Reform Act 1832

Reform Act 1832
First page of the Reform Act 1832
This painting by Sir George Hayter (now in the National Portrait Gallery) commemorates the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. It depicts the first session of the newly reformed House of Commons on 5 February 1833 held in St Stephen's Chapel which was destroyed by fire in 1834. The picture includes some 375 figures and although Hayter abandoned the idea of depicting all 658 Members of the reformed Commons he maintained the relative proportions of the parties. In the foreground, he has grouped the leading statesmen from the Lords: Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848) and the Whigs on the left; and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) and the Tories on the right. Painted without a commission it took Hayter ten years to complete and another fifteen to sell. Ironically, it was the Tories who finally agreed to purchase it, in 1858, for the then recently founded National Portrait Gallery.

The Representation of the People Act 1832 (commonly known as the Reform Act 1832) was an Act of Parliament (2 & 3 Will. IV) that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. According to its preamble, the act was designed to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament."

Calls for reform had been mooted long before 1832, but perennially without success. The Act which finally succeeded was proposed by the Whigs led by the Prime Minister Lord Grey. It met with significant opposition from the Pittite factions in Parliament that had governed the country for so long (opposition was especially pronounced in the House of Lords). Nevertheless, as a result of public pressure, the bill was eventually passed. The Act granted seats in the House of Commons to large cities that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution, and took away seats from the "rotten boroughs"—those with very small populations. The Act also increased the number of individuals entitled to vote, increasing the size of the electorate from about 400,000 to 650,000, and allowing a total of one out of six adult males to vote, in a population of some 14 million.

The full title is An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. Its formal short title and citation is the Representation of the People Act 1832 (2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 45). The Act only applied in England and Wales; separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland.[1] Other reform measures were passed later during the 19th century; as a result, the Reform Act 1832 is sometimes called the First, or Great Reform Act.


The unreformed House of Commons


The House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom

After the Act of Union 1800, sometimes referred to as the Act of Union 1801, the unreformed House of Commons was composed of 658 members, of whom 513 represented England and Wales. There were two types of constituencies: counties and boroughs. County members were supposed to represent landholders, while borough members were supposed to represent the mercantile and trading interests of the kingdom.[2] Counties were historical national subdivisions established between the 8th and 16th centuries. They were not merely parliamentary constituencies; many components of the government (including courts and the militia) were organized along county lines.[3] The members of Parliament chosen by the counties were known as Knights of the Shire. In Wales each county elected one member of Parliament whilst in England each county elected two members until 1826 when Yorkshire's representation was increased to four following the disenfranchisement of the Cornish borough of Grampound.

Parliamentary boroughs in England ranged in size from small hamlets to large cities. Their disproportionality was due largely to the haphazard manner in which they were chosen. The earliest boroughs were chosen in the Middle Ages by county sheriffs at a time when even a village might be deemed a borough.[4] Many of these early boroughs, if their representation continued (which was not always the case), failed to thrive whilst more substantial settlements, such as Winchelsea and Dunwich, went into decline. In later centuries the reigning monarch decided which settlements to enfranchise. The monarchs seem mostly to have done so capriciously, however, often with little regard to the merits of the place they enfranchised. Of the 70 English boroughs that the Tudor monarchs enfranchised, 31 were later disenfranchised.[5] Finally the parliamentarians of the 17th century compounded the illogicality of the system by re-enfranchising fifteen boroughs whose representation had been lapsed for centuries, seven of which were later disenfranchised by the Reform Act. After Newark was enfranchised in 1661 no further boroughs were enfranchised, and the illogicality of the system was all but set in stone until the Reform Act.[6] The greater proportion of boroughs in England elected two members of Parliament; five boroughs however elected only one member,[7] and the City of London and the joint borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis each elected four members. The Welsh boroughs each returned a single member.

The franchise

Statutes passed in 1430 and 1432, during the reign of Henry VI, standardised property qualifications for county voters. Under these acts, all (male) owners of freehold property or land worth at least forty shillings in a particular county were entitled to vote in that county. This requirement, known as the forty shilling freehold, was never adjusted for inflation; thus, the amount of land that it was necessary for one to own in order to vote was gradually diminished over time.[8] Nevertheless, the vast majority of individuals were unable to vote; the size of the English county electorate in 1831 has been estimated at only 200,000.[9] Furthermore, the sizes of the individual county constituencies varied significantly. The smallest counties, Rutland and Anglesey, had fewer than a thousand voters each, while the largest county, Yorkshire, had more than twenty thousand.[10] Those who owned property in multiple constituencies could vote multiple times; there was normally no requirement for an individual to actually inhabit a constituency in order to vote there.

