The Representation of the People Act 1832 (known informally as the
1832 Reform Act, Great
Reform Act or First
Reform Act to distinguish
it from subsequent Reform Acts) was an
Act of Parliament
Act of Parliament of the United
Kingdom (indexed as 2 & 3 Will. IV c. 45) 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".
Before the reform, most members nominally represented boroughs. The
number of electors in a borough varied widely, from a dozen or so up
to 12,000. Frequently the selection of MPs was effectively controlled
by one powerful patron: for example Charles Howard, 11th Duke of
Norfolk controlled eleven boroughs. Criteria for qualification for the
franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own
land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a
There had been calls for reform long before 1832, but without success.
The Act that finally succeeded was proposed by the Whigs, led by Prime
Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. It met with significant
opposition from the Pittite factions in Parliament, who had long
governed the country; opposition was especially pronounced in the
House of Lords. Nevertheless, the bill was eventually passed, mainly
as a result of public pressure. The Act granted seats in the House of
Commons to large cities that had sprung up during the Industrial
Revolution, and removed seats from the "rotten boroughs": those with
very small electorates and usually dominated by a wealthy patron. The
Act also increased the electorate from about 500,000 to 800,000,
making about one in five adult males allowed to vote.
The full title is An Act to amend the representation of the people in
England and Wales. Its formal short title and citation is
"Representation of the People Act 1832 (2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 45)". The
Act applied only in England and Wales; the Irish
Reform Act 1832
brought similar changes to Ireland. The separate Scottish Reform Act
1832 was revolutionary, enlarging the electorate by a factor of 1400%
from 5000 to 65,000.
1 The unreformed House of Commons
1.2 The franchise
1.2.1 Women's suffrage
1.3 Pocket boroughs, bribery
2 Movement for reform
2.1 Early attempts at reform
2.2 Aftermath of the French Revolution
2.3 Reform during the 1820s
3 Passage of the Reform Act
3.1 First Reform Bill
3.2 Second Reform Bill
3.3 Third Reform Bill
4.1.1 Abolition of seats
4.1.2 Creation of new seats
4.1.3 Extension of the franchise
4.3 Tenant voters
4.5 Further reform
6 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The unreformed House of Commons
Main article: Unreformed House of Commons
The House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the
Acts of Union 1800
Acts of Union 1800 became law on 1 January 1801 (the reason
they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a single 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.
Counties were historical national subdivisions established between the
8th and 16th centuries. They were not merely parliamentary
constituencies; many components of government (including courts and
the militia) were organised along county lines. The members of
Parliament chosen by the counties were known as Knights of the Shire.
In Wales each county elected one member, while 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 widely in size from small
hamlets to large cities, partly because they had evolved haphazardly.
The earliest boroughs were chosen in the Middle Ages by county
sheriffs, and even a village might be deemed a borough. Many of
these early boroughs (such as Winchelsea and Dunwich) were substantial
settlements at the time of their original enfranchisement, but later
went into decline, and by the early 19th century some only had a few
electors, but still elected two MPs; they were often known as rotten
boroughs. In later centuries the reigning monarch decided which
settlements to enfranchise. The monarchs seem mostly to have done so
capriciously, often with little regard for the merits of the place
they were enfranchising. Of the 70 English boroughs that Tudor
monarchs enfranchised, 31 were later disenfranchised. Finally, the
parliamentarians of the 17th century compounded the inconsistencies by
re-enfranchising 15 boroughs whose representation had lapsed for
centuries, seven of which were later disenfranchised by the Reform
Act. After Newark was enfranchised in 1661, no additional boroughs
were enfranchised, and the unfair system remained unchanged until the
Reform Act of 1832. Grampound's disenfranchisement in 1821 was the
sole exception. Most English boroughs elected two MPs; but five
boroughs elected only one MP: Abingdon, Banbury, Bewdley, Higham
Ferrers and Monmouth. The
City of London
City of London and the joint borough of
Weymouth and Melcombe Regis each elected four members. The Welsh
boroughs each returned a single member.
