Classic History Books


Great Britain and Her Queen - by Anne E. Keeling

borders and without them, there were the signs of coming storm. The condition of Ireland was
chronically bad; the condition of England was full of danger; on the Continent a new period of

earth-shaking revolution announced itself not doubtfully.

It would be hardly possible to exaggerate the wretched state of the sister isle, where fires of recent hate
were still smouldering, and where the poor inhabitants, guilty and guiltless, were daily living on the

verge of famine, over which they were soon to be driven. Their ill condition much aggravated by the

intemperate habits to which despairing men so easily fall a prey. The expenditure of Ireland on proof

spirits alone had in the year 1829 attained the sum of L6,000,000.

In England many agricultural labourers were earning starvation wages, were living on bad and scanty
food, and were housed so wretchedly that they might envy the hounds their dry and clean kennels. A dark

symptom of their hungry discontent had shown itself in the strange crime of rick-burning, which went on

under cloud of night season after season, despite the utmost precautions which the luckless farmers could

adopt. The perpetrators were not dimly guessed to be half-famished creatures, taking a mad revenge for

their wretchedness by destroying the tantalising stores of grain, too costly for their consumption; the

price of wheat in the early years of Her Majesty's reign and for some time previously being very high,

and reaching at one moment (1847) the extraordinary figure of a hundred and two shillings per quarter.

There was threatening distress, too, in some parts of the manufacturing districts; in others a tolerably
high level of wages indicated prosperity. But even in the more favoured districts there was needless

suffering. The hours of work, unrestricted by law, were cruelly long; nor did there exist any restriction as

to the employment of operatives of very tender years. "The cry of the children" was rising up to heaven,

not from the factory only, but from the underground darkness of the mine, where a system of pitiless

infant slavery prevailed, side by side with the employment of women as beasts of burden, "in an

atmosphere of filth and profligacy." The condition of too many toilers was rendered more hopeless by the

thriftless follies born of ignorance. The educational provision made by the piety of former ages was no

longer adequate to the needs of the ever-growing nation; and all the voluntary efforts made by clergy and

laity, by Churchmen and Dissenters, did not fill up the deficiency - a fact which had only just begun to

meet with State recognition. It was in 1834 that Government first obtained from Parliament the grant of a

small sum in aid of education. Under a defective system of poor-relief, recently reformed, an immense

mass of idle pauperism had come into being; it still remained to be seen if a new Poor Law could do

away with the mischief created by the old one.

Looking at the earliest years of Her Majesty's rule, the first impulse is to exclaim:

"And all this trouble did not pass, but grew."

It seemed as if poverty became ever more direful, and dissatisfaction more importunate. A succession of
unfavourable seasons and failing crops produced extraordinary distress; and the distress in its turn was

fruitful first of deepened discontent, and then of political disturbances. The working classes had looked

for immediate relief from their burdens when the Reform Bill should be carried, and had striven hard to

insure its success: it had been carried triumphantly in 1832, but no perceptible improvement in their lot

had yet resulted; and a resentful feeling of disappointment and of being victims of deception now added

bitterness to their blind sense of misery and injury, and greatly exasperated the political agitation of the

ten stormy years that followed.

No position could well be more trying than that of the inexperienced girl who, in the first bloom of

 

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