Room 20: The Road to Reform
© The National Portrait Gallery, London
Despite international victories and colonial gains, Britain faced bitter domestic conflict until the 1830s. Social unrest caused by famine and unemployment, recession and radical agitation led to repressive laws curtailing free speech, trade unions and right of assembly. Protest centred on Catholic emancipation, Parliamentary reform and the abolition of slavery.
The violent Irish Rebellion of 1798 led William Pitt to promote the Act of Union in 1801. However, George III refused to let Catholics take their seats in Parliament. Social friction and threats of civil war in Ireland eventually forced the Tories to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829). In 1830 the Whigs swept to power on a platform of social and electoral reform. To cultivate the new middle classes Charles Grey introduced the Reform Act of 1832. This extended the vote and redistributed Parliamentary seats to new industrial centres. These first timid steps towards modern democracy are commemorated in Hayter's The House of Commons, 1833.
The Whig majority in the reformed house reflected popular demands for personal liberty and improved social conditions. Evangelical Tories like William Wilberforce had long campaigned for religious education and an end to slave trading. The reformers triumphed in 1833 when Britain abolished slavery in the colonies. The struggle for worldwide abolition continued and is fervently celebrated in Haydon's Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840.