As industrialisation continued, the areas at the edge of British economic power became weaker. Areas in Wales, Scotland and Ireland were particularly affected.
Wales had fewer problems than either Scotland or Ireland. Its population grew from half a million in 1800 to over two million by 1900, partly because the average expectation of life doubled from thirty to sixty. In south Wales there were rich coal mines which quickly became the centre of a rapidly growing coal and steel industry. In their search for work, a huge number of people, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the total Welsh population, moved into the southeast corner of the country. By 1870 Wales was mainly an industrial society.
This new working-class community, born in southeast Wales, became increasingly interested in Nonconformist Christianity and radicalism. It created its own cultural life. In many mining villages brass bands were created, and these quickly became symbols of working-class unity. Other people joined the local Nonconformist chapel choir, and helped to create the Welsh tradition of fine choral singing. Wales was soon a nation divided between the industrialised areas and the unchanged areas of old Wales, in the centre and north.
The parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth century gave Wales a new voice. As soon as they were allowed to vote, the Welsh workers got rid of the Tories and the landowning families who had represented them for 300 years.
Scotland was also divided between a new industrialised area, around Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Highland and Lowland areas. Around the two great cities there were coal mines and factories producing steel and iron, as well as the centre of the British shipbuilding industry on the River Clyde. Like Wales, Scotland became strongly Liberal once its workforce gained voting rights.
The clearances in the Highlands continued. In the second half of the century it became more profitable to replace the sheep with wild deer, which were hunted for sport. Many old clan lands were sold to new landowners who had no previous connection with the Highlands, and who only occasionally visited their estates. The Highlands have never recovered from the collapse of the clan system, either socially or economically. It is probable that the Highland areas would have become depopulated anyway, as people moved away to find work in the cities. But the way in which it happened was not gentle, and left a bitter memory.
The Irish experience was worse than that of Scotland. In the nineteenth century, an increasing number of Protestant Irish turned to England as a protection against the Catholic inhabitants. To the Catholics, however, most Irish Protestants were a reminder that England, a foreign country, was still as powerful in Ireland as it had been in 1690. The struggle for Irish freedom from English rule became a struggle between Catholic and Protestant. The first great victory for Irish freedom was when Catholics were allowed to become MPs in 1829. In fact in Ireland this decision was accompanied by a repression of civil and political liberties. Even so, the fact that a Catholic could enter Parliament increased Irish national feeling.
But while this feeling was growing, Ireland suffered the worst disaster in its entire history. For three years, 1845, 1846 and 1847, the potato crop, which was the main food of the poor, failed. Since the beginning of the century, the population had risen quickly from five to eight million. In these three years 1.5 million (about 20 per cent) died from hunger. At the same time Ireland had enough wheat to feed the entire population, but it was grown for export to England by the mainly Protestant landowners. The government in London failed to realise the seriousness of the problem.
Many Irish people had little choice but to leave. At least a million left during these years, but many more followed during the rest of the century because of the great poverty in Ireland. Most settled in the United States. Between 1841 and 1920 almost five million settled there. Some went eastwards to the towns and cities of Britain. Many helped to build Britain's railways.
The Irish population has still not yet grown to the same level. Today it is less than five million (three million in the Republic of Ireland, 1.5 million in Northern Ireland), only a little more than half what it was in 1840. Emigration from Ireland continues.
The Irish who went to the United States did not forget the old country. Nor did they forgive Britain. By 1880 many Irish Americans were rich and powerful and were able to support the Irish freedom movement. They have had an influence on British policy in Ireland ever since.
Meanwhile, Charles Parnell, a Protestant Irish MP, demanded fuller rights for the Irish people, in particular the right to self-government. When most Irish were able to vote for the first time in 1885, eighty-six members of Parnell's Irish party were elected to Parliament. Most Liberals supported Parnell, but the Tories did not and Ireland did not gain the right to self-government, or "home rule", until thirty years later. But then Britain's war with Germany delayed it taking place, and by the time the war ended Irish nationalists had decided they could only win their freedom by fighting for it.