In boroughs the franchise was far more varied. There were broadly six types of parliamentary boroughs as defined by their franchise:

  1. boroughs in which freemen were electors;
  2. boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to those paying scot and lot, a form of municipal taxation;
  3. boroughs in which only the ownership of a burgage property qualified a person to vote;
  4. boroughs in which only members of the corporation were electors (such boroughs were perhaps in every case "pocket boroughs," because council members were usually "in the pocket" of a wealthy patron);
  5. boroughs in which male householders were electors (these were usually known as "potwalloper boroughs," as the usual definition of a householder was a person able to boil a pot on their own hearth);
  6. boroughs in which freeholders of land had the right to vote.

Some boroughs had a combination of these varying types of franchise and all usually had special rules and exceptions [11], so many boroughs had a form of franchise that was unique to themselves.

The largest borough, Westminster, had approximately 12,000 voters, while the smallest, usually known as "rotten boroughs" had, in most cases, fewer than a hundred each.[12] The most famous rotten borough was Old Sarum, which had 13 burgage plots that could be used to "manufacture" electors if necessary—usually around half a dozen was thought sufficient. Other examples include Dunwich (32 voters), Camelford (25), and Gatton (seven).[13]

Women's suffrage

The claim for the women's vote appears to have been first made by Jeremy Bentham in 1817 when he published his Plan of Parliamentary Reform in the form of a Catechism[14] and was taken up by William Thompson in 1825, when he published, with Anna Wheeler, An Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery: In Reply to Mr. Mill's Celebrated Article on Government.[15] In the "celebrated article on Government", James Mill had stated:

...all those individuals whose interests are indisputably included in those of other individuals may be struck off without any inconvenience ... In this light also women may be regarded, the interests of almost all of whom are involved in that of their fathers or in that of their husbands.[16]

The passing of the Act seven years later enfranchising "male persons" was, however, a more significant event; it has been argued that it was the inclusion of the word "male", thus providing the first statutory bar to women voting, which provided a focus of attack and a source of resentment from which, in time, the women's suffrage movement grew.[17]


Canvassing for Votes, part of William Hogarth's Humours of an Election series, depicts the political corruption endemic in election campaigns prior to the Great Reform Act.

A large number of House of Commons constituencies, especially those with small electorates, were under the control of rich landowners. These constituencies were known as nomination boroughs or pocket boroughs, because they were said to be in the pockets of their patrons. Most patrons were members of the nobility or the landed gentry who could use their local influence, prestige, and wealth to sway the voters. This was particularly true in rural counties, and in small boroughs situated near a large landed estate. Some noblemen even controlled multiple constituencies; for example, the Duke of Norfolk possessed eleven, while the Earl of Lonsdale owned nine.[18] Writing in 1821, Sydney Smith proclaimed that "The country belongs to the Duke of Rutland, Lord Lonsdale, the Duke of Newcastle, and about twenty other holders of boroughs. They are our masters!"[19] Dr T.H.B. Oldfield claimed in his Representative History of Great Britain and Ireland that, out of the 514 members representing England and Wales, about 370 were selected by nearly 180 patrons.[20] A member who represented a pocket borough was expected to vote as his patron ordered, lest he lose his seat at the next election.

Voters in some constituencies were independent enough to resist domination by powerful landlords. However, they were, in many cases, still open to corruption. Electors were bribed individually in some boroughs, and collectively in others. In 1771, for example, it was revealed that eighty-one voters in New Shoreham (who constituted a majority of the electorate) formed a corrupt organization that called itself the "Christian Club," and regularly sold the borough to the highest bidder.[21] Especially notorious for their corruption were the "nabobs," or individuals who had amassed fortunes in the British colonies in Asia and the West Indies. The nabobs, in some cases, even managed to wrest control of boroughs from the nobility and the gentry.[22] Lord Chatham, Prime Minister of Great Britain during the 1760s, once commented that "the importers of foreign gold have forced their way into Parliament, by such a torrent of corruption as no private hereditary fortune could resist."[23]

Movement for reform

Early attempts at reform

William Pitt the Younger was a prominent advocate of parliamentary reform.

During the 1640s, England endured a civil war that pitted King Charles I and the Royalists against the Parliamentarians. In 1647, different factions of the victorious parliamentary army held a series of discussions, the Putney Debates, on reforming the structure of English government. The most radical elements proposed universal manhood suffrage and the reorganization of parliamentary constituencies. Their leader Thomas Rainsborough declared, "I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government." More conservative members disagreed, arguing instead that only individuals who owned land in the country should be allowed to vote. For example, Henry Ireton stated, "no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom ... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom." The views of the conservative "Grandees" eventually won out. Oliver Cromwell, who became the leader of England after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649, refused to adopt universal suffrage; individuals were required to own property (real or personal) worth at least £200 in order to vote. He did nonetheless agree to some electoral reform; he disfranchised several small boroughs, granted representation to large towns such as Manchester and Leeds, and increased the number of members elected by populous counties. These reforms were all reversed, however, after Cromwell's death and the last parliament to be elected in the Commonwealth period in 1659 reverted to the electoral system as it had existed under Charles I.[24]

