“Two years ago I thought Reform of Parliament almost hopeless. I now believe it to be certain and approaching. The longer delayed, the more it will be radical”
- Sir Robert Heron, Whig backbencher, winter 1830.
As Britain entered the 1830s the atmosphere was tense. Europe was growing increasingly unstable and the old order appeared to be falling; France, for example, was in the middle of a second revolution to overthrow Charles X. Once the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829 the path was clear for Parliamentary reform to become the big political issue of the day. As Lord Grey said, ‘reform is inevitable; it is the spirit of the age.’ Pressure for reform quickly began to mount, worsened by the economic depression the threat of revolution then became tangible. However revolution never came to pass, what did was the Great Reform Act of June 1832. Many historians have since hailed this Act as a glorious step forward on the road to democracy and a great victory for the middle classes. However in recent times this view, so prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, has given way to a more moderate assessment and even, in some cases, a complete denunciation.
Political pressure was the main reason why Parliamentary reform had become an issue. Reform movements had been in existence as early as the 1790s (for example the London Corresponding Society had been formed in 1792), although the issue was largely ignored during the Napoleonic wars (1795-1815) as it was seen as unpatriotic. However by 1830 it was widely felt that the issue could be ignored no longer. The main reason was that the system was simply outdated: there were 202 English boroughs returning 404 MPs to Parliament. But, as borough status had been granted in the middle ages, many were now nothing more than ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs. These were boroughs where the electorate was small (or, as in the case of Old Sarum, non-existent) and often open to corruption, the ‘rotten’ boroughs being particularly notorious. In some boroughs candidates bribed voters or threatened them with violence, whilst in others the choice of MP was left to the local landowner who sponsored their preferred candidate (although often enough there was no competition), a system known as ‘patronage.’ The power of patronage was such that eight Tory Lords could, between them, control 50 seats in the House of Commons. The Tories argued that this system allowed young politicians to gain experience, as had been the case with Pitt the Younger. But still people began to call for secret ballot and a redistribution of seats; there was real concern that the huge new cities such as Manchester and Liverpool had no Parliamentary representation.
Rotten boroughs - along with more modern electoral tactics - were sent up in Blackadder the Third episode, Dish and Dishonesty.
In addition the lack of uniform voting qualifications in the boroughs had begun to appear old fashioned and ludicrous to the public. In some boroughs every adult male ratepayer could vote (known as ‘Scot and Lot’ boroughs), yet in others the vote was severely restricted, for example in Dulwich you had to own shares in the local salt mine. Even the county voting qualification of being a 40/- freeholder dissatisfied people; the value of money had changed to such an extent that in some areas almost anyone with land could vote. However it would be wrong to think that the right to vote was enjoyed by much of the British public - only 11% of the adult male population could vote. People began to take exception to this, which leads us to the second factor behind the significance of political pressures for reform. Since the first French revolution in 1792 there had been a phenomenal growth in the interest in radical ideas. Early reformists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau brought the idea of democratic government to the masses. In the UK Tom Paine, whose literary style was clear enough to be understood by even the working classes, was very influential in spreading the idea that a government was not legitimate unless it had been elected, in fair elections, by the will of the people. The working classes, sections of the middle classes and radical MPs in Parliament came to support this radical view. Radical MPs began to apply pressure from within for reform and, when Tory PM Lord Wellington said that he did not believe reform was necessary, the outrage it caused forced his resignation.
The Tories were left in bad shape; they had been divided over the Catholic emancipation act and had only won the election because of patronage. In addition many Tories shared Wellington’s view: they had no desire to see any reform Act pass. If political pressures had brought Parliamentary reform to the public’s attention, economic pressures would ensure it would become one of the biggest issues of the 19th century. There are two aspects to the economic pressures. The first is that throughout the late 18th and early 19th century Britain had grown into an industrial nation, and these new industrialists wanted to secure their interests. The new industrial towns had no Parliamentary representation, yet areas that had been of medieval importance often sent many MPs to Parliament. Cornwall, for example, sent 44. The newly affluent industrialists were quick to point out that as the providers of Britain’s power and wealth they ought to have more say in the running of the country.
