Reign of William IV

The agitations respecting the Catholic Relief Bill had in some measure subsided, when, June 26, 1830, George IV died of ossification of the vital organs, and was succeeded by his next brother, the Duke of Clarence, under the title of WILLIAM IV. About a month after, a great sensation was produced in Britain by a revolution which took place in France, the main line of the Bourbon family being expelled, and the crown conferred upon Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans. By this event, a great impulse was given to the reforming spirit in Britain, and the demands for an improvement in the parliamentary representation became very strong. The consequence was the retirement of the Wellington administration in November, and the formation of a Whig cabinet, headed by Earl Grey. The agitations of the time were much increased by a system of nocturnal fire-raising, which spread through the south of England, and caused the destruction of a vast quantity of agricultural produce and machinery.

The Whig ministry came into power upon an understanding that they were to introduce bills for parliamentary reform, with reference to the three divisions of the United Kingdom. These, when presented in March 1831, were found to propose very extensive changes, particularly the disfranchisement of boroughs of small population, for which the members were usually returned by private influence, and the extension of the right of voting in both boroughs and counties to the middle classes of society. The bills accordingly met with strong opposition from the Tory, now called the Conservative party. By a dissolution of Parliament, the ministry found such an accession of supporters as enabled them to carry the measure through the House of Commons with large majorities; but it encountered great difficulties in the House of Lords; and it was not till after a temporary resignation of the ministry, and some strong expressions of popular anxiety respecting reform, that the bills were allowed to become law.

During the few years which followed the passing of the Reform Bills, the attention of Parliament was chiefly occupied by a series of measures which a large portion of the public deemed necessary for improving the institutions of the country, and for other beneficial purposes. The most important of these, in a moral point of view, was the abolition of slavery in the colonies, the sum of twenty millions being paid to the owners of the negroes, as a compensation. By this act, eight hundred thousand slaves were (August 1, 1834) placed in the condition of freemen, but subject to an apprenticeship to their masters for a few years.

In the same year, an act was passed for amending the laws for the support of the poor in England, which had long been a subject of general complaint. One of the chief provisions of the new enactment established a government commission for the superintendence of the local boards of management, which had latterly been ill conducted, and were now proposed to be reformed. The able-bodied poor were also deprived of the right which had been conferred upon them at the end of the eighteenth century, to compel parishes to support them, either by employment at a certain rate, or pecuniary aid to the same amount: they were now left no resource, failing employment, but that of entering poor-houses, where they were separated from their families. The contemplated results of this measure were a reduction of the enormous burden of the poor-rates, which had latterly exceeded seven millions annually, and a check to the degradation which indiscriminate support was found to produce in the character of the laboring classes.

Early in 1837, the ministry again introduced into the House of Commons a bill for settling the Irish tithe question; but before this or any other measure of importance had been carried, the king died of ossification of the vital organs (June 20), in the seventy-third year of his age, and seventh of his reign, being succeeded by his niece, the PRINCESS VICTORIA. The deceased monarch is allowed to have been a conscientious and amiable man, not remarkable for ability, but at the same time free from all gross faults.