecturer in defence of Christianity.  O'Neill worked with Joseph Sturge and Henry Richard for peace and international arbitration and attended several international peace conferences.  We know more about Cooper's life than O'Neill's: Cooper wrote his autobiography and many other things while historians have less concrete material from O'Neill. 

Stephen Roberts, an authority on Cooper, has woven their lives together with consummate skill.  It also examines in detail artisanal literary activities, the Peace movement in the nineteenth century and the role of Christian apologetics in Victorian Britain.  Written with quiet authority and a detailed understanding of both sources and milieu, this is an important book that makes an important contribution of our understanding of Chartism and its varied aftermaths.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Working-class religion: The changing nature of historiography

How religious was the working-class after 1850? How widespread was irreligion among working people? In 1936 the historian R.C.K. Ensor wrote that ‘No-one will ever understand Victorian England who does not appreciate that among highly civilised... countries it was one of the most religious the world has ever known.’ This was the orthodoxy that prevailed until around 1960. Historians debated as to whether this religiosity was a good or bad thing; they discussed when and why it went into decline; but no-one doubted that it was a reality.[1]

Historians then began to take a more critical view of this orthodoxy. The challenge to the consensus came from an Anglican bishop E.R. Wickham and an Australian historian, K.S. Inglis.[2] Wickham was concerned with the lack of involvement in the church by the working-classes in the years before World War II and this led him to trace the roots of this apparent indifference back to the nineteenth century. Inglis’ interest was in Christian evangelistic and social reform movements of the later nineteenth century -- ranging from the Salvation Army to the Settlements, to various forms of Christian Socialism. He concluded that there was a common thread running through all these movements: they were a response to a general working-class alienation from churches. Both Wickham and Inglis did not deny that the Victorian period witnessed a ‘religious boom’ but insisted that it was overwhelmingly middle-class and passed the working-classes by. They challenged existing assumptions about the nature of Victorian religion because of their use of two largely neglected sources: the censuses of church attendance conducted nationally by government and locally by newspapers at various points, notably in the 1880s; and the numerous books and sermons of Victoria churchmen that deplored examples of working-class irreligion. Especially important was Inglis’ analysis of the national religious census of 1851 that, he argued, demonstrated that none of the churches made a significant impact on the urban working-classes.

In the 1960s and 1970s a series of local studies and thematic articles appeared that reached broadly similar conclusions: the great majority of Victorian working people were indifferent, if not hostile, to organised religion, and the many attempts by Victorian Christians to convert the working-classes were a massive failure.[3] Wickham and Inglis might be termed the leaders of the first generation of historians of Victorian working-class religion. They laid the foundations on which all subsequent researchers have built. The basic point that they established was the centrality of class to any discussion of Victorian religion. By the 1970s a second generation was emerging. This was a boom period for both social history and for ‘history from below’. Both these features influenced interpretations of working-class religion. They began to ask whether too narrow a definition of religion was being used. The idea that ‘You can be a good Christian without ever going to church’ is widespread in England today but were similar views held in Victorian England? Was too much emphasis being placed on church going as a measure of working-class religiosity?

Two major developments can be identified. One was a growing interest in popular religion, a term used to describe a wide range of beliefs that were religious but diverged from the official orthodoxy of church and chapel.[4] The second was the attempt to relate religious changes more closely to their economic and social context. The most widely read study was that by Alan Gilbert who suggested that in the long run industrialisation aided secularisation, but in the short term it helped trigger a temporary religious revival that petered out by the 1840s. [5] He maintained that industrialisation was ultimately subversive to all religion, because increased human control over the environment has provided technical means of solving most of the problems that formerly required supernatural assistance. Stephen Yeo’s study of Reading suggested that it was not industrialisation or urbanisation as such that undermined organised religion, but the specific form of capitalism that was emerging in the early twentieth century. [6] One further trend on the 1970s was the growing interest in oral history that provided a wealth of data about religious beliefs and practices in the period from about 1890 onwards.

During the 1980s a third generation of historians emerged, many of whom have been much more critical of the Wickham/Inglis orthodoxy. The most influential was the American historian Jeffrey Cox and his study of the south London borough of Lambeth.[7] He accepted that working-class attendance at church and chapel was low; but in many other respects he challenged existing assumptions. Perhaps the most important aspect of his book was a discussion of the wide-ranging social role of the Victorian churches through which they entered into people’s lives at many points and could exercise a pervasive influence even in communities were church attendance was low. He explicitly rejected Gilbert’s determinism and suggested that the decline of English churches was not the inevitable consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation but a result of the specific ways in which they chose to respond to these developments. Callum Brown has taken things further rejecting the Wickham/Inglis orthodoxy on just about every point: big towns were not significantly less church-going than small towns; working-class participation in church life than has generally been assumed; the nineteenth century was a period of religious growth not decline; when decline did come it was associated with suburbanisation not urbanisation. [8]