Statutes passed in 1430 and 1432, during the reign of Henry VI,
standardised property qualifications for county voters. Under these
Acts, all 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 one had to own in
order to vote gradually diminished over time. The franchise was
restricted to males by custom rather than statute; on rare
occasions women had been able to vote in parliamentary elections as a
result of property ownership. Nevertheless, the vast majority of
people were not entitled to vote; the size of the English county
electorate in 1831 has been estimated at only 200,000.
Furthermore, the sizes of the individual county constituencies varied
significantly. The smallest counties,
Rutland and Anglesey, had fewer
than 1,000 voters each, while the largest county, Yorkshire, had more
than 20,000. Those who owned property in multiple constituencies
could vote multiple times; there was usually no need to live in 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:
Boroughs in which freemen were electors;
Boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to those paying scot
and lot, a form of municipal taxation;
Boroughs in which only the ownership of a burgage property qualified a
person to vote;
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);
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 his/her own hearth);
Boroughs in which freeholders of land had the right to vote.
Some boroughs had a combination of these varying types of franchise,
and most had special rules and exceptions, so many boroughs had a
form of franchise that was unique to themselves.
The largest borough, Westminster, had about 12,000 voters, while many
of the smallest, usually known as "rotten boroughs", had fewer than
100 each. 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 were Dunwich (32 voters), Camelford (25), and Gatton (7).
By contrast, France in 1831 had a population of 32 million, about
double the 16.5 million in England, Wales and Scotland. But there
were only 165,000 French voters, compared to 439,000 in Britain.
France adopted universal male suffrage in 1848.
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, 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. In the "celebrated article on Government", James Mill
... 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.
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 explicit
statutory bar to women voting, which provided a focus of attack and a
source of resentment from which, in time, the women's suffrage
Pocket boroughs, bribery
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.
Many constituencies, especially those with small electorates, were
under the control of rich landowners, and were known as nomination
boroughs or pocket boroughs, because they were said to be in the
pockets of their patrons. Most patrons were noblemen or 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
controlled eleven, while the Earl of Lonsdale controlled nine.
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!" 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. A member who
represented a pocket borough was expected to vote as his patron
ordered, or else lose his seat at the next election.
Voters in some constituencies resisted outright domination by powerful
landlords, but were often open to corruption. Electors were bribed
individually in some boroughs, and collectively in others. In 1771,
for example, it was revealed that 81 voters in New Shoreham (who
constituted a majority of the electorate) formed a corrupt
organisation that called itself the "Christian Club", and regularly
sold the borough to the highest bidder. 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. Lord Chatham, Prime Minister of Great
Britain during the 1760s, casting an eye on the fortunes made in India
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".
Movement for reform
Early attempts at reform
William Pitt the Younger
William Pitt the Younger was a prominent advocate of parliamentary
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 reorganisation of parliamentary constituencies. Their
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
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
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. 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. 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. 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. Many English politicians became steadfastly
opposed to any major political change. Despite this reaction, several
Radical Movement groups were established to agitate for reform. A
group of Whigs led by
James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale
James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale and
Charles Grey founded an organisation advocating parliamentary reform
in 1792. This group, known as the Society of the Friends of the
People, included 28 MPs. 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 tried to raise the subject again in
1797, but the House again rebuffed him by a majority of over 150.
Other notable pro-reform organisations 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 organisations (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.
Despite such setbacks, popular pressure for reform remained strong. In
1819, a large pro-reform rally was held in Birmingham. Although the
city was not 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
a similar meeting to elect a "legislatorial attorney". Between 20,000
and 60,000 (by different estimates) attended the event, many of them
bearing signs such as "Equal Representation or Death". The protesters
were ordered to disband; when they did not, the
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Passage of the Reform Act
First Reform Bill
The Duke of Wellington, Tory Prime Minister (1828–30) strongly
opposed reform measures.
The death of King George IV on 26 June 1830 dissolved Parliament by
law, and a general election was 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 was the Birmingham
Political Union, led by Thomas Attwood. These groups confined
themselves to lawful means of supporting reform, such as petitioning
and public oratory, and achieved a high level of public support.
