Wednesday, 30 September 2015

'Straights', 'Splitters' and 'Plumpers'

I came across this account of voting before the 1832 Reform Act and thought you might enjoy it.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Great Reform Act

The House of Commons (engraving 1808)
You can listen here to a discussion of the Reform Act on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme. There are two highly readable books on this subject:
Antonia Fraser, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 (W&N, 2013)
Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (Pimlico, 2004)

After Catholic emancipation the demand for parliamentary reform became irresistible, among many sections of the middle and working classes. The Tories under the Duke of Wellington won the general election of 1830 - but only just.

The fall of Wellington's government

On 2 November 1830 Wellington, made a disastrous speech in the Lords in which he argued that the state of representation could not be improved, and that the system of electoral representation commanded the ‘entire confidence’ of the nation’. He believed that his uncompromising stand would encourage the forces of Toryism to rally around him, but he had failed to appreciate the depth of the reform movement in the country. When the government was defeated on a minor financial motion on 15 November Wellington resigned and on 16 November William IV asked the Whig leader, Earl Grey, to form a government. The new government was committed to (modest) parliamentary reform.

Charles, 2nd Earl Grey
Prime Minister 1830-4
Public Domain

On 30 December the diarist Charles Greville wrote:
 ‘I never remember times like these, nor read of such – the terror and the lively expectation which prevail and the way in which people’s minds are turned backwards and forwards, from France to Ireland then range excursively to Poland or Piedmont, and fix again on the burnings, riots and executions here.’

He was referring to the July Revolution in France, continuing unrest in Ireland and Italy, the Polish revolt against Russia, and the Swing Riots in Britain.

The bill introduced

On 1 March 1831 Lord John Russell introduced his Reform Bill to Commons. It contained three cardinal principles: the disenfranchisement of rotten boroughs, the enfranchisement of new towns, and a common £10 household franchise for the boroughs.

On 23 March the bill passed the Commons by a majority of one (302/301). This was nothing like sufficient to take up the the Lords. It would have to be put to the country.

The election of 1831

The general election of April was, in effect, a referendum on the bill - something unprecedented in British history. It showed an irresistible momentum for reform as many Tories lost their seats. Of the thirty-four English county members who had voted against Russell’s proposals only six retained their seats.  Almost all the 'popular' constituencies (those with large electorates) returned reformers - four for London. Virtually the only Tories who were returned were those for closed boroughs. Wellington became an object of hatred and abuse for sections of the public and on two occasions the windows of his London residence, Apsley House, were stoned.

The Lords reject the bill

On 24 June Russell introduced a revised reform bill. On 22 September it was sent up to the Lords. On 8 October after five days debate the Lords rejected the bill by forty-one votes (199/158). Twenty-one of the bishops voted against it; if they had voted for it, it would have passed by a majority of one.

Riots and disturbances

In the country at large, the Lords’ rejection provoked immediate and prolonged opposition. As many as 150,000 people are estimated to have attended monster meetings of the Birmingham Political Union.  There were a series of violent incidents in the country, most notably riots in Bristol and Nottingham.

The Bristol Riots, October 1831
Public Domain

The Lords reject the bill - again

On 12 December: Russell introduced his bill for the third time - with a few concessions to win over peers worried about the risk of civil war. He saved some condemned constituencies, abandoned proposals to increase the size of the Commons, and allowed resident freemen to keep their votes. This was carried on the second reading by a majority of 162.

On 13 April 1832  the Lords passed the second reading of the bill by a majority of nine (184/175). Then on 7 May in committee the Lords passed what the government saw as a wrecking amendment. On 9 May Grey and the cabinet resigned over William IV’s refusal to create enough peers to get the bill through. 

The 'Days of May'

This set off the crisis known as the ‘Days of May’.  Mass demonstrations were held in the country - Birmingham, Manchester, London. In Birmingham Thomas Attwood hinted at armed insurrection. On 12 May the radical Francis Place suggested a run on the banks: ‘To stop the duke [of Wellington], go for gold’.  This slogan was posted up on London walls within twenty-four hours.

The king tried to cobble together another Wellington administration, but Peel, remembering his difficulties over Catholic emancipation, refused to take office. He now believed that reform was inevitable but that he was not the man to bring it about. The king therefore had to send for Grey again. On 18 May he reluctantly agreed to the creation of Whig peers. 

The bill passed

This frightened the Lords into passing the bill, with only twenty-two voting against it. On 7 June it received the royal assent. The news was greeted by banquets, illuminations and ringing of church bells. In the subsequent general election, the Whigs won 483 seats, the Tories only 175.

The provisions of the act were modest. It disenfranchised the more notorious pocket boroughs and created new parliamentary constituencies, notably Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Birmingham. The right to vote in the counties was extended beyond the 40 shilling freeholders to other forms of land tenure. In the boroughs there was a uniform franchise of £10 householders.


There are two views about the Reform Act.

