Calls for reform had been mooted long before 1832, but perennially without success. The Act which finally succeeded was proposed by the Whigs led by the Prime Minister Lord Grey. It met with significant opposition from the Tories, especially in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, as a result of public pressure, the bill eventually passed. The Act granted seats in the House of Commons to large cities that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution, and took away seats from the "rotten boroughs"—those with very small populations. The Act also increased the number of individuals entitled to vote, increasing the size of electorate by 50–80%, and allowing a total of 653,000 adult males (around one in five) to vote, in a population of some 14 million.
The full title is An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. Its formal short title and citation is the Representation of the People Act 1832 (2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 45). The Act only applied in England and Wales; separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland. Other reform measures were passed later during the nineteenth century; as a result, the Reform Act 1832 is sometimes called the First, or Great Reform Act.
After the Irish Act of Union in 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 eighth and sixteenth centuries. They were not merely parliamentary constituencies; many components of the government (including courts and the militia) were organized 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 of Parliament whilst 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 were cities or towns, or even villages, that had been granted the right to elect members a parliament by the crown or had been chosen to do so by county sheriffs in the distant past. Theoretically, the honour of electing members of Parliament belonged to the wealthiest and most flourishing towns in the kingdom. Boroughs that ceased to be successful could be disenfranchised by the Crown. In practice, however, many tiny hamlets became boroughs, especially between the reigns of Henry VIII and Charles II. Likewise, boroughs that had flourished during the Middle Ages, but had since fallen into decay, were allowed to continue sending representatives to Parliament. The royal prerogative of enfranchising and disfranchising boroughs fell into disuse after the reign of Charles II; as a result, these historical anomalies became set in stone. The greater proportion of boroughs in England elected two members of Parliament, five boroughs however elected only one member and the City of London and the joint borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis each elected four members. The Welsh boroughs each returned one member.
In boroughs the franchise was far more varied. There were broadly six types of parliamentary boroughs as defined by their franchise: i) boroughs in which freemen were electors; ii) boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to those paying scot and lot, a form of municipal taxation; iii) boroughs in which only the ownership of a burgage property qualified a person to vote; iv) 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); v) 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 their own hearth); and vi) boroughs in which freeholders of land had the right to vote. Some boroughs had a combination of franchises and all usually had special rules and exceptions, so much so many boroughs had a form of franchise that was unique to themselves. The largest borough, Westminster, had approximately 12,000 voters, while the smallest, usually known as "rotten boroughs" had, in most cases, fewer than a hundred 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 include Dunwich (32 voters), Camelford (25), and Gatton (seven).
...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 a more significant event however; it has been argued that it was the inclusion of the word "male," thus providing the first statutory bar to women voting, which provided a focus of attack and a source of resentment from which, in time, the women's suffrage movement grew.
A large number of House of Commons constituencies, especially those with small electorates, were under the control of rich landowners. These constituencies were known as nomination boroughs or pocket boroughs, because they were said to be in the pockets of their patrons. Most patrons were members of the nobility or the 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 possessed eleven, while the Earl of Lonsdale owned 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! Dr 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, lest he lose his seat at the next election.
Voters in some constituencies were independent enough to resist domination by powerful landlords. However, they were, in many cases, still open to corruption. Electors were bribed individually in some boroughs, and collectively in others. In 1771, for example, it was revealed that eighty-one voters in New Shoreham (who constituted a majority of the electorate) formed a corrupt organization 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, once 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.
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 reorganization of parliamentary constituencies. Their leader 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 I.
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 ("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.
Other notable pro-reform organizations 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 organizations (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 group of individuals held a pro-reform political rally in Birmingham. Although the city was not formally 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 Manchester decided to hold a similar meeting to elect a "legislatorial attorney." A large number of individuals (between twenty thousand and sixty thousand, according to different estimates) attended the event, many of them bearing signs such as "Equal Representation or Death." The protesters were ordered to disband; when they failed to do so, armed members of the Manchester Yeomenry 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 that were 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.
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 Protestant cities in northern England.
The death of King George IV on 26th June 1830 caused Parliament to be dissolved, and a general election 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 associations was the Birmingham Political Union, led by Thomas Attwood. These groups confined themselves to lawful, non-violent means of supporting reform, such as petitioning and public oratory, and achieved a great level of public support.
Nonetheless, the Tories won a majority in the election. But the party was divided, and support for the Prime Minister (Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington) was weak. When the Opposition raised the issue of reform during one of the first debates of the year, the Duke made a controversial statement defending the merits of the existing system of government, speaking 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 the above remarks, he was forced to resign following an adverse vote in the House of Commons on a confidence motion. 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 succeeded to 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 sixty of the smallest boroughs, and reduced the representation of forty-seven others. Some of the 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 standardized 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 608 members (including the non-voting Speaker), more than any previous division. (The previous record was 530 members.) Despite such a large attendance, the second reading was approved by only one vote. But further progress for the Reform Bill proved difficult. During the committee stage, Isaac Gascoyne proposed a motion objecting to the provisions of the bill that reduced the total number of seats in the House of Commons. The motion was carried, contrary to the government's wishes, by nine votes. Thereafter, the ministry lost a vote on a procedural motion by twenty-two votes. As these divisions indicated that Parliament was in fact averse to the Reform Bill, the ministry decided to request a dissolution and to take their appeal to the people.