So we have at least four rival chronologies of Victorian working-class religion on offer. First, the Inglis view suggests that working-class religious involvement was consistently low. Secondly, Wickham argues that there was some increase in working-class involvement between about 1850 and 180 during a period of relative prosperity but accepts that the level was generally low. Thirdly, Gilbert sees religious involvement reaching a peak in the turbulent and disease-ridden 1830s and 1840s and declining as living standards improved. Finally, the more recent argument of Callum Brown suggests the peak came much later, perhaps as late as the 1890s. Historians who accept this proposition tend to take a relatively positive view of the achievements of the Christian evangelicals and social reformers and who take seriously Archbishop Cosmo Lang’s claim that the period from about 1980 to 1914 marked the ‘golden age of parochial work in the cities of England’. It is apparent that rival theories as to when working-class religion declined are linked to rival theories as to why it declined. One view would be that absence from church of the urban labourer was merely a continuation of habits formed in the countryside and that the hierarchical nature of English society led to a general alienation from the church of those at the bottom, whether in town or countryside. This view suggests continuity between pre-industrial and industrialised society and questions the views of Gilbert et al that emphasised the importance of urbanisation and industrialisation.

Evidence of secularisation in the working-classes

The Religious Census of 1851 provides essential evidence for those historians who have stressed the secularity of Victorian working people with Horace Mann, the Anglican barrister who wrote the official report, as their star witness. Mann’s report emphasised that a large section of the population was absent from church and that the absentees were drawn mainly from the working-classes that had become ‘thoroughly estranged from our religious institutions’. He went on to analyse the causes of this estrangement and suggested six factors: social inequalities within the churches, for example class arranged and rented pews; the depth of class divisions within society that meant that working-class people would not wish to worship with members of other classes; the apparent lack of interest on the part of the churches in the material well-being of the poor; suspicion of the clergy; the effects of poverty: many working-class people lacked time or space for reflection and were too preoccupied with immediate problems to give much thought to religion; and, the lack of ‘aggressive’ missionary activity.

Though the last point is questionable -- the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the golden age of the open-air preacher -- the other points Mann made clearly have at least some substance in them. During the 1830s and 1840s class tensions were more acute and the Church of England more unambiguously identified with the dominant classes than at any time since. In these circumstances the social inequalities within churches led to suspicion of clergy and doctrine that rapidly turned to often-blind bitterness and antagonism. However, for many working-class women, non-involvement in the church was not so much a deliberate choice as an inevitable part of a way of life that was overwhelmingly concentrated on home and kitchen. Many places of worship, including some in strongly working-class areas, had a clearly defined hierarchy, with highly rented seats at the front and low rented and free seats in galleries or behind pillars. Going to church could thus be a humiliating rather than uplifting experience for the poor.

Drink was a central part of the institutions (pubs and working men’s clubs) established by working-class men that provided a major alternative to the churches and chapels. Pub and church were competitors for the worker’s free time; but they also nourished opposing sub-cultures. The church brought men and women together and stressed the virtues of family life. The pub offered the attractions of an all-male environment and encouraged activities that were tabooed by the other including gambling, poaching, swearing and ‘broad’ humour. Other working-class institutions, such as friendly societies, co-ops, trade unions and radical political organisations, had a more ambiguous relationship with the churches and chapels. Certainly, there was no direct conflict and many people combined membership of both. But there was a potential for rivalry, especially in times of acute social tension.

These different elements could easily allow the conclusion that the case for interpreting Victorian working-class life in secular terms in overwhelmingly strong. However, by no means all historians would accept this conclusion largely because of the discovery of new forms of evidence and partly from the re-evaluation of facts that were already familiar but that had previously been regarded as relatively unimportant. Two areas illustrate this. First, it is well known that working-class women were more involved than their men in church and chapel. Since, in working-class household, women took most decisions relation to home and family, it has been suggested by Jeffrey Cox that female religiosity had much more influence on the rising generation than male indifference. Secondly, certain religious denominations, notably the Roman Catholics and the Primitive Methodists, had a large proportion of working-class members. There has, however, been a strong tendency to play down their significance on the grounds that the Catholics were largely Irish immigrants and therefore peripheral to discussions of the English working-class and that the Primitive Methodists were not sufficiently numerous to be worth serious consideration.

Working-class religiosity

The new evidence on working-class religion has been of two kinds. The first is very specific, but also very difficult to dispute namely a growing body of statistical evidence on the occupational composition of Nonconformist chapels. The second, much more wide-ranging but also more difficult to interpret, is the evidence of oral history.

Comparison of attendance lists with census schedules provides data on the occupations of church-goers. All such studies have concluded that most Nonconformist chapels had a substantial working-class element among their members. Gilbert’s analysis of Nonconformist baptismal and burial records, mainly from the period 1800-1837, suggested that artisans were by far the largest occupational group and that, with smaller numbers of labourers and miners, made up about three-quarters of Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists. He concludes that the dramatic expansion of Nonconformity between 1780 and 1840 was mainly due to recruitment among the working-classes and that chapels only became more middle-class by 1850.

More recent studies, however, suggest that the pattern described by Gilbert lasted much longer, and that it was only after 1900 than Methodism became predominantly middle-class. The most thorough study has been undertaken by Rosemary Chadwick in respect of Bradford chapels in the 1880s. She found that chapels tended to include considerable numbers of working-class women and of working-class men in skilled occupations but that there was an under-representation of men in semi-skilled and unskilled occupations.