Following Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the issue of parliamentary reform lay dormant until it was revived in the 1760s by the Whig Prime Minister William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham ("Pitt the Elder"), who called borough representation "the rotten part of our Constitution" (hence the term "rotten borough"). Nevertheless, he did not advocate an immediate disfranchisement of rotten boroughs. He instead proposed that a third member be added to each county, to countervail the borough influence. The Whigs failed to unite behind the expansion of county representation; some objected to the idea because they felt that it would give too much power to the aristocracy and gentry in rural areas.[25] Ultimately, despite Chatham's exertions, Parliament took no action on his proposals. The cause of parliamentary reform was next taken up by Lord Chatham's son, William Pitt the Younger (variously described as a Tory and as an "independent Whig"). Like his father, he shrank from proposing the wholesale abolition of the rotten boroughs, advocating instead an increase in county representation. The House of Commons rejected Pitt's resolution by over 140 votes, despite receiving petitions for reform bearing over twenty thousand signatures.[26] In 1783, Pitt became Prime Minister but was still unable to achieve reform. King George III was averse to the idea, as were many members of Pitt's own cabinet. In 1786, the Prime Minister proposed a reform bill, but the House of Commons rejected it on a 174-248 vote.[27] Pitt did not raise the issue again for the remainder of his term.

Aftermath of the French Revolution

Support for parliamentary reform plummeted after the launch of the French Revolution in 1789. Reacting to the excesses of the revolution, English politicians became steadfastly opposed to any major political change. Despite this reaction, several groups that agitated for reform were established. A group of Whigs led by James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale and Charles Grey founded an organization to advocate for parliamentary reform in 1792. This group, known as the Society of the Friends of the People, included twenty-eight members of Parliament.[28] In 1793, Grey presented to the House of Commons a petition from the Friends of the People, outlining abuses of the system and demanding change. He did not propose any specific scheme of reform, but merely a motion that the House inquire into possible improvements. Parliament's reaction to the French Revolution was so negative, that even this request for an inquiry was rejected by a margin of almost 200 votes. Grey made a second attempt to raise the subject in 1797, but the House again rebuffed him by a majority of more than 150.[29]

Other notable pro-reform organizations included the Hampden Clubs (named after John Hampden, an English politician who opposed the Crown during the English Civil War) and the London Corresponding Society (which consisted of workers and artisans). But the "radical" reforms supported by these organizations (for example, universal suffrage) found even less support in Parliament. For example, when Sir Francis Burdett, chairman of the London Hampden Club, proposed a resolution in favour of universal suffrage, equally sized electoral districts, and voting by secret ballot to the House of Commons, his motion found only one other supporter (Lord Cochrane) in the entire House.[30]

Despite such setbacks, popular pressure for reform remained strong. In 1819, a large group of individuals held a pro-reform political rally in Birmingham. Although the city was not formally entitled to any seats in the Commons, those gathered decided to elect Sir Charles Wolseley as Birmingham's "legislatorial representative." Following their example, reformers in Manchester decided to hold a similar meeting to elect a "legislatorial attorney." A large number of individuals (between twenty thousand and sixty thousand, according to different estimates) attended the event, many of them bearing signs such as "Equal Representation or Death." The protesters were ordered to disband; when they failed to do so, armed members of the Manchester Yeomenry suppressed the meeting by force. Eleven people were killed, and several hundred injured, the event later to become known as the Peterloo Massacre. In response, the government passed the Six Acts, measures that were designed to quell further political agitation. In particular, the Seditious Meetings Act prohibited groups of more than 50 people from assembling to discuss any political subject without prior permission from the sheriff or magistrate.[31]

Reform during the 1820s

Since the House of Commons regularly rejected direct challenges to the system of representation by large majorities, supporters of reform had to content themselves with more modest measures. The Whig Lord John Russell brought forward one such measure in 1820, proposing the disfranchisement of the notoriously corrupt borough of Grampound in Cornwall. He suggested that the borough's two seats be transferred to the city of Leeds. Tories in the House of Lords agreed to the disfranchisement of the borough, but refused to accept the precedent of directly transferring its seats to an industrial city. Instead, they modified the proposal so that two further seats were given to Yorkshire, the county in which Leeds is situated. In this form, the bill passed both houses and became law. In 1828, Lord John Russell suggested that Parliament repeat the idea by abolishing the corrupt boroughs of Penryn and East Retford, and by transferring their seats to Manchester and Birmingham. This time, however, the House of Lords rejected his proposals. In 1830, Russell proposed another, similar scheme: the enfranchisement of Leeds, Manchester, and Birmingham, and the disfranchisement of the next three boroughs found guilty of corruption; again, the proposal was rejected.[32]

Support for reform came from an unexpected source—a faction of the Tory Party—in 1829. The Tory government under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, responding to the danger of civil strife in largely Roman Catholic Ireland, drew up the Catholic Relief Act 1829. This legislation repealed various laws that imposed political disabilities on Roman Catholics, in particular laws that prevented them from becoming members of Parliament. In response, disenchanted Tories who perceived a danger to the established religion came to favour parliamentary reform, in particular the enfranchisement of Manchester, Leeds, and other heavily Noncomformist cities in northern England.[33]

Passage of the Reform Act

First Reform Bill

The Duke of Wellington, who had previously earned fame by leading the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, strongly opposed reform measures.

