The 1832 Great Reform Act

"Were the consequences of the Reform Act of 1832 satisfactory to its makers?"
"Large enough to satisfy public opinion and to afford sure grounds of resistance to further innovation". These instructions from Earl Grey to the committee he formed to frame the Reform Bill in 1830 tell us a great deal about the motives that the government had behind reform. Grey believed that the landed interests of the ruling elite were best served not by reactionary resistance of change, but rather measured reform and concessions, while retaining real political power and avoiding violent revolution from below. However, to fully understand the motives of the framers of the Great Reform Act of 1832, we must first understand both the situation that prompted the reform and the framers themselves.

As is so often the case, demands for constitutional change were prompted by a period of economic problems. Food prices were rising after the failure of the 1829 harvest, and unemployment in the cities was on the increase. These economic factors came just after the resignation of the Tory Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, ending a long and stable period of government, and his replacement by the popular but politically inexperienced Duke of Wellington, adding political instability to the situation. Three other developments followed which seemed designed to further demands for reform and weaken the forces of reaction. George IV, who had been very biased against the Whigs, died and was replaced by William IV, who was relatively politically unbiased on his accession, removing royal opposition to a Whig government. Secondly, in 1830 a bloodless Paris revolution deposed the reactionary Charles X and brought in a period of reform in France, a harsh reminder in Britain of the bloody days of 1790’s revolutionary France. Finally, the disturbances in 1830-31 caused by agricultural workers in the South which became known as the Swing Riots convinced many that, if even this usually docile and conservative group were becoming agitated and politically active, then the whole fabric of society was in danger. Against this background, the 1830 election showed the mood of the country, as many aristocrats and opponents of reform lost their seats, showing the desire, and therefore electoral value, of reform.

Wellington continued for a time after the election amid great public protest and civil unrest, but after he claimed to the House of Lords that the system was as good as it could be and had the full support of the country, showing himself to be completely opposed to reform, a group of Tories rebelled and Wellington resigned, thus bringing Earl Grey’s Whig government to power and setting the scene for the fight to pass the Reform Bill. The committee Grey established struggled with the details of the reforms through the winter of 1830-31, and after the draft bill was amended by the Whig leaders (for example removing the secret ballot), it was presented to a shocked parliament, being far more radical than had been expected.

The Reform Bill had several clauses. Firstly, it replaced the bizarre and varied systems of borough franchise with a single qualification, of adult males with property worth at least £10 per year. Secondly, the county franchise was defined as those owning freehold property worth at least 40 shillings per year. It also redistributed many seats, removing representation from some small constituencies and "pocket boroughs" and increasing the representation in the county seats and previously unrepresented towns, especially new industrial towns in the North. Scotland and Ireland had their own Reform Acts.

The debate then raged in the House of Commons between the Whig supporters of the Bill and their Tory opponents. This can be seen not as a debate on the objectives of the House, but rather how these were to be attained. Both sides were predominantly aristocratic and made up of MPs largely representing the landed interest, and so their objective, whether supporting the Reform Bill or not, was to preserve the dominance of the landed interest in government. There were few supporters for radical measures; even Lord John Russell, a member of the committee which framed the Bill, said the universal suffrage and secret ballot were "incompatible with the constitution of this country". However, Whigs looked to the Reform Bill to strengthen the existing social and political order by bringing the middle classes into the constitution, rather than leaving them to agitate against it from without, whereas the Tory opponents of reform said it would weaken that very order it was trying to preserve.

After another election had given the Whigs the majority necessary to pass the bill in the Commons, the fight moved onto the House of Lords. There it faltered again, as there was still an anti-reform majority in the upper house, which, after furious debate, threw the bill out. This caused another resurgence of popular protest, and the country seemed to be moving even closer to violent revolution, such was the public demand for constitutional change. Meanwhile political activity in parliament to pass the Bill was no less dramatic, with the unwilling king persuaded by Grey to create new pre-reform peers until the bill would pass the Lords. This worked and the bill passed in April 1832, but when a wrecking amendment was also passed in May, Grey demanded the creation of 50 new peers to force the reforms through; and when the king seemed unwilling, he resigned.

Then began a dramatic time known as the ‘Days of May’, where Wellington tried to form a government and pass more moderate reforms, on the request of the king. This caused public outrage and petitions and demonstrations came from all over the country. When Wellington proved unable to hold the Tory government together and resigned, William IV had no choice but to ask Grey to return to power and promise him to provide the necessary peers if it was needed. At this series of events, the parliamentary opposition collapsed and the Reform Act was passed, receiving its royal assent on 7 June 1832, though the king was notably absent from Parliament at the time.

A mistake made by some who do not know much about the details of the Act and its effects is that it somehow transformed the constitution of the country into an essentially modern one, eliminating corruption and imbalances. This was never the intention of the Whig framers of the Bill - no matter how much it may have been on the minds of the supporters of reform outside parliament, and especially outside the franchise. Bribing and treating of voters, for which elections had become notorious, was not decreased by the Reform Act, indeed because it led to many more elections being contested this practice almost certainly became more widespread. As well as corruption, many remarkably undemocratic elements remained after the Reform Act. Although some of the more famous examples, such as Old Sarem, were swept away, some still remained, most notably several boroughs with fewer than 200 voters in 1833, while Doncaster, Loughborough and Croyden remained unrepresented despite having populations in excess of 10,000. Russell said in 1831 of the committee "anomalies they found, and anomalies, though not such glaring ones as now existed, they meant to leave", and indeed they did. Patronage was a well-known undemocratic part of the unreformed system, but Norman Gash has estimated that 60-70 MPs may have been elected through patronage in the reformed system. These bizarre and by our standards corrupt and unfair practices survived because it was not the intention of the Whigs to remove them, and in this way the system after reform was very similar to before and therefore was satisfactory to its framers.