"The Bill will be found, I fear from my soul, to go to the length of introducing in its train, if passed, universal suffrage, annual parliaments and vote by ballot. It will unhinge the whole frame of society as now constituted... with this Bill in operation, the Monarchy cannot exist, and... it is totally incompatible with the existence of the British constitution."
- Lord Eldon, speaking against the second reading of the Reform Bill in the House of Lords, 7th October 1831.
Lord Eldon, undoubtedly a Tory agreeing with the views of his party leaders (Wellington in the House of Lords and Peel in the Commons) is clearly worried about further reforms the Bill might lead to, not an unexpected reaction from a man who was influential in the passing of Pitt's repressive legislation in the 1790s. (For example the 1795 Treasonable Practices Act which outlawed, for a time, the works of Tom Paine.) Although it must be remembered that the democratic ideals of universal suffrage and annual parliaments were also completely outrageous to the majority of politicians, and to a significant proportion of the general public. The popular belief of these people is as Eldon argues, that if passed the structure of society would fall apart. This was the first version of the Bill and the public were not as demonstrative at this time as they later became. Perhaps if Eldon could have foreseen the public reaction he would have been less keen to suggest revolution would be preferable to the Reform Bill. Also it should be considered that Eldon is possibly exaggerating, relating a worst-case scenario in order to play on his colleagues’ emotions and ensure a verdict in favour of the Tories. However from what we know of Lord Eldon this is unlikely, he was a reactionary Tory and had been throughout his long political career; his fears were undoubtedly shared by many of the more conservative members of Parliament. The source is useful for showing the kinds of arguments being put forward by the opposition, and it is noteworthy that both sides of the debate are using ‘scare-tactics’ - the Tories suggesting an unstoppable wave of reform was about to be unleashed, whilst the Whigs and their supporters retaliated by suggesting that the only alternative was revolution. This clearly shows how serious the reform crisis was for such extreme views to be so prevalent.
Today Paine quotes can be found everywhere - back in early nineteenth century Britain they were a dangerous signpost of radical beliefs and seditious behaviour.
It is unsurprising that the radicals chose to focus on the Whigs, who were more open to reform because it would be beneficial to them to break the hold of patronage. Also in the 1790s, Lord Grey, who replaced Wellington, had been heavily involved in the original reform movements. However it would be misleading to suggest the Whigs were a party of reformers. In fact the party suffered significant divisions over the issue. Many Whig backbenchers felt the Act was far too radical.
"Nothing can be more fit than the great manufacturing commercial interests of this great country should have a Representative of their own choice to do their business in Parliament. We don’t live in the days of Barons, thank God – we live in the days of Leeds, of Bradford, of Halifax, and of Huddersfield – we live in the days when men are industrious and desire to be free; and not when they are lazy and indolent, and deserve to be trampled upon and dominated over; therefore you are bound to have your rights, and to choose your Representatives.
- Leeds Mercury, 27th July 1830.
This source clearly outlines the wishes of the industrialists; they wanted to be able to vote for representatives who would protect their interests in Parliament. The Leeds Mercury, which would have been widely read by the middle and working classes, puts forward quite a radical argument. The article suggests the decency and hard working nature of the middle classes should entitle them to the vote but it also suggests that it is in fact the aristocracy who are 'lazy and indolent'. It suggests that those clinging to Parliament’s traditional structure are doing so, not out of concern for promising MPs being denied political experience or even the inability of the lower classes to make informed choices of candidates, but rather out of an unwillingness to put in the work that modern society demanded. This is reflected in the calls for ‘responsive’ government to pass legislation to improve living and working conditions - the middle classes and the Leeds Mercury wanted more from Parliament than many of the aristocratic MPs were willing to give. That the Leeds Mercury uses the phrase 'a Representative of their own choice' is revealing as it is a direct attack against those MPs who were saying that it did not matter that the system was so messy. They suggested that the variety meant everyone was represented anyway. The middle classes themselves riled against such views, they wanted nothing less than a redistribution of seats and an extension of the franchise. The source also shows what the Mercury and it’s readership thought of industry. The manufacturers are 'great', because not only are they providing employment they have also turned Britain into a powerful and prosperous nation. It is important to note that this article if from July 1830, before Wellington was forced to resign, thus giving some idea of how passionate a topic Parliamentary reform was. This pressure increased steadily as reform became tangible to those it mattered so much to.
