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Victorian Resources

An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Resources Available in Special Collections

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Politics and Government


Government policy and political meanderings are, at the best of times, essential to the way in which people lead their everyday lives, but in the rapidly changing society of Victorian Britain, parliamentary action was felt even more acutely on the streets of the nation.  Political speeches provide the modern researcher with a valuable insight into the thinking of Victorian politicians, whilst many nineteenth century Acts of Parliament paved the way for immense social and economic change, culminating in the founding of the welfare state early in the Twentieth Century.  Equally, the often controversial domestic policies of the Victorian governments created a climate for social revolution, whilst Britain's expansive foreign policy served only to fuel the fires which led to the First World War.

Many of the department's collections hold items relating to politics in Victorian Britain, although some have stronger holdings of this material than others.  For example, the Murray Collection holds a vast number of items relating to law and general politics, whilst the Trinity College Library Collection contains many pamphlets and tracts concerning government policy, and in particular items relating to Scotland.  Please note that the library's Maps and Official Publications Service (MOPS), holds a huge number of parliamentary acts, bills, command papers, state papers and parliamentary debates dating from the Victorian period: staff in this department are experts in finding and using these resources and may be contacted on level 7 of the main library for more details: the MOPS Enquiry Desk is staffed Monday - Friday between 9am and 5pm (or email MOPS).

Below is a selection of items chosen as examples of the resources that are available from our collections in this subject area, concentrating on the following themes:

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Title Page

Constitution of the Royal Burghs of Scotland; From Their Charters as Exhibited in the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons

Sp Coll Mu15-c.29

This document produced in 1818 describes the reform of Scottish Burghs that was taking place at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. The work, as we are told in the opening advertisement, was published as a consequence of the universal interest shown in the reform, so as to present an 'authentic and complete Burgh History, compiled from original documents.'  It includes a translation of the election clauses and acts of parliament relating to the Burghs, apparently for the benefit of the English reader.  Burghs existed in Scotland from at least the Twelfth Century onwards, and were essentially local government areas.  Akin to the modern council system, the Burghs could be highly autonomous, in charge of such matters as local land use and the police force.  The reform discussed in this report culminated in 1833 with the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, which allowed existing Burghs to better their communities by providing street paving, lighting and cleaning, better supplies of gas and clean water, and extra police officers, constables and watchmen.

Title Page

An Act for Amending Three Acts for Enlarging the Harbour of Glasgow, and Improving the Navigation of the River Clyde to the Said City

Sp Coll Mu25-c.28 (Item 6 of 19)

This Act of 1825 put forward plans to enlarge the quays at Broomielaw and deepen the channel of the river Clyde.  Three previous Acts had been published for the same purpose, but it was thought that the harbour should be even further extended in order to accommodate a greater number of vessels and make loading and unloading times speedier. The deepening and cleansing of the Clyde came hand in hand with this project, as it would allow larger boats to travel along the river, as well as creating easier access for coal boats to travel up river to the east of the city. Glasgow's harbour was competing with several other cities in the Nineteenth Century, including Liverpool, and therefore having a 'state of the art' river system was hugely important in the battle to win new customers and contracts. The Act contains nearly ninety clauses relating to the improvement of the Clyde waterway, harbour and river crossings.

Opening page of the Act forming "The Caledonian Railway"

[Collection of 22 Acts of Parliament relating to the Caledonian Railway Company]

Sp Coll Mu24-y.27

Containing a series of acts published between 1845 and 1849, this volume relates to the creation, extension and improvement of the railway network owned by the Caledonian Railway Company. The very first Act (dated 31st July 1845) proposes building a railway from Carlisle to the Central-Belt of Scotland, and further on into the Highlands, in order to improve communication and transport links between the remote communities of the country and its larger towns and cities.  Many of the other Acts relate to the extension of the railway, as the Caledonian Company sought to buy out smaller networks and connect them to the main line, in order to serve their chief aspiration of connecting local Scottish railway lines to England.  Other Acts relate to the building of new stations in order to create wider access to the network, and to the improvement of existing lines and junctions, to make them both faster and safer.  The large amount of documentation contained within this book relating to just one company highlights the rapid spread of the railway system in Britain during the mid-nineteenth century, and shows how it came to revolutionise business, travel and communication during the Victorian era.

