Elsie B. Michie, “On the Sacramental Test Act, the Catholic Relief Act, the Slavery Abolition Act, and the Factory Act”


Examining two sets of intertwined Parliamentary Acts that went into effect before and after the Reform Act of 1832, this entry argues that they make visible the gestures that led up to and resulted from reform.

Reform’s Prefaces and Postscripts

Like the ripples that surround a stone when it is dropped into a pool of water, a series of incidents inevitably lead up to and result from the more dramatically visible central event that marks historical change.  Extending the franchise and changing the distribution of seats in parliament, the Reform Act of 1832 has typically been seen as such a watershed in British politics. The passage of that act was, however, framed by other acts that reveal the complex political, social, and emotional forces in play as Britain stood poised to enter the Victorian era. The legislative acts that led up to the Reform Act of 1832 included the Sacramental Test Act and the Roman Catholic Relief Act. The debates that took place over these acts focused on the dangers and benefits of admitting previously excluded groups into centers of social power. Immediately following the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 acts were put forward in favor of the abolition of slavery and the regulation of child labor in factories. While the acts that led up to the Reform Act focus on granting political rights to those potentially seen as equals, nonconformist Dissenters and Catholics, the Acts that follow are aimed at protecting the civil rights of individuals seen as less than equal: children and slaves. In making these two gestures England took its first steps toward what later Victorian thinkers would describe as the liberal society that emerged in the second half of the century.

Dissenters and Catholics

Passed in 1828, the Sacramental Test Act repealed the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Act of 1673. Those acts had required individuals who held municipal, civil, or military office to take communion in the Church of England and to declare that they did not believe in transubstantiation. Initially aimed at keeping Catholics out of public office, these acts ended up also restricting Protestants who were not Anglicans. However, in the century and a half following the passage of the Test and Corporation Acts, the growing social power of Dissenting religions in England gradually eased those strictures. As Boyd Hilton explains, “In England as a whole Anglican privileges were mainly symbolic, but they meant something at Cambridge University, where only subscribers to the Church of England could graduate, and they meant even more at Oxford, where non-Anglicans could not even matriculate” (381). The bill to repeal the acts could, perhaps, have been defeated. As the Tory minister the duke of Wellington explained to a friend, “I believe we could have thrown the Bill for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts out of the House of Lords’” (qtd. in Clark 395). But it did not seem worth his while to do so. In 1828, repeal seemed to bring about a “practical change . . . [that] was scarcely perceptible” (Machin, “Resistance” 115).

The passage of the Sacramental Test Act did, however, have a widely recognized symbolic register. For its supporters, typically Whig politicians, the act represented “‘the greatest victory over the principle of persecution and exclusion yet obtained’” (Lord Holland, qtd. in Clark 396). For those who opposed it, the undoing of these legislative exclusions seemed to sever the constitutional link between the Anglican Church and the state and to open the door to what felt like political chaos. As a reporter for the Tory newspaper the Standard exclaimed in the wake of its passage,  “‘where is the constitutional boundary to be fixed? at this side of Judaism? Or Mohammedanism? Or Deism? Or Unitarianism? Or Atheism? Or Devil worship?’” (qtd. in Machin, “Resistance” 128). These comments identify the passage of repeal with lowering a political and social barrier that had previously worked to exclude individuals from power. While reaction to its passage could be either celebratory or panicked, both responses acknowledge the ideological significance of a bill whose practical effects seemed relatively minor.

Repeal was shortly to be followed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act, which continued a process of Catholic emancipation that had begun in the late eighteenth century as the restrictions that had been placed on Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century were gradually eased. Catholic emancipation and preventing the political exclusion of Dissenters could be and were linked “‘on one great principle of universal, undistinguishing right to religious liberty’” (Lord Nugent, qtd. in Machin, “Resistance” 123). But in the 1820s, non-conformist religious liberty was a much less volatile political issue than Catholic civil liberty.  Such a statement may seem surprising since, “compared with the powerful dissenting movement, the English Catholics were a small and isolated body” (Machin, Catholic 10). Moreover, while there was general public support for dissenting civil rights, “there can be no doubt that most of the inhabitants of Great Britain were opposed to the civil equality of the Catholics” (Machin, Catholic 5).  Nevertheless Catholic emancipation became the dominant political issue in the early decades of the nineteenth century; “For much of the 1820s it was the most pressing question of all. The Catholic question, wrote a correspondent of Peel’s in 1827, was ‘mixed up in everything we eat or drink or think’” (Machin, Catholic 1).

