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Old Saturday, September 01, 2007
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Thumbs up Napoleon against Britain: AD 1800-1802

Napoleon against Britain: AD 1800-1802

The conflict between France and Britain, continuously at war since 1793, tends always towards stalemate. The two nations are evenly matched but have very different strengths. Britain has a much smaller population (11 million compared to 27 million in France in 1801). This disadvantage is offset by Britain's wealth (from a more developed economy and extensive overseas trade) and by the British superiority at sea. In 1803 France has 23 ships of the line; Britain has 34 in service and another 77 in reserve.

For these reasons the British contribution to any war against France in continental Europe is largely limited to providing funds for allied armies.

The naval clash between Britain and France is a strange one - not so much a sea war as a coast war. It is the permanent concern of the British navy, commanding the seas, to harm France and her allies by preventing any merchant ships other than those of Britain from reaching continental ports. And it is the permanent concern of the French armies, commanding the land, to prevent British vessels entering those same ports.

Third parties suffer as much as anyone from this form of economic warfare, particularly after Britain adopts the policy of seizing goods carried by the ships of neutral nations if they are destined for a harbour under blockade.

Indignation at this British policy, heightened by diplomatic pressure from Napoleon, prompts Russia, Sweden and Denmark to form in December 1800 a League of Armed Neutrality. They declare the Baltic ports out of bounds to British ships. The embargo is strengthened when the Danes seize Hamburg, the main harbour for British trade with the German states.

Britain responds by sending a naval fleet into the Baltic. The second-in-command is Nelson, who sails into shallow and well defended waters in Copenhagen harbour. There is heavy fighting, during which the commander of the fleet flies the signal for Nelson to withdraw (this is the famous occasion when he puts the telescope to his blind eye).

Nelson destroys many of the ships in the harbour and damages the shore defences in this battle of Copenhagen (2 April 1801). His victory prompts the Danes to make peace in May. Sweden does so in the same month, and Russia follows suit in June.

By now, as after Campo Formio, Britain and France are the only two nations still at war. From the British point of view one affront still needs to be righted. In March 1801 a fleet is sent through the Mediterranean to help the Turks expel the French from Egypt. The French command in Cairo surrenders in June, followed by Alexandria in August.

Both sides are now exhausted. There have been tentative peace talks since February. Terms are agreed in October, putting an end to hostilities. The peace is signed in Amiens in March 1802.

Napoleon's negotiators do well for France. All overseas territories taken by Britain in the past nine years (including several West Indian islands) are returned into French hands. Similarly Minorca reverts to Spain and the Cape colony in South Africa to Holland. But Britain keeps Sri Lanka (taken from the Dutch) and Trinidad (previously Spanish). Egypt is to be Turkish again. Malta (taken by Napoleon in 1798 and by Britain in 1800) is to be restored to the Knights of St John.

The peace of Amiens: AD 1802-1803

Peace is eagerly greeted by Europeans starved of the pleasures of travel - particularly the British, cooped up in their island for years, who now flock across the Channel to enjoy once again the pleasures of Paris. But this is to prove only a breathing space. Nothing has been resolved in the long rivalry between Britain and France, and each government soon finds much to complain about in the behaviour of the other during the interlude of peace.

Napoleon annoys the British by failing to allow the spirit of harmony into the market place. His refusal to agree a commercial treaty means that British merchants are penalized by high tariffs in French and allied ports. They conclude that peace seems no more profitable than war.

Meanwhile Napoleon alarms the British government by his expansionist behaviour in regions not covered by the treaty - for example in his annexation of Piedmont in 1802, to bridge the gap between France and the Cisalpine republic.

Britain gives France more specific cause for complaint by not fulfilling the terms of the treaty of Amiens. It has been agreed that she will withdraw from Malta. Her failure to do so would be justified in modern eyes by the expressed views of the Maltese. Horrified at the prospect of the return of the Knights of St John, the local assembly passes a resolution inviting George III to become their sovereign on condition that he maintains the Roman Catholic faith in the island.

However, the wishes of local inhabitants carry little weight in diplomatic negotiations in the early 19th century. And Britain, remaining in possession of the island, is undoubtedly in violation of the treaty.