Title Page and Beginning of Booksellers Guide

[List of Acts of Parliament printed by Thomas Constable, Queen's Printer, and sold by J. Russell, bookseller, Edinburgh]

Sp Coll Mu16-e.17 (Item 1 of 8)

This is a bookseller's list from 1845 of Acts of Parliament that could be purchased by the general public. Such items provided big business to printers and booksellers alike, who could sell Acts to lawyers, barristers, professors and people with a general interest in law. The advertisment gives the title of each Act (including a general description of what is entailed), the number and date of each Act, and its cost - ranging in this list from three pence to one shilling and six pence. The Acts highlighted here include An Act for better regulating the Business of Pawnbrokers (28th July 1800) and An Act for the more effectual Prevention of Persons going armed by Night for the Destruction of Game (19th July 1928).


Title Page

Speeches on the Government Plan of National Education

Sp Coll T.C.L. 3821 (Item 9 of 18)

Relating to the government plan of providing education on a national scale to all children from all backgrounds, this treatise was published in 1839, at the height of the debate about universal education.  The speeches recorded from this meeting are rather unusual as they express opinions set against these plans and against the spread of national education in Scotland. The work begins with a list of some of the more notable figures who attended the meeting, many of whom were connected to the Church. This fact is significant, for it seems that the group's main objection to the idea was their feeling that such a move to national schools would be 'a ruinous influence to one of our dearest institutions, an institution secured to Scotland by the articles of the Union; the institution of our Parochial, our Bible Schools.' Essentially, it is argued that national education would be equal to a secular education, and that the country would eventually lose its religious and virtuous values, and instead become a state of 'mechanical.or military discipline.' These speeches therefore represent the early Victorian traditionalists' outlook on social change - a view which was highly unrepresented at the time, and which is now of great historical interest to modern scholars.

Title Page

Political Speeches Delivered in August and September 1884, by the Right Honourable W. E. Gladstone, M.P.

Sp Coll 2976

Published in 1884, this item contains three speeches by the famous Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone. The speeches were delivered in Edinburgh (Gladstone was M.P. for Midlothian) during his second period in office, and deal with a range of matters from the new franchise bill to the repeal of paper duty.  Much of the text deals with Gladstone's dissatisfaction with the House of Lords, whom he saw as being merely a blocking tool for government policy.  He cites the Jewish Disabilities Bill, which said that religious opinion ought to play no part in the award of civil disabilities, explaining how it was passed by the House of Commons in 1833, 1834, 1848, 1851, 1853, 1857 but was on each occasion rejected by the Lords; it was finally passed in 1858 after 25 years of delay.  Much of the rhetoric also deals with the hectic foreign policy of the time, as Britain tried in vain to keep hold of its empire amid the fall-out of the Second Anglo-Afghan War and the Zulu War.

Title Page

Gay Wisdom: a Series of Selected and Humorous Extracts from the Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Bart., M.P.

Sp Coll Mu61-d.4 (Item 5 of 22)

This pamphlet from 1877 contains nearly a hundred anecdotes from the speeches of Sir Wilfrid Lawson, who was twice M.P. for Carlisle. Lawson, a member of Gladstone's Liberal Party, was a staunch supporter of total alcoholic abstinence, possibly because his wife was a renowned alcoholic. Like many of the Liberals of his day, Lawson was quite a radical, supporting disarmament and campaigning for the abolition of the House of Lords. The extracts contained within this item deal with a number of issues, many of them relevant to Victorian politics and therefore useful sources for research. The very first anecdote is on the topic of alcoholic abstinence: 'The teetotaler certainly gave no trouble to the community.  I remember saying to a gentleman once that I never knew a teetotaler in a police-court, but he said he had, and I asked him what he was in for, to which he replied, "for being drunk and disorderly."'

Portrait of Robert Peel, taken from a gem in the collection of His Majesty, Engraved by DeVeaux, after the bust by Chantrey

A Correct Report of the Speeches Delivered by the Right Honourable Sir Robert Peel, Bart, M.P., on his Inauguration into the Office of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow

Sp Coll Mu1-e.27

This is a record of the speeches and address delivered by Sir Robert Peel on his inauguration into the office of Lord Rector at Glasgow University. Peel was given the post in January 1837, between his two terms as Prime Minister, from 1834-1835, and from 1841-1846.  The book contains a total of four items: Peel's speech delivered on his inauguration, an address given by the new Rector at the Exchange, a reply given by Peel to the address from the Conservative Operatives of the University, and the speech given at the public dinner held in honour of the new Rector. This last item is more light-hearted than the others, addressed as it was to a less formal audience. A profile portrait of Peel is also included, originally taken from a bust by the sculptor Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey (1782-1841), which was commissioned by King William IV and is still held in the Royal Collection today.