Elizabeth Roberts concluded from her oral history of the working-classes in Barrow and Lancaster between 1880 and 1930 that: ‘The most striking and obvious act about religion during the first part of this period is the significance part it played in all but one family’s life.’ [9] The use of oral evidence has undermined existing orthodoxy in several ways. It suggests that the proportion of working-class people who went to church or chapel with some degree of frequency is rather higher than anyone might have guessed. Thompson and Vigne interviewed about 500 people born between 1872 and 1908 from selected regions of Britain about their memories of the period before 1918. They found that about 40 per cent of the interviewees from working-class families in industrial regions of England claimed their mother attended church or chapel with some degree of frequency. In London, the north Midlands, the Potteries and the north-east the figure for fathers was around 20 per cent, but it was higher in Lancashire (32%) and Yorkshire (40%). The average for both sexes is thus around 30 per cent, a figure somewhat higher than censuses taken on a single Sunday might suggest. The probable explanation is that because of illness, tiredness or child-care problems, working-class church-goers were less likely than their middle-class counterparts to attend every week and that counts like than taken nationally in 1851 accordingly under-represent the extent of working-class attendance.

Oral evidence provides graphic illustration of the argument of Jeffrey Cox that the churches had a pervasive social influence even in communities where church going was low. Churches and chapels were social centres for wide sections of the population, providing in one way or another for both sexes and all age groups. The most striking example of the inescapable presence of the church and chapel was the fact that the overwhelming majority of working-class children went to Sunday school. There have been many different views among historians as to the causes and consequences of this. E.P. Thompson, in his classic account of the period before 1832, stressed the indoctrination and ‘religious terrorism; practised by Sunday Schools and saw them as an effective means of training a new generation of docile factory hands.[10] Thomas Lacquer agreed that Sunday Schools were effective but he presented a much more sympathetic view of their objectives and methods and stressed their popularity both with working-class parents and many of their children. [11] Elizabeth Roberts saw Sunday Schools as popular, though principally because of the treats they provided. Stephen Humphries thought children resented going to Sunday school and did their best to disrupt classes. [12] Jeffrey Cox argued that, while enjoyably chaotic from the children’s point of view, the schools were ineffective as a means of inculcating religion or anything else.

These divergent interpretations arise from the very varied character of an institution that was sponsored by many very different religious denominations in social environments of many different kinds that evoked many different kinds of individual responses. One generalisation can, however be made: the almost universal exposure of Victorian working-class children to the Sunday School meant that the great majority of the population grew up with a basic acquaintance with the Bible, Christian hymns and Christian doctrine. For many people this acquaintance remained basic and the resulting sense of Christian identity was largely passive. Most important of all, the oral evidence highlights aspects of religious belief and practice otherwise hidden from public view. Contemporary observers were too ready to assume that those who seldom or never went to church were ‘secular’ or ‘indifferent’ in their religious outlook. There were indeed people who could be described in such terms but there were also a good many people whose religious views were far more complex.

Reconciling divergence?

Is it possible to reconcile such a diversity of interpretations? First, it has to be recognised that all types of sources contain their inherent weakness and biases. For instance, the large body of commentary on working-class life by middle-class observers is limited in value both by the act that the comments are those of outsiders and by the fact that these observers were often looking for evidence to support their own religious and social biases. Historians have been far too willing to take Engels’ view on working-class religion at face value. The divergence between historians’ interpretations of nineteenth century working-class religion is also partly explicable in the diversity of the Victorian working-class. There were important religious differences between regions, between ethnic groups, between occupational groups, and between men and women.

[1] For analysis of the literature see H. McLeod Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth century Britain, Macmillan, 1984 and his more recent Religion and Irreligion in Victorian England, Bangor, 1993.

[2] E.R. Wickham Church and People in an Industrial City, London, 1958 and K.S. Inglis Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England, Routledge, 1963.

[3] For example David Mole ‘Challenge to the Church: Birmingham 1815-65’ and John Kent ‘Feelings and Festivals’, both in H.J. Dyos and M. Wolff (eds.) The Victorian City, two volumes, Routledge, 1971.

[4] This definition of popular religion comes from James Obelkevich Religion in Rural Society: South Lindsey 1825-1875, OUP, 1976.

[5] A.D. Gilbert Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change 1740-1914, Longman, 1976.

[6] S. Yeo Religion and Voluntary Organisations in Crisis, London, 1976.

[7] J. Cox English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth 1870-1930, OUP, 1982.

[8] Callum Brown ‘Did Urbanisation Secularise Britain?’, Urban History Yearbook, 1988, pp. 1-14.

[9] Elizabeth Robert Working Class Barrow and Lancaster 1890-1930, Lancaster, 1976, page 62.

[10] E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 2nd ed., Penguin, 1968, pp.412-16.

[11] T.W. Lacquer Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780-1850, New Haven, 1976, chapters 6-7.

[12] Stephen Humphries Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939, Oxford, 1981, pp. 130-134.