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It is curious to reflect how many of those improvements which have altered the face of society and added greatly to its comfort have had their origin or been carried into practical execution within the last half-century. Fifty years ago, our railway system was in its infancy; the Electric Telegraph was known only to a few scientific men; cheap books, periodicals, and newspapers were alike beyond the reach of the humbler classes, for literature and the Press were hampered by various severe restrictions; the food supply of the nation was heavily taxed ; and Penny Postage had not yet been heard of. To relate briefly and in a popular way how and by whom these and some other great reforms were brought about, is the object of the present volume. Narratives of purely political reforms have been excluded, as it was considered desirable that the work should be free from any party bias.
In the first four chapters, which are mainly biographical, are sketched the lives of four men who originated important movements which have continued in active operation down to our own time. Howard, in addition to the work he actually accomplished as a prison-reformer, deserves remembrance as having paved the way for those philanthropic labours in which, since his time, so many brave souls have been engaged ; the agitation of Wilberforce against the Slave-Trade finally led to the abolition of Slavery by every civilised country; Romilly was one of the first, and certainly the greatest, of a series of large-hearted legislators by whom our Criminal Code was cleared of its most barbarous enactments; and Brougham was one of the most brilliant and most enthusiastic advocates for national education and popular instruction. In the other chapters, the biographical element has been more sparingly introduced, and has been almost entirely excluded in those cases where the history of the movement itself appeared more interesting and more important than the lives of the persons connected with it.
Some may be inclined to complain of the somewhat disproportionate length of the chapter on the Repeal of the Fiscal Restrictions on Literature and the Press, but I believe its length is justified by the fact that it furnishes what is, so far as I am aware, the fullest and most accurate account yet published of a most important movement which has been strangely neglected by historians.
I take this opportunity of acknowledging, with thanks, my indebtedness to those gentlemen who, with special knowledge of particular subjects, have supplied me with information, and assisted me in revising the proof-sheets.
For the chapter on the Repeal of the Fiscal Restrictions on the Press, Mr. C. D. Collet and Mr. T. Routledge (paper-maker) afforded several useful hints ; and I desire to express my gratitude to Mr. John Francis, who, in the kindest manner, placed his large and excellent collection of papers on this subject at my disposal, besides assisting me with much valued information and advice.
HENRY J. NICOLL.