The 1832 Reform Act

The 1832 Reform Act was the result of a long struggle both in the streets and in Parliament, but although it enfranchised some, it had little real impact on the lives of the working classes.

Until the 1830s, Britain's elections were neither representative nor balanced. A range of factors determined whether you were eligible to vote, including whether you lived in a county or a borough and whether your area was eligible to send an MP to Parliament at all.

In a few places all men could vote, but in the vast majority of locations it depended on whether you owned property or paid certain taxes. Some boroughs, such as those in the rapidly growing industrial towns of Birmingham and Manchester, had no MPs to represent them at all. At the same time, there were notorious 'rotten' boroughs, such as Old Sarum at Salisbury, which had two MPs but only seven voters. There were also 'pocket' boroughs – those owned by major landowners who chose their own MP. Moreover, with no secret ballot, voters were easily bribed or intimidated.

A range of factors, including a popular campaign by the Birmingham Political Union, caused many people to begin to realise that change was necessary. The Prime Minister at the time, the Duke of Wellington, remained defiantly against reform, but he was forced out of office. King William IV asked the Whig, Earl Grey, to form an administration and he used his position to pursue reform of the electoral system. The path of the resulting reforming Bill through Parliament was extremely tough and its being finally passed on 4th June 1832 was only as a result of widespread public unrest and the resignation of Earl Grey.

In its final form the Reform Act of 1832 increased the electorate from around 366,000 to 650,000, which was about 18 per cent of the total adult-male population in England and Wales. The vast majority of the working classes, as well as women, were still excluded from voting and the Act failed to introduce a secret ballot. The working classes felt betrayed by an act which made no real difference to their lives. However, the reform of Parliament had begun, and this paved the way for the popular agitation of the Chartists.

Taken from: Reform Act, 1832
Date: 1832
Copyright: Copyright © Parliamentary Archives. Used by permission.
Shelfmark: Parliamentary Archives HL/ PO/ PU/ 1/ 1832/ 2&3W4n147