Chapter 5. Power to the People

From the 15th century, ordinary people had the same protection under the law as lords. But nobody imagined that ordinary workers had any real power. Only people with money could vote for politicians or join Parliament. Poor people did what they were told.
But then, in the late 18th century, Britain began to change. Historians now call the changes ‘revolutions’ because they were so important. There were new types of job, new towns and new ways to travel. And there were also new powers and protections for the ordinary workers of Britain.

Revolution in the country

Until the 19th century, most people in Britain worked on the land. They grew plants for food and kept farm animals. They produced butter and cheese. And in their homes they turned sheep’s wool into cloth. English cloth was popular everywhere in Europe.
Farmers couldn't use all their fields every year. After a few years, the plants became unhealthy, so they left the field empty for a year. But in the 18th century, people found new ways to grow food. Farmers never had to leave a field empty, so they could produce more food.
The new ideas for farms could only work on large areas of land, and most farmers had small areas in different fields. In the second half of the 18th century, the government agreed to give a lot of land to the most powerful landowners. Many poorer farmers were left with nothing.

Revolution in towns

Also in the 18th century, there were changes in the cloth-making business. New machines helped to make cloth much faster than before. The machines were too big to keep at home. The world’s first factories were built.
These factories employed many of the farmers who lost their land to the big landowners. Soon large towns grew around the factories. Manchester and Leeds, for example, grew in this way.
The factories made cloth from local wool, and also from American cotton. British cloth became even more popular in Europe than before. When the French Emperor Napoleon, Britain’s great enemy, invaded Russia, his soldiers were wearing coats of British cloth.
British factories were soon copied in other European countries and their empires, and the world changed for ever. But these wonderful new machines didn’t help the ordinary people of Britain.


Many new roads, waterways and bridges were made in the 18th century. Then, in 1804, the world’s first railway was built. Britain’s greatest railway builder was Isambard Kingdom Brunei. He built more than 1,600 kilometres of railway line. His trains were faster, and his stations and bridges were more beautiful, than any others. He changed not only train travel, but also travel across the Atlantic Ocean. He built the first metal passenger ship, and another ship that was six times bigger than any other ship at that time.
Many factory owners in the late 18th and early 19th century controlled their workers’ lives in a similar way to the Norman lords 700 years earlier. Workers weren’t paid with money, but with cards that were only accepted in the factory shop. Adults were paid too little to feed a family. So their children worked in the factory too, some for eighteen hours a day, and there were a lot of accidents. The factory owners built houses for their workers, but most of these were cheap and small, with no clean water. Illness travelled quickly through the new towns.
The factory owners grew richer and richer. But their workers got no more money when the factory was successful. If workers started a trade union, they lost their jobs. If they refused to work, they weren’t paid. Then their families had no food.

Better laws for workers

Workers became very angry. There were a lot of demonstrations, and some people wanted a violent British revolution like the revolution of 1789 in France. It was difficult for workers to
change things in any other way. Ordinary workers didn’t own their own houses, so they couldn’t vote. Some cities, like Manchester and Birmingham, had no politicians because they were too new. But old towns with small populations had two politicians. It was very unfair.
Politicians didn't want a revolution, so they slowly gave workers more control over their lives. After a change in the law in 1825, workers could finally form trade unions. In 1832, the new cities got their own politicians and more men could vote. Children’s hours of work were also controlled in the 1830s, and the Government offered children a few hours a day of free school lessons. From 1870, all children had to go to school. Child workers disappeared from British factories.

Votes for all

In the 19th century, more and more men were given the vote, but women still had no power. The Suffragettes were a group of women who wanted to change this. In the early 20th century they went on violent demonstrations. They shouted at politicians in Parliament. In prison, they refused to eat. One woman was killed when she threw herself under the King’s horse during a race. But when the First World War started in 1914, these women stopped fighting the Government. They did the jobs of the men who were away at war. When the war ended, some women over the age of 30 and all men over the age of 21 could vote. Finally, in 1928, the rules for women and men became the same.

An end to poverty

Workers’ lives at the end of the 19th century were a little better than a hundred years before. But when, in 1899, new soldiers were needed for a war in South Africa, large numbers of young men were too unhealthy for the army. The Government decided to do more for the poor of Britain. In 1906, pay was introduced for people who couldn’t work as a result of illness or old age. It was a small amount, but it was something.
After the Second World War ended in 1945, there was more money from the Government for old people. There was also money for families with children and for people who couldn’t find work. Schools, hospitals, doctors and dentists were — and still are - free. Britain was the first state to protect its people in this way. Taxpayers have to pay for it, of course. But people are protected from the terrible poverty and unhealthy lives of earlier centuries.

Power to the People - A History of Britain