Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The coming of reform

With Britain's victory over France at Waterloo in 1815 radicalism revived. The post-war slump created huge hardships, to which the government of Lord Liverpool seemed largely unresponsive, and as the working classes grew in number they increasingly demanded the right to vote and the reform of Parliament.

The Peterloo Massacre
Public Domain
The government's clumsy response to working-class agitation was repression, most notoriously in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on 16 August 1819, in which about eleven people were killed and hundreds injured. 

The Yeomanry charge into the crowd
at St Peter's Fields

Public Domain

Catholic emancipation

However, in the 1820s there were signs of change.  In 1824 the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed, allowing Protestant Dissenters the same civil rights as Anglicans. This was relatively uncontroversial. However there was huge political agitation when the Tory government of the Duke of Wellington, the prime minister, and Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary, reluctantly passed the Catholic Relief Act in 1829. This was in response to the election of the Catholic barrister, Daniel O'Connell in the County Clare election of 1828. 

Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847)
'The Liberator'
Public Domain

The Great Reform Act 1832

You can listen here to a discussion of the Reform Act on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme.

After Catholic emancipation the demand for parliamentary reform became irresistible, among many sections of the middle and working classes.

On 2 November 1830 the duke of Wellington, made a disastrous speech in the Lords in which he argued that the state of representation could not be improved, and that the system of electoral representation commanded the ‘entire confidence’ of the nation’. He believed that his uncompromising stand would encourage the forces of Toryism to rally around him, but he had failed to appreciate the depth of the reform movement in the country. When the government was defeated on a minor financial motion on 15 November Wellington resigned and on 16 November William IV asked the Whig leader, Earl Grey, to form a government. The new government was committed to parliamentary reform.

Charles, 2nd Earl Grey
Prime Minister 1830-4
Public Domain

In March 1831 a reform bill passed the Commons by a majority of one. The general election of April was, in effect, a referendum on the bill and showed an irresistible momentum for reform as many Tories lost their seats. But on 8 October the Lords rejected the bill. This led to a series of violent incidents in the country, most notably riots in Bristol and Nottingham.

The Bristol Riots, October 1831
Public Domain

In May 1832, with the Lords still proving intransigent, the king reluctantly agreed to the creation of Whig peers. This frightened the Lords into passing the bill, and on 7 June it received the royal assent. The news of the passing of the bill was greeted by banquets, illuminations and ringing of church bells. In the subsequent general election, the Whigs won 483 seats, the Tories 175.

The provisions of the act were modest. It disenfranchised the more notorious pocket boroughs and created new parliamentary constituencies, notably Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Birmingham. The right to vote in the counties was extended beyond the 40 shilling freeholders to other forms of land tenure. In the boroughs there was a uniform franchise of £10 householders.


There are two views about the Reform Act.

  1. It was the 'great Whig betrayal' that left the working classes still without a vote, even though they had been among the foremost campaigners for reform.
  2. Though a very modest reform it showed that the British constitution could be changed. Other reforms were bound to follow.

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