Social Reform and Change

Social reform and change. This historic theme examines the work of reforming campaigners and parliamentary reformers, who brought changes to the conditions of the poor and destitute. 

  • Gin Act 1751
  • Britain After Waterloo the British Disillusion
  • Public Drinking Fountains
  • Oxford University Map of Colleges
  • Anatomy Act 1832
  • William Booth and the Inspiration behind the Salvation Army 1865
  • Statute of Labourers 1351
  • Statute Punishment  of Beggars and Vagabonds 1531
  • Statute of Cambridge 1388
  • Old Poor Law
  • William Wilberforce and the Bettering Society

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else
Charles Dickens

Use the timeline and maps to see how reform changed society and people’s lives.

Britain in the 19th century was one in which the suffering of it’s poor was a marked contrast to the wealth and privilege of it’s rich but there were some, who questioned the course of the nation and demanded change.

Social Reform
Alms Houses St Cross Winchester

The crusade and triumph of Reform

Ambivalence by many, to the desperate situation of the poor in the early 19th century, stood alongside the actions of others, who demanded reform at every turn. The campaigning social reformers worked in all areas of society. They concerned themselves with the sick and destitute, seeking reform to the Poor Laws. They wanted regulation brought in to protect workers from being used as slaves in the new manufacturing industries. The plight of children and women was of particular concern, so education and women’s property laws were challenged.  Institutions were set up to encourage others to join the cause of reform. Places like the Foundling Hospital, dependent upon donations to fund it’s function.

Social Reform and change
Shaftsbury Society Southwark

Social injustice went hand in glove with political inequality.

The Whigs and the Tories took opposing views as to whose interests to represent, with industrialists and landowners all pulling in different directions, with the poor caught in between, with no voice and no one to represent them in parliament. The bigger issues of reform, such as the abolition of slavery in Britain encountered support and dissent in equal measure.

Social Reform and Change
The barbarity of the slave trade carved into a tusk.

In this theme we explore many aspects of reform across the centuries and the people who have spent a lifetime trying to achieve it.

Gin Act 1751

Gin Act 1751

The Gin Act 1751 is a reminder that drunkenness on the streets is nothing new. London has always been a magnet for people wanting to improve their chances in life.  The early 18th century rural economy was already beginning to creak and groan under the yoke of enclosure and agricultural revolution. More people were seeking…

Britain After Waterloo the British Disillusion

Britain After Waterloo the British Disillusion

What happened to Britain after Waterloo? What did the victory mean to the population and why was there a British disillusion for the following 20 years? Britain seemed to implode as an economic bomb went off under her feet.

Public Drinking Fountains

Public Drinking Fountains

Public drinking fountains in London resulted from the Public Drinking Foundation Movement established in 1858 to provide clean water to London’s poor.

Women’s Roles in Edwardian Era

Women’s Roles in Edwardian Era

What were women’s roles in the Edwardian era of British history? What changes in society occurred that moved women towards acceptance in the workplace? The events after the Edwardian era would catapult women towards new opportunities.

Oxford University Map of Colleges

Oxford University Map of Colleges

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Intriguing Oxford

Oxford University Map of Colleges dating back and showing the colleges with a numbered key in 1643. a preview to Intriguing Oxford and Oxfordshire. Follow this new series, starting with this map.

Education Act 1902

Education Act 1902

The act that provided for the provision of LEA Local Education Authority system and was also a catlyst in encouraging the development of Higher Education.

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Social Change and Reform Timeline

