As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the general population saw a sustained rise in income and living standards for the first time in history. People flocked to newly-industrialized towns in the North of England, altering the population distribution throughout the country. The allocation of parliamentary seats no longer aligned with where people were living, and reform was needed to extend the franchise and deal with ‘rotten boroughs’. Not unnaturally, the old guard was reluctant to cede power, but in 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister.

Portrait of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, Prime Minister of Great Britain

He brought forward The Representation of the People Act of 1832, known as the Great Reform Act, which:

  • disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP
  • created 67 new constituencies
  • broadened the franchise’s property qualification in the counties to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers,
  • created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers

For many, it did not go far enough; the property qualifications excluded most working men from voting. But it was a start.

It wasn’t just secular governance that needed an overhaul. English cathedral clergy had a (justifiable) reputation for lethargy, worldliness, and resistance to change. Still, a new generation, including William Howley, Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Blomfield, Bishop of London and Edward Pusey, leader of The Oxford Movement, were determined to put things right.

The Cathedrals Act of 1840 produced dramatic change. It cut patronages and ended positions involving little work for outsized financial compensation. Cathedral revenues were centralized, and a massive annual sum of £300,000 was transferred from cathedral chapters to parish churches, particularly in the more disadvantaged parts of the country, the newly industrialized towns— the most drastic reorganization since the Reformation was in progress. New dioceses were created, and bishops were appointed. In 1836, Ripon was made a Cathedral, followed by Manchester, St Albans, Wakefield, Newcastle, and Southwell.





An entirely new cathedral was built in Truro.

The leaders of the remaining cathedrals were metaphorically hauled up by the collars. Their buildings were on the brink of disaster and were pulled back from the abyss. An orgy of restoration followed, in happy harmony with a revival in appreciation for gothic design. In 1836, A.W.N. Pugin, an English architect, designer, artist and critic, published a tract entitled Contrasts, sparking a cultural revolution that extended well beyond the church into every element of design and art. He was horrified by the Georgian alterations to the Cathedrals and wept when he saw the changes wrought at Ely.

The expected supporters and detractors settled into factions—Early Gothic enthusiasts slugged it out with proponents of Perpendicular, while adherents of the Decorated Gothic period pouted. Into the maelstrom ventured the imperturbable George Gilbert Scott, a pupil of Regency classicist Robert Smirke. His thoughtful mien approached every job with scholarly respect for the original, and he soon achieved a near-monopoly on cathedral restoration.

No good deed goes unpunished, however. William Morris and the newly formed Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings were scathing in their indictments of Scott’s excessive interventions. Nonetheless, cathedrals from Ely, Hereford, and Lichfield to Gloucester and Ripon owe their survival to Scott’s efforts.



His complete reconstruction of Westminster Abbey‘s chapter house is described as “immaculate”.

Scott was not alone in his efforts. Its most tireless collaborators were the glaziers. Between Cromwell’s merry glass bashers, the Georgian’s penchant for clear glass, and pure neglect, the loss of medieval glass was a travesty. A bevvy of superb glass artists was kept employed for decades. Scarcely a cathedral in England is devoid of some of their magic.

As the 19th century ended, the pace of restoration abated. Scott’s grandson, Giles Gilbert Scott, picked up the torch and led the way in the 20th century.