Catholic emancipation was so pressing because it involved England’s relation to Ireland. As a supporter of the Sacramental Test Act explained, “‘Every step we make this night will be in favour of Ireland—every advance we make for the relief of the Dissenters will be so much gained in the great cause of Catholic emancipation. Break but through the line of bigotry and prejudice, and the victory is our own’” (G. Wilbraham, qtd. in Hilton 382 n42). Tensions between England and Ireland had heightened in the decades following the 1801 Acts of Union, which united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1823, prior to the passage of Catholic Relief, the radical Irish politician Daniel O’Connell founded the Catholic Association, which brought these tensions to a head. The agitations of that organization were so successful that it was declared illegal in 1825. O’Connell, however, simply changed its name, continued his crusade, and was, as a result, elected to Parliament in 1828. This election precipitated the immediate crisis that led to the passage of the Catholic Relief Bill. The British Parliament had either to deny O’Connell the right to take the seat to which he was elected or pass a bill that granted Catholics political rights.

At the time of its passage, the Catholic Relief Act was seen as a political necessity. It would prevent further rebellion and bloodshed in a British colony.  In that sense, it resembled the Slavery Abolition and Factory Acts discussed below.  All such legislation granting individuals fuller civil rights was seen as countering potential violence. In each case, the freedoms that were granted were also hedged round with limitations. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 allowed Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to hold public offices, but it also raised the property qualifications that allowed individuals in Ireland to vote, a measure intended to undercut the grassroots political movements that had led to O’Connell’s election. The passage of the Catholic Relief Act also marked a shift in English political power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. The Catholic question had been brought up repeatedly throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century. As Richard Davis explains, “with one exception every House of Commons elected since 1807 had passed a Catholic measure by a substantial majority; an 1819 bill in the 1818-20 Parliament was lost by two votes” (44). The House of Lords had always turned the bill down. But by 1829 Lords was forced to recognize the power of Commons and pass Catholic relief.

Looking back on the late 1820s, commentators would see this shift in political power as leading to the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. In 1837 the conservative duke of Newcastle claimed that “‘a sure consequence’ of repeal was the emancipation of Catholics in 1829; that, as a consequence of this in turn, ‘liberalism, conciliation and concession, prevailed without limit’” (qtd. in Machin, “Resistance” 115).  In 1847 conservative politicians still viewed the “Repeal of the Test acts, relief of Catholics, the Reform bill” as “a catalogue of revolutionizing change” (Morley 1.328).  Together the three Acts constituted the political revolution that the Tory politician Robert Peel had predicted in 1824: “‘not a bloody one and perhaps not one leading to a republic, but one utterly subversive of the aristocracy and of the present systems of carrying on the government’” (qtd. in Clark 394).

Slaves and Child Laborers

Like the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and amelioration of laboring conditions in factories were inextricably intertwined as they came up for debate in Parliament. Though the history of British agitation about slavery went back to William Wilberforce and the later decades of the eighteenth century, “colonial slavery, as distinct from the slave trade, became an issue in British parliamentary politics only by the early 1820s” (Gross 63).  Moreover, in that period, political agitation shifted from arguing for ameliorating the conditions of slavery through religion, education, and the sanctification of slave marriage to insisting on the immediate emancipation of the slaves. Becoming “second only to reform” (Blackburn 436) as a subject of public debate, the antislavery movement provided rhetoric that carried over to those arguing in favor of factory reform. In 1830 the Radical Tory activist Richard Oastler gave a famous speech in which he characterized the conditions in factories as “Yorkshire Slavery” (Gray 39).  In 1832, “the most popular single anti-slavery pamphlet” (Blackburn 442), Thomas Whiteley’s Three Months in Jamaica, was also a protest against factory conditions. Factory reformers began to use the phrases “white slavery” and “infant slavery” to describe child labor. Even the famous abolitionist emblem of a slave in chains asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?,” was replicated by those agitating for factory reform, who attached the same caption to images of workers crippled by labor in cotton mills (Gray 39).  In this period, “antislavery propaganda triggered images of deprivation that were contagious” (Drescher 8).

