The Whigs supported the idea of both parliamentary and social reform. When they came to power in late 1830, they put parliamentary reform at the centre of their political agenda and it dominated debate until the Reform Act was passed in 1832. In addition to parliamentary reform, there was reform of the local vestries in 1831 and municipal government in 1835.
Reform of parliament in 1832 and of towns and cities, three years later and important developments in dealing with the poor, factory conditions and education marked the Whig governments as ‘reforming’ administrations and the 1830s as ‘the decade of reform’. The measures they introduced began a process of reform that was not completed until the 1870s.
Wellington speaks against the need for parliamentary reform (2 November); government defeated on a vote (15 November); Wellington resigned the following day. Whig administration formed under Earl Grey.
First Reform Bill introduced into House of Commons; passes Second Reading but only by one vote (302 to 302).
Government defeated on an amendment objecting to the reduction in the number of MPs for England and Wales at the Committee Stage. Parliament dissolved.
Whigs returned after General Election: the MPs split into 370 pro-reformers, 235 anti-reformers and 53 undecided. Second Reform Bill introduced into Parliament 24 June.
Second Reading carried 367 to 231.
Third Reading carried by 345 to 236 (22 September).
House of Lords reject the Bill by 41 votes (199 to 158) (8 October); widespread rioting in Nottingham and Derby (8-10 October) and Bristol (29-31 October) as a result of the rejection of the Bill.
Third Reform Bill introduced into Commons (12 December) and passes its Second Reading in the Commons before Christmas.
William IV agrees to the creation of peers in order to ensure Reform Acts can be passed.
Reform Bill passes Third Reading in the Commons by 355 to 239 votes (22 March).
Reform Bill passes Second Reading in the Lords by nine votes (13 April).
Government defeat on Lord Lyndhurst’s motion led to the resignation of ministers. ‘Days of May’ (9-15 May) when Wellington asked to form an administration but is unable to do so. The King is compelled to recall Grey and confirm that peers will be created to ensure the passage of the Bill.
Reform Bill passes Third Reading in the Lords (106 to 22) and receives Royal Assent (4 and 7 June)
Scottish Reform Act passed.
Irish Reform Act passed.
General Election under the new franchise: Whigs 483 MPs, Tories 175.
The death of George IV and the accession of William IV in early 1830 had two important consequences. There had to be a General Election within six months of the death of the monarch. This meant that Wellington had to fight an election at least two years earlier than he expected with his party still deeply divided over the passage of Catholic Emancipation. George IV’s long-standing veto on the Whig leader was removed as William IV was prepared for Earl Grey to become Prime Minister.
When Wellington conceded Catholic Emancipation in 1829, he made himself very unpopular with his party and with the British people. His problems were made worse by the outbreak of revolution in France in July 1830 and the ‘Swing’ riots in August, both of which raised the threat of widespread public disorder in Britain. Despite his unpopularity, Wellington did well in the election and the Tories gained 21 seats. Parliamentary reform had been an important issue in some constituencies but concerns about economic conditions, the continuation of the Corn Laws and the effects of Catholic Emancipation and of the ending of slavery in the British Empire were also evident.
It was clear when Parliament reassembled in October 1830 that the question of parliamentary reform could not be ignored but Wellington ruled this out in a speech he gave on 2 November. This led to the fall of his administration when he was defeated on a crucial vote of the Civil List (monies paid to the monarchy) on 15 November. Both the Huskisson Tories and some ultra-Tories were prepared to vote against their party because of his attitude to further reform. Wellington no longer had the confidence of the House of Commons and resigned the following day. The Whigs formed a government making the introduction of parliamentary reform inevitable. The Whigs long-standing commitment to reform led to 18 months of frenetic activity inside and outside Parliament that culminated in the passage of the Reform Acts in mid-1832.
The Reform Act 1832
1. Disfranchising clauses
56 rotten or nomination boroughs returning 111 MPs lost their representation.
30 boroughs with less than 4,000 inhabitants lost one MP each.
Weymouth and Melcombe Regis gave up 2 of their 4 members.
143 seats were made available for redistribution.
2. Enfranchising clauses
65 seats were awarded to the counties.
44 seats distributed to 22 large towns including Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield and to new London metropolitan districts.
21 smaller towns were given one MP each.
Scotland given 8 extra seats.
Ireland gains 5 extra seats.
3. The franchise
- In the boroughs, the franchise was given to all householders paying a yearly rent of £10 and, subject to a one year residence qualification, £10 lodgers (if sharing a house and the landlord not in residence).
- In the counties, the franchise was given to 40s freeholders; £10 copyholders and long-lease holders and £50 short-lease holders or tenants-at-will. Borough freeholders could also vote in the counties where they held land if their freehold was between 40s and £10 or if it was over £10 and occupied by a tenant.
