The 19th Century saw a notable rise in status for the working classes. This was, in part, made possible by the working classes themselves and by Victorian philanthropists, who were appalled by the living conditions of some of the poor.
In the 1800s, workers in England stood up for their rights with a determination not seen since the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The century was full of examples of a radical actions, which were often put down in a brutal way, as with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when cavalry troops used lethal force to cut down peaceful demonstrators in Manchester.
19th Century England's first great radicals were the Luddites. In 1811, the Luddite riots affected major cities in Central and Northern England, as workers feared the financial impacts of the Industrial Revolution. Luddites destroyed machinery, which they feared would replace skilled manual labour. Riots led to executions and transportation for some of those involved, with the British Army used to quell the disturbances. The poet Lord Byron was a Luddite supporter and was an example of how some of the elite championed the cause of the working classes in the 1800s.
The 1830s were a turbulent time in Britain. 1830 saw another working class uprising, but this time disturbances began in the South and East of England before spreading to the Midlands and North. These were called the Swing Riots. Machinery was again targeted. With the advent of new machinery, wages for workers had actually decreased - because there was less need for manual labour. The years after the Napoleonic Wars had brought in a time of austerity and, combined with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, poverty was a fear of many.
The six Tolpuddle Martyrs, in 1834, were an example of how desperate the State became in trying to suppress dissent. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were from Dorset and were the main inspiration for the eventual formation of trade unions in Britain. They sought better wages, and the support for them was so widespread that their original sentence of being transported to Australia for seven years was quashed.
|Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum. Photo by Stephen McKay|
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATolpuddle_martyrs_museum.jpg
In Wales, the Rebecca Riots, which took place from 1839 to 1843, were displays of anger by farmers and agriculture workers at what they claimed to be unfair taxes. Often male protestors would dress up as women, being inspired by a reference to Rebekah in The Bible.
Chartism and Anti-Corn Law League
Chartism was a movement that flourished from 1839 to 1848, and it was the first British working class movement to make an impact on government. The Chartists wanted six points to be agreed to and five were. Most notable was that every man over the age of 21 was allowed to vote - regardless of wealth or status. Also, working class men were to be given the chance to become MPs. The Chartists had organised a General strike in 1842 and many Christians were Chartists, which began a growth in philanthropy. Another strong working class movement at this time was the Anti-Corn Law League, which was formed to protest against higher bread prices and the resultant poverty enforced on the working classes.
Communist Manifesto, Trade Unions and Fabian Society
Europe in 1848 was in turmoil and it was the year that the Communist Manifesto was published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. There were to be no more really major changes in British politics for the working classes until 1871, when trade unions in Britain were made legal. The socialist movement, the Fabian Society, was founded in 1884 and effectively spawned the Labour Party, which emerged in 1900. The London Dock Strike of 1889 was the last great working class protest of the 19th Century as the rights of the working classes became more respected.