The Tories won a majority in the election, but the party remained
divided, and support for the Prime Minister (the Duke of Wellington)
was weak. When the Opposition raised the issue of reform in one of the
first debates of the year, the Duke made a controversial defence of
the existing system of government, recorded in the formal
"third-party" language of the time:
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 these
remarks, on 15 November 1830 he was forced to resign after he was
defeated in a motion of no confidence.
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."
Wellington was replaced by the Whig reformer Charles Grey, who had by
this time 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 60 of the smallest boroughs, and
reduced the representation of 47 others. Some 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 standardised and expanded the borough franchise,
increasing the size of the electorate (according to one estimate) by
half a million voters.
On 22 March, the vote on the second reading attracted a record 608
members, including the non-voting Speaker (the previous record was 530
members). Despite the high attendance, the second reading was approved
by only one vote, and further progress on the Reform Bill was
difficult. During the committee stage,
Isaac Gascoyne put forward a
motion objecting to provisions of the bill that reduced the total
number of seats in the House of Commons. This motion was carried,
against the government's wishes, by 8 votes. Thereafter, the ministry
lost a vote on a procedural motion by 22 votes. As these divisions
indicated that Parliament was against the Reform Bill, the ministry
decided to request a dissolution and take its appeal to the
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 election 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 100 votes.
The Bill was then sent up to the House of Lords, a majority in which
was known to be hostile to it. After the Whigs' decisive victory in
the 1831 election, some speculated that opponents would abstain,
rather than openly defy the public will. Indeed, when the Lords voted
on the second reading of the bill after a memorable series of debates,
many Tory peers did refrain from voting. However, the Lords Spiritual
mustered in unusually large numbers, and of 22 present, 21 voted
against the Bill. It failed by 41 votes.
When the Lords rejected the Reform Bill, public violence ensued. That
very evening, riots broke out in Derby, where a mob attacked the city
jail and freed several prisoners. In 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 controlled the city
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.
Meanwhile, the political unions, which had hitherto been separate
groups united only by a common goal, decided 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 shun it. The leaders of the National
Political Union ignored this proclamation, but leaders of the
influential Birmingham branch decided to co-operate with the
government by discouraging activities on a national level.
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 new king, William IV, 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.
Realizing that another rejection would not be politically feasible,
opponents of reform decided to use amendments to change the bill's
essential character; for example, they voted to delay consideration of
clauses in 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, swamping the House of Lords
with pro-reform votes. But the prerogative of creating peerages rested
with the king, who recoiled from so drastic a step and rejected the
unanimous advice of his cabinet. Lord Grey then resigned, and the king
invited the Duke of Wellington to form a new government.
The ensuing period became known as the "Days of May", with so great a
level of political agitation that some feared revolution. Some
protesters advocated non-payment of taxes, and urged a run on the
banks; one day signs appeared across London reading "Stop the Duke; go
for gold!" £1.8 million was withdrawn from the Bank of England in the
first days of the run (out of about £7 million total gold in the
Bank's possession). The National Political Union and other
organisations sent petitions to the House of Commons, demanding that
they withhold supply (cut off funding to the government) until the
House of Lords
House of Lords should acquiesce. Some demonstrations called for the
abolition of the nobility, and some even of the monarchy. In these
circumstances, the Duke of Wellington had great difficulty in building
support for his premiership, despite promising moderate reform. He was
unable to form a government, leaving King William with no choice but
to recall Lord Grey. Eventually the king consented to fill the House
of Lords with Whigs; however, without the knowledge of his cabinet,
Wellington circulated a letter among Tory peers, encouraging them to
desist from further opposition, and warning them of the consequences
of continuing. At this, enough opposing peers relented. By
abstaining from further votes, they allowed the legislation to pass in
the House of Lords, and the Crown was thus not forced to create new
peers. The bill finally received the
Royal Assent on 7 June 1832,
thereby becoming law.
Abolition of seats
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. There were 203 boroughs in England before the
Act. The 56 smallest of these, as measured by their housing stock
and tax assessments, were completely abolished. The next 30 smallest
boroughs each lost one of their two MPs. In addition Weymouth and
Melcombe Regis's four members were reduced to two. Thus in total the
Act abolished 143 borough seats in England (one of the boroughs to be
completely abolished, Higham Ferrers, had only a single
Creation of new seats
In their place the Act created 130 new seats in England and Wales:
26 English counties were divided into two divisions with each division
being represented by two members.
