9 Laws That Changed Life in Britain Forever
The law can be a fascinating insight into the priorities of a particular period in time.
In 1313, MPs were banned from wearing armour or carrying weapons in Parliament, a law which still stands today. Others – such as the monarch’s guards – are permitted to carry weapons, just not MPs themselves. It’s easy enough to infer the chain of events that might have prompted such a law to be written. In a hundred years’ time, the recent law against drivers hogging the middle lane of motorways might be seen as a similar historical curiosity, although it was heartily welcomed by many drivers.
But a law against staying in the middle lane, though laudable, is unlikely to make history. In this article we take a look at nine
British laws through history – some still standing, some swept away by time – that had consequences that have lasted up to the present day.
1. The First Act of Supremacy 1534
Over the course of the 1520s and 1530s, Henry VIII passed a series of laws that changed life in England entirely, and the most significant of these was the First Act of Supremacy in 1534. This declared that Henry VIII was the Supreme Head of the Church of England instead of the Pope, effectively severing the link between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, and providing the cornerstone for the English Reformation.
This change was so far-ranging that it is difficult to cover every effect that it had. It meant that England (and ultimately, Britain) would be a Protestant country rather than a Catholic one, with consequences for her allies and her sense of connection to the other countries of Europe; it gave Henry VIII additional licence to continue plundering and shutting down monasteries, which had been huge centres of power in England, with significant consequences in that their role in alleviating poverty, and providing healthcare and education, was lost; and it led to centuries of internal and external conflict between the Church of England and other faiths, some of which is still ongoing today.
2. The Acts of Union 1707
Until 1707, there was no such thing as the United Kingdom. There was England, and there was Scotland, two countries which had shared a monarch since 1603 (barring the break for the Commonwealth, when both countries shared the same lack of monarch), but which were otherwise legally separate. But by 1707, the situation was becoming increasingly difficult, and union seemed to solve both sides’ fears that they were dangerously exposed to exploitation by the other.
England and Scotland had been at each other’s throats since a time before the nations of ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ even formally existed. The Acts of Union did not bring that to an end right away, but ultimately these ancient enemies became one of the most enduring political unions that has ever existed. That isn’t to say it has gone entirely uncontested – in 2014, a referendum was held on Scottish independence, where 55% of voters opted to remain in the union.
3. The Slave Trade Act 1807
Britain had played a pivotal role in the international slave trade. Slavery had been illegal in Britain itself since 1102, but with the establishment of British colonies overseas, slaves were used as agricultural labour across the British empire. It’s been estimated that British ships carried more than three million slaves from Africa to the Americas, second only to the five million slaves transported by the Portuguese.
The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends to give them their proper name, were a nonviolent, pacifist religious movement founded in the mid-17th century, who were opposed to slavery from the start of their movement. They pioneered the abolitionist movement, despite being a marginalised group in their own right; as non-Anglicans, they were not permitted to stand for Parliament. They founded a group to bring non-Quakers on board so as to have greater political influence, as well as working to raise public awareness of the horrors of the slave trade. This was achieved through the publication of books and pamphlets, including the autobiography of former slave Olaudah Equiano, and through a nationwide lecture tour.
The effect of the Slave Trade Act, once passed, was rapid: the Royal Navy, which was the leading power at sea at the time, patrolled the coast of West Africa and between 1808 and 1860 freed 150,000 captured slaves. In 1833, slavery was finally banned throughout the British Empire.
4. The Factory Act 1833
Conditions in British factories in the first few decades of the industrial revolution were frequently abysmal. 15-hour working days were usual, including weekends. Apprentices were not supposed to work for more than 12 hours a day, and factory owners were not supposed to employ children under the age of 9, but a parent’s word was considered sufficient to prove a child’s age and even these paltry rules were seldom enforced. Yet the wages that factories offered were still so much better than those available in agricultural labour that there was no shortage of workers willing to put up with these miserable conditions, at least until they had earned enough money to seek out an alternative.
It was a similar social movement to the one that had brought an end to slavery that fought child labour in factories; it was also believed that reducing working hours for children would lead to a knock-on effect where working hours for adults would also be reduced. The Factory Act of 1833, among a host of changes, banned children under 9 from working in textile mills, banned children under 18 from working at night, and children between 9 and 13 were not permitted to work unless they had a schoolmaster’s certificate showing they had received two hours’ education per day – so the Factory Act not only improved factory conditions, but also began to pave the way towards education for all.