The death of King George IV on 26 June 1830 caused Parliament to be dissolved, and a general election held. Electoral reform, which had been frequently discussed during the preceding parliamentary session, became a major campaign issue. Across the country, several pro-reform "political unions" were formed, made up of both middle and working class individuals. The most influential of these associations was the Birmingham Political Union, led by Thomas Attwood. These groups confined themselves to lawful, non-violent means of supporting reform, such as petitioning and public oratory, and achieved a great level of public support.[34]

Nonetheless, the Tories won a majority in the election. But the party was divided, and support for the Prime Minister (Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington) was weak. When the Opposition raised the issue of reform during one of the first debates of the year, the Duke made a controversial statement defending the merits of the existing system of government, recorded in the formal "third-party" language of the time:[35]

He was fully convinced that the country possessed, at the present moment, a legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation,—and this to a greater degree than any legislature ever had answered, in any country whatever. He would go further, and say that the legislature and system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country. [...] He would go still further, and say, that if at the present moment he had imposed upon him the duty of forming a legislature for any country [...] he did not mean to assert that he could form such a legislature as they possessed now, for the nature of man was incapable of reaching such excellence at once. [...] [A]s long as he held any station in the government of the country, he should always feel it his duty to resist [reform] measures, when proposed by others.

The Prime Minister's absolutist views proved extremely unpopular, even within his own party. Less than two weeks after Wellington made the above remarks,[36] he was forced to resign following an adverse vote in the House of Commons on a confidence motion. Sydney Smith wrote, "Never was any administration so completely and so suddenly destroyed; and, I believe, entirely by the Duke's declaration, made, I suspect, in perfect ignorance of the state of public feeling and opinion."[37] Wellington was replaced by the Whig reformer Charles Grey, who had by this time succeeded to the title of Earl Grey.

Lord Grey's first announcement as Prime Minister was a pledge to carry out parliamentary reform. On 1 March 1831, Lord John Russell brought forward the Reform Bill in the House of Commons on the government's behalf. The bill disfranchised sixty of the smallest boroughs, and reduced the representation of forty-seven others. Some of the seats were completely abolished, while others were redistributed to the London suburbs, to large cities, to the counties, and to Scotland and Ireland. Furthermore, the bill standardized and expanded the borough franchise, increasing the size of the electorate (according to one estimate) by half a million voters.[38]

On 22 March, the vote on the second reading attracted 608 members (including the non-voting Speaker), more than any previous division. (The previous record was 530 members.) Despite such a large attendance, the second reading was approved by only one vote. But further progress for the Reform Bill proved difficult. During the committee stage, Isaac Gascoyne proposed a motion objecting to the provisions of the bill that reduced the total number of seats in the House of Commons. The motion was carried, contrary to the government's wishes, by nine votes. Thereafter, the ministry lost a vote on a procedural motion by twenty-two votes. As these divisions indicated that Parliament was in fact averse to the Reform Bill, the ministry decided to request a dissolution and to take their appeal to the people.[39]

Second Reform Bill

The political and popular pressure for reform had grown so great that pro-reform Whigs won an overwhelming House of Commons majority in the general elections of 1831. The Whig party won almost all constituencies with genuine electorates, leaving the Tories with little more than the rotten boroughs. The Reform Bill was again brought before the House of Commons, which agreed to the second reading by a large majority in July. During the committee stage, opponents of the bill slowed its progress through tedious discussions of its details, but it was finally passed in September, by a margin of more than a hundred votes.[40]

The bill was then sent up to the House of Lords, a majority of whose members were known to be hostile to it. Due to the decisive verdict of the electorate in favour of the Whigs at the previous election, some speculated that opponents of reform would abstain from voting, instead of openly defying the public will. Indeed, when the House voted on the second reading of the bill after a memorable series of debates, a large number of Tory peers refrained from voting. However, the Lords Spiritual mustered in unusually large numbers; of the twenty-two that were present, twenty-one voted against the bill. Consequently, the bill failed by a margin of forty-one votes.