8 English counties and 3 Welsh counties each received an additional
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
22 large towns were given two MPs.
Another 21 towns (of which two were in Wales) were given one MP.
Thus 65 new county seats and 65 new borough seats were created in
England and Wales. The total number of English members fell by 17 and
the number in Wales increased by four. The boundaries of the new
divisions and parliamentary boroughs were defined in a separate Act,
the Parliamentary Boundaries Act 1832.
Extension of the franchise
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 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 £10 a year were given the right to vote – a measure which
introduced to all boroughs a standardised form of franchise for the
first time. Existing borough electors retained a lifetime right to
vote, however they had 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 freemanship was acquired through birth or
apprenticeship and they too were resident.
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 authorised 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.)
Reform Act itself did not affect constituencies in Scotland or
Ireland. However, reforms there 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 total
number of seats in the House of Commons the same as it had been before
the Act. While no constituencies were disfranchised in either of those
countries, voter qualifications were standardised and the size of the
electorate was expanded in both.
Local Conservative Associations began to educate citizens about the
Party's platform and encouraged them to register to vote annually, as
mandated by the Act. Press coverage of national politics in the local
press was joined by in-depth reports on provincial politics in the
national press. Grassroots Conservatives therefore saw themselves as
part of a national political movement during the 1830s.
The size of the pre-Reform electorate is difficult to estimate. Voter
registration was lacking, and many boroughs were rarely contested in
elections. It is estimated that immediately before the 1832 Reform
Act, 400,000 English subjects were entitled to vote, and that after
passage, the number rose to 650,000, an increase of more than 60%.
Tradesmen, such as shoemakers, believed that the
Reform Act had given
them the vote. One example is the shoemakers of Duns, Berwickshire.
They created a banner celebrating the
Reform Act which declared "The
battle's won. Britannia's sons are free." This banner is on display at
People's History Museum
People's History Museum in Manchester.
Many major commercial and industrial cities became separate
parliamentary boroughs under the Act. The new constituencies saw party
conflicts inside the middle-class, and between the middle-class and
working-class. Iwami looked at elections in the medium-sized borough
of Halifax, 1832–1852, and reports that the party organizations, and
the voters themselves, depended heavily on local social relationships
and localized institutions. Having the vote encouraged many men to
become much more active in the political, economic and social
The Act revolutionized politics in Scotland, with its population of 2
million. Its electorate was only 0.2% of the population compared to 4%
in England. The Scottish electorate overnight soared from 5000 to
65,000, or 13% of the adult men, and was no longer a private preserve
for a few very rich families.
Most of the pocket boroughs abolished by the
Reform Act belonged to
the Tory Party. These losses were somewhat offset by the extension of
the 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 thereby enfranchised typically voted as instructed by
their landlords, who in turn normally supported the Tory party.
This concession, together with the Whig Party's internal divisions and
the difficulties faced by the nation's economy, allowed the Tories
Robert Peel to make gains in the elections of 1835 and 1837,
and to retake the House of Commons in 1841.
Krein examines the votes in the House and reports that the traditional
landed interest "suffered very little" by the terms of the 1832 Act.
They continued to dominate Commons, while losing a bit of their power
to enact laws that focused on their more parochial interests. By
contrast, Krein argues, the 1867
Reform Act caused serious erosion of
their legislative power and the 1874 elections saw great landowners
losing their county seats to the votes of tenant farmers in England
and especially in Ireland.
Reform Act did not enfranchise the working class since voters were
required to possess property worth £10, a substantial sum at the
time. This split the alliance between the working class and the middle
class, giving rise to the Chartist Movement.
Although it did disenfranchise most rotten boroughs, a few remained,
Totnes in Devon and Midhurst in Sussex. Also, bribery of
voters remained a problem. As Sir
Thomas Erskine May
Thomas Erskine May observed, "it was
too soon evident, that as more votes had been created, more votes were
to be sold".