5. The Cruelty to Animals Act 1835
It probably says something about British priorities that a law against cruelty to animals followed just two years after the defining law against cruelty to children. Until 1835, there had been no laws in Britain to prevent cruelty to animals, except one in 1822, which exclusively concerned cattle. Animals were property, and could be treated in whatever way the property-owner wished.
In 1824, a group of reformers founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which we know today as the RSPCA. Several of those reformers had also been involved in the abolition of the slave trade, such as the MP William Wilberforce. Their initial focus was on working animals such as pit ponies, which worked in mines, but that soon expanded. The 1835 Act, for which the charity’s members lobbied, outlawed bear-baiting and cockfighting, as well as paving the way for further legislation for things such as creating veterinary hospitals, and improving how animals were transported.
6. The Married Women’s Property Act 1870
Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, when a woman married a man, she ceased to exist as a separate legal being. All of her property prior to marriage – whether accumulated through wages, inheritance, gifts or anything else – became his, and any property she came to possess during marriage was entirely under his control, not hers. There were a handful of exceptions, such as money held in trust, but this option was out of reach of all but the very wealthy. Given the difficulty of seeking a divorce at this time, this effectively meant that a man could do whatever he wished with his wife’s money, including leaving her destitute, and she would have very little legal recourse.
The Act changed this: it gave a woman the right to control money she earned while married, as well as keeping inherited property, and made both spouses liable to maintain their children from their separate property – something that was important in relation to custody rights on divorce. The Act was not retrospective, so women who had married and whose property had come into the ownership of their husbands were not given it back, which limited its immediate effect. But ultimately, it was a key stage on the long road to equality between men and women in Britain.
7. The Education Act 1870
1870 was clearly a big year in British politics. Before then, the government had provided some funding for schools, but this was piecemeal and there were plenty of areas where there were simply no school places to be found. And this was complicated by the fact that many schools were run by religious denominations, as there was conflict (which still remains today) over whether the government should fund schools run by particular religious groups. As we saw under the Factory Act 1833, there were some requirements that children should be educated, but they were frequently ignored.
Previously, industrialists had seen education as undesirable (at least when focusing on their bottom line), as hours when children were in education represented hours when they were not able to work. There were some factory jobs that only children could perform, for instance because of their size. But as automation advanced, it increasingly became the case that a lack of educated workers was holding back industrial production; so industrialists became a driving force in pushing through comprehensive education. The 1870 Education Act didn’t provide free education for all – that wouldn’t come until 1944 – but it did ensure that schools would be built and funded wherever they were needed, so that no child would miss out on an education simply because they didn’t live near a school.
8. The Representation of the People Act 1918
The Representation of the People Act 1918 is chiefly remembered as the act that gave women the right to vote, but in fact it went further than that. Only 60% of men in Britain had the right to vote prior to 1918, as voting rights were restricted to men who owned a certain amount of property. Elections had been postponed until the end of the First World War; now, in an atmosphere of revolution, Britain was facing millions of soldiers who had fought for their country returning home and being unable to vote. This was clearly unacceptable.
The law was changed so that men aged over 21, or men who had turned 19 while fighting in the First World War, were given the vote. But it was also evident that women had contributed hugely to the war effort, and so they too were given the vote under restricted circumstances: the vote was granted to women over 30 who owned property, were graduates voting in a university constituency, or who were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register. The belief was that this set of limitations would mean that mostly married women would be voting, and therefore that they would mostly vote the same way as their husbands, so it wouldn’t make too much difference. Women were only granted equal suffrage with men in 1928.
9. The National Health Service Act 1946
In 1942, economist William Beveridge had published a report on how to defeat the five great evils of society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Ignorance, for instance, was to be defeated through the 1944 Education Act, which made education free for all children up to the age of 15. But arguably the most revolutionary outcome of the Beveridge Report was his recommendation to defeat disease: the creation of the National Health Service.
This was the principle that healthcare should be free at the point of service, paid for by a system of National Insurance so that everyone paid according to what they could afford. One of the principles behind this was that if healthcare were free, people would take better care of their health, thereby improving the health of the country overall. Or to put it another way, someone with an infectious disease would get it treated for free and then get back to work, rather than hoping it would go away, infecting others and leading to lots of lost working hours. It’s an idea that was, and remains, hugely popular with the public.
Image credits: big ben; guards; henry viii; scottish border; factory; pony; school; hospital; tube platform.