Once the Lords rejected the Reform Bill, public violence ensued. That very evening, riots broke out in Derby, where the mob attacked the city jail and set several prisoners free. At Nottingham, rioters set fire to Nottingham Castle (the home of the Duke of Newcastle) and attacked Wollaton Hall (the estate of Lord Middleton). The most significant disturbances occurred at Bristol, where rioters took control for three days. The mob broke into prisons and destroyed several buildings, including the palace of the Bishop of Bristol, the mansion of the Lord Mayor of Bristol, and several private homes. Other places that saw violence included Dorset, Leicestershire, and Somerset.[41]

In the meantime, the political unions, which had hitherto been separate groups united only by a common goal, decided to band together to form the National Political Union. Perceiving this group as a threat, the government issued a proclamation pursuant to the Corresponding Societies Act 1799 declaring such an association "unconstitutional and illegal," and commanding all loyal subjects to refrain joining it. The leaders of the National Political Union ignored the proclamation, but the leaders of the influential Birmingham branch decided to co-operate with government wishes by discouraging activities on a national level.[42]

Third Reform Bill

Lord Grey (painted by George Hayter) headed the Whig ministry that ushered the Reform Bill through Parliament.

After the Reform Bill was rejected in the Lords, the House of Commons immediately passed a motion of confidence affirming their support for Lord Grey's administration. Because parliamentary rules prohibited the introduction of the same bill twice during the same session, the ministry advised the King to prorogue Parliament. As soon as the new session began in December 1831, the Third Reform Bill was brought forward. The bill was in a few respects different from its predecessors; it no longer proposed a reduction in the total membership of the House of Commons, and it reflected data collected during the census that had just been completed. The new version passed in the House of Commons by even larger majorities in March 1832; it was once again sent up to the House of Lords.[43]

Realising that another rejection would be politically unfeasible, opponents of reform decided to use amendments to change the bill's essential character. Their reliance on this tactic became obvious during the committee stage, when they voted to delay consideration of the clauses of the bill that disfranchised the rotten boroughs. The ministers believed that they were left with only one alternative: to create a large number of new peerages, thereby swamping the House of Lords with pro-reform members. But the prerogative of creating peerages belonged to the King, William IV, who recoiled from taking so harsh a step. When the King rejected the unanimous advice of the cabinet, Lord Grey resigned, and the Crown called upon the Duke of Wellington to form a new government.[44]

The ensuing period, known as the "Days of May", created so great a level of political agitation that some feared revolution. Several protesters encouraged a refusal to pay taxes and a run on the banks. They encouraged people to "Stop the Duke, go for gold", i.e. take money out of the banks, and £1½ million in gold was withdrawn from the Bank of England. The National Political Union and other organizations sent petitions to the House of Commons demanding that they withhold supply (cut off funding to the government) until the House of Lords acquiesced. Some demonstrations called for the abolition of the nobility, and even of the monarchy.[45] In these circumstances, the Duke of Wellington had great difficulty in finding support for his premiership, despite promises of moderate reform. He was unable to form a government, leaving King William IV with no choice but to recall Lord Grey to office. At length, the King consented to swamp the House of Lords with Whigs. However, without the knowledge of his ministers, he circulated a letter among the Tory peers, encouraging them to desist from further opposition, and warning them of the consequences of failing to do so. Threatened with such a fate, opposition peers ultimately relented.[46] By abstaining from further votes, they allowed the legislation to pass the House of Commons, and prevented the Crown and cabinet from resorting to the creation of new peers. The bill finally received the Royal Assent on 7 June 1832, thereby becoming law.



Poster issued by the Sheffield Typographical Society celebrating the passing of the Act.

The Reform Act's chief objective was the reduction of the number of nomination boroughs. Two hundred and three boroughs existed in England before the Act.[47] The fifty-six least consequential of these boroughs, as measured by their housing stock and tax assessments, were completely abolished. The next thirty least consequential boroughs each lost one of their two members of parliament. In addition Weymouth and Melcombe Regis' entitlement to four members was reduced to two members. In total therefore the Act disfranchised 143 borough seats in England (one of the boroughs to be completely abolished, Higham Ferrers, had only a single representative). In their place the Act created 135 new seats for England and Wales. Twenty-six English counties were divided into two divisions with each division being represented by two members. Eight English counties and three Welsh counties each received an additional representative and Yorkshire, which was represented by four MPs before the Act was given an extra two MPs (so that each of its three ridings was represented by two MPs). Twenty-two large towns were given the privilege of electing two representatives, and another twenty-one towns (two being in Wales) were given the privilege of electing a single representative. Thus the Act's enfranchising clauses created 65 new county seats and 65 new borough seats in England and Wales with the total number of members representing England falling by seventeen and the number representing Wales rising by four.[48] The boundaries of the new divisions and parliamentary boroughs were defined in a separate Act, the Parliamentary Boundaries Act 1832.