Reform Act strengthened the House of Commons by reducing the
number of nomination boroughs controlled by peers. Some aristocrats
complained that, in the future, the government could compel them to
pass any bill, simply by threatening to swamp the
House of Lords
House of Lords with
The Duke of Wellington
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." The subsequent history of
Parliament, however, shows 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 successfully resisted several other bills
supported by the public. It would not be until decades later,
culminating in the Parliament Act 1911, that Wellington's fears would
come to pass.
During the ensuing years, Parliament adopted several more minor
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. Parliament also passed several laws aimed at
combatting corruption, including the Corrupt Practices Act 1854,
though these measures proved largely ineffectual. Neither party strove
for further major reform; leading statesmen on both sides regarded the
Reform Act as a final settlement.
There was considerable public agitation for further expansion of the
electorate, however. In particular, the Chartist movement, which
demanded universal suffrage for men, equally sized electoral
districts, and voting by secret ballot, gained a 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 defects the first act had left
unaddressed. However, no proposal was successful until 1867, when
Parliament adopted the Second Reform Act.
An area the
Reform Act did not address was the issue of municipal and
regional government. As a result of archaic traditions, many English
counties had enclaves and exclaves, which were mostly abolished in the
Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844. Furthermore, many new conurbations
and economic areas bridged traditional county boundaries by having
been formed in previously obscure areas: the West Midlands conurbation
bridged Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire,
Liverpool both had hinterlands in Cheshire but city centres in
Lancashire, while in the south Oxford's developing southern suburbs
were in Berkshire and London was expanding into Essex, Surrey and
Middlesex. This led to further acts to reorganise county boundaries in
the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Many historians credit the
Reform Act 1832 with launching modern
democracy in Britain.
G. M. Trevelyan
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". 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". Other historians have argued 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".
Much of the support for passage in Parliament came from conservatives
hoping to head off even more radical changes. Earl Gray argued that
the aristocracy would best be served by a cautiously constructive
reform program. Most Tories were strongly opposed, and made dire
predictions dangerous radical proposals. However one faction of
Ultra-Tories supported reform measures in the order to weaken
Wellington's ministry, which had outraged them by granting Catholic
Historians in recent decades have been polarized over emphasizing or
downplaying the importance of the Act. However, John A. Phillips,
and Charles Wetherell argue for its drastic modernizing impact on the
England's frenzy over the Reform Bill in 1831, coupled with the effect
of the bill itself upon its enactment in 1832, unleashed a wave of
political modernization that the Whig Party eagerly harnessed and the
Tory Party grudgingly, but no less effectively, embraced. Reform
quickly destroyed the political system that had prevailed during the
long reign of George III and replaced it with an essentially modern
electoral system based on rigid partisanship and clearly articulated
political principle. Hardly "modest" in its consequences, the Reform
Act could scarcely have caused a more drastic alteration in England's
Likewise Eric Evans concludes that the
Reform Act "opened a door on a
new political world". Although Grey's intentions were conservative,
Evans says, and the 1832 Act gave the aristocracy an additional
half-century's control of Parliament, the 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
Reform Act marked the true beginning of the development
of a recognisably modern political system.
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List of Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1820–39
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Reform Act 1832
^ Robert Allan Houston (2008). Scotland: A Very Short Introduction.
^ Blackstone (1765), pp. 154–155.
^ Blackstone (1765), p. 110
^ Parliamentary Representation of English Boroughs in the Middle Ages
by May McKisack, 1932.
^ 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.
^ Blackstone (1765), pp. 166–167.
^ "Ancient voting rights", The History of the Parliamentary Franchise,
House of Commons Library, 1 March 2013, p. 6, retrieved 16 March
^ Heater, Derek (2006). Citizenship in Britain: A History. Edinburgh
University Press. p. 107. ISBN 9780748626724.
^ Phillips and Wetherell (1995), p. 413.
^ Thorne (1986), vol. II, pp. 331, 435, 480.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 321–322.
^ Thorne (1986), vol. II, p. 266.
^ Thorne (1986), vol. II, pp. 50, 369, 380.