Title Page

Life on Board a Man of War

Sp Coll Mu8-f.17

Published in 1829, this item was penned anonymously by a British seaman and discusses the 1827 Battle of Navarino from a sailor's point of view. The Battle was fought on the 20th of October, during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), between an alliance of the British, French and Russian navies, and a combined Egyptian and Ottoman force.  The battle, notable for being the last major naval action involving sailing ships, is recorded here in a personal narrative that recounts the fear, hardships and excitement of war. The author of the piece provides us with a lengthy background to his life and sailing career, before describing his role during the battle aboard the 76-gun battleship 'The Genoa'.  The author clearly had a proficiency for writing and literature, recounting his tale in both an eloquent and stimulating manner, and quoting the likes of Coleridge along the way.

Photograph of Lieut.-General Sir F. S. Roberts, Commander-In-Chief of the Madras Army

The Afghan Campaigns of 1878-1880

Sp Coll RF 368-369

Recounting the campaigns of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, this work was published in 1882 (shortly after the war had ended) and was compiled from both official and private sources.  Its author, Sydney H. Shadbolt, was a barrister who had previously written about the South African Campaign of 1879. In two volumes, the book comprises: a lengthy sketch of the war, in which is outlined the events leading up to the beginning of the conflict and the events of the conflict itself; records of service for all staff, regiments and medical departments; and several maps illustrating the movement of the forces and the various engagements they took part in.  There is a photographic frontispiece of Lieutenant-General Sir F. S. Roberts to whom the item is dedicated; he was Commander-In-Chief of the Madras Army.

Title Page

Our Relations with France, and the Prospects of a General War

Sp Coll Mu22-a.9 (Item 23 of 27)

Published in 1840, this work is in the form of a letter sent by J.P. Nichol, then Professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, to Sir Archibald Alison, a lawyer and historian who is described on the title page as 'The Historian of Modern Europe.'  Written a quarter of a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the letter explains that tensions between Britain and France have again been raised to breaking point and warns that relations must be improved to avoid another war.  Nichols states that he has addressed the letter to Alison, as opposed to an M.P. or the Prime Minister himself, because of the historian's 'acquaintance with the influences guiding European politics"... and his "generous sympathy with the welfare of all mankind.'

Title Page

Considerations on the Causes, Objects and Consequences of the Present War

Sp Coll T.C.L. 4043 (Item 8 of 12)

Whilst examining a number of matters relating to the Napoleonic Wars with France, this item also attempts to assess whether peace is an expedient or plausible possibility.  Published in 1808, only two years after peace negotiations between the two countries had failed, 'a new crisis of public opinion' prompted the author to pen his considerations upon the current state of affairs.  As it turned out, the war was to rage on for another seven years, only to be finally ended by the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  The author of the piece, William Roscoe (a historian and politician who was notable for his abolitionist stance), was clearly against the war, stating that the last year 'has shown not only the futility of all attempts on our [Britain's] part to overturn or diminish the power of France, but the high probability that all such attempts will still continue to produce effects directly the reverse of those intended.'


Title Page

Regulations for the Master of Police

Sp Coll Mu1-h.3-4

This compilation from 1816 includes regulations formed for the Master of Police, for constables, for officers, for watchmen and for lamp-lighters, together with the report from the Committee of Commissioners that instigated the forming of the new regulations.  The work was published to appease the general public after a spate of complaints concerning police misconduct and irregularities between different sections of the force. The new regulations were extremely numerous: watchmen, for example, had 33 new rules to abide by, whilst officers had an extravagant 64. Yet despite their number, the new regulations were not a great success. The main problem was that they did not contain enough detail - one rule for officers, entitled General Directions with Respect to their Conduct consisted of the following meagre explanation: 'He must be extremely attentive to sobriety and temperance in his behaviour, active and diligent in the discharge of his duty, and maintain on all occasions a calm, civil, and obliging, but firm and steady conduct, not suffering himself to be biased in the execution of his duty.'  As a result, police regulations were updated and altered on numerous occasions during the Victorian era, in an attempt to rectify the irregularities they contained.

The Mutiny of the "Bounty" (Plate Opposite Page 328)

The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar, Being a Series of Memoirs and Anecdotes of Notorious Characters

Sp Coll Bo2-e.10-11

Published in 1841, this book gives an account of notorious crimes committed in Britain and the punishments which were levied upon the perpetrators.  Acting as both a deterrent to would-be criminals, and also, to the average reader, as a rather morbid form of entertainment, it covers crimes from the past 150 years, dating back to the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. It is particularly interesting to note the difference in punishments between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, whereby 'improved civilisation and the milder feelings of the people' saw strangling and burning replaced by hanging, and the average punishment for the majority of crimes reduced to a lesser sentence.  What is perhaps most surprising about this item is the way in which the writers treat these crimes; adorning many of the tales with cartoon-like drawings, the crimes and their respective (and by modern standards horrific) punishments, are treated playfully and with no regard or respect for those involved.  In fact, many of the plates are even given humourous captions, further highlighting the light-hearted nature with which these crimes were considered.

