Political Unrest and Social Reform

Political Unrest and Social Reform

An Overview of the Conditions in England Leading to the First Reform Bill of 1832

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Social and Economic Context

During the 1700s and early 1800s, a time period known as the Industrial Revolution, there was an enormous increase in the production of goods. Before that time most products were made by hand in the home or in small shops. There were groups that made up associations called guilds usually found in towns where the people worked. It wasn’t long before power-driven machinery replaced handwork and factories replaced town shops.

Before the revolution most people worked as a family unit. They were basically farmers who depended on their crops for food. They also worked at different trades passed down from their fathers. They plied these trades in their homes for merchants called entrepreneurs, who would bring them raw materials to make the products. The entrepreneurs would take the risk of finding a buyer for the products. These families were very dependent on the land. There wasn’t a real market for their crops since everybody grew the same thing. So they only grew what they needed, and there was very little chance of getting ahead. Therefore, there was little change from generation to generation. If the crops failed, the people went hungry. There wasn’t any real starvation, but malnutrition was common. Therefore, they caught diseases readily, and epidemics were common.

England has always been a pioneer of industrial capitalism, having many natural resources, such as coal, iron, and cotton. Because of these resources, Great Britain became the model for industrialization. Once the mechanical inventions began, the flood gates of the industrial revolution opened, and these natural resources came into their true value. Inventions like Hargreaves Spinning Jenny and Cartwright’s Loom demanded a new source of power. The hand and foot power of the worker became obsolete. Eventually water power was incorporated into the production of products, but there was still a need for power that didn’t depend on water, since water limited the locations of factories to creeks and rivers. The answer came by way of the invention of the steam engine. The name of the new power this engine produced is called horsepower. Once horsepower replaced hand and foot power, production shifted from the home to the factory. The factories were located in the cities, so by the earlier eighteen hundreds the population migrated to the cities.

This left the rural areas without very many people, which created boroughs that had seats in Parliament that didn’t represent anyone. These “rotten boroughs,” as they were called, were sold to the highest bidder. In fact this practice became so common that a group formed which called themselves the “Christian Club.” These fine fellows grouped together and sold their votes as a block. This enabled them to get more money from the group per vote then was possible by selling them as single votes. Naturally the lower class was without representation, and the entrepreneurs would buy these votes and in-turn control the legislation. This led to unrest in the working class because the entrepreneurs were making all of the money, and the people were starving and living in abhorrent