1832 Reform Act

Unrepresentative and unbalanced, British parliament was in dire need of reform in the early 1800s. But not until the 1830s, after delaying tactics, parliamentary battles, and public riots, did this 18 foot (5m) long document help begin to spread the vote more fairly.

Why was parliamentary reform needed?

Until the 1830s, Britain's elections were neither representative nor balanced. There was a two-tier system of counties and boroughs. At county level all adult men could vote if they owned land worth 40 shillings. At borough level it depended where you lived. In a few places all men could vote, but mostly it depended on whether you owned property or paid certain taxes. In some boroughs no one had a vote and the Corporation chose the MPs. Some towns, such as Birmingham and Manchester, had no MPs at all.

The size of the boroughs varied. There were the notorious “rotten” boroughs, such as Old Sarum at Salisbury, which had two MPs but only seven voters. There were also “pocket” boroughs, owned by major landowners who chose their own MP. Moreover, with no secret ballot, voters were easily bribed or intimidated.

Following the French Revolution in 1791, public calls for reform grew louder and louder, and the government brought in drastic measures to suppress radical societies and anti-establishment press. But despite the Peterloo Riots of 1820, the ruling Tories remained opposed to reform.

How did reform finally come about?

By 1830 many recognised that some change was necessary. A number of factors contributed. A new Revolution in France had reaffirmed 'people power'. Meanwhile in Britain, George IV had died in June 1830 and was succeeded by his more tolerant brother, William IV. George's death meant that Parliament was dissolved and new elections called. The Tories won again, but with a reduced majority.

Also agitating for reform was the Birmingham Political Union, formed by Thomas Attwood in January 1830. Other political unions sprung up in other cities. Attwood gave speeches to crowds of up to 200,000, emphasising the importance of the “industrious classes” in a capitalist society. Fellow reformer Francis Place came to regard Attwood as “the most influential man in England." Anti-Catholic sentiment came into it too: most Tories had not forgiven the Duke of Wellington from passing the Catholic Relief Act in 1829 and a group of them believed that a reformed House of Commons would not have supported Catholic emancipation.

Although the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, remained defiantly against reform, he was forced out of office. William IV asked the Whig, Earl Grey, to form an administration. This was the same Charles Grey who nearly 40 years before had tried to introduce a Reform Bill. Now was his chance.

What did the Reform Bill set out to do?

The Reform Bill planned to drop all the rotten and pocket boroughs, and other boroughs with under 2000 people; to redistribute seats to enfranchise large towns and populations previously not covered; to give the vote in boroughs to owners of property valued at £10 per annum, but keep the 40 shilling freehold franchise for counties; and to retain the public vote rather than a secret ballot.

When the details of the Bill were revealed in March 1831, reducing the number of MPs but almost doubling the voters, few Tories supported it. Not even all radicals liked it. It scraped through its second reading by one vote, but was amended in the committee stage. Grey saw this as a defeat and asked the king to dissolve Parliament.

The king reluctantly agreed. The new election, in April 1831, strengthened Grey's majority. However, the Bill was still rejected by the Lords. There was rioting in towns across Britain. In Bristol, riots lasted for three days. Over 100 were killed and many more wounded.

Grey was determined to reintroduce the Bill before Christmas and made only minor concessions, restoring some of the smaller boroughs and the number of MPs.

The Bill passed through the Commons and nearly passed through the Lords but proposed revisions halted progress. Grey rejected the revisions and threatened to resign unless the king created enough new peers to ensure the Bill's passage. The king was reluctant so Grey resigned on 9 May 1832.

What was public reaction to all this?

Once again Britain erupted in protest. “Every man you met seemed to be convulsed with rage," wrote William Cobbett. Francis Place and Thomas Attwood headed a campaign of civil disruption via the political unions, with mass meetings, petitions, and advocating the withdrawal of money from banks to cause financial chaos. Attwood even advocated a call to arms. After a tense week, William IV recalled Grey, who would only return if the king guaranteed to create new peers.

In the end he did not have to. The threat was enough. The Lords allowed the Reform Bill through on 4 June 1832.

What effect did the Reform Act have?

In its final form the Reform Act increased the electorate from around 366,000 to 650,000, about 18% of the total adult-male population in England and Wales, though very few working-class men. It specifically excluded women and failed to introduce a ballot. Some MPs may have thought the job was done; but reformists thought this was merely a starting point. The demand for more universal suffrage was just beginning.