Title Page

The Straw Moved: or, a Peep into the Hole & Corner Management of the Gorbals Police Board

Sp Coll Mu22-c.20 (Item 20 of 32)

Published in 1831, this treatise is the result of a study by several residents into the management of the Gorbals Police Board, brought about by the Commissioners greatly exceeding the powers given to them in a recent Act of Parliament, as well as 'the notorious inefficiency of the Establishment.' The main complaint levied against the Commissioners was that of financial mismanagement: in just eight years the board had managed to accrue a total of 5,756 of debt, when previously it had been making a small, but notable profit. It is also alleged in the report that the police had been abusing their powers in order to try and regain some of this lost money, by adding unfair surcharges to fines and by seizing personal property illegally as compensation for unpaid charges. The authors demand that the community be recompensed for these actions by having the misapplied sums refunded to them, and that the whole police establishment should be radically reformed.

The Procession of the Queen (Article Number 161)

[Collection of Broad Sheets Relating Almost Entirely to Local Affairs Between the Years 1810-1830]

Sp Col Mu1-x.11

This collection of over 280 broadsides relates to matters and events which took place in Glasgow at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century.  Many of them refer to crimes that took place, or were tried in the city. Overall, they represent an important primary resource for examining the social and criminal history of the period.  For example, number 88 deals with the behaviour and execution of William M'Teague, who was hanged at Glasgow on Wednesday the 19th of May 1824, for the crime of forgery.  It explains that M'Teague had also involved his daughter in his criminal activities, before finally exclaiming that his actions had truly verified the proverb that 'the love of money is the root of all evil.'  Other criminal activities reported relate to such varied subjects as the execution of ten pirates (number 160), and the account of the Procession of Queen Caroline, wife of George IV, who was charged with adultery in 1820 (number 161).


Title Page

Guide to the Scottish Law Examinations

Sp Coll  RQ 1770/175

Compiled in 1893, this guide was published by Aberdeen University Press as an aid to all law students in Scottish universities.  Akin to the modern day 'past-paper', the book contains over twenty sets of questions and answers to help students prepare for their final examinations. What is particularly interesting about this item is that it explains, in detail, the system of law examinations in Scotland. Before sitting their full examination, every student had to pass a preliminary test, comprising questions on English composition and writing to dictation, arithmetic (including simple, compound, vulgar and decimal fractions), and elements of Latin usage.  Having passed this, they were then allowed to move on to a full examination in law and a general knowledge test, comprised of questions about the history of England and Scotland, geography, arithmetic, book-keeping, Latin, logic and mathematics.  This book deals mainly with examples from the preliminary and the general knowledge exams.

Title Page

Commentaries on the Law of Scotland, Respecting Crimes

Sp Coll RQ 855-856

This work was written by David Hume, a jurist, judge and professor of law at Edinburgh University. Nephew to the famous philosopher of the same name, Hume had his work published in 1819, just three years before he reached his long coveted goal of becoming Baron of the Exchequer, a post renowned for its lack of business.  This two volume item is essentially a treatise on the full laws of Scotland; it deals with such varied crimes as theft, wilful fire-raising, fraud, homicide, perjury, adultery, smuggling and piracy.  In his introduction, Hume states that his book provides the fullest and most up to date representation of Scottish law since Sir George Mackenzie published his 1678 Treatise Concerning the Law of Scotland in Matters Criminal.

Title Page

The Law Relating to the Property of Married Persons

Sp Coll Mu Add q90

Apart from its value as a historical law textbook, this item is particularly notable for being the personal copy of its author, David Murray (1842-1928), the renowned Glasgow lawyer and bibliographer. The work itself, according to the preface, discusses 'the effect of marriage upon the property of the spouses, the claims of the children of the marriage and the rights of creditors on the bankruptcy of either of the parents or of the children.'  Murray wrote it in an attempt to explain not only the common law from a historical background, but also to explain how new statutes, such as the Married Women's Property Acts, had altered legal wranglings. This copy is fully interleaved with extensive manuscript annotations by the author, and is of importance to both researchers of historical law and to David Murray biographers.

Discover more about the Special Collections Department's extensive David Murray Collection.

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This page was created by Toby Hanning: March 2007.