The bill was then sent up to the House of Lords, a majority of whose members were known to be hostile to it. Due to the decisive verdict of the electorate in favour of the Whigs at the previous election, some speculated that opponents of reform would abstain from voting, instead of openly defying the public will. Indeed, when the House voted on the second reading of bill after a memorable series of debates, a large number of Tory peers refrained from voting. However, the Lords Spiritual mustered in unusually large numbers; of the twenty-two that were present, twenty-one voted against the bill. Consequently, the bill failed by a margin of forty-one votes.
Once the Lords rejected the Reform Bill, public violence ensued. That very evening, riots broke out in Derby, where the mob attacked the city gaol and set several prisoners free. At 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 took control 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.
In the meantime, the political unions, which had hitherto been separate groups united only by a common goal, decided to band together 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 refrain joining it. The leaders of the National Political Union ignored the proclamation, but the leaders of the influential Birmingham branch decided to co-operate with government wishes by discouraging activities on a national level.'''
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 King 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.
Realising that another rejection would be politically unfeasible, opponents of reform decided to use amendments to change the bill's essential character. Their reliance on this tactic became obvious during the committee stage, when they voted to delay consideration of the clauses of 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, thereby swamping the House of Lords with pro-reform members. But the prerogative of creating peerages belonged to the King, William IV, who recoiled from taking so harsh a step. When the King rejected the unanimous advice of the cabinet, Lord Grey resigned, and the Crown called upon the Duke of Wellington to form a new government.
The ensuing period, known as the "Days of May", created so great a level of political agitation that some feared revolution. Several protesters encouraged a refusal to pay taxes and a run on the banks. They encouraged people to "Stop the Duke, go for gold", i.e. take money out of the banks, and £1½ million in gold was withdrawn from the Bank of England. The National Political Union and other organizations sent petitions to the House of Commons demanding that they withhold supply (cut off funding to the government) until the House of Lords acquiesced. Some demonstrations called for the abolition of the nobility, and even of the monarchy. In these circumstances, the Duke of Wellington had great difficulty in finding support for his premiership, despite promises of moderate reform. He was unable to form a government, leaving King William IV with no choice but to recall Lord Grey to office. At length, the King consented to swamp the House of Lords with Whigs. However, without the knowledge of his ministers, he circulated a letter among the Tory peers, encouraging them to desist from further opposition, and warning them of the consequences of failing to do so. Threatened with such a fate, opposition peers ultimately relented. By abstaining from further votes, they allowed the legislation to pass the House of Lords, and prevented the Crown and cabinet from resorting to the creation of new peers. The bill finally received the Royal Assent on 7 June 1832, thereby becoming law.
The Reform Act's chief objective was the reduction of the number of nomination boroughs. Two hundred and three boroughs existed in England before the Act. The fifty-six least consequential of these boroughs, as measured by their housing stock and tax assessments, were completely abolished. The next thirty least consequential boroughs each lost one of their two members of parliament. In addition Weymouth and Melcombe Regis' entitlement to four members was reduced to two members. In total therefore the Act's disfranchised 143 borough seats in England (one of the boroughs to be completely abolished, Higham Ferrers, had only a single representative). In their place the Act created 135 new seats for England and Wales. Twenty-six English counties were divided into two divisions with each division being represented by two members. Eight English counties and three Welsh counties each received an additional representative and 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 two MPs. Twenty-two large towns were given the privilege of electing two representatives, and another twenty-one towns (two being in Wales) were given the privilege of electing a single representative. Thus the Act's enfranchising clauses created 65 new county seats and 65 new borough seats in England and Wales with the total number of members representing England falling by seventeen and the number representing Wales rising by four.
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 ten pounds a year were given the right to vote - a measure which introduced to all boroughs a standardized form of franchise for the first time. Existing borough electors retained a lifetime right to vote, however they 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 freeman-ship 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 authorized 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.)
The Reform Act did not affect constituencies in Scotland or Ireland. However, reforms in those parts of the United Kingdom 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 number of seats in the House of Commons the same number as it was before the Act. While no constituencies were disfranchised in either of these countries, voter qualifications were standardised and the size of the electorate was expanded in both.
Most of the pocket boroughs abolished by the Reform Act belonged to the Tory Party. These losses were somewhat offset by extending the right to 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 enfranchised by the Chandos clause typically voted in accordance with the wishes of 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 under Sir Robert Peel to make gains in the elections of 1835 and 1837, and to retake the House of Commons in 1841.
The Reform Act undoubtedly strengthened the House of Commons by reducing the number of nomination boroughs controlled by peers, but the Lords nonetheless remained powerful. Some aristocrats complained that, in the future, the government could compel them to pass a bill, simply by threatening to swamp the upper House by creating new peerages. 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. But the subsequent history of Parliament indicates 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 resisted several other bills despite public opinion to the contrary.
There was considerable public agitation for further expansion of the electorate. In particular, the Chartist movement, which demanded universal manhood suffrage, equally sized electoral districts, and voting by secret ballot, gained 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 the defects that the first act had left unaddressed. However, no proposal was successful until 1867, when Parliament adopted the Second Reform Act.