The Act also extended the franchise. In county constituencies in addition to forty-shilling freeholders, franchise rights were extended to owners of land in copyhold worth £10 (£7,948.71 in 2007) and holders of long-term leases (more than sixty years) on land worth £10 and holders of medium-term leases (between twenty and sixty years) on land worth £50 and to tenants-at-will paying an annual rent of £50. In borough constituencies all male householders living in properties worth at least ten pounds a year were given the right to vote - a measure which introduced to all boroughs a standardized form of franchise for the first time. Existing borough electors retained a lifetime right to vote, however they qualified, provided they were resident in the boroughs in which they were electors. In those boroughs which had freemen electors voting rights were to be enjoyed by future freemen as well provided their freeman-ship was acquired through birth or apprenticeship and they too were resident.[49]

The Act also introduced a system of voter registration, to be administered by the overseers of the poor in every parish and township. It instituted a system of special courts to review disputes relating to voter qualifications. It also authorized the use of multiple polling places within the same constituency, and limited the duration of polling to two days. (Formerly, polls could remain open for up to forty days.)

The Reform Act did not affect constituencies in Scotland or Ireland. However, reforms in those parts of the United Kingdom were carried out by the Scottish Reform Act and the Irish Reform Act. Scotland received eight additional seats, and Ireland received five thus keeping the number of seats in the House of Commons the same number as it was before the Act. While no constituencies were disfranchised in either of these countries, voter qualifications were standardised and the size of the electorate was expanded in both.


The British political landscape was modernized and ignited by the passage of the 1832 Reform Act. Local Conservative Associations began to educate local citizens about the political platform of the party and advocated participation in the annual voter registration mandated by the 1832 Reform Act. Press coverage of national politics in the local press was also accompanied by in depth reports of the political and social events of provincial Conservative societies in the national press. Grassroots Conservatives therefore saw themselves as part of a national political movement during the 1830s.[50]

The scale of the unreformed electorate is difficult to accurately estimate. Voter registration was lacking, and many boroughs were rarely contested in elections. It is estimated that before the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, only 400,000 were entitled to vote in 1831, and that after passage, 650,000 Englishmen were enfranchised. Therefore the Reform Act enlarged the electorate by more than 60%.[51] The vast majority of the population remained voteless which included the whole of the female population. Indeed, by the wording of the Act specifying that only "male persons" were to enjoy the franchise rights that it introduced, the Act thereby introduced the first statutory bar to women voting.

Most of the pocket boroughs abolished by the Reform Act belonged to the Tory Party. These losses were somewhat offset by extending the right to vote to tenants-at-will paying an annual rent of £50. This clause, proposed by the Tory Marquess of Chandos, was adopted in the House of Commons despite opposition from the Government. The tenants-at-will enfranchised by the Chandos clause typically voted in accordance with the wishes of their landlords, who in turn normally supported the Tory party.[52] This concession, together with the Whig Party's internal divisions and the difficulties faced by the nation's economy, allowed the Tories under Sir Robert Peel to make gains in the elections of 1835 and 1837, and to retake the House of Commons in 1841.


The Reform Act also did very little to appease the working class because the voter had to have property worth £10. This split the alliance between the working class and the middle class as it appeased the middle class, because it could afford the required property, while most of the working class could not. This lack of representation for the working class led to the Chartist Movement that sprang from the reform act.

Although it did disenfranchise several rotten boroughs, the Reform Act did not address some other anomalies in the electoral system. A few small boroughs, such as Totnes in Devon and Midhurst in Sussex, were spared. And though pocket boroughs were largely swept away, bribery of the voters remained a problem. As Sir Thomas Erskine May observed, "it was too soon evident, that as more votes had been created, more votes were to be sold."[53]

The Reform Act undoubtedly strengthened the House of Commons by reducing the number of nomination boroughs controlled by peers, but the Lords nonetheless remained powerful. Some aristocrats complained that, in the future, the government could compel them to pass a bill, simply by threatening to swamp the upper House by creating new peerages. The Duke of Wellington lamented: "If such projects can be carried into execution by a minister of the Crown with impunity, there is no doubt that the constitution of this House, and of this country, is at an end. [...] [T]here is absolutely an end put to the power and objects of deliberation in this House, and an end to all just and proper means of decision."[54] But the subsequent history of Parliament indicates that the influence of the Lords was largely undiminished. They compelled the Commons to accept significant amendments to the Municipal Reform Bill in 1835, forced compromises on Jewish emancipation, and resisted several other bills despite public opinion to the contrary.[55]

Further reform

During the ensuing years, Parliament adopted several minor electoral reforms. Acts of Parliament passed in 1835 and 1836 increased the number of polling places in each constituency, and reduced polling to a single day.[56] Parliament also passed several laws aimed at combatting corruption, including the Corrupt Practices Act 1854, but these measures proved largely ineffectual. Neither party strove for any major reforms; leading statesmen from both the Whig and the Tory parties regarded the Reform Act as a final settlement.

There was considerable public agitation for further expansion of the electorate. In particular, the Chartist movement, which demanded universal suffrage for men, equally sized electoral districts, and voting by secret ballot, gained widespread following. But the Tories were united against further reform, and the Liberal Party (successor to the Whigs) did not seek a general revision of the electoral system until 1852. The 1850s saw Lord John Russell introduce a number of reform bills to correct the defects that the first act had left unaddressed. However, no proposal was successful until 1867, when Parliament adopted the Second Reform Act.


