Upheaval and the Push For Reform in the 1830s

Please welcome Caroline Warfield as she shares with us about the transition between the Regency and Victorian eras.

Sometimes a lover of history backs into unexpected bits of fascinating facts. That is what happened when I decided to use the children of one series as the heroes of the next. Their ages forced me to set my second series in the 1830s, an era I knew little about. Falling as it does between the Georgian Period (although technically still part of it) and the Victorian, I had to dig for information from day one. I discovered I had quite unintentionally unleashed my characters into a time of great social change. My research into the era as a whole wasn’t systematic, but everywhere I turned in my story preparation I stumbled over social and economic upheaval.

Riots in the Streets

When I wondered what the hero of The Renegade Wife might encounter in Bristol in 1832, I found that he arrived soon after terrible riots had shaken the city. Gritty, prosperous, and unapologetically working class, the people of Bristol took the failure of the Reform Act in 1831 personally and took their displeasure to the streets. The politics of voting reform were as complex and convoluted as any in history, but the conflict boiled down to the efforts of the upper classes to hold on to their privileges and the struggle of the outsiders for a piece of the pie. For Bristol, it was simple. Only 6000 people out of a population of 104,000 had the right to vote, fewer than 6% of Bristol’s citizens. The army put down the riots violently, but the government had reason to fear outright revolution there and elsewhere in Britain. The lower classes wanted in. When a second Reform Act extended voting privileges to small business owners in June 1832, but did nothing for laborers, Bristol quieted somewhat. Yet unrest there and in Britain’s industrial centers continued to seethe beneath the surface for years.

Political Reforms

The Reform Act made no mention of women, but it would be a mistake to think the women of that era accepted their lot without question. When I envisioned the heroine of The Renegade Wife, I quickly affirmed that in 1832 women still had no legal rights. Indeed, a married woman didn’t even exist in law, because a married couple was considered one person, and that person was the husband. Even if she ran from abuse (as my character did) the law would return her and her children to the husband who abused them. However, this concept was under considerable pressure to change. One notorious case of an abused wife denied her children (that of Caroline Norton) caused a considerable public outcry son after the years of my story. The resulting Custody of Infants Act of 1839 finally permitted a mother to petition the courts for custody of her children up to the age of seven, and for access in respect to older children. Women found guilty of adultery, however, forfeited that right.

Everywhere I turned I found mention of one progressive reform bill or another. The Factory Act in 1831 limited the hours someone under eighteen could work to twelve hours. In 1833 The Factory Act made it illegal to employ children under nine and initiated a system of factory inspectors. The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 set ten as the minimum age for apprentices, a slight improvement over the previous age of eight. As enlightened as that sounds today, poor families often suffered from the loss of income and didn’t necessarily like the changes. A royal commission to study the impact of the existing Poor Law, which put the burden for care for the poor on local parishes and the workhouse system, recommended sweeping reform. That law as amended to put some power (and inspection) in the hands of the central government. These efforts didn’t exactly correct all problems, but they are emblematic of changing public attitude. There is one familiar reflection of those attitudes: Charles Dickens began writing in the 1830s and published Oliver Twist in 1838. Public support pushed the movement for reform forward throughout the 1840s and 1850s.


Underlying social issues and reform, industrialization continued to expand. It also drove changes in transportation which in turn accelerated demands for change. In the second book of the series, The Reluctant Wife, I had to clarify how my characters might travel from Calcutta to England. When I looked for answers, I wandered into the age of steam. While steamships had been navigating rivers for over twenty years, and some attempts had been made at transoceanic travel, the first true steamship to cross the Atlantic was the Royal William out of Quebec in 1833. In 1835, the India Mail initiated steam service from Bombay to Suez. Called “the overland route,” this service involved caravan through the desert to Cairo, a float up the Nile and a second steamship from Alexandria to England. It cut months off the length of sailing routes around the Africa. The economic gain provided enormous incentive for later development of the Suez Canal. I couldn’t resist sending my characters that way. As one of the children exclaimed “It has camels!”

Time as we know is money, and the speed of travel accelerated in the 1830s across the board. The Great Western railroad linking Bristol to London began operation in 1838. It was built to compete with the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad, which opened in 1830, and driven by completion for trans-Atlantic trade.

Racial Tensions

People had become more mobile. Mobility always brings exchange of culture and ideas: free trade, abolition, and demands for greater local control in the colonies all fed into the inevitable push/pull of ideas. It is the era that saw, on the one hand, the final abolition of slavery in the British Empire 1834. On the other, the English Education Act of 1835 withdrew support from all Muslim or Hindu traditional education or publishing in favor of education entirely in English and English-language publications.

