2 March, 2015Issue 27.4EuropeHistoryLiteratureNon-fiction

Email This Article Print This Article

The Other Home Front

Edward Hicks


Jenny Uglow
In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815
Faber & Faber, 2014
£25 (hardback)
752 pages
ISBN: 9780571269525

Before the calamities of the twentieth century supplanted its name and dimmed its horrors, the continental conflicts of 1793 to 1815 were collectively known as the “Great War”. They left a deep scar on the European psyche. The late-Victorian Prime Minister Lord Rosebery described it as “the greatest epoch in history since the coming of Christ.” A sense of the scale of the war is excellently conveyed by Jenny Uglow in this account of Britons living, fighting, and dying during these conflicts. Arranging her account chronologically, she focuses on various different families and individuals—from the forgotten Galton family of gun-makers to Romantic writers such as Scott and Wordsworth—to write a social history of Britain throughout these wars. Already acclaimed as a biographer of Charles II and familiar with this epoch through her account of the Birmingham Lunar Society, Uglow conveys a vivid portrait of a Britain where rich and poor, men and women, city and country dwellers were inexorably drawn into the immense struggle in which the nation was engaged.

In so doing Uglow helps banish the older image of Britain, perhaps derived from a sanguine and superficial reading of Jane Austen’s novels, as ostensibly untouched by the war. Although the prophesied horrors of French invasion (satirised by Gillray with his guillotine in Piccadilly) and enslavement under the Napoleonic yoke did not come true, Britons were acutely aware of the war. Many served in it, or endeavoured to evade the press-gang that was seizing merchant- and ex-sailors for the Navy. Others worked in war industries, including in nascent mass production factories in the royal dockyards. The war had a considerable economic impact. Britain underwent soaring taxation and inflation, severing sterling’s connection with gold and introducing paper money to the chagrin of rural romantic radicals like William Cobbett as well as the intellectual heirs of Adam Smith. At the same time, the industrial revolution, which would bring changes more long-lasting and far-reaching than any political revolution, was gathering pace. This economic advance created a stark contrast with a France, suffering industrial and commercial stagnation due to the Revolution, and entrenched British economic hegemony, with long-lasting consequences.

Uglow covers a cornucopia of topics: tourist travel around Britain; the development of new industries such as cotton and coal; the struggles and successes of farmers as their prices and prospects fluctuated; the violence and death ensuing from the militia’s suppression of riots and agitation. In each case, the war is skilfully maintained in the background. There is no detailed description of Waterloo; instead, a description of how news of the battle was brought and received (Uglow explodes the myth that the Rothschilds enriched themselves through duplicity over this information). Little details are her forte—the rain fulfilling the pathetic fallacy as Parliament met following France’s initial declaration of war on Britain in 1793, individual bystanders out shopping who were killed amid the repression of agitation. By tracing individual families, Uglow personalises complex issues such as the tangles the gunsmith Samuel Galton got into with his fellow Quakers, who eventually expelled him from their Society for refusing to give up his deadly manufacturing. Particularly impressive is her fair-minded account of the Highland clearances, which balances an appreciation of the demographic problems facing the Highlands as its population soared and the Enlightenment ideology of improvement which spurred on landowners, with the controversial and sometimes fatal methods employed to remove Highlanders, particularly by the Duchess of Sutherland’s land agent Patrick Sellar.

Uglow’s concisely sketched themes and vignettes have the welcome effect of leaving the reader wanting more, and her bibliography rises to the occasion. Yet Uglow perhaps endeavours to do too much. The various historical personages have a tendency to become jumbled up with one another and it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. Uglow also posits a somewhat Whiggish view of the post-war era as one in which virtually nothing really changed until the Whig reforms of the 1830s; she also has, to my mind, an overly negative view of abolitionist efforts post-1793. It is incorrect to imply that evangelicals such as William Wilberforce abandoned their attempts to abolish the slave trade in the 1790s—in 1796 Wilberforce’s regular abolition bill was lost in the Commons by only four votes.

It may seem paradoxical and churlish, given the above criticism, to regret this wide-ranging book’s omissions. However two seem especially pertinent. One is the absence of the pioneers of mass education, Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster, whose “monitorial” system was created by the former and popularised by the latter. Their efforts were important—they appeared to have established a system of mass education in England which was cheap and (by relying on “monitors”, older pupils, to carry on much of the teaching) practicable. Robert Southey declared, “Education has been for the first time reduced to a science.” The institutions which ran their respective types of schools—the National Society and the British and Foreign Schools Society—were the first recipients of Parliamentary grants for education in 1833. There was a critical difference between these institutions. Bell’s used, and Lancaster’s omitted, the Anglican catechism from their teaching, thereby creating a divide between churchmen and nonconformists in education which lasted into the twentieth century, and helps to explain the continuing multitude of state religious schools. Concurrent were the first attempts at Parliamentary legislation for mass education (Samuel Whitbread’s parochial schools bill of 1807) and the proliferation of Sunday schools. Thus the Napoleonic epoch saw the laying of many of the foundations for the English schooling system of today.

The second omission is a sin of partial omission. Uglow covers Ireland up to the Union of 1801 but then stops. This is disappointing, partly because much subsequent British domestic political debate throughout the war focused on whether to permit Roman Catholics to serve in Parliament and other Establishment offices, a particularly agitated issue in Ireland. It was during this campaign that the noted Irish anti-Unionist Daniel O’Connell rose to the prominence and leadership that earned him the sobriquet “Liberator”, and subsequent entry into pantheon of Irish heroes. It would also have helped to provide a better explanation of the controversial Corn Laws of 1815. Traditionally derided as class legislation which self-servingly benefited landowners, these laws ironically had their origin in the efforts of Irish Whig MPs such as Henry Parnell to turn Ireland into a granary for the British Isles—Irish MPs dominated the initial committee in 1813 for instance—and it was a shame Boyd Hilton’s book Corn, Cash, Commerce (1977) was absent from an otherwise extensive bibliography.

However these are blemishes which do not detract from a fine work of synthesis and concision which ably utilises specialist works in a thoroughly engaging manner. A good historian aims as much to spur the reader on to delve into deeper seams of subjects they have only had space to penetrate to a few feet. Uglow satisfies this aim, and it must be hoped, as the bicentenary of the end of the Victorians’ Great War follows so closely on the centenary of the commencement of our Great War, that that former conflict and context will garner similar public attention and re-evaluation.

Edward Hicks is reading for a DPhil in History at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.