Several historians credit the Reform Act 1832 with launching the rise of modern democracy in Britain. G. M. Trevelyan hails 1832 as the watershed moment at which "'the sovereignty of the people' had been established in fact, if not in law."[57] Sir Erskine May notes that "[the] reformed Parliament was, unquestionably, more liberal and progressive in its policy than the Parliaments of old; more vigorous and active; more susceptible to the influence of public opinion; and more secure in the confidence of the people," but admitted that "grave defects still remained to be considered."[58] Other historians have taken a far less laudatory view, arguing that genuine democracy began to arise only with the Second Reform Act in 1867, or perhaps even later. Norman Gash states that "it would be wrong to assume that the political scene in the succeeding generation differed essentially from that of the preceding one."[59] E. A. Smith proposes, in a similar vein, that "when the dust had settled, the political landscape looked much as it had done before.[60]

Historians have long pointed out that in 1829-31, it was the Ultra-Tories or "Country Party" which pressed most strongly for Reform, regarding it as a means of weakening Wellington's ministry, which had disappointed them by granting Catholic emancipation and by its economic policies.[61]

Evans (1996) has emphasized that the Reform Act "opened a door on a new political world." Although Grey's intentions were conservative, and his success gave the aristocracy an additional half-century control of Parliament, the 1832 Act nevertheless did open constitutional questions for further development. Evans argues it was the 1832 Act, not the later reforms of 1867, 1884, or 1918, that were decisive in bringing representative democracy to Britain. Evans concludes the Reform Act marked the true beginning of the development of a recognizably modern political system.[62]

See also



  1. ^ The Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1832 (2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 65) and Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1832 (2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 88 ).
  2. ^ Blackstone (1765), pp. 154-155.
  3. ^ Blackstone (1765), p. 110
  4. ^ Parliamentary Representation of English Boroughs in the Middle Ages by May McKisack 1932.
  5. ^ The Elizabethan House of Commons - J E. Neale 1949 pages 133 - 134. Grampound was one of the 31 boroughs disenfranchised but was disenfranchised prior to the Reform Act in 1821.
  6. ^ The slight qualification has to be made in view of Grampound's disenfranchisement in 1821.
  7. ^ Abingdon, Banbury, Bewdley, Higham Ferrers and Monmouth.
  8. ^ Blackstone (1765), pp. 166-167.
  9. ^ Phillips and Wetherell (1995), p. 413.
  10. ^ Thorne (1986), vol. II, pp. 331, 435, 480.
  11. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 321-322.
  12. ^ Thorne (1986), vol. II, p. 266.
  13. ^ Thorne (1986), vol. II, pp. 50, 369, 380.
  14. ^ London: R. Hunter.
  15. ^ London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green.
  16. ^ See Napier (1824), vol. IV, p. 500.
  17. ^ Rover (1967), p. 3. The rejection of the claims of certain women to be placed on the electoral roll was subsequently confirmed, in spite of the Interpretation Act 1850 (13 & 14 Vict. c. 21) which specified that the masculine gender should include the feminine unless otherwise provided, in Chorlton v. Lings [1868] 4CP 374. In the case of Regina v. Harrald [1872] 7QB 361 it was ruled that married women, otherwise qualified, could not vote in municipal elections. This decision made it clear that married women would be excluded from the operation of any Act enfranchising women for the parliamentary vote, unless special provision to the contrary was made.
  18. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 333.
  19. ^ Holland and Austin (1855), vol. II, pp. 214-215.
  20. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 361-362.
  21. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 340.
  22. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 335.
  23. ^ Pringle and Taylor (1840), vol. III, p. 405.
  24. ^ Cannon (1973), cap. 1.
  25. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 394.
  26. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 397.
  27. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 400-401.
  28. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 402.
  29. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 404-406.
  30. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 406-407.
  31. ^ May (1896), vol. II, pp. 352-359.
  32. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 408-416.
  33. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 412.
  34. ^ May (1896), vol. II, p. 384.
  35. ^ Hansard's Debates, 3rd Series, Volume I, p. 52.
  36. ^ 15 November 1830
  37. ^ Holland and Austin (1855), vol. II, p. 313.
  38. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 421-422.
  39. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 422-423.
  40. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 423-424.
  41. ^ Rudé (1967), pp. 97-98.
  42. ^ May (1896), vol. II, pp. 389-390.
  43. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 452.
  44. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 312.
  45. ^ May (1896), vol. II, pp. 390-391.
  46. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 312-313.
  47. ^ Including Monmouth, considered part of Wales under sections 1, 20 and 269 of the Local Government Act 1972 (cap. 70). The Interpretation Act 1978 (cap. 30) provides that prior to 1 April 1974, "a reference to England includes Berwick-upon-Tweed and Monmouthshire."
  48. ^ Wales did not lose any of its existing borough representatives because with the exception of Beaumaris and Montgomery these members represented groups of towns rather than an individual town. To enable Wales to retain all of its existing borough seats the Act therefore simply increased, where necessary, the number of towns in these groupings and created entirely new groupings for Beaumaris and Montgomery.
  49. ^ Immediately after 1832, more than a third of borough electors—over one hundred thousand—were "ancient right" electors, the greater proportion being freemen. Mortality inevitably caused them to become a dwindling part of the electorate and by 1898 apparently only one ancient right "potwalloper" remained a registered elector.
  50. ^ Matthew Cragoe, "The Great Reform Act and the Modernization of British Politics: The Impact of Conservative Associations, 1835-1841," Journal of British Studies, July 2008, Vol. 47 Issue 3, pp 581-603
  51. ^ Phillips and Wetherell (1995), pp. 413-414.
  52. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 428.
  53. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 433.
  54. ^ Hansard's Debates, 3rd Series, Vol XII, p. 995.
  55. ^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 316-317.
  56. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 449.
  57. ^ Trevelyan (1922), p. 242.
  58. ^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 431.
  59. ^ Gash (1952), p. xii.
  60. ^ Smith (1992), p. 141.
  61. ^ D. C. Moore, "The Other Face of Reform," Victorian Studies, Summer 1961, Vol. 5 Issue 1, pp 7-34
  62. ^ Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870 (2nd ed. 1996) p. 229