"The danger is terrible. The time is short. If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes with unavailing remorse, amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoilation of property and the dissolution of the social order."
- Macaulay speaking in the House of Commons, March 1831.
The source suggests that unless the bill is passed there will be revolution. This is the first version of the bill and it shows how great the fear of revolution was that Macaulay, a Whig, was already using this argument. However it ought to be remembered that he may be exaggerating his fears in an effort to sway nervous Whigs and Tories and obtain a party victory. He said in another speech that Parliament ought to "reform that you may preserve" suggesting he understood which arguments were most likely to persuade the more reluctant members of Parliament. But, evidence suggests that Macaulay truly was interested in progressive ideas and reform. He was deeply involved in the Anti-Slavery Society and would later lend active support in the campaign for the Ten Hour Act. Macaulay felt strongly in favour of Parliamentary reform, something we know from other speeches he gave in its support, even though his own constituency was a rotten borough and if the act were passed he would be left without a seat in Parliament. Whilst showing the strength of Macaulay’s beliefs it should be considered that perhaps the call for reform was so great that politicians were willing to lose seats if it improved the overall system, certainly this must have been the case for the bill to eventually get the support of the Commons. It should also be noted that Macaulay was later to become a prominent historian who believed the 1832 Reform Act was truly great, telling Edinburgh electors in a speech in 1839 "... to the Whigs of the nineteenth century we owe it that the House of Commons has been purified."
Thomas Babington Macaulay was no radical, but was keen on the Idea of Progress in the true Victorian 'it's for your own good' sense.
In addition there were social pressures for reform. Industrialisation had led to the rapid growth of new towns and the population. The working class lived in squalid cramped conditions, working long hours for poor pay. The middle class had also grown in size and influence and become increasingly politically aware, they set up unions such as the BPU (Birmingham Political Union, formed in 1830 by Thomas Attwood), they also encouraged the working class to get involved. There were large numbers of the middle class who saw it as their duty to improve the working classes, educating them and so forth, this created a politically aware working class, something the government of the day greatly feared, their fears grew as the middle and working classes started to ally themselves in pursuit of reform. There was growing demand for more responsive government, traditionally governments were discouraged from interfering in individual affairs; the concept of ‘Laissez Faire’ was very popular, it suggested that if left alone problems, such as rural poverty, would rectify themselves. However people began to feel that the government should provide for the poor and improve living conditions. The act came to be seen as the first step towards it, suggesting the extent to which the masses pushed for it, whilst also giving an idea of how much the traditionally minded ruling classes resisted it.
There were clearly many pressures for reform but what were the effects of the Act? Is it valid to say that the Act was nothing more that administrative tinkering?
"When it [reform] comes into operation how disappointed everyone will be, and first of all the people; their imaginations are raised to the highest pitch, but they will open their eyes very wide when they find no sort of advantage accruing to them... Then they will not be satisfied, and as it will be impossible to go back, there will be plenty of agitators who will preach that we have not gone far enough, and if a Reformed Parliament does not do all that popular clamour shall demand, it will be treated with very little ceremony."
- Charles Grenville. Excerpt from his diary, 15th March 1831.