Napoleon complains but avoids pressing the issue to the brink of hostilities. It is likely that his long-term intentions towards Britain are not peaceful, but he is not yet ready for a renewal of war. He needs time, in particular, to build up his fleet. The same logic makes Britain prefer an early renewal of the conflict. For no very good reason, other than long-term self-interest, the British government declares war on France in May 1803.

The war at sea: AD 1803-1805

For two years, after the resumption of hostilities in May 1803, Britain is the only nation at war with France. Napoleon returns to the scheme of 1798 for an invasion across the Channel, but now on a much more elaborate scale.

In ports from Brest to Antwerp he gathers a fleet of nearly 2000 craft for the transport of men, horses and artillery. During 1803 he assembles what later becomes known as the Grand Army, amounting to some 150,000 men bivouacked (so as to remain inconspicuous) in four widely separated camps but ready to converge at any moment on Boulogne for embarkation. Meanwhile the British, well aware of the threat, are dotting their south coast with the circular fortifications known as Martello towers.
Napoleon's initial plan is for his fleet to launch on a single tide and to cross the Channel unobserved, perhaps under cover of fog, and so escape the attentions of the British navy. But this is impractical for such large numbers. He needs a fleet capable of protecting the invading force.
In December 1804 Napoleon persuades Spain to join him in war against Britain, thus acquiring the support of the Spanish navy. His strategy is now to divert the British fleet, or at least part of it, from guard duty in the Channel.
The result, during 1805, is a game of maritime cat and mouse - with French and British squadrons criss-crossing the Atlantic, between the West Indies and the European coast, in an attempt to second-guess and outwit each other. With the primitive communications of the day, it is difficult even for allied fleets to achieve an intended rendezvous in distant waters. Inevitably Napoleon's somewhat elaborate plans go adrift.

In August the combined French and Spanish fleet, under the command of Villeneuve, withdraws to Cadiz. But the port is already under observation by three British ships of the line. Word is urgently sent for reinforcements. At the end of September Nelson arrives to take command.

On October 19 Villeneuve sails from Cadiz, intending to head south and enter the Mediterranean. He has thirty-three ships of the line. Nelson shadows his movement from several miles out to sea, keeping his twenty-seven ships of the line out of sight and receiving information by signal from his frigates.

Nelson closes in, off Cape Trafalgar, on the morning of October 21. The battle begins just before noon. Five hours later some nineteen French and Spanish ships have surrendered or been destroyed, with no British losses. But Nelson himself is dead, mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory by a sniper firing from the topmast of the Redoutable.
Trafalgar confirms Britain's reputation at sea and has the effect of preventing the French fleet from playing any major part in the remaining years of the war - though Napoleon keeps ships of the line in readiness in French harbours, putting Britain to the considerable expense of mounting permanent blockades.

In his struggle with Britain, Napoleon now reverts to the longer-term strategy of sealing the continent against British goods in the policy which becomes known as the Continental System. But meanwhile others of his old enemies are up in arms again, and he is back in his element - on the battlefields of Europe.

The Continental System: AD 1806-1807

The purpose of Napoleon's Continental System is to ruin Britain's economy by preventing British goods from reaching any market in continental Europe. It is not, as it would be in modern warfare, an attempt to starve an island enemy into submission.

Educated in the 18th-century mercantilist school of economics, Napoleon believes that nations thrive primarily through wealth earned abroad. He therefore allows surplus French corn to be sold to Britain in 1809 and 1810, even though a shortage is already causing his enemy grave difficulty in high bread prices. Nevertheless a complete blockage of British exports would in itself be extremely damaging if it could be made watertight.
Napoleon begins to build his system when he is wintering in Berlin after defeating the Prussians at Jena. In November 1806 he issues the Berlin decree, denying the ports of France and her allies to any ship sailing from Britain or a British colony.