  1. It was the 'great Whig betrayal' that left the working classes still without a vote, even though they had been among the foremost campaigners for reform.
  2. Though a very modest reform it showed that the British constitution could be changed. Other reforms were bound to follow.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Daniel O'Connell and Catholic Emancipation

Daniel O'Connell
'the Liberator'

The ending of the Anglican monopoly

The government’s reforms highlighted the anomalies remaining in the system. The two major anomalies were the unreformed political system and religious discrimination. Since the Test and Corporation Acts of the reign of Charles II, only Anglicans had been permitted to hold public office. 

In 1824 these Acts were repealed, allowing Protestant Dissenters the same civil rights as Anglicans. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, opposed the repeal, but the ease with which the act was passed shows how society had changed. Few were prepared to defend a total Anglican monopoly. 

The Catholic Association

It was far more controversial to end the discrimination against Catholics. Anti-Catholic feeling was deep-rooted, and bills brought to allow Catholics to take their seats in Parliament were regularly defeated. In 1793 Catholic Irish 40 shilling freeholders had been given the vote. But they could only vote for Protestants.

In 1823, the Catholic barrister, Daniel O’Connell, set up the Catholic Association. The association campaigned for Catholic emancipation and also for reform of the Church of Ireland, tenants' rights, and economic development. The Association was funded by ‘the Catholic rent’, membership dues of one penny per month. The subscription was highly successful, and the Association raised a large sum of money in its first year.

The 1820s: a change in the air

Sir Robert Peel
Home Secretary from 1822

Liberal Toryism?

Lord Liverpool’s administration has traditionally been divided into two unequal periods:

  1. a reactionary phase 1812-1820 symbolised by Sidmouth and the Six Acts
  2. a shorter ‘liberal’ phase associated with the ‘second-wave’ ministers: William Huskisson, Frederick Robinson, Robert Peel.

This is now seen as an over-simplification. But there can be little doubt that the nation was changing. In March 1820 Robert Peel wrote to a friend:
‘Do you not think that there is a feeling becoming daily more general and more confirmed in favour of some undefined change in the mode of governing the country?’
The Whig politician, Henry Broughham said
‘the schoolmaster had been abroad in the land’.
The Mechanics Institute movement, the brainchild of two Glasgow professors, John Anderson and George Birkbeck spread education among working men. (The Manchester Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1825 is depicted right.) Henry Brougham’s Practical Observations upon the Education of the People sold 50,000 copies in a few weeks and quickly went through twenty editions. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (founded by Brougham in 1826) provided them with cheap information. 

The Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill was part of this ‘march of intellect’. Benthamite ideas were advocated in the Westminster Review (1824). The Unitarian W. J. Fox remarked in the first number of the Westminster that
'the public was everywhere coming into its own’.
In 1826 the Benthamites founded the University of London, which became University College, London. (Bentham bequeathed his body to UCL and it is still on display there.) The members of the Liverpool government were largely hostile to the secular philosophy and utilitarian curriculum of the university, but they could not ignore the new currents of the age.

Queen Caroline

Queen Caroline of Brunswick

For most of 1820 the nation, still reeling from the Peterloo Massacre and the Cato Street conspiracy, was transfixed by the saga of George IV's estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The essayist, William Hazlitt, described the affair as
‘the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house and cottage in the kingdom.’
This post gives the background to the affair and explores its repercussions and implications in more detail than I am able to do in class.  

The Regency

In November 1810 a courtier was reporting that ‘the personal popularity of the King [George III] is as great as it can possibly be’. But the death of his daughter Princess Amelia a week later was one of the events that helped to send him over the edge. When he was hit by his final bout of insanity (if that is what it was) in 1811, the public reaction was one of sympathy – only the radicals sneered at his plight. At the end of the year the Prince of Wales was confirmed as Regent. In February 1812 he received full powers, and now had all the prerogatives of a king.

The Regent was already unpopular. The breakdown of his marriage was an open scandal, and on the whole the public sympathised with Caroline. His unpopularity became a party-political matter when on becoming Regent he abandoned his previous Whig allies in 1812, stuck with his Tory ministers, and seemed to be condemning the Whigs to permanent opposition. From this time onwards, the Whigs became Caroline's champions.

The Peterloo massacre

This post owes a great deal to my friend Robert Poole's brilliant article, ‘”By the Law or the Sword”: Peterloo Revisited', History, 91 (2006): 254-276. The Wikipedia article on Peterloo is also extremely good and takes account of modern research including Poole's article.

There is an interesting discussion of Peterloo in Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme on Radio 4.

In 1819 radical reformers made serious attempts to stage a series of mass demonstrations.

In January there was a parliamentary reform meeting of about 10,000 at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester at which Henry Hunt was the principal speaker. Banners bearing the mottoes ‘Rights of Man’, ‘Universal Suffrage’ and ‘No Corn Laws’ were displayed.