In direct contrast to the Tories panicked exclamations of unstoppable reform and the fall of the establishment, and to Grey’s claims that the Act would satisfy everyone and totally negate the need for further reform, Grenville offers a more realistic view of the likely outcome on the passing of the Reform Act. The reference to 'we have not gone far enough' suggests that he is a Member of Parliament and as such would understand the Act’s limitations. The public’s imaginations had indeed run riot, encouraged by information put forward by the new political movements. For example, William Cobbett in an April edition of “The Weekly Political Register” claimed a reform of Parliament would do everything from put food on the table to put an end to the workhouses. The main significance of this source is to show that everybody expected much from reform, yet it was uncertain what it would, in fact, deliver.
The Chronologist pokes fun at the idea that reform would solve all problems.
The Act brought about changes that were a clear improvement on the old system. Voting qualifications had been updated and made uniform. This is shown in the table below:
Qualifications for the vote in England and Wales
- Adult males owning freehold property worth at least 40 shillings (£2) per annum.
- Adult males in possession of a copyhold worth at least £10 per annum. ii. Adult males leasing or renting land worth at least £50 per annum.
- Adult males owning or occupying property worth at least £10 per annum provided: A) That they had been in possession of the property for at least one year and had paid all taxes charged on that property. B) That they had not been in receipt of parish poor relief during the previous year.
- Voters who did not qualify under i. but who had exercised a vote in a borough before 1832 retained the right to vote in that borough (unless, of course, the borough had disappeared under the Act) during their lifetimes, provided that they lived in, or within 7 miles of, the borough where they would vote.
- E.J.Evans, 'The Great Reform Act of 1832' (1983).
The main issue the Act had tried to tackle was the problem of the rotten and pocket boroughs. The table below goes some way to highlighting its success:
Changes in the Distribution of Seats
- 56 borough constituencies (cited as schedule A boroughs in the Act) lost their representation entirely.
- 30 boroughs (schedule B) lost one of their two members.
- 22 new party boroughs (schedule C) created with two members.
- 19 new parliamentary boroughs (schedule D) created with one member.
- County representation increased. One county to have 6 members, 26 to have 4, 7 to have 3, 6 to retain 2, Isle of Wight to become a separate, single member constituency.
- In the boroughs the old system of grouping boroughs retained but 2 new single member constituencies created.
- Counties. 3 counties now returned 2 members, 9 continued to return 1 member.
- Howard Martin, 'Challenging History; Britain in the 19th century.'
"The reform of the representative system in 1832 was not a hastily planned device improvised to meet a crisis. It embodied conceptions of reform which had been discussed for many years.
- Norman McCord. 'British History, 1815-1906'.
This source clearly suggests that whilst the Act may not have been 'great', it was not just administrative tinkering. What it implemented was not new ideas simply thrown together, reform had been discussed in Parliament since the 18th century and Lord Grey himself had once been a vocal advocate of parliamentary reform. It had been clear for a number of years that limited reform was inevitable. Whilst the public unrest may have caused the Act to be passed with, what at times could seem to be, desperation to avoid revolution, the bill was scrutinised at all stages. The Act that eventually passed was seen to be less radical than that which had first been proposed and yet it still constituted more than administrative tinkering - a considerable amount of corruption was swept away and that which remained very often did not benefit the Whig government in any way. However as the book is covering a longer period it is probable that McCord’s view is based on what the reform Act started rather than its immediate effects on the country, and this may be why he has such a favourable view.
The swing was not all that impressive, but the balance of power had begun to shift.
A large number of the middle classes had now gained the vote although this did not mean they now wielded extensive political power. The sudden surge of middle class MPs some had envisaged did not materialise: the House of Commons would not gain any number of middle class MPs until the 1840s when a number of ACLL (Anti Corn Law League) representatives were returned to parliament, and even this was not overly substantial. The situation only really improved in the 1870s after two more reform acts! The problem was that MPs were not paid and fighting an election was very expensive, so this meant that to be in with a real chance you had to be a member of the landowning classes. The middle classes now made up the majority of the electorate, but they were happy to vote in the same sort of man as before. The type of MP was fairly unchanged, although their attitudes did change to some extent in order to accommodate the wishes of the new electorate. Many were happy with this though there still remained many for whom the Act fell far short of their expectations. The radical working classes in particular were bitterly disappointed with the extent of the reform.