This proves insufficient, since it fails to prevent a neutral ship from bringing in British goods. At Fontainebleau in October 1807, and in Milan a month later, Napoleon adds extra clauses: all colonial goods entering a port will be regarded as British unless producing some other certificate of origin; and any ship submitting to British orders in council, or sailing from or to Britain, will be regarded as a lawful prize if seized at sea.
The orders in council, issued in January and November 1807, are Britain's response to the decrees that put in place the Continental System. In them the British government states that any port closed by this system is now considered under blockade; and that any vessel trading into such a port must first receive a licence from Britain, paying customs of 20% or more on its cargo. The effect of these measures and counter-measures is particularly damaging to neutral ships, which now risk being apprehended at sea by the British and in port by the French.

Meanwhile, from Napoleon's point of view, the immediate practical problem is to ensure that every European nation with a coastline joins his scheme.
By the end of 1807 Denmark, Russia, Prussia and Austria have done so. Sweden, an ally of Britain's from the start of the Third Coalition, refuses to comply - so, as planned at Tilsit, she is invaded by Russia (in February 1808).

Securing the Baltic may be left to Russia, but the Iberian peninsula is clearly France's own responsibility. Spain is a feeble ally of France, usually acting only under compulsion. Portugal is at best a neutral nation with a soft spot for Britain. This unsatisfactory situation tempts Napoleon into an undertaking which harms his cause in the Iberian peninsula, and becomes one of the factors in his ultimate downfall.

Vimeiro to Corunna: AD 1808-1809

The Peninsular War of 1808-14 looms large in British history for two reasons: it is the only significant involvement of British troops on land in the Napoleonic wars until the final campaign of 1815; and it is the stage on which the duke of Wellington rises to prominence as a national figure. Nevertheless in the broader picture of the European war it is little more than a sideshow, affecting the final result only because it ties up French troops whom Napoleon would dearly like to use elsewhere.

The war is provoked by Napoleon's invasion of Portugal in 1807 and by the subsequent French capture of Madrid in March 1808.
A British army lands in Portugal on 1 August 1808 under the command of Wellington (at the time plain Sir Arthur Wellesley), who wins a decisive victory over the French at Vimeiro, near Lisbon. Wellington is prevented from pursuing and further damaging the French army on the command of Hew Dalrymple, an officer senior to him who arrives just after the battle to take charge of the campaign.

By an agreement made at Sintra on August 31, Dalrymple allows the French army to withdraw from Portugal. The advantage is that the British can liberate Lisbon without further conflict. But an affronted Wellington returns home to resume a career in British politics.
Meanwhile Spanish forces are engaging the French in northern Spain. In October John Moore, newly in command of the British army in Portugal, marches north to assist them. The French situation in Spain appears so critical that Napoleon himself arrives (on November 6) to take charge of the campaign.

By late December Moore's army, near Burgos, is in danger of being surrounded. Moore beats a hasty retreat of some 250 miles through snowclad mountains to Corunna (or La CoruÑa). A French army arrives there shortly before the British fleet sent to evacuate the troops. Moore himself dies in January 1809 in the rearguard action to cover the embarkation, but his army escapes safely back to England.

Wellington in the ascendant: AD 1809-1814

In spite of the reverse suffered at Corunna, the British government undertakes a new campaign in Portugal. Wellington, who has won the only victory there so far, is returned to his command. He reaches Lisbon in April 1809 to find that the French have again pressed south into Portugal, against dwindling Portuguese and Spanish opposition, and have captured Oporto.

Wellington's campaign of 1809 includes successful sorties northwards in Portugal and an ambitious march to the east against Madrid. This ends with a hard fought battle on July 27 at Talavera, where Wellington holds off strong French assaults and is able to withdraw, relatively undamaged, to Portugal.
It is clear that the British position in the peninsula is tenuous. Wellington's response to this fact is the most imaginative strategic move of the Peninsular War. He turns the region north of Lisbon into a gigantic fortress by building the lines of Torres Vedras - a continuous fortification stretching twenty-five miles from the Atlantic coast tbrough Torres Vedras to the broad Tagus river.

With British naval power protecting the port of Lisbon, there is now a large territory behind these impenetrable lines in which Wellington's army has a secure base in which it can be reliably supplied from the sea.
Campaigns in subsequent years involve prolonged fighting over the fortified towns between Portugal and Madrid; both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz are eventually taken by Wellington in 1812. Later in that year he wins a significant victory at Salamanca and briefly occupies Madrid.

