Tuesday, 15 July 2014

in The Catholic Herald, July 11, 2014

The year that propelled Britain into the future
In 1846 the country was on the cusp of modernity, but have we really changed that much, asks Patrick West
Penny Loaves & Butter Cheap, Britain in 1846

The recent European elections highlighted a significant divide in this country, of that between London and the rest of England, between a liberal metropolitan class and a UKIP-voting middle-class and lower-middle class uneasy with mass immigration and the European Union. We had grown accustomed to the notion that Britain was becoming an ever more disparate country - what with the spectre of Scottish independence - yet now there was the realisation that London is a very different place to the rest of England, what with its moneyed aristocracy and low-paid workforce from overseas.

As Stephen Bates new publication, 1846, explains, there was a comparable conflict between an uncouth bourgeoisie and a nobility in the mid-part of the 19th century - one that pitted the landed gentry against uppity northern industrialists. If debate today often centres on the influx and movement of people, in the 1840s it was the importation of food, and more specifically, corn. The new industrialists sought free trade and the end to tariffs - the Corn Laws - in order that their workforce eat more cheaply, while landowners strove to resist any change that would be detrimental to its already increasingly precarious position.

The passing of the gentry's power to the industrialists is one many themes in Bates's snapshot of the year 1846, when Britain was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and on the cusp of modernity. And its a testament to the author that he has managed to make the Anti-Corn Law League debate interesting, so sullied is its reputation (in my eyes) by history lessons of yore.

The collision between old and new money took many forms. Many aristocrats, such as the "prickly and self-righteous" Lord Ashley, later Lord Shaftesbury, were of a highly moral, evangelical persuasion. Disgusted at the new "Millocracy" they believed that factories subverted and destabilised the social order, and actually exploited the workers, unlike the paternalistic aristocracy. There was also the belief that they were inimical to Christianity, and promoting godlessness and even Papism.

Yet, some industrialists could be just as paternalistic-minded. Bates takes the example of the Ashworths of Bolton, who at their cotton-spinning factory provided workers housing, holidays and education, while paying them sufficiently high wages so that their wives didn't have to work. In return, they insisted on cleanliness - a change of shirt twice a week - attendance at church or chapel every Sunday, sobriety and sexual morality.

If the 1840s was marked by a rise in evangelicalism in Britain, it was also a distinguished era for the High Church and Catholicism. It saw the emergence of the Tractarian movement, which sought to return the established Church to a more ascetic, pre-Reformation manner, and the rise of skilled polemicists such as John Kebel, Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman. This phenomenon was met with suspicion and hostility by evangelicals, and when Newman or any person of note converted to Catholicism, there was generally outrage among the Protestant clergy and press.

Anti-Catholicism was still part of every-day discourse in 1846 (although, in England, it would start to wane hereafter), with cartoons in Punch depicting sly and devious papist priests, or treacherous Oxford undergraduates wearing papal tiaras. And England would have its last anti-Catholic spasm in 1850 with the restoration of Roman Catholic bishops to England, an outburst aggravated, as Bates observes, by Cardinal's Wiseman ill-judged call for the reconversion of the country. The Times, true to form, called it "one of the grossest acts of folly and impertinence which the court of Rome has ventured to commit since the crown and people of England threw off its yoke."

The Protestant Ascendancy had already been incensed by Prime Minister Robert Peel's proposal to increase the grant to the Catholic priests' training seminary in Maynooth, outside Dublin. He had done this in order to win over the rural clergy in Ireland, a country that was suffering dreadfully in 1846, its potato crop having failed for the second year in a row.

From the outset there were plenty of graphic reports in the press as to what was happing in Ireland and urgent appeals from both British and Irish observers; one curate in Mayo wrote "No language can describe the awful condition of the people... They are to be found in thousands, young and old, male and female, crawling the streets and on the highways, screaming for a morsel of food." But for the most part, reaction to the famine from London was one marked by "callousness and ineptitude... managerial infancy and amateurish competence". Matters were made worse when the Whigs - who believed in the iron laws of laissez faire economics - were voted in in the summer of 1846, stopping all emergency imports.

The evangelical Charles Trevelyan, placed in charge of Irish affairs, had been taught by Thomas Malthus as a schoolboy. He couldn't even be stirred when a delegation of Anglican clergyman got down on their knees to beg for relief to be sent to Ireland in 1846. "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated," he said. "The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."

The book 1846 is a splendid achievement, and befitting of a journalist, the author has an eye for the big picture. He includes sections on overcrowding in burial grounds, life expectancy (38 for a rural labourer, an astonishing 15 for a labourer in Liverpool), the railway bubble and subsequent crash, the toleration of prostitution (it was thought a better alternative to having unwanted mouths to feed), Mendelssohn's incredible popularity, church attendance (less than 50 per cent) or the fact that the first murderer tracked by train was a Quaker. Just as we are still in the midst of a transformative technological revolution, 1846 was a year in which the old wrestled with the new.

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