Young points out that although at mid-century “the religious, the economic, and the social codes all combined to emphasize the vital importance of individual effort,” people increasingly realized that the “line between what the State may do and what it must leave alone had been drawn in the wrong place, and that there was a whole world of things where the individual simply could not help himself at all.” For instance, a person “could not build his own house, or even choose his own street. He could not dispose of his own sewage or educate his own children” (52). In the following passage, Young therefore argues that legislation, seemingly innocuous to us, that very lightly regulated factories marks the beginning of a truly radical reconception of government in great Britain — one which “State intervention” becomes seen as necessary because in a modern society citizens cannot protect themselves solely by their own efforts.

Victorians, to whom Free Trade had become a habit of mind, tended almost instinctively to divide the century into the years before and after 1846. But in the sixties one social observer laid his finger not on the Repeal of the Corn Laws in ’46, but on the Factory Act of ’47, as the turning-point of the age and, with our longer perspective, we can hardly doubt that he was right. Of facts which, in Gibbon’s phrase, are dominant in the general system, by far the most significant in this period is the emergence of a new State philosophy, of which the overt tokens are the Factory Act, the Public Health Acts,* and the Education Minute of 1846. The great inquiries of the thirties and forties were the Nemesis of the middle-class victory of 1830; an unreformed Parliament would never have persisted in them, and they led, silently and inevitably, to a conception of the State and its relations to its subjects which the electors of the first Reformed Parliaments would almost unanimously have repudiated. The cataclysm of 1830 proved to have been the beginning of a slow evolution, by which, while an aristocratic fabric was quietly permeated with Radical ideas, an individualistic society was unobtrusively schooled in the ways of State control. [47; emphasis added]

*The principal are: Baths and Washhouses Act ’46 and ’47 ; Town Improvements Clauses ’47; Public Health ’48; Lodging Houses ’51; Burials'52.

Young also points out that the debates over the factory acts and similar legislation “mark at once the waning of the economics of pure calculation and the growth of that preoccupation with the quality of life which is dominant in the next decade,” and he adds that “there is a remarkable passage in Peel’s speech, in which he refers to the criticism of the Italian economists that their English colleagues concentrated on wealth and overlooked welfare” (54). This entirely new sense of the role of the nation state that makes government intervention central “was not thought out; it remained instinctive, sentimental, feudal,” but it became increasingly influential.

Related material


Young, G.M. Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Last modified 13 June 2018