The decisive campaign comes in 1813, when Wellington moves north from Portugal and meets the army of Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte (technically at this stage king of Spain) at Vitoria on June 21. Wellington captures the entire French artillery train, of some 150 guns, and all the baggage - including Joseph's impressive collection of art, which now graces Apsley House (Wellington's residence in London).
Further successful operations in northern Spain allow Wellington to cross the border into France in October - the first enemy army on French soil since the campaign of 1792-3.

Wellington's succession of titles, acquired during the Peninsular War, provide an intriguing vignette of how to progress through the English peerage. After Talavera in 1809 Sir Arthur Wellesley is made Viscount Wellington; after the fall of Ciudad Rodgrio in 1812 he becomes an earl and later that year, after Salamanca, a marquess. When peace is agreed, in May 1814, the final rung is achieved. It is the duke of Wellington who attends the congress of Vienna as Britain's representative, and returns in a hurry for Waterloo.

to be continued.......
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Old Saturday, September 01, 2007
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Default End of an era: AD 1815-1830

End of an era: AD 1815-1830

The years after the victory at Waterloo are uneasy ones in Britain. There has been industrial unrest even before the end of the war. In 1811 bands of masked men in Nottingham launch night raids on factories to smash the textile machines which they see as a threat to their livelihood. They become known as Luddites, because to preserve anonymity the leaders are all referred to as King Lud. The violence spreads to other industrial regions until a mass trial of suspects in York in 1813, followed by hangings and transportation, brings a lull.

But after the end of the war economic hardship, aggravated by an appalling harvest in 1816, brings another burst of Luddite activity.

This mood of violence, with continuing economic depression in the country, makes the ruling classes neurotically fearful of suspected radicals and obsessively inclined to measures of repression. Peaceful protest and nervous authority come face to face in Manchester in 1819.

A crowd of citizens, gathering on St Peter's Fields to demand the reform of parliament, is so alarmingly large (some 60,000 people) that the magistrates order troops to clear the area. Mounted soldiers charge in and lay about with their sabres. Eleven people are killed and about 500 wounded in an event which becomes known as the Peterloo massacre, in an ironic echo of the British army's rather better performance four years earlier at Waterloo.

Later in the year parliament passes the so-called 'Six Acts', designed to enforce public order by such means as limiting the right of assembly and the freedom of the press. But it proves impossible to suppress the radical journalism of campaigners such as William Cobbett - who in his weekly Political Register (with an astonishing circulation of about 50,000 copies) describes in pungent prose the harsh conditions of the poor and the nest-feathering of the self-indulgent rich.

The society which Cobbett and many others are desperate to reform has at its head a caricature of all that is wrong, in the person of George IV.

Though king for only ten years (1820-30), George IV is in effect the monarch for the previous decade as well. George III is prone to fits of insanity (now thought to be the result of a physical condition known as porphyria). His son, already notorious for a dissolute life of drink and gambling, becomes prince regent in 1811 when George III's new bout of insanity seems likely to be permanent.

The prince regent, though a Whig in his youth (with the brilliant but unpredictable Charles James Fox as a favourite drinking partner), retains his father's Tory ministry to the end of his reign. By then there has been an unbroken spell of forty-six Tory years since George III appointed the young Pitt as his prime minister.

In some respects the Tories prove themselves well able to move with the times. George Canning, foreign secretary from 1825, is strongly supportive of the liberation movements in Greece and in Latin America. He becomes prime minister in 1827 but dies after only a few months - to be followed by a much more reactionary figure, albeit a national hero, the duke of Wellington.

Wellington astonishes even his supporters by stating that he sees no need for any element of political reform in Britain. But in one important respect events overtake him. Confronted by a sudden crisis, he pushes through a reform which had eluded even Pitt - that of Catholic emancipation.

Daniel O'Connell and Catholic emancipation: AD 1823-29

The issue of Catholic emancipation is brought back on to the agenda by a brilliant use of grassroots politics. Daniel O'Connell, an experienced campaigner who first achieves prominence in 1800 for his speeches in Dublin against the Act of Union, organizes from 1823 a network of Catholic associations throughout Ireland. Their purpose is to demand an end to discrimination. The campaign is unmistakably an expression of popular will, being funded only by the members' subscriptions of a penny a month.

