Regulation and Free Trade in the 19th Century

During the 19th century Parliament continued to provide legislative support for British industry. Legislation had either a national application, or, was designed to assist the special needs of a particular local industry. A typical example of the latter was an Act passed in 1813 to assist Birmingham's gun-making industry, for which a further regulating Act was passed in 1815.

General legislation

There was of course a huge and growing raft of general legislation on the statute book regulating the way in which manufacturers and industrialists ran the commercial aspects of their businesses. These measures concerned such matters as insurance, company law, patent law, and contract law.

New initiatives were campaigned for and put forward in Parliament to remove outdated or restrictive practices. A classic example was the Weights and Measures Act of 1824, the outcome of years of lobbying by tradesmen and manufacturers. The bewildering variety of local systems of measurement which had existed for many centuries was replaced by the imperial system with a standardised definition of the yard, pound and gallon.

Free trade

From the 1840s entrepreneurs were increasingly drawn to 'free trade' as a means of accelerating Britain's growing industries, and lobbied Parliament for the lowering or repeal of the many protectionist import and export duties on manufactured goods. Parliament took a major step in 1849 when it repealed the old, restrictive Navigation Acts.

These measures were welcomed in Lancashire and by its thriving cotton industry which depended heavily on export markets and the supply of raw materials from the United States and elsewhere. Areas supporting heavy industry, such as iron, shipbuilding and engineering, also benefited and boosted their competitive ability internationally.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Commons debates the Second Reading of the Navigation Bill 1849