"The Reform Bill was to be its salvation, and, if not passed, the country would be ruined; the farmer thought the bounty of nature would be greater, while the worker thought he would be able to leave pickaxe and shovel behind. The Reform Act has been secured but the farmers are as hard-pressed as ever; the workers still perspire and the artisans are more diligent than ever."
- From 'Yr Haul', a Welsh periodical.
Here we see the realisation of Grenville’s fears; the discontent of the general public with the effects of the Reform Act. However the faults of the Act outlined in the source are less the failings of the Act and more the propaganda fed to the working classes of the wondrous things the Act would do for them. These promises were unrealistic and ultimately impossible to fulfil with simply a shake-up of the political structure. These comments from Yr Haul, a favourite among radicals in Wales, whilst being true for much of Britain are focused especially on the Act's lack of effect in Wales. It is clear from statistics given elsewhere in this essay that little change was made to the political structure in Wales, and this in turn resulted in the Act having little effect in Wales. For those people whose disappointment was especially pronounced there were new movements to join, for example the Chartists, who advocated much more radical reform. The faction of the movement that advocated violence as the best method to achieve this goal became especially popular amongst the working classes and demonstrations were staged in Wales and other areas of Great Britain. However these movements did not succeed in making a major impact on the government, at least not to the extent that further reform was implemented; a second reform act was not passed until 1867.
The government were pleased that their principle aims, to avert revolution and break the dangerous unity that existed between the middle and working classes over widening the franchise, achieved.
"The Reform Act was not a piece of timeless constitution making, the product of a full and dispassionate consideration of the nation's needs. It was a compromise stitched together during a crisis. It dissatisfied a substantial majority of those who had most strenuously urged the need for parliamentary reform. Yet, from the government's point of view, it served its major purpose: it removed the immediate threat to the security of the state.
- E.J.Evans, 'The Great Reform Act of 1832' (1983).
This view represents one side of the modern historical interpretation of the Act. Evans suggests that the act was essentially administrative tinkering, but it could have been nothing else due to the crisis in the country at the time. Something had to be done, and fast, leaving no time for proper planning or consideration of the act and its effects. This is clearly the opposite view to McCord’s but is the more common view amongst modern historians. Evans suggests, however, that to the government the Act was a great success as it averted the terrible prospect of violent revolution. As Grey had said in November 1831 “The principle of my reform is to prevent the necessity of revolution.” Evans, who was writing in a specialised book and who is a respected historian, is unlikely to be using the facts to promote his own opinion. However as the book is so focused on a single thing the full effects of the Act may not be considered, for example how the changes it brought about in society resulted in more responsive government and encouraged people (like the Chartists) to campaign for further reform, even though this was not at all Grey’s original intention.
The Chartists wanted far reaching reform, with demands like universal male suffrage and secret ballot. Pictured is the infamous Newport Chartist mural, commemorating the city's involvement in the last large-scale armed rebellion in Britain. It was demolished in 2013, an act opposed by seemingly everyone (including those who hadn't cared a fig about it in the previous 25 years of its existence...).
The main issue argued over by historians has been to what extent the Reform Act was 'great', as seen in the sources from Evans and McCord. Many historians have tended to agree with Evans that the Act did very little and that its only real function was to avert revolution. For example, David Williams wrote in his A History of Modern Wales in 1950 that 'the victory of the middle-class reformers in 1832 was more apparent than real', suggesting that although the new law was in place it had a minimal impact on the day to day running of Parliament. A similar view is put forward in the source below:
“The Reform Act of 1832 is generally accorded an importance out of all proportion to its effects upon the political system… The terms of the legislation were noteworthy but not of fundamental significance; they constituted a backward-looking measure, the passage of which (so the Whigs hoped) would put an end to agitation for further reform… Later Reform Acts had nothing in common with those of 1832, and it is quite erroneous to see in the 1832 legislation the ancestor of democratic government in Britain.”