There is considerable sympathy in England for this cause and several bills for Catholic relief are put forward - only to be rejected in the house of lords.

In 1828 O'Connell raises the stakes. Even though his religion prevents his sitting in parliament in Westminster, he contests a by-election for the county of Clare. The election has been arranged so that Vesey Fitzgerald, invited by the duke of Wellington to join his cabinet as president of the board of trade, can be hurried into parliament. Sensationally, O'Connell wins the seat. The result puts Catholic Ireland in an uproar.

Wellington, the prime minister, and Robert Peel, his home secretary, have both been strongly opposed to any concessions to the Catholics. But in the circumstances they persuade George IV (equally disinclined) that something must be done.

The Emancipation Act is passed in 1829, removing nearly all the barriers against Catholics holding public office. The crucial clause, in the immediate context, is the one dropping the requirement for members of parliament to deny on oath the spiritual authority of the pope. O'Connell takes his seat.

He soon becomes the leader of the Irish members and works towards the achievement of his main aim - the repeal of the union of 1800. But for the moment, as he himself recognizes, this cause takes second place to the frenzy now gripping Westminster in the battle for and against parliamentary reform.

The Reform Bill: AD 1831-1832

There has been no such prolonged period of intense political excitement in Britain as the fifteen months, from March 1831 to June 1832, during which repeated attempts are made to achieve a measure of parliamentary reform.

The need for reform, widely agreed around the country, is evident both in the laughable nature of much of tbe system inherited from the past, and in the inadequacy of the existing arrangements to cope with the present.

The anomalies from the past are famously evident in the so-called pocket and rotten boroughs. Pocket boroughs (or those where the nomination of the candidate is in the pocket of a single individual) have no electors at all; the owner's nominee automatically becomes a member of parliament, and ownership of the borough can even be put up for auction. By 1831 one such borough is entirely notional. Coastal erosion means that it has vanished under the sea, but it still returns a member to Westminster.

Rotten boroughs are those with very few electors. Old Sarum becomes the most notorious. Its seven voters have the right to elect two members, though in 1831 the constituency's rolling fields contain not a single habitable building.

These relics of the past give maximum opportunity for corruption in a system where there is not yet a secret ballot. Votes are bought for openly stated prices and the election campaigns become gross orgies of competitive hospitality. Even worse, landowners sometimes victimize tenants who fail to vote for their nominees.

If these traces of the past are a bad joke, the failure to address present realities is even more serious. The rapidly growing new industrial cities are for the most part unrepresented in parliament. A significant step in the crescendo of demand for reform comes in 1830 when the Tory majority in the house of commons rejects a bill to extend the franchise to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
By the end of 1830 Wellington's Tory government has fallen. A new Whig ministry, headed by Earl Grey, is committed to parliamentary reform. By March 1831 a bill is ready.

Presented to the house of commons by Lord John Russell, the bill causes astonished delight in the country, and outrage on the Tory benches, by the bold sweep of its proposals. Most of the pocket and rotten boroughs are abolished, with their seats in the house transferred to the industrial cities; the property qualification for electors, previously different all over the country, is rationalized. Debate rages for seven nights, and when the time comes for a vote the result could hardly be more dramatic. The bill passes by a majority of one.

Grey and his cabinet persuade the king (by now William IV) to dissolve parliament for an election to be held, effectively on this one issue. During the campaign there are passionate meetings and rallies around the country - mainly attended by people unable to vote, since the election is still on unreformed lines.

The Whigs sweep in with a majority of more than 100, and immediately carry in the house of commons a second Reform Bill. It is rejected in the lords in October 1831 by a majority of forty-one. A third and modified bill is carried in the commons in March 1832, and then in the lords by a small majority of nine. But crisis strikes when this bill too is rejected by the peers at the committee stage in May.

The Whig cabinet resigns and Wellington attempts to form a government committed to more moderate reform. In the mood of the country few members of parliament will support him, and within a few days he recommends that the king recall Grey. The Whigs return, with the king's reluctant agreement to create sufficient new peers to carry the bill if necessary. But Wellington now exerts himself to ensure acceptance by the lords.