  • Blackstone, Sir William. (1765–1769). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Gash, Norman. (1952). Politics in the Age of Peel: A Study in the Technique of Parliamentary Representation, 1830-1850. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • Lady Holland and Sarah Austin. (1855). A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by his daughter, Lady Holland, with a Selection from his Letters edited by Mrs Sarah Austin. 2 vols. London: Brown, Green, and Longmans.
  • Marcus, Jane (ed.). (2001). Women's Source Library Vol.VIII: Suffrage and the Pankhursts. London: Routledge.
  • May, Sir Thomas Erskine. (1896). The Constitutional History of England Since the Accession of George the Third: 1760-1860. 3 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • Napier, Macvey (ed.). (1824). Supplement to Encyclopædia Britannica (4th, 5th & 6th eds.). London: Archibald Constable & Co.
  • Phillips, John A., and Charles Wetherell. (1995). The Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Political Modernization of England. The American Historical Review, vol. 100, pp. 411–436.
  • Pringle, John H., and William S. Taylor, eds. (1838–1840). 4 vols. Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. London.
  • Rover, Constance. (1967). Women's Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain, 1866–1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Rudé, George. (1967). English Rural and Urban Disturbances on the Eve of the First Reform Bill, 1830-1831. Past and Present, no. 37, pp. 87–102.
  • Smith, E. A. (1992). Reform or Revolution? A Diary of Reform in England, 1830-2. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton.
  • Thorne, R. G. (1986). The House of Commons: 1790-1820. London: Secker and Warburg.
  • Trevelyan, G. M. (1922). British History in the Nineteenth Century and After (1782–1901). London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Further reading

  • Brock, Michael. (1973). The Great Reform Act. London: Hutchinson Press.
  • Butler, J. R. M. (1914). The Passing of the Great Reform Bill. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • Cannon, John. (1973). Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Christie, Ian R. (1962). Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform: The Parliamentary Reform Movement in British Politics, 1760-1785. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Doull, James (2000). "Hegel on the English Reform Bill". Animus 5. ISSN 1209-0689. Retrieved August 9, 2011. 
  • Evans, Eric J. (1983). The Great Reform Act of 1832. London: Methuen and Co.
  • Foot, Paul (2005). The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined. London: Viking.
  • Mandler, Peter. (1990). Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform: Whigs and Liberals, 1830-1852. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Newbould, Ian. (1990). Whiggery and Reform, 1830-1841: The Politics of Government. London: Macmillan.
  • O'Gorman, Frank. (1989). Voters, Patrons, and Parties: The Unreformed Electoral System of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Phillips, John A. (1982). Electoral Behaviour in Unreformed England: Plumpers, Splitters, and Straights. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Trevelyan, G. M. (1920). Lord Grey of the Reform Bill: Being the Life of Charles, Second Earl Grey. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • Veitch, George Stead. (1913). The Genesis of Parliamentary Reform. London: Constable and Co.
  • Warham, Dror. (1995). Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • White, R. J. (1957). From Waterloo to Peterloo. London: Heinemann and Co.
  • Wicks, Elizabeth (2006). The Evolution of a Constitution: Eight Key Moments in British Constitutional History. Oxford: Hart Pub., pp. 65–82.
  • Woodward, Sir E. Llewellyn. (1962). The Age of Reform, 1815-1870. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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