The authorities were deeply alarmed. On 2 March, following reports that radical leaders were arming themselves with pikes, Henry Hobhouse, the permanent undersecretary at the Home Office, wrote to the Oldham magistrates that the evidence confirmed the Home Secretary, Sidmouth’s, opinion that
‘your Country will not be tranquillized, until Blood shall have been shed either by the Law or the Sword.’ (Quoted Poole, 265).
In June there were a series of meetings in the industrial districts of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands and the west of Scotland. These peaceful meetings pounded the same theme: the sufferings of the people were due to the inadequacies and extravagance of government, and the remedy lay in annual parliaments and manhood suffrage.

The problems of the peace: Britain in turmoil

Problems of the peace

The radical, Samuel Bamford (seen here in his respectable old age) wrote: 
While the laurels were yet cool on the brows of our victorious soldiers ... the elements of convulsion were at work among the masses of our labouring population.
The immediate post-war years, 1815-21, proved as difficult as any during wartime itself, as unemployment and high bread prices coincided with renewed political discontent.
  1. Adjustments had to be made in line with reduced demand for products associated with the war effort: provisions, timber, clothing, iron, leather, canvas, rope.
  2. During the wars the armed forces of Britain had been increased to 400,000 men (with as many again in the reserves) compared with about 60,000 in 1791. Rapid demobilisation put nearly a third of a million ex-servicemen on the already glutted labour market. This depressed wage levels, added to unemployment, increased the burden of local taxation and ensured that the discontented would be led by those with military experience.
  3. Added to this came the strains of technological redundancy. The number of shearing frames in Yorkshire had increased in the past decade from under a hundred to over 1,400 and in October 1817, 3,625 croppers petitioned Parliament for help. In Lancashire the number of handloom weavers continued to rise while their wages continued to fall.

The Corn Law

Even before Napoleon’s final defeat, the government of Lord Liverpool had bowed to massive agricultural pressure. In 1813 an abundant harvest sent prices tumbling. Peace in 1814 brought foreign grain imports with the promise of more to come. The government came under strong pressure from the landed interest , which argued that a Corn Law was justified in the interests of national security and domestic stability:
  1. Britain might once again need to maximise the domestic supply of foodstuffs to counteract the effects of blockade.
  2. Agriculture was the largest single employer of labour and was already subject to rural depopulation.
In February 1815 a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by the landed interest passed a law allowing the free importation of foreign corn only when the price of home-grown corn had reached the price of 80s.  a quarter. This decision -together with a run of bad harvests - helped ensure that the average price of corn was higher in the years 1810-19 than at any other time during the whole of the nineteenth century.

Britain in 1815

David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the
Despatch from Waterloo
With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 Britain emerged the victor after a war of twenty-two years. The census of 1811 had revealed a population of 17. 8 million and this population was rising rapidly, presenting the nation with both challenges and opportunities. 

Britain comprised three nations: England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The union of the English and Scottish Parliaments in 1707 had created the nation of Great Britain. The Union of the British and Irish Parliaments in 1801 had created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In England and Wales and in Ireland the Church of England was the established Church. In Scotland the established Church was the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Anglican (Church of England) bishops sat in the House of Lords, though the representatives of other denominations did not.

Britain was the only industrialised nation, though this industrialisation was far from complete. The population was shifting dramatically from the south to the north, the Midlands, and the central belt of Scotland. The 1851 census would reveal that the majority of people were living in rural rather than urban areas. Industrialisation was focused on textiles, especially cotton, powered by steam derived from coal. Goods were transported from one part of the country to another by sea, canals, and the river systems. The strength of the Royal Navy created safe shipping routes that enabled the importing and exporting of goods and raw materials. 

Britain was also the greatest imperial power the world had ever seen.  The British Empire now comprised Canada, many Caribbean islands and a large area of India. From the Napoleonic wars she had gained Trinidad, Ceylon, and the Cape of Good Hope. The colonies supplied raw materials such as sugar and tea and provided a market for British goods.

Britain was far from being a democracy, but the building blocks of democracy were already in place and Britons prided themselves on being the freest people in the world. With the exception of a few restrictions, the press was free, and often vociferous in its criticisms of the government. The judiciary was largely independent. However, the monarch (the Prince Regent in 1815) retained many prerogative powers, and politics was dominated by the aristocracy, the owners of the great landed estates. Many members of the House of Commons owed their position to peers. The Church of England possessed considerable monopoly powers and neither Protestant Dissenters nor Roman Catholics could be members of Parliament. 

This meant that at a time of economic dynamism and imperial expansion, Britain’s political structure was locked into that of an earlier period. With only about 3 per cent of the population having the vote, most people were excluded from the political process. From the time of the French Revolution, radical agitation had been a threat to existing power structures and this radicalism was to pose an increasing threat in the harsh conditions of the years after Waterloo. The radical, Samuel Bamford, was to write: 
‘While the laurels were yet cool on the brows of our victorious soldiers ... the elements of convulsion were at work among the masses of our labouring population.’