On 7 June 1832 the bill receives the royal assent and becomes the Reform Act.
Representation of the people: AD 1833-1918

In the election for the first reformed parliament, which assembles in January 1833, the Tories do predictably badly - winning only 172 seats compared to 486 for the Whigs. Yet the new members are less different in kind than those fearing reform had predicted (though the duke of Wellington claims to be unimpressed by the standard of dress, commenting sourly that he has never seen 'so many shocking bad hats').

The reason is that the property qualification to become an elector is still high. Even under the new system only 813,000 people qualify to register as voters in 1832. But this is now a middle-classs electorate, in place of one representing mainly the landed gentry.

The immediate change may not be great, but the shift in direction is immense. As yet only a few radicals are arguing that everyone should have a vote (and even these few have in mind only an electorate including all adult males). To everyone else it seems obvious that those with a material stake in the economy should be the only people with power to influence political decisions.

Once it is accepted that the level of this stake can be changed, anything becomes possible. The reform of 1832 in Britain, together with similar movements in other countries, makes possible the progression towards the universal suffrage now taken for granted in 20th-century democracies.
In Britain the successive stages are four measures, each known as a Representation of the People Act. That of 1867 reduces the property qualification to the point where the urban working class wins the vote. The act of 1885 effectively does the same for workers in the countryside. (Between these two the Ballot Act of 1872 introduces the secret ballot, a measure which provokes a great deal of parliamentary opposition.)

The act of 1885 still contains a financial threshold, albeit a low one. This is done away with in the act of 1918 which makes proof of residence the only qualification. This act also finally achieves universal suffrage in Britain, since it introduces votes for women.
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Old Saturday, September 01, 2007
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Default Liberals and Conservatives: from AD 1832

Liberals and Conservatives: from AD 1832

In the shifting political landscape after the Reform Act, the old party loyalties of Whig and Tory take on new colours. Because of pushing through the new legislation, the Whigs are now seen as the party of reform; and during the 1830s they begin to acquire a new name as Liberals (a term first applied only to the left wing of the party, where members are in favour of the 'liberation' movements already successful in Latin America and now under way elsewhere).

At the same period the Tories begin to call themselves Conservatives, making the most of their recent opposition to reform by suggesting that their policy is to conserve all that is best in the traditional British way of life.
In practice the two parties are rarely predictable in their attitudes to the great issues of the century. In broad terms the Liberals are more inclined to pass measures of social welfare (the Factory Act of 1833, the Ten Hours' Act of 1847), yet the greatest campaigner on these issues is a Conservative MP, Lord Shaftesbury, and his party is responsible for the Mines Act of 1842.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the great issue of the 1840s, the repeal of the Corn Laws. Forced through parliament in 1846 by a Conservative prime minister, Robert Peel, the issue splits the party. Eventually Peel's own minority faction merges, after his death, with the Liberals.

Many such parallels can be drawn. It is the Conservatives who extend the franchise to bring in more voters in 1867, and the Liberals who continue the process in 1884. The two most aggressive prime ministers in their foreign policy, on behalf of British interests abroad, are the Liberal Palmerston and the Conservative Disraeli. And when a Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, presses for Home Rule for Ireland, half his party hive off as the Liberal Unionists.

For these reasons the century is best described not under a succession of prime ministers of one party or the other, but in terms of the great issues of the day. One of the most pressing is the recent growth of new cities.

The growth of industrial cities: 18th - 19th century AD

The availability of work in Britain's mills and factories, particularly after the introduction of steam power, has the effect of drawing ever-increasing numbers of people from the countryside into rapidly expanding cities. Manchester and the closely related town of Salford have 25,000 inhabitants between them in 1772. In 1821 the joint population is 181,000. By 1851 this conurbation has grown to 455,000.

The growth of Manchester's textile industry brings equivalent prosperity to the nearby port of Liverpool - just in time since the slave trade, the previous source of Liverpool's wealth, is made illegal in 1807. Cotton saves the day. Eight new docks are built in Liverpool between 1815 and 1835.

