During much of the long period beginning with the French Revolution (1789-92) and the following Napoleonic era, which lasted until 1815, England was caught up in the swirl of events on the continent of Europe, with resultant conflict at home.
Early in the French Revolution, many Englishmen enthusiastically welcomed the overthrow of the old order. But as the violence and terror in France reached extreme heights, keen partisanship divided English society. The upper levels of society — the propertied and governing classes — were naturally alarmed at the way events across the English Channel were stimulating radicalism among the populace. On the other hand, the underprivileged and the liberals were encouraged to agitate for improved conditions. Disorder, followed by repressive measures, became commonplace, particularly later, when England was at war with France.
The struggle on the continent led to acute hardship among the English people. The heavy tax burden imposed to support military operations bore hardest on those least able to pay. Although the upper classes had relatively little need to sacrifice, the working classes were hit hard by rising prices and food scarcity. Their hardships were multiplied when the government issued paper currency, which produced inflation.
At the same time, the prolonged economic struggle between France and its enemies deprived England of most of its markets for manufactured goods. Extensive unemployment brought on acute distress during the years 1811-13. In 1811, jobless workers in organized groups known as the Luddites roamed the country, destroying the machinery that they believed had replaced them in the labor market. In 1812, the year of Charles Dickens's birth, the destruction of manufacturing equipment was made punishable by death.
In 1815, Napoleon was defeated and confined to the island of St. Helena for the remainder of his days. After the long period of bloody conflicts, peace was restored, resulting in a general jubilation. But optimism and high hopes were quickly shattered. The end of war plunged England into the most ruinous depression the nation had ever suffered. The working classes placed the blame for their woes on the landlords and industrialists.
Once again violence and destruction swept the land, with the inevitable retaliation by the authorities. A climax was reached with the "Peterloo Massacre." In St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, on August 16, 1819, a regiment of cavalry charged an orderly assembly of citizens, killing eleven and injuring four hundred. Fierce public indignation followed the outrage, but officials openly gave support to the action.
For a long time, one of England's major problems had been the support of paupers, whose numbers steadily increased. Direct relief had been in operation since the days of Queen Elizabeth. This outlay came to require the imposition of crushing parish taxes. Abuses became rampant; many of the able-bodied preferred to live at public expense rather than to seek work. When the practice of supplementing starvation wages with relief payments developed, unscrupulous employers took advantage of the situation by lowering wages, and the independent worker who wanted to be self-supporting was frustrated in his efforts. After the defeat of Napoleon, 400,000 veterans were added to the hordes of the unemployed, aggravating the crisis.
In contrast to ugly appearances on the surface, there was an undercurrent of strong forces striving for improvement. The pressure of public opinion supported the efforts of reformers to rectify many old abuses.
In 1800, 220 crimes, many of them obviously minor, were punishable by death. One result of these circumstances, which now seem barbaric, was that juries often refused to convict the accused. At the same time, prominent crusaders were campaigning relentlessly for abolition of capital punishment. By 1837, only 15 crimes carried the death penalty.
Slavery also came under attack by humanitarian forces. In 1808, the slave trade was made illegal. In 1834, slavery was entirely abolished in British land possessions. The objective was quietly achieved through gradual transition and with generous compensation to former slave-owners.
In the elections brought about by the crowning of William IV in 1830 as king, the Tories (conservatives who supported the established church and the traditional political structure) lost control of the government. With the power now in the hands of the Whigs (favorers of reform), the way was opened for an era of accelerated progress.
Among the most urgently recommended steps was parliamentary reform. In 1829, the first Catholic was admitted to Parliament. In spite of determined opposition in the House of Lords, the Reform Bill of 1832 was passed. The bill eliminated many inequities in representation, and the middle class was enlarged.
In 1833 came the beginning of child-labor laws. From that time on, an increased amount of legislation was enacted to control the hours of labor and working conditions for children and women in manufacturing plants.
A new concept was adopted to deal with the vexing issue of poverty. The Poor Law of 1834 provided that all able-bodied paupers must reside in workhouses. Inmates of the workhouses became objects of public stigma, and to further heighten the unpopularity of the institutions, living arrangements in them were deliberately made harsh. In one way, the plan was successful. Within three years, the cost of poor relief was reduced by over one-third. However, the system was sharply censured, and the increased prevalence of crime has been attributed to it. Dickens made the Poor Law of 1834 a conspicuous target of denunciation in Oliver Twist.
On June 20, 1837, Queen Victoria came to the throne of England as the long period of middle-class ascendancy was gaining momentum. At that time, Dickens's hugely popular character, Mr. Pickwick (The Pickwick Papers) had already captured a devoted following. At the same time, the trials and ordeals of Oliver Twist were engaging the sympathies of a large, eager audience. The inauguration of the Victorian Age found twenty-five-year-old Charles Dickens firmly established on the road to literary fame that would take him to ever greater eminence throughout his life.