DATEEVENTCATEGORY
1349The Ordinance of Labourers prohibited the giving of relief to able-bodied beggars, "that they may be compelled to labour for their necessary livingPoor Relief
1351Statute of LabourersEmployment
1531Vagabonds ActPoor
1536Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church in 1534, and the dissolution of the monasteries took place between 1536 and 1541.Political Reform
1572An Elizabethan Act made provision for the punishment of sturdy beggars and the relief of the impotent poorPoor Relief
1586Settlement and removal. If people tried to draw relief outside the parish of their birth, they could be removed. this meant that they could be rejected, or physically transported to another parish.In Scotland, poor people are marked with the town's mark.Poor Relief
1595Buttock mail', a Scottish poor rate, is levied.Poor Relief
1598 - 1601The Elizabethan Poor Law was a national Act for England and Wales. It provided for a compulsory poor rate, the creation of 'overseers' of relief, provision for 'setting the poor on work'.Poor Relief
1662A Poor Relief Act introduces the laws of settlement and removal.Poor Relief
1672Scotland had "houses of correction" established in the burghs
1697The Bristol Workhouse was established by private Act of Parliament.Poor Relief
1721First smallpox innoculationPublic Health
1723Knatchbull's Act allowed English and Welsh parishes to build workhouses without first taking out private Acts of Parliament.Poor Relief
1740A workhouse is established at Edinburgh.Poor Relief
1741Foundling Hospital established in London by Thomas Coram. It was a children's home established for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children." Children
1771Robert Owen was born. Owen was a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movementPeople
1774Out-relief, that is, benefits or cash outside the poorhouse is made available in Glasgow.Poor Relief
1777John Howard published his book, "The State of the Prisons", based on the study he had made of prison conditions on tours of Britain and Europe. Prison Reform
1780Sir George Onesiporous Paul built a model new prison at Gloucester based on the ideas of John Howard. It was secure, well-built, healthy, separated men, women and children. The rules ensured that prisoners wore uniform, were taught to read and writePrison Reform
1782Gilbert's Act stated that workhouses should become poorhouses, relieving only those who were not able-bodied. It allowed parishes to form Poor Law Unions in order to build poorhouses.Poor law
1784James Ramsay, doctor and preacher wrote on the 'Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies'. He also published 'An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade'. These were the first anti-slavery works by a mainstream Anglican writer who had personally seen the suffering and were, therefore, very influential.Abolition slavery
1787Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade founded in BritainAbolition slavery
1787Josiah Wedgewood wealthy industrialist and much respected man actively participated in abolition, becoming a member of one of the abolition committees. Abolition slavery
1788Joseph Townsend dissertation on the Poor LawsPoor Relief
1788Sir William Dolben's Act regulating the conditions on British slave ships enacted.Abolition Slavery
1792Mary Wollstonecraft published her 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'Women's Emancipation
1794Paupers became removable only if they were chargeable to another parish.Poor Relief
1795The Speenhamland system. A code for out-relief was drawn up by magistrates in Speenhamland, Berkshire. The Speenhamland system acquired some notoriety in the following years; it was believed to lead employers to pay unduly low wages while workers were forced to claim relief.Poor Relief Political Reform
1796William Wilberforce became a founding member of the ‘Society for the Bettering Condition and Increasing Comforts of the Poor’.Organizations
1798Thomas Cranfield established a free children's day school on Kent Street near London Bridge. By the time of his death in 1838, he had established 19 free schools providing services for children and infants living in the lower-income areas of LondonEducation People
1802Health and Morals of Apprentices Act was passed, the very first piece of factory legislation.Factories
1803Support for vaccination grew. Jenner was awarded government funding, and in 1803 the Royal Jennerian Institute was founded. Public Health
1803Lord Ellenborough's Act made abortion after quickening a capital crime, and provided lesser penalties for the felony of abortion before quickening.Women
1805A bill for abolition of slavery passes in House of Commons but is rejected in the House of Lords.Abolition Slavery
1807Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolishes slave trading in British Empire.Abolition Slavery
1807The British begin patrols of African coast to arrest slaving vessels.Abolition Slavery
1807Mary Carpenter was born, educational and social reformerEducation People
1812Elizabeth Fry makes her first visit to Newgate Prison to do what she could to alleviate the suffering of the women and children therePrison Reform
1814Angela Coutts was born, she was the wealthiest Victorian woman in Britain and a philanthropistPeople
1817Elizabeth Fry and eleven other Quakers formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. She gave evidence to the House of Commons about conditions in prison, using evidence from her tour of British prisons. Her evidence influenced Sir Robert Peel to reform prison conditions in 1823.Prison Reform
1818Treaty between Britain and Spain to abolish slave tradeAbolition Slavery
1818John Pounds in Portsmouth began teaching poor children without charging fees. He actively recruited children and young people to his school.Education People
1819Cotton Mills Act. The Act required that no child under the age of nine was to be employed in cotton mills, with a maximum day of 16 hours for all those under 16. But once again the means of enforcing such legislation remained a serious problem.Textiles Factories
1819The 'Peterloo Massacre' occurred at a reform meeting at St Peter's Field in Manchester. About 60,000 people gathered to hear Henry Hunt and others speak in favour of political reforms and rights for the poor. When Hunt arrived the yeomanry were sent by magistrates to arrest him. They slashed their way through the crowd killing eleven and injuring hundreds, including women.Political Reform
1819Female reform societies were formed in the north of EnglandWomen
1820Florence Nightingale was born. English social reformer and statistician, and the founder of modern nursing.People
1823Anti-Slavery Society founded in Britain.Abolition Slavery
1823 - 1833Over 70 women's anti slavery societies were formedAbolition Slavery Women's Emancipation
1823Jon Stuart Mills was arrested for distributing pamphlets on birth control practisesWomen
1824Repeal of the Combination Acts makinf trade unions legal
