Since 1824 workers had been allowed to join together in unions. Most of these unions were small and weak. Although one of their aims was to make sure employers paid reasonable wages, they also tried to prevent other people from working in their particular trade. As a result the working classes still found it difficult to act together. Determined employers could still quite easily defeat strikers who refused to work until their pay was improved, and often did so with cruelty and violence. Soldiers were sometimes used to force people back to work or break up meetings.
In 1834, there was an event of great importance in trade union history. Six farmworkers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle joined together, promising to be loyal to their "union". Their employer managed to find a law by which they could be punished. A judge had been specially appointed by the government to find the six men guilty, and this he did. In London 30,000 workers and radicals gathered to ask the government to pardon the "Tolpuddle Martyrs". The government, afraid of seeming weak, did not do so until the "martyrs" had completed part of their punishment. It was a bad mistake. Tolpuddle became a symbol of employers' cruelty, and of the working classes' need to defend themselves through trade union strength.
The radicals and workers were greatly helped in their efforts by the introduction of a cheap postage system in 1840. This enabled them to organise themselves across the country far better than before. For one penny a letter could be sent to anyone, anywhere in Britain.
Working together for the first time, unions, workers and radicals put forward a People's Charter in 1838. The Charter demanded rights that are now accepted by everyone: the vote for all adults; the right for a man without property of his own to be an MP; voting in secret (so that people could not be forced to vote for their landlord or his party); payment for MPs, and an election every year (which everyone today recognises as impractical). All of these demands were refused by the House of Commons.
The "Chartists" were not united for long. They were divided between those ready to use violence and those who believed in change by lawful means only. Many did not like the idea of women also getting the vote, partly because they believed it would make it harder to obtain voting rights for all men, and this demand, which had been included in the wording to the very first Charter, was quietly forgotten. But riots and political meetings continued. In 1839 fourteen men were killed by soldiers in a riot in Newport, Wales, and many others sent to one of Britain's colonies as prisoners.
The government's severe actions showed how much it feared that the poor might take power, and establish a republic.
The government was saved partly by the skill of Robert Peel, the Prime Minister of the time. Peel believed that changes should be made slowly but steadily. He was able to use the improved economic conditions in the 1840s to weaken the Chartist movement, which slowly died. In 1846 he abolished the unpopular Corn Law of 1815, which had kept the price of corn higher than necessary. Not only had this made life hard for those with little money, but it had brought their employers, the growing class of industrialists, into conflict with the landlord class.
These industrialists neither wished to pay higher wages, nor employ an underfed workforce. In this way, Peel's decision to repeal the Corn Law was a sign of the way power was passing out of the hands of the eighteenth-century gentry class. These had kept their power in the early years of the nineteenth century. But now power decisively passed into the hands of the growing number of industrialists and traders.
Besides hunger, crime was the mark of poverty. Peel had turned his attention to this problem already, by establishing a regular police force for London in 1829. At first people had laughed at his blue-uniformed men in their top hats. But during the next thirty years almost every other town and county started its own police force. The new police forces soon proved themselves successful, as much crime was pushed out of the larger cities, then out of towns and then out of the countryside. Peel was able to show that certainty of punishment was far more effective than cruelty of punishment.
Britain's success in avoiding the storm of revolution in Europe in 1848 was admired almost everywhere. European monarchs wished they were as safe on their thrones as the British queen seemed to be. And liberals and revolutionaries wished they could act as freely as radicals in Britain were able to do. Britain had been a political model in the eighteenth century, but with the War of Independence in America and revolution in France interest in liberalism and democracy turned to these two countries. Now it moved back to Britain, as a model both of industrial success and of free constitutional government. For much of the nineteenth century Britain was the envy of the world.