^ There were an additional 7.8 million in Ireland.
^ Sherman Kent, "Electoral lists of France's July Monarchy,
1830-1848." French Historical Studies (1971): 117-127. p 120.
^ London: R. Hunter.
^ London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green.
Bruce Mazlish (1988). James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in
the Nineteenth Century. Transaction Publishers. p. 86.
^ Rover (1967), p. 3. The rejection of the claims of certain women to
be placed on the electoral roll was subsequently confirmed, in spite
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  4CP 374. In the case
of Regina v. Harrald  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.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 333.
^ Holland and Austin (1855), vol. II, pp. 214–215.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 361–362.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 340.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 335.
^ Roderick Cavaliero (2002). Strangers in the Land: The Rise and
Decline of the British Indian Empire. I.B.Tauris. p. 65.
^ Cannon (1973), cap. 1.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 394.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 397.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 400–401.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 402.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 404–406.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 406–407.
^ May (1896), vol. II, pp. 352–359.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 408–416.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 412.
Norman Gash (1990). Wellington: Studies in the Military and
Political Career of the First Duke of Wellington.
^ May (1896), vol. II, p. 384.
^ Edward Potts Cheyney, ed. (1922). Readings in English History Drawn
from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate A Short History of
England. Ginn. p. 680. CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list
^ Holland and Austin (1855), vol. II, p. 313.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 421–422.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 422–423.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 423–424.
^ Rudé (1967), pp. 97–98.
^ May (1896), vol. II, pp. 389–390.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 452.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 312.
^ Gross, David M. (2014). 99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance
Campaigns. Picket Line Press. p. 176.
^ May (1896), vol. II, pp. 390–391.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 312–313.
^ Mc?Kechnie, The reform of the House of Lords
^ Including Monmouth, considered part of Wales under sections 1, 20
and 269 of the
Local Government Act 1972
Local Government Act 1972 (cap. 70). The Interpretation
Act 1978 (cap. 30) provides that before 1 April 1974, "a reference to
Berwick-upon-Tweed and Monmouthshire".
^ 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
^ Immediately after 1832, more than a third of borough electors—over
100,000—were "ancient right" electors, the greater proportion being
freemen. Their numbers dwindled by death, and by 1898 apparently only
one ancient right "potwalloper" remained a registered elector.
^ 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,
^ Phillips and Wetherell (1995), pp. 413–414.
^ Collection Highlights, Shoemakers Banner, People's History
^ Toshihiko Iwama, "Parties, Middle-Class Voters, And The Urban
Community: Rethinking The Halifax Parliamentary
1832–1852," Northern History (2014) 51#1 pp. 91–112
^ Rab Houston (2008). Scotland: A Very Short Introduction.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 428.
^ David F. Krein "The Great Landowners in the House of Commons,
1833–85," Parliamentary History (2013) 32#3 pp 460–476
^ May (1895). The Constitutional History of England.
^ Quoted in May (1895). The Constitutional History of England.
^ May (1896), vol. I, pp. 316–317.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 449.
^ A. Ricardo López; Barbara Weinstein (2012). The Making of the
Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History. Duke UP.
^ Trevelyan (1922), p. 242.
^ May (1896), vol. I, p. 431.
^ Gash (1952), p. xii.
^ D. C. Moore, "The Other Face of Reform", Victorian Studies, (1961)
5#1 pp 7–34
^ For example W. A. Speck, A Concise History of Britain, 1707-1975
(1993) pp 72-76.
^ John A. Phillips, and Charles Wetherell. "The Great
Reform Act of
1832 and the political modernization of England." American Historical
Review 100.2 (1995): 411-436 online.
^ Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial
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Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Reform Act 1832
Full original text of the Act as passed: "Cap. XLV: An Act to amend
the Representation of the People in England and Wales.". The statutes
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. 2 & 3 William
IV. London: His Majesty's statute and law printers. 1832.
pp. 154–206. Retrieved 2 December 2010.
Bloy, Marjie. The
Reform Act Crisis
Spartacus. 1832 Reform Act
The National Archives. "The Struggle for Democracy"
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, The Great Reform Act
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