- Registration of electors for each constituency on an electoral roll revised annually.
- Those with ‘ancient rights’ retained their vote until their death.
- No secret ballot.
The Reform Act redefined who had the right to vote in both counties and boroughs. The electorate of England and Wales increased by 78 per cent between 1831 and 1833 rising from 366,250 to 652,777 but this still represented only five per cent of the population of England and Wales in the 1831 census. Parliamentary seats were redistributed, especially in England, provided MPs for areas of growing population and economic influence. 56 rotten boroughs lost both their MPs and 40 smaller boroughs lost one MP. These seats were then given (or redistributed) to places previously without their own MPs. While the Acts removed the most obvious defects of the unreformed system, they did not remove all the inequalities of representation: they did introduce democracy nor did not give the middle-classes control of the political system. As Earl Grey, the Whig Prime Minister, observed that the Reform Acts were essentially ‘aristocratic measures’, which aimed at preserving the power of the landowner by aligning them with the propertied middle-classes.
Their achievement lay in establishing a political climate in which questions about reforming the constitution and discussion of new political ideas were acceptable and no longer considered revolutionary. Radical working-class opinion was disappointed by the attitude of the Whigs to their demands but they had not united in their attitude to reform between 1830 and 1832. Some radicals were prepared to accept limited household suffrage and to work with middle-class reformers; others led by Henry Hunt demanded manhood suffrage and were unwilling to collaborate. Either way, working-class aspirations were not met by the Reform Act and it was subsequently seen as the ‘great betrayal’.
Was 1832 an expression of change or continuity? Although contemporaries thought that the Reform Acts were middle-class measures, the reality was somewhat different. The urban middle-class were happy to elect MPs from the landed interest. The composition of the 1833 Parliament was not very different from the unreformed one. Between 70 and 80 per cent of MPs were still from the landed interest and no more than a hundred were from the professional and industrial middle-classes, a number comparable with elections before 1832.
In July 1833, a Royal Commission was set up to consider the question of municipal reform. Its report, published in 1835, formed the basis of the Municipal Corporations Act that extended the principles of the 1832 Reform Act. Many towns were unincorporated. They had no charter giving them independent rights and under the control of the local magistrates and paid the county rate. Corporate towns, so called because they were run by an elected corporation had charters, many of them dating to the Middle Ages. The distribution of incorporated and unincorporated towns was an accident of history rather than a consequence of size or importance. Many of the rapidly growing cities, like Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield, were without corporations. Reform was necessary to take account of changes in population and the move from a rural-agrarian economy to and urban-industrial one.
There were pressing arguments for reform. Law and order was a growing problem for both national and local government. Many feared that large towns were increasingly ungovernable because of their undisciplined populations. The unreformed corporations tended to be largely Tory and Anglican which, was unacceptable to the emerging industrial urban elites with their Whig and Nonconformist sympathies. They believed that reform would allow for a degree of equity between the economic interests in towns. The corporations were generally self-electing. For radicals, this meant that urban elites could maintain themselves in power and exclude others (especially the middle-classes). Municipal reform was seen as a necessary part of parliamentary reform.
The Royal Commission criticised the inefficiency and corruption of the existing corporations. The government accepted the its proposals and the bill quickly passed the Commons. However, it met substantial Tory opposition in the Lords. Its passage was eased when the Whigs compromised on some of the contentious issues: aldermen were retained and made up a quarter of a council, councillors were to have substantial property qualifications and in boroughs with over 6,000 inhabitants the town was to be divided into wards. The bill became law in September 1835. Twenty-two new boroughs were incorporated within twenty years, including Manchester and Birmingham in 1838.
178 corporations were abolished and replaced by elected councils.
A uniform household franchise was established by which all occupiers with a three-year residence qualification could vote for the first council and after that annually for one third of the council.
Each council elected its own mayor and aldermen.
All debates would be open and accounts publicly audited.
Corporations could take over the duties of local improvement commissions. Few councils took advantage of this permissive clause.
Corporations could levy rates.
Councils must form watch committees and could establish borough police forces.
The Act laid down procedures by which a town could petition for incorporation.
 The July Revolution in France resulted in the removal of the last Bourbon king, Charles X and his replacement by the more liberal Louis Philippe.
 Freeholders owned their own land.
 Copyholders were tenants who had a lease for 20 to 25 years giving them considerable security of tenure.
 Tenants-at-will had short-term leases and were consequently more easily ‘influenced’ by their landlords to vote the way they wanted with the threat of eviction of tenants did not.
 ‘Ancient rights’ applied to those who had the right to vote under the pre-1832 system.
 Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845) held office in 1806-1807 but had to wait until 1830 until he became Prime Minister, a position he held until 1834.
 Local government taxes were raised for either specific purposes (like building a local bridge) or to cover general spending. The county rate was a general tax.