Revolution and Political Change

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, April 10, 1848, photograph taken by William Kilburn.


Early on resistance to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution was made apparent. Poets like Blake and Wordsworth were vocal about their concerns of deterioration of quality of life and later authors like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell crafted novels that showed the gritty and often bleak lives of those in the lower social classes.

A paradigm shift was happening in Britain as landowners sought to make tidier profits by enclosing their lands which displaced thousands of farming families. While some “sought employment in the new manufacturing centers” boosting the labor force available for industrial jobs not all wanted to trade their rural way of life and strikes broke out (2 p. 159).


The Luddites who destroyed machines in the North around 1812 have gotten much attention over the years but there were a variety of forms of industrial protest throughout the country. One researcher found “400 labour disputes in the British Isles between 1717 and 1800, of which 138 occurred between 1781 and 1800” (3 p. 44).

Many of these disputes were devoid violence and many were through craft organizations. However, “in 1819 hundreds of thousands of workers organized meetings to demand parliamentary reform” and when the huge crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Fields where the militia who first arrived injuring hundreds and killing at least nine and became known as The Peterloo Massacre (4 p. 8).

The Peterloo Massacre. Manchester Library Services
Further reading: Riots, Disaffection, and Repression, 1811-19


Political reformation abounded in the Industrial Revolution which allowed for an increase in economic growth and was the gateway to British free-trade. Two acts repealed, the Combination Acts and Corn Laws, both had placed limitations on industrial workers. The Combination Acts of 1799 were repealed in 1824 allowing unions again and although new laws restricting “labor unions to bargaining over wages and hours… the right of labor to organize had been recognized” (2 p. 208).

The Corn Laws, which favored landowners at the disadvantage to all others, was especially hard on the poor, urban laborers. The outcry over the Corn Laws played a role in the tragic Peterloo Massacre but it wasn't until 1838 that “the Anti-Corn-Law League, a well-financed and highly effective pressure group” began campaigning to end the tax and it was finally repealed in 1846 (2 p. 212).

Read More: Poetry in Protest

2. Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850. Second. New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 1977.
3. Archer, John E. Social Unrest and Popular Protest in England, 1780-1840. s.l. : Cambridge University Press, 2000.
4. Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D. New York : W. W Norton & Company, Inc., 2012.