1825Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer, published her short but influential book, "Observations of the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners." Unlike other early reformers, Elizabeth provided the concrete, explicit detail for operating penal regimes.Prison Reform
1833Factory Act. No children were to work in factories under the age of nine (though by this stage numbers were few). A maximum working week of 48 hours was set for those aged 9 to 13, limited to eight hours a day; and for children between 13 and 18 it was limited to 12 hours daily. The Act also required children under 13 to receive elementary schooling for two hours each day.Textiles Factories
1834Poor Law Amendment Act. This established a national Commission for England and Wales.Poor Law
1834The British Slavery Abolition Act comes into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire.Abolition Slavery
1838Octavia Hill was born. English social reformer, whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially LondonPeople
1838 - 1848Chartists movement formed. The aim of the Chartists was to gain political rights and influence for the working classes. The movement got its name from the formal petition, or 'People's Charter', that listed the six main aims of the movement. These included a vote for all men aged over 21, but, just like the Levellers, they did not ask for votes for women.Emancipation
1839Child Custody Act enabled a mother to be given custody of children under seven.Women Children
1839 - 1840A Poor Law Commission enquiry identified disease as a major cause of pauperism.Poor Law
1842Edwin Chadwick, the secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and one of the main authors of the 1834 report, wrote a Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, identifying sanitation as a principal issue.Sanitation
1842Mines and Collieries Act. Women and children were excluded from the mines and as a consequence became unemployedWomen Mining
1843Lord Shaftesbury became the president of the ragged schools. He used his knowledge of the schools, the refuges, and his understanding of the living conditions among low-income families to pursue changes in legislation. He served as the president of the Ragged School Union for 39 years. In 1944, the Union adopted the name "Shaftesbury Society", in his honour.Education Children
1843Charles Dickens became associated with the Ragged Schools and donated money to themEducation Children
1844Ragged Schools Union was established to combine resources throughout the country, providing free education, food, clothing, lodging and other home missionary services for these children.Education
1844Factory ActFactories
1845Andover Workhouse ScandalPoor Law
1845Thomas Banardo was born, founder and director of homes for poor childrenChildren
1847Charles Dickens and Angela Coutts set up a home for young women who had "turned to a life of immorality", including theft and prostitution. The home was called Urania Cottage in Shepherds Bush. Women
1847Factory Act restricting the working day for women and childrenFactories
1848Public Health Act. This defined responsible sanitary authorities, either town councils (in urban areas) or Poor Law Boards of Guardians (in rural areas).Public Health Sanitation
1849The Metropolitan Sanitary Association is established to campaign for adequate public health provision for LondonPublic Health Sanitation
1849John Snow publishes On the Mode of Communication of Cholera and begins a study into the spread of the diseasePublic Health Sanitation
1851Mary Carpenter published 'Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes, and for Juvenile Offenders', outlining the 3 different types of schools she envisioned.Education Children
1852Mary Carpenter published published 'Juvenile Delinquents, their Condition and Treatment',which contributed to the passing of the Juvenile Offenders Act in 1854.Education
1854Juvenile Offenders ActEducation Crime
1858A revised Public Health Act is passed, abolishing the Central Board of Health and creating local boards responsible for preventative action and reform.Public Health Sanitation
1859Harriet Martineau published Female Industry.Women
1861Offences Against the Persons Act made abortion a statutory offence. It confirmed the age of consent as 12, and made carnal knowledge of a girl under ten a felony and of a girl ten to twelve a misdemeanour.Women Children
1866Sanitation Act. Parliament passes the Sanitary Act making local authorities responsible for the removal of 'nuisances' to public health and for the removal or improvement of slum dwellings.Public Health Sanitation Housing
1866The Howard League for Penal Reform was founded and named after John Howard one of Britain's earliest penal reformers. It is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK.Prison Reform
1869Angela Coutts established Columbia Market in 1869 as a covered food market with 400 stalls
1869Charity Organisations SocietyOrganizations
1870Education Act (1872 in Scotland). This provided free compulsory elementary education for all, up to the age of 12 at first, later to 14. (The secondary system, 11+, was private or voluntary, and based on fees).Education
1870First Banardo home establishedChildren
1871The creation of the Local Government Board.Political Reform
1872Public Health Act. This defined responsible sanitary authorities, either town councils (in urban areas) or Poor Law Boards of Guardians (in rural areas).Sanitation
1875Public Health ActPublic Health
1878William Booth founded the Salvation ArmyOrganizations
1880Education Act. The act extended the compulsory age of attendance at school until the age of 10.Education
1888County Councils formed.Political Reform
1901The Edwardian Age brings change to women's roles in societyWomen
1902Education Act.The Act provided funds for denominational religious instruction in voluntary elementary schools, owned primarily by the Church of England and Roman Catholics. It ended the divide between voluntary schools, which were largely administered by the Church of England, and schools provided and run by elected school boardsEducation
1905Unemployed Workmen Act: labour exchanges.Employment
1905Royal Commission on Poor Laws set up to look at Poor Law reformPoor Law
1906Education Act: free school meals.Education
1908Old Age Pensions: these were non-contributory.Employment
1908Women's National Anti Suffrage League founded.Women
1911National Insurance Act: this covered health and unemployment.Employment
1918Marie Stopes wrote 'Wise Parenthood'Woman Children
1918 - 1921Means-tested 'out-of work donations' were given to unemployed people.Employment
1919Addison Act: the first major finance for council housing.Housing
1929Local Government Act. The Poor Law Boards of Guardians were replaced by local authorities.Political Reform
1942Beveridge proposed a system of National InsuranceEmployment
1944Education Act: free universal secondary educationEducation
1948Children Act, which established local authority departments to receive children into care..Children