Lecture twenty-one. The end of an age.
Social and economic improvements. The importance of sport. Changes in thinking. The end of “England’s summer”. The storm clouds of war.
Social and economic improvements
Between 1875 and 1914 the condition of the poor in most of Britain greatly improved as prices fell by 40 per cent and real wages doubled. Life at home was made more comfortable. Most homes now had gas both for heating and lighting. As a result of falling prices and increased wages, poor families could eat better food, including meat, fresh milk (brought from the countryside by train) and vegetables. This greatly improved the old diet of white bread and beer.
In 1870 and 1891 two Education Acts were passed. As a result of these, all children had to go to school up to the age of thirteen, where they were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. In Scotland there had been a state education system since the time of the Reformation. There were four Scottish universities, three dating from the Middle Ages. In Wales schools had begun to grow rapidly in the middle of the century, partly for nationalist reasons. By the middle of the century Wales had a university and a smaller university college. England now started to build "redbrick" universities in the new industrial cities. The term "redbrick" distinguished the new universities, often brick-built, from the older, mainly stone-built universities of Oxford and Cambridge. These new universities were unlike Oxford and Cambridge, and taught more science and technology to feed Britain's industries.
The face of the towns had greatly changed in the middle years of the century. The organised improvement of workers' homes, of factory conditions, public health and education had all come fast, once the Victorians had developed the administrative and scientific means. Sidney Webb, an early socialist, amusingly described the pride of the new town authorities, or municipalities, which carried out these changes:
The town councillor will walk along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water and, seeing by the municipal clock in the municipal market, that he is too early to meet his children coming from the municipal school . . . will use the national telegraph system to tell them not to walk through the municipal park, but ... to meet him in the municipal reading room.
It was easy to see the physical changes such as the growth of towns and cities and villages. It was less easy to see the social changes. But in fact, power had moved from the shires to the towns. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the country squire could use his power to rule the village, send children to work in the workhouse, and enclose common land for his own use. By 1900 he was a harmless reminder of an earlier age. JPs lost all their local government and administrative powers in 1888, and could now only make judgements in very small cases. New county councils took their place, which were made up of elected men and women, with a staff of administrators to carry out their decisions, a system which still operates today.
The authority of the Church was also weakened. In the country, the village priest no longer had the power he had had a century earlier. Churches were now half empty, because so many people had gone to live in the towns, where they stopped going to church. By 1900 only 19 per cent of Londoners went regularly to church. Those who did usually lived in richer areas. This remains true today, when under 10 per cent are regular churchgoers.
Why did the poor no longer go to church? One reason was that the Church of England offered them no help with the problems of their daily lives. Staying away from church was also a kind of rebellion against the ruling establishment with which the Church was still closely connected. In the village, many people had gone to church because they were forced to do so by the squire, who probably employed them. In the great cities of industrial Britain they were free, and they chose to stay away.
They were also attracted by other ways of spending their Sundays. By the 1880s, for the first time, working people could think about enjoying some free time. Apart from museums, parks, swimming pools and libraries recently opened in towns, the real popular social centre remained the alehouse or pub. Thousands of these were built in the new suburbs.
From the middle of the century many people had started to use the railway to get to work. Now they began to travel for pleasure. The working class went to the new seaside holiday towns. The middle class enjoyed the countryside, or smaller seaside resorts of a more expensive kind. But for both, the seaside was a place where families could take holidays together.
The invention of the bicycle was also important. For the first time people could cycle into the countryside, up to fifty miles from home. It gave a new freedom to working-class and middle-class people, who met each other for the first time away from work. More importantly, it gave young women their first taste of freedom. Up till then they had always had an older woman as a companion to make sure that nothing "happened" when they met men. Now these young women had a means of escape, and escape they did.