The year was 1834 and the year of a great fire at Westminster Palace in England. Home to Parliament, many records were lost in the conflagration which began with an over-stoked furnace. Records from the House of Lords had been moved to the Jewel Tower, which survived the fire, and other valuable records were saved by a clerk by the name of Henry Stone Smith, who tossed records from the window of the burning building.
On 1 August 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act went into effect, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.
Slaves were being used on British plantations in the Caribbean and the legislation provided that adult slaves would be transitioned to freedom via a period of “apprenticeship” that would last for four years for domestics, and six years for agricultural workers. (Public pressure later cut the six year apprenticeships to four years.)
Another important piece of British legislation was the “New Poor Law” of 1834. Your English Ancestry: A Guide for North Americans, by Sherry Irvine, includes the following information on the law:
“The growth in population, the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and hard times in the 1820s all put incredible stress on the parish system of poor relief. The payments over the whole country were becoming astronomical. Various changes were tried, Parliamentary commissions investigated, and the result, in 1834, was the New Poor Law. Parish-based relief disappeared, and administration was handed over to boards of guardians in roughly six hundred Poor Law Unions. Each had a workhouse where life was made as unattractive as possible. New residents gave up all their possessions, including clothing, and were given uniforms; the diet was boring and barely nourishing; families were separated; hours of work were long. The idea was to eliminate outdoor relief and make indoor relief something the poor would do everything possible to avoid. As under the old poor law, unions did not want to pay for support when someone else was responsible, so they actively sought those who had abandoned their families. Issues of the â€˜Poor Law Unions’ Gazetteâ€™ survive at the British Newspaper Library; they attest to the irresponsibility of the named truants.”
On 18 August 1834 Mount Vesuvius near Naples in the then Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (now Italy) erupted. In its coverage of the event on 3 November 1834, The Adams Sentinel reported that in its wake,
“Thousands of families were flying from their native land, old and young, dragging through heavy masses of heated cinders. 1,500 houses, palaces, and other buildings, and 2,500 acres of cultivated land have been destroyed by fire. The village of St. Felix had been already abandoned.
“The lava soon poured upon this place, and in the course of an hour, houses churches and palaces were all destroyed. Four villages, some detached houses, country villas, vines, beautiful groves, and gardens, which a few instants before presented a magnificent spectacle, now resembled a sea of fire.”
1834 was a violent year in the United States. In Boston, American-born laborers were forced to compete with Irish immigrants for work, and that coupled with religious tensions between the largely Protestant natives and Catholic immigrants, fed resentment. In Charlestown, an Ursuline Convent, which was attended by both Catholic and Protestant girls, became the center of controversy with rumors swirling about abuses. On 11 August, a mob attacked the convent forcing the nuns and students to flee; the convent was ransacked and burned. An investigation of the night’s events cleared the nuns of any wrongdoing and led to the arrest of thirteen men. Only one was convicted, and he was later pardoned.
In New York, the municipal election on 8 April 1834 brought rioting between Whig supporters and Democrats. Although attributed to the opposing political parties, the New York riots have been also characterized as “between the Irish and the Americans.” (Source: Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, page 29.)
Three months later, in that same city, mobs attacked abolitionist Lewis Tappan’s house and business and eventually turned into a full-blown race riot as the violence turned on African American homes, businesses, and churches.
Pro-slavery riots also broke out in Philadelphia, where forty-five homes in the city’s black community were destroyed.Â