15. Establishment of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers (1844)
The modern British cooperative movement traces its roots to the foundation of this Rochdale society, one of the first consumer cooperatives. The ‘Rochdale Principles’ were written by the society as a set of ideals that of form the basis of cooperative movements to this day. The 19th century movement was backed by progressive industrialists such as Robert Owen, who believed in providing good working conditions and education for the families of his employees.
14. Chartist Demonstration in London (1848)
The Chartist political reform movement had delivered several petitions to parliament following publication of the People’s Charter in 1838 (see below), but by far the biggest was in 1848 as part of a demonstration in London. Tens of thousands of workers gathered on Kennington Common in the biggest call for political reform – universal suffrage, payment of MPs and equal-sized constituencies, among other demands – to date.
13. Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846)
The Corn Laws had from 1815 imposed heavy duties on imports of foreign grain. This meant that working people’s food staple, bread, could only be made using homegrown grain, which was more expensive. This benefited landowners while making workers more susceptible to famine, but was also opposed by industrialists who were prevented from reducing wages for fear that their workers would be unable to feed their families. Robert Peel’s Conservative government repealed the tariffs, which was a significant advance for free trade advocates.
12. The Great Reform Act (1832)
The history of progressive reform in 19th century Britain is largely the history of the advancement of democracy. By the 1830s, the pressure for political reform was high, and many felt that Britain was on the brink of revolution like its continental neighbours. Many rotten boroughs (constituencies with tiny numbers of voters, who could often be bribed) were abolished by the 1832 Act, with towns such as Manchester and Birmingham gaining parliamentary representation for the first time. The middle classes with property valuing over £10 gained the right to vote. Although the act was a step forward on the long path to full democracy, by offering piecemeal concessions some argue it delayed more radical reform by calming revolutionary fervour; 95% of adults were still without the vote.
11. The Second Reform Act (1867)
After much political wrangling, this piece of legislation extended representation once again, giving one in three men the right to vote and re-allocating parliamentary seats to new towns and cities. It was arguably a significant step forward in democratic representation, as political parties were forced to take account of a wider range of interests when formulating policy.
10. Keir Hardie Elected to Parliament (1892)
Although the formation of the modern Labour Party did not happen until the early 20th century, Keir Hardie achieved a significant milestone for the labour movement by gaining election to parliament and becoming the first Independent Labour Party MP (although the ILP was not founded until the year following his election). The Scottish trade union leader represented the West Ham South constituency in Essex, and on taking up his seat, came dressed in a tweed suit and red tie rather than the long coat, top had and winged collar expected of MPs.
9. Foundation of the Trades Union Congress (1868)
The Northern Trades Councils convened the first meeting of the TUC at the Manchester Mechanics Institute, to create a national federation of trade unions. The aim was to discuss and later coordinate the activities of local and regional unions on a national level, and collectively campaign on issues such as an eight-hour working day.
8. Election of the First Socialist MP (1886)
After pursuing various interests from cattle ranching in Argentina to teaching fencing in Mexico City, aristocrat and adventurer Robert Cunninghame Graham converted to socialism and became a Liberal Party MP in 1886. His election platform was the most radical of the time, advocating universal suffrage, the nationalisation of major industries, the abolition of the House of Lords and the establishment of an eight-hour workday. Graham was also the first MP to be suspended from the Commons for swearing – specifically, for using the word ‘damn’, even though Hansard records that it had already been used several hundred times in the chamber in the nineteenth century.
To be continued… sign up for blog updates to ensure you don’t miss the second half of ‘The Top Progressive Moments of the 19th Century’.