School history books often refer to the year 1848 as “The Year of Revolutions”. Indeed, after several bad harvests popular rebellions broke out that year over much of Europe. The young Karl Marx, anxious to see revolution unfolding at first hand according to his theory of Dialectical Materialism, dashed across the channel to the country with the largest proletariat, only to find the Chartist demonstrators playing football with the police. No, I should like to propose that the title of “Year of Revolutions” should be assigned instead to 1830, because some of the sudden changes that year turned out to be permanent.
It was not so in the Americas. The great liberation movement in South America petered out with the assassination of Sucre and the death of Bolívar. So the great ideal of unification finally collapsed and Gran Colombia split into Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. In the United States the Mormon Church was founded in New York by Joseph Smith. This was not itself important, but it was symptomatic of changes in the United States. Once the Scots-Irish adventurers had started to cross the Appalachians, their link with the Presbyterian Scottish universities was cut off, and do-it-yourself religions were established, some of which diverged considerably from traditional practice. But snake handling and snake-oil selling were hardly revolutionary.
Let us look at France first. The Bourbons were restored by the victorious powers after Napoleon's defeat. In 1830 the King was the much hated Charles X. He was the supreme reactionary. He even touched for the “King's Evil”. His last throw of the dice was the 1830 invasion of Algeria, which could be regarded as the first act of nineteenth century imperialism. That cut no mustard, though, and his ungrateful subjects deposed him in favour of the Orléans claimant Louis-Philippe. 1830 was the year in which public urinals, called “vespasiennes” were set up in Paris. [The Emperor Vespasian had set up public urinals in Rome so that he could sell the product to the tanning industry.] The iron screens of the vespasiennes proved very useful to the insurrectionists; they made them into street barricades.
Because the French were otherwise engaged, and Great Britain had opted out of supporting reactionary Continental régimes, the inhabitants of the southern provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands felt free to secede. The year was, of course, 1830. This region had remained in Spanish, therefore Catholic, hands at the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, when the Dutch Republic was formally recognised. They were handed over to Austria after the War of Spanish Succession, having been well trampled by Marlborough's armies, at the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713. The now Austrian Netherlands were overrun by the French revolutionaries and incorporated in France, thus ensuring that Britain would fight tooth and nail, as always, to prevent major powers from monopolising the North Sea ports. At the Treaty of Versailles, 1815, these former Austrian Netherlands were bolted on to the former Dutch Republic to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands, since the Great Powers had agreed that republics were A Bad Thing. After the revolt the British government stepped in quickly and colluded with the Prussians to appoint Leopold of Saxe-Coburg King of the Belgians. The British guarantee of Belgian neutrality was the famous “scrap of paper” that brought the United Kingdom into the First World War.
Meanwhile, France moved belatedly, but suddenly, into the Romantic Era. Obviously Byron had been a big influence, but perhaps the most important factor was the introduction of French audiences to Shakespeare by Kemble's touring company. Classical French theatre had been written for the court of Louis XIV. The language was elegant, refined, restricted, and precise. Dramatic theory insisted on the Three Unities: Place – all the dramatic action had to take place in a single location; Time – all the action had to take place within a period of twenty-four hours; and Action – there must be a single continuity of plot, no sub-plots being allowed. Compare all that with Shakespeare! There was an explosion. Victor Hugo produced his Hernani in 1830, deliberately breaking all the accepted rules and causing fights in theatres.
One of Kemble's travelling troupe was Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress, who is best known now for having been pursued by the super-romantic Hector Berlioz. While pursuing her, and in turn being pursued by the police, Berlioz produced his Fantastic Symphony, in, of course, 1830. Although its structure is based on Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, by classical standards it is just plain weird. For the first time ever, this symphony tells a story: the Artist meets The Woman; she rejects him; he kills her; he is guillotined; he is mocked by ghoulies in a churchyard. Oo-er! It has unusual instruments, such as the ophicleide with its rasping bass sounds (though Berlioz preferred the bass tuba when that was invented); the penetrating Eb clarinet; tubular bells; multiple harps; and violins played col legno to represent dancing skeletons. Even the waltz in the second movement, rather beautiful to our ears, was regarded much as the Black Bottom was in the 1920's or Rock'n'Roll in the 1950's: lewd and disgusting. The repeated melody representing Harriet Smithson he called an “idée fixe”; this concept was to be adopted by Wagner as “Leitmotiv”. Beethoven, who died in 1827, had been constantly pushing the boundaries of what was possible in music, but the Fantastic Symphony was as explosive and revolutionary as the composer could make it. Berlioz went on to become the Grand Old Man of French music, but his worship of Shakespeare did not desert him. Harriet did desert him, though, after a brief marriage.
In the same year that the French were building urinals and barricades, the British were building...railways! While the French were chucking out a much hated King and replacing him with an ostensibly bourgeois monarch, the British allowed nature to take its course, replacing their own much hated King with another one who was merely held in contempt. The deceased King was George IV (Georgie-Porgie Pudding and Pie); the new one was his brother William IV, known as Silly Billy because of his evident lack of intelligence. He did have two positive characteristics, though. One was his formidable foulness of language: “Put your hands over your ears, Victoria, your uncle has just arrived”. The other was his vast sexual appetite. His main mistress, an Irish actress (!) called Dorothy Jordan, bore him ten children. To be fair, he would have married her if his father's Royal Marriages Act had not been passed to stop him and his brothers from marrying Irish actresses. He was not sympathetic to the Belgian revolt: “A damn God-awful dump, Brussels. A chap can't even get a fuck there without catching a pox”.
What has Silly Billy got to do with revolutions? Well, there had been a reactionary period in British politics in response to the French revolutionary and Napoleonic threat. As a result a pressure for reform built up, both inside and outside Parliament. In 1830 the Iron Duke was forced to resign as Prime Minister (he had passed Catholic Emancipation, though) in favour of the reformist Earl Grey, sadly best known nowadays for his name being misappropriated by rascally tea importers who adulterated their product with bergamot. Grey's government set up Municipal Corporations, also workhouses. But most famously it went on to force through the Great Reform Act of 1832. The electorate was doubled, from A Few to Not Many, and rotten boroughs, namely those that did not have any electors, were extinguished. Grey got the Act passed by bullying the King into promising to create enough reformist peers to vote it through the House of Lords.
1830 was the year of the world's first passenger railway, built at the instance of Manchester's business community to link their city with its port, Liverpool. Surely that is enough in itself to qualify that year as being revolutionary. Additionally, the first ever death on the railways occurred when William Huskisson, the government minister who had gone there to declare the railway formally open, blundered into the path of Stephenson's “Rocket” and was mangled. Actually, the Americans were not far behind. A section of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened in the same year to passenger traffic, perhaps marking the beginning of the modern United States.
Finally, 1830 marked the publication of Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. This book examines the processes of stratification of rocks, and establishes the principle of Geological Time. More than any other work it did away with the idea of divine creation and replaced it with the idea of explicable natural forces. Without such a concept, Darwin's theory of Evolution would have been impossible. Darwin must have read the book before taking up his post as Scientific Officer on the Beagle the following year. Lyell's book marks a step change from faith and superstition to intelligent enquiry. Maybe, therefore, it was much more revolutionary than any amount of demolition of governments, public urinals, and theatrical conventions.