The passage of the Reform Act heightened the linkage between the abolitionist and factory movements. In the early phases of the factory movement many of its supporters opposed abolition, whose focus on inequities abroad they saw as drawing attention away from problems at home.  However, in the wake of the Reform Act members of Parliament felt the pressure of new constituencies.  William Cobbett, for example, who had expressed antipathy toward abolition, told a working-class rally in 1832 that he was willing to pledge himself to the emancipation of slaves. “He acknowledged that his conversion came . . . in deference to the wishes of his Manchester supporters” (Drescher 7). As a result of such pressures and shifting allegiances, the bill to abolish slavery and the bill to regulate child labor in factories were both brought up in the first session of parliament to be held following the passage of the Reform Act. Discussion of the two acts took place concomitantly. Abolition of slavery was discussed between 30 May and 11 June of 1833 and  “was concluded by the passing of five resolutions that were accepted by the Lords on 25 June” (Gross 73). The Royal Commission to investigate conditions in factories was established in April of the same year. Its report “dated 28 June 1833 [was] available several days later; the crucial parliamentary vote was taken within days of the publication, debates were completed within the month” (Gray 60).  The details of the bill to abolish slavery were reconsidered on its second reading. Debates started on 22 July and ended on 7 August. The two bills received royal approval at the end of August within a day of one another.

In the case of both bills, Parliament was responding to mounting public pressure for reform and fears of violence. A slave insurrection occurred in Jamaica in 1831, and an antislavery campaign started in March of 1833 and brought a flood of petitions to Parliament.  Similarly, large gatherings of workers protested the conditions in the factories in the 1830s, and Parliament had received “petitions in support of the Factory Bill [which] had 112,863 signatures” (Gray 55).  Activists in favor of the bills presented them, as one of the factory protesters exclaimed, as “‘a question of blood against gold’” (qtd. in Driver 240). But while the support for both bills was articulated in humanitarian terms, entrenched opposition came from the moneyed interests, which argued against state intervention and in favor of protecting property rights. Factory owners’ “first line of defense usually consisted, like that of the Planters, in proclaiming the importance of the industry for the economy and the threat of regulation to private property” (Drescher 12). In passing both bills, the newly constituted parliament had to negotiate between the claims of political economy and those who argued for a “general expansion of individual rights,” which should make “the government more responsive to underprivileged outsiders” (Drescher 3). In the end, both bills “justified state intervention in regulating the workings of economic contract, while sanctifying contract itself” (Blackburn 440).

Both bills involved compromise. While slavery was officially abolished, the government agreed to pay plantation owners twenty million pounds to compensate them for the loss of their labor. Earlier proposals had “envisaged compensating the colonial proprietors by giving them a public loan of £15 million plus the right to the continuing labor of their slaves, now dubbed ‘apprentices,’ for a period of twelve years” (Blackburn 456). Raising the amount and making compensation outright payment rather than a loan appeased the property interests. At the same time, the antislavery interests in parliament reduced the period of apprenticeship from twelve to six years. Factory agitation underwent a similar process of mediation. The original protest, spurred on by Oastler, was called the “Ten Hours movement” because it argued that the factory workday should be limited to ten hours. However, factory agitation, which had initially been directed at ameliorating the conditions of all laborers, was quickly seen to be too threatening to the owners.  As a West Riding proclamation noted, “‘it cannot now be a battle for hours, but it will be a battle for the limitation of ages’” (qtd. in Driver 238). The movement turned toward the condition of children, who like slaves, “were not able to look after themselves and therefore could not be regarded as ‘free agents’” (Driver 243).  Legislation could be passed on the basis of arguments for state protection.   As Robert Gray explains, “Pressure for the Ten Hours Bill was deflected. . . . The 1833 Act stipulated a maximum of eight hours and compulsory schooling for ‘children’ (aged nine to twelve), together with a twelve-hour day for young persons (aged thirteen to seventeen), and introduced an inspectorate and various inspection and certification procedures” (59-60).

