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.