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A Time of Great Change

A Time of Great Change

Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution

The 19th century was a period of very rapid change. The first half of the century was very important in the development of Britain.
The population grew rapidly. Wealthy factory owners attracted more and more ordinary people to move from the countryside to the new towns and cities to live and work. These towns and cities grew very quickly and, in the worst slums, the poorest people suffered awful poverty and crippling diseases.

More and more products were produced for people to buy, travel became cheaper and faster as railways were built and the British Empire expanded. By 1850, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the richest, most industrialised and most powerful country in the world. It ruled Canada and Australia, India and New Zealand. Raw materials poured into its factories from the empire and British goods flooded the markets of the world. No other power, and certainly not the defeated French, could compete with British might and riches. Yet, although the country itself changed over fifty years, the way it was run altered little. The 1832 Reform Act gave some middle class men the vote but the system of government was much the same.

By 1850, the unelected House of Lords could still refuse to pass laws, only rich men could stand to become MP's, and the House of Commons was elected by only a minority of the people. Throughout the period, the rich and powerful constantly looked back over their shoulders to the shadow of the French Revolution. To avoid a revolution in Britain, they thought that governments had to stay firmly in charge, only reform the system a little at a time, if at all, and use force and punishment if necessary to control the poor.

Despite the new found wealth and the ancient traditions, those in power often felt they were sitting on a volcano � the volcano of revolution. It was revolution that had plunged France into years of war. It was revolution that overturned two French kings between 1800 and 1850. British governments were not going to let their country go the same way.