- Geoffrey Alderman; 'Modern Britain, 1700 – 1983'. (A general history textbook written in 1987.)
Here we see again the argument that while the terms of the Act were more radical than Britain had previously seen, it had little real impact on the political system. Alderman contends that the Whigs did as little as possible to avoid revolution, which to a large extent is true. The Whigs had no intention of seeing frequent demands for further reform. It was felt that this Act should solve the problem, if not indefinitely, at least for a significant period. In the words of Dr. Goodlad writing in the September 2002 edition of Modern History Review, 'in view of the fact that the next step towards representative democracy did not occur until 1867, it could be argued that they had a strong measure of success.' Alderman goes on to attack a popular argument of those who believe the 1832 Reform Act was great – the idea that it paved the way for all subsequent legislation on the topic. Alderman has written political texts, such as Pressure Groups and Government in Great Britain and Britain: A One-Party State?, which in conjunction with his historical studies mean he is likely well acquainted with political legislation in Britain. Therefore he is a good authority to tell us whether later Reform Acts had anything in common with the 1832 Act. However not all historians share this view. While it is almost universally acknowledged that the immediate effects of the Act were fairly minimal many argue that the Act was 'great' nonetheless.
“The crucial point was that Parliament had accepted the need to reform itself… in acknowledging this, Parliament established an important principle – when circumstances warranted it, change would be introduced. This was the justification for all the reforms that government and Parliament introduced from then on… none of the many important social, economic and administrative changes that were introduced would have been possible had not the first Reform Act opened the door in 1832… the reformers of the 1830s were prepared to introduce change in order to prevent the build up of radical and revolutionary pressures. Reform was essentially a preventative move.”
- Michael Lynch, Nineteenth Century British History, 1999.
Here the view that Alderman was attacking is clearly present. Lynch states that without the 1832 Act to act as a starting block none of the other reforms of the mid 19th century would have been possible. Between them these reforms had a great impact on the lives of the lower classes, helping to create a better standard of living and introducing an era of a sense of middle class moral superiority in supporting such legislation. Lynch also makes a point of conceding that the main aim of those who wrote the Bill was to avert revolution and save the old order. However he suggests that whilst it may not have been their intention the Great Reform Act still introduced changes that improved the political system as well as opening the door for further reform. As he is writing a textbook covering the nineteenth century specifically Lynch is in a good position to see the change the Act made indirectly – such as the idea that public pressure could, eventually, result in reform giving hope to the groups (such as the Chartists) that came and went throughout the century. Also the Act proved that reform would not result in the collapse of the old order which undoubtedly took some of the fear out of the legislative process for MPs and Lords who had previously believed this to be the case. The Act also brought in lots of new MPs, whilst still primarily upper class they were enthusiastic and more receptive to reform; this new willingness to think about new ideas in Parliament played a large role in the passing of other Reforms in this period. Lynch is perhaps fairly validated in saying that without the 1832 Act these reforms would not have been possible.
The 'Great' Reform Act heralded a new age of reforming regulation on all kinds of issues, enabling the politicised and, more importantly, enfranchised middle classes to position themselves as the 'moral conscience' of the nation.
In conclusion it is fair to say that the country was crying out for reform, and at the peak of the crisis revolution was not an unlikely eventuality. However it is unfair to say that the Act was nothing more than administrative tinkering. While its short term effects may seem relatively insignificant, they were in fact a vast improvement on the system that had been in place. Furthermore the Act achieved its principle aim of avoiding revolution and keeping future public unrest on the issue to a minimum. In this it fulfilled the aims of its authors and, although it was not their intention, the Act gave people the hope that further reform could be obtained and encouraged people to campaign for it, which eventually led to today’s democracy. It is clear that the Act was not only a good thing for the political system of the 1830s, but that it should be considered great for it’s long term effects on society in general.