Viewed from the perspective of the provinces, the English polity of the mid-nineteenth century differed profoundly from that of the mid-eighteenth. The state’s institutional superstructure had been dramatically modified. The Old Poor Law had given way to the New; Municipal Corporations had been remodelled, given a representative character, and were being extended to new industrial towns; the challenge of public health was increasingly likely to be confronted not by traditional authorities but by new public health unions; constables were becoming policemen; and inspectors of factories, prisons, and schools, were busily carrying a gospel of efficiency and good practice from the centre into the localities. The changes which were remodelling the English state were often couched in the language of ‘reform’. The transition from the eighteenth-century language of improvement to the nineteenth-century language of reform is of itself important, but the language of reform, at least as deployed in the years after 1820, carried increasingly heavy ideological and social baggage. Behind changes in the superstructural apparatus of the English state lay perhaps more important — and certainly more elusive — transitions in the social distribution of power.
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