The amount of raw cotton brought ashore in Liverpool shows a threefold increase between 1820 and 1850, from half a million bales a year to 1.5 million. There is a comparable rise in the population - with a leap of 60% in a single decade, the 1840s, from 250,000 to 400,000 inhabitants.

The other great industrial city of the era, Birmingham, starts from a lower base. Its population increases from 86,000 to 233,000 between 1801 and 1851. Birmingham's interests are broader than those of Lancashire, where textiles predominate. Birmingham is blessed with an abundance of coal, iron and wood in the immediate neighbourhood, and with a position at the very heart of England.

Birmingham's real potential is realized only with the arrival of the railway. The line to London is completed in 1838. By then the city's workshops, specializing in metal-based industries, are ready to supply a wider market. A French visitor in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, describes the place as 'an immense workshop, a huge forge', where one sees only 'busy people and faces brown with smoke' and hears 'nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers'.

To a detached observer the Industrial Revolution can seem romantic in the 1780s and fascinatingly strange in the 1830s. But it is also becoming evident that it creates an environment in which it can be extremely unpleasant to work.

Factories and slums: 19th - 20th century AD

An architectural competition is launched, resulting in the submission of 245 designs. From these proposals the members of the building committee, in somewhat high-handed fashion, produce a composite design of their own. It is extraordinarily dull (a long low brick building, like farm outhouses, capped by an incongruous dome), and it suggests to Londoners that Albert's exhibition is going to be equally dreary.

In June 1850 tenders are about to come in for the construction of this building when Joseph Paxton, superintendent of the gardens at Chatsworth, submits a bold design for a massive hall of glass and iron.

The building committee is understandably cautious (no tests exist to prove that such a building will even withstand a strong wind), but Paxton clinches the issue by publishing his design in the Illustrated London News. London buzzes with excitement and a journalist suggests a perfect name, the Crystal Palace.

Work starts on the site at the end of July and the building is completed in January 1851. The exhibition opens on schedule on the first day of May. By the time it closes, in October, six million visitors have marvelled at this new-age palace and its contents.

Ten years later, in 1861, prince Albert dies of typhoid. His adoring wife becomes the archetypal widow, forty years in mourning and once again another kind of symbol of her Victorian era, strait-laced and yet sentimental, heavily upholstered spiritually as well as physically.

The Crystal Palace is dismantled in 1852, but its neighbourhood remains heavy with memories of Albert and his great success - the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, both built in his memory in the 1860s, and down the hill the Victoria and Albert Museum, founded in 1852 with profits from his international exhibition. Meanwhile, in the last decade of his life, Britain has some less peaceful international involvements - in the Crimea and in China.

Gunboat diplomacy: AD 1850-1856

The decade of the Great Exhibition begins with an event which suggests a new British attitude to foreign policy. This is the approach later characterized as gunboat diplomacy, in which military force is used to impose the nation's will on another country.

Known as the Don Pacifico incident, the event concerns a Portuguese Jew of that name trading in Athens. When an anti-Semitic crowd burns his house, in 1847, he sues the Greek government for damages - with little result, until he appeals to Britain for help on the grounds that he is a British citizen (as a result of being born in Gibraltar).
The Liberal foreign secretary, Palmerston, provokes fierce controversy by the vigour of his response. He sends a naval squadron into the Aegean in 1850 to seize Greek ships to the value of Don Pacifico's claim. Censured in the house of lords, Palmerston wins a majority for his action in the commons where he argues that 'a British citizen, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong'.

Four years later the watchful eye and strong arm of England are in the care of a Conservative prime minister, Lord Aberdeen. He too sends warships to the Aegean to back up diplomacy, this time in support of Turkey.
A joint British and French fleet steams through the Dardanelles in 1854 as a gesture of warning to Russia. The result in this case is full-scale war in the Crimea. A few years later Britain and France again act together in distant waters. They use two minor incidents which would normally be the stuff of diplomacy (in the British case the offence of some Chinese officials in 1856 in boarding a British merchant ship and lowering the red ensign) as a pretext for launching a renewal of the Opium Wars.

The steam-assisted warship has made it possible, as never before, for a strong nation to police the entire world in its own interest. And to an unprecedented degree ordinary members of the public now feel closely in touch with events.
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