This legislation did not grant all workers the right to humane conditions, as the Slavery Abolition Act did not fully abolish slavery. The modifications made to both these bills suggest that in 1833 a vision of the inalienable rights of individuals was in the air but could not yet be fully realized. As those opposed to both acts realized, “an Act of some sort must be passed, in order to satisfy the demands of the people, and to put down the agitation, which was so annoying the government” (Thomas 71).  But, in fact, the passage of these acts, far from putting down political agitation, enhanced it.  Protest movements were immediately formed to argue in favor of extending the partial freedoms that had been granted. That political activism would continue across the 1830s and 40s.  By 1838 the system of requiring former slaves to be apprentices would be abolished. There would be new Factory Acts limiting the workday for women and children in 1844 and 1847. In the wake of the Reform Act in 1833 key changes had been brought about in the arena both of the factory and the plantation that would lead to later legislation. Despite the limitations of the laws that were enforced in 1833, the Slavery Abolition and Factory Acts would be seen in later decades as legislation that took the first steps in changing the shape of the social contract by imagining a wider field in which individual rights would be granted and protected.

Image of William Gladstone

Figure 1: William Gladstone

To understand the difference between how these acts were experienced when they were passed and how they looked in later years, we need only turn to William Gladstone, who was to become the Liberal Prime Minister of England in 1868. Gladstone made his first speech in Parliament in the discussions surrounding the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act.  His father, John Gladstone, had been attacked for the brutalities committed by the manager of his sugar plantation in Jamaica.  When the son rose to address Parliament, “he confessed with shame and pain that cases of cruelty had existed, and would always exist under the system of slavery, and that this was ‘a substantial reason why the British legislature and public should set themselves in good earnest to provide for its extinction . . . but immediate and unconditioned emancipation . . . must place the negro in a state where he would be his own worst enemy’” (Morley 1.103-4).  His language reflects the emotional and moral arguments that were being made in favor both of abolishing slavery and ameliorating factory conditions. But Gladstone finally took a position against immediate emancipation.

Sixty years later, he would look back at his own early opinion and exclaim, “‘I can now see plainly enough . . . the sad illiberalism of my opinions on that subject. Yet they were not illiberal as compared with the ideas of the times” (Morley 1.104).  This comment implicitly identifies the political world that emerged out of the reforms of the 1820s and 30s as the liberal society in which Gladstone himself was a successful politician. It also acknowledges that that society had not yet been born in the period of legislative reforms that began with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. In the moment in which these acts were passed it was not yet possible to see the necessity of granting the civil liberties that would become unquestioned rights later in the century.


Looking back on the period of the first Reform Bill, in 1893, the novelist and critic Margaret Oliphant wrote:

It is amazing when we look back to see how strangely different from the present was the state of the country and the public questions that occupied it. Parliamentary Reform and Catholic Emancipation were both questions hotly discussed, and still capable of different solutions to those which we have known all our lives. The very conditions under which our present life is founded did not exist . . . . there were no factory laws or regulation of labour. The Church of England and Scotland, the Universities, and many public appointments, were defended (as it was supposed) by the Test and Corporation Laws, which made participation in the most sacred rite of Christianity, according to one or another form, a necessary preliminary of office. It is very difficult for us, amid the broader lines of our present living, to realize that condition of affairs in which all the network of bonds and restrictions caught the feet at every turn. (164)

This passage marks the way in which the political acts I have been discussing came to be seen as changing the shape of social relations. They began to release the bonds that kept individuals separate from one another and to insist that the rights of all needed to be protected. Writing in 1894, Gladstone would argue that the three-score years that ran from the 1830s to the 1890s “offer us the pictures of what the historian will recognize as a great legislative and administrative period—perhaps, on the whole, the greatest in our annals. It has been predominantly a history of emancipation—that is of enabling man to do his work of emancipation, political, economical, social, moral, and intellectual” (Morley 3.535). But as Gladstone’s comments about slavery indicate, it was difficult to embrace without qualification the process of emancipation in the moment of its passage.  The vexed discussions that took place around the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, the emancipation of Catholics, the abolition of slavery, and the passage of the factory act, convey the complex emotional, political, and economic currents that eddied around the idea of inalienable rights as it began to be put into place legislatively.

Elsie B. Michie has recently published The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James and is writing a book on Frances Trollope, the 1830s, and the emergence of the Victorian novel.


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Sarah Winter, “On the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica and the Governor Eyre-George William Gordon Controversy, 1865-70″