One very definite achievement of the Act was to increase the electorate - the overall effect was to add about half a million voters to an existing electorate of about 400,000, in a population of 24 millions. This meant that one in seven adult males in Britain had the vote. The uniform £10 franchise in the boroughs meant that non-property owners, who were deemed unworthy of the vote, were kept out of the franchise. The social level of the newly enfranchised voters differed around the country because of varied rental values (for example high land prices in London meant even some working class had the vote while in areas of lower land value, such as Devon and Cornwall, even some of the middle classes were excluded.). Despite variations, the overall effect, by design, was to enfranchise the propertied middle classes. This, the most important motive and effect of the Reform Act, was done for two closely linked reasons. Firstly, it was thought that they would be a very conservative group. Although they had been among those agitating most strongly for reform and attacking the unrepresentative parliament, it was believed that once they had the vote they would become very great supporters of resistance to further change. As Michael Brock said, "most of the new voters wanted not to challenge the aristocracy, but to win recognition from it: once they had their rightful position they did not favour further adventures." The success of this part of the plans of the reforming Whigs was seen very clearly only a few years after 1832, when the working class Chartist movement became an important agitating force for change, and the lower middle class, the shopkeepers and small tradesmen, who before 1832 had been the allies of working class Reform movements, became one of their most staunch critics.

This showed their success in their second motive for enfranchising the middle class, that is to separate the alliance that seemed to be growing between the middle and working classes. This growing movement had been shown in 1830 when Attwood formed a "General Political Union between lower and middle classes of the people", one of many to be formed in the towns at that time, which put on very visible shows of strength, including rallies, petitions and demonstrations. This trend was comprehensively stopped by the Reform Act, and the working class organisations were rightly angry at what they saw as the "betrayal" by the middle class in the Reform Act.

I have already said that one of the main aims of the framers of the Act was to maintain the dominance of politics and society of the Aristocracy, and this was seen as being threatened by the enfranchisement of the middle classes by opponents of the reform bill. However, it became obvious very soon after the Act had passed that the calculation of Grey had been correct. The first post-reform Parliament to be elected, in December 1832, showed virtually the same social makeup in the MPs as before reform- the same people were ruling Britain. It is estimated that between 70% and 80% of the MPs represented the landed interest, with no more than 100 MPs being drawn from the middle classes. Indeed, it was not until the 1870’s that the dominance of parliament by the landed aristocracy was starting to slip away. This was partly because the politically active members of the middle class were often more interested in local politics, and after the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act they did indeed come to dominate it.

However, a very important practical reason for the continued dominance of the landed interest was the fact that being an MP was increasingly a full time job, and so only a man with the means to support himself without working on a separate career could be a MP - most who could do this had inherited wealth and most of this was landed.

While talking of the very real motives of the framers of the Reform Act, that is preserving the dominance of the upper class and splitting the extra-parliamentary alliance between middle and working class radicals, it has to be remembered that a primary motive behind the very hastily framed Act was to prevent a violent overthrow of the government, something that seemed a very real threat during 1829-32, with massive protest and civil disobedience, and the haunting memory of the revolutions in France brought suddenly back to the minds of the ruling class. If the reform act was designed to maintain the government and prevent violent overthrow it was undoubtedly successful. Even as the landed interest lost the overall dominance of government later in the 19th century, it was not a violent usurpation but a slow shift in power reflecting the changing nature of society and the economy. Grey, with the Reform Act, forged a powerful alliance between land and industry that stood firm against demands from the working class and gave the rights of property the boost it needed to survive, led by practically the same people. By including the middle classes in the constitution, Britain became the only advanced European nation not to be rocked by political revolution in he 1830’s and 1840’s. We cannot say what may have occurred it the reforms had not been passed by Parliament, but it is not a foregone conclusion that the landed interest would have retained the level of power it did, for the length of time that it did.

Despite the appearance that the Reform Act of 1832 saved the Aristocracy and the establishment, it can be seen with the benefit of hindsight that it was the start of something that none of its makers either intended to wanted; the slow and bloodless evolution of the British political system into a modern, democratic, representative system, and there comes the great failure of the makers of the Act to fulfil their intentions. They had intended the act to be the "final solution of a great constitutional question", as Lord John Russell put it, and yet only 30 years later it was conceded that the working men needed the vote, and by the end of the century the middle class was firmly taking over from the aristocracy as the dominant class of parliament. Therefore, in their search for finality the Whigs were unsuccessful. Their reforms set the precedent for change, showed that it was possible, and also showed the value of popular protest in this process, with disturbances in 1829 and 1832 both achieving results. The Reform Act of 1832 set the country on the path to change, creating the nature of the constitution that has perhaps served it the best over the past century and a half, that is its ability to adapt to the enormous changes in society and the distribution of wealth and power in the country that the modern age and industrialisation have brought. In its immediate effects, it was hugely successful and almost certainly served the interests of the landed ruling elite better than reactionary refusals of change could have. In the long term it did not preserve this dominance, but it was vital for the constitution in preventing violent, bloody revolution, both at the time it was passed, and in the subsequent years. In this achievement, the makers of the 1832 Great Reform Act might indeed be satisfied with its consequences.


Ward, J.T. Popular Movements c.1830-1850, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1976

G. Williams & J. Ramsden Ruling Britannia: A Political History of Britain 1688-1988, Longman, 1990

E. J. Evans The Great Reform Act of 1832 Routledge, 1994

E. J. Evans The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870, Longman,

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