Anti Slavery Society Convention

Perhaps precisely because of greater mobility and more rapid dissemination of news, a backlash occurred in many places. Intermarriage and cohabitation, once relatively common if not precisely encouraged, declined sharply in 1830s India. The hero of The Reluctant Wife faces difficulties raising half-caste children in that atmosphere. The flood of migrants from Ireland, Scotland and England into Upper Canada during the same period competed with native and earlier French Canadian settlers as well as preexisting tension between two successive waves of Loyalists from the former colonies in the United States. At the top of the heap the old Loyalists attempted to retain control and privileged position. Tensions exploded in The Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, which sought democrat reforms and an end to oligarchical control.

I had indeed stumbled into a time of upheaval. Taken as a whole, social reform took momentum in the 1830s that would carry it forward in the face of some stiff opposition from the privileged class in the Victorian Era.


A few helpful sources for more information:

The Abolition Project, http://abolition.e2bn.org/index.php

American Society of Civil Engineers, “Isambard Kingdom Brunel,” on http://www.asce.org/templates/person-bio-detail.aspx?id=9913

Bloy, Marjie, “The Reform Act Crisis,” The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/history/reform.html

“Custody of Infants,” Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament, HL Deb 18 July 1839 vol 49 cc485-94, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1839/jul/18/custody-of-infants#s3v0049p0_18390718_hol_62 

“Custody Rights and Domestic Violence,” Living Heritage, UK Parliament,  http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/custodyrights/

Dalrymple, William, “White Mischief,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/dec/09/britishidentity.india

Foster, Maximilian, “The Story of the Steamship,” 1901, on Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives: Social and Cultural History – The Future of Our Past, http://www.gjenvick.com/SteamshipArticles/TransatlanticShipsAndVoyages/StoryOfTheSteamship/1901/01-IntroductionAndEvolution.html#axzz4H2QdxsQb


Sichko, Christopher, “The Influence of the Suez Canal on Steam Navigation,” University of Colorado, Boulder, Honors Theses, 2011, http://scholar.colorado.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1873&context=honr_theses

“Rebellion in Upper Canada,” The Canadian Ecyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rebellion-in-upper-canada/

“Reforming Society in the 19th Century,” Living Heritage, UK Parliament, http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/19thcentury/

“Revolting riots in Queen Square,” BBC: Made in Bristol, Apr. 27, 2004, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bristol/content/madeinbristol/2004/04/riot/riot.shtml  

“The Bristol Reform Act Riots: 29 – 31 October 1831,” (Taken from Alexander Charles Ewald, The and Times of William Ewart Gladstone. 5 vols. William Mackenzie, London) viewed on A Web of English History: Peel Web, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/refact/bristol.htm 

“The Great Migration of Canada,” Exodus: Migration To, From, and Within the British Isles, ” http://www.exodus2013.co.uk/the-great-migration-of-canada/

“The Reform Act of 1832,” Living Heritage, UK Parliament, http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/houseofcommons/reformacts/overview/reformact1832/  

About the Author

Traveler, poet, librarian, technology manager—award winning author Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows while she lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. She is also a regular contributor to History Imagined, a blog at the intersection of history and fiction, and (on a much lighter note) The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century gossip rag

Her current series, Children of Empire, focuses on three cousins, driven apart by lies and deceit, who must find their way back from the distant reaches of the empire.

Click here to find out more about her books. : http://www.carolinewarfield.com/bookshelf/

About The Reluctant Wife

When Bengal Army Captain Fred Wheatly, a disgraced soldier with more courage and honor than sense, is forced to resign, and his mistress dies leaving him with two half-caste daughters to raise, he reluctantly turns to Clare Armbruster for help. But the interfering, beautiful widow demands more of him than he’s ready to give. He’s failed so often in the past. Clare’s made mistakes as well. Can two hearts rise above past failures to forge a future together?

When all else fails, love succeeds…

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  1. Thank you so much for hosting me!

    1. So glad to have you!

    • Carole in Canada on April 26, 2017 at 5:46 pm
    • Reply

    I can imagine when researching that some of it takes you down the rabbit hole when you least expect it! I just watched a documentary on the birth of the British Railway and how difficult it was for the British to make a go of it in Egypt. They mentioned the ‘overland route’ and how it did cut out many months of travel. Fascinating bits of history that you have provided here in this post. I am intrigued with your novels and will have to check them out! Thanks!

    1. We think we know the big things, but history so often is about the things people do to feed their families, the technology developments that impact peoples lives, and the little unexpected stuff. I start down one road and uncover the unexpected at every turn.

    • Sheila L. Majczan on May 28, 2017 at 10:58 am
    • Reply

    The history lesson was interesting. I do appreciate all the time and effort it took to gather it and present it in so concise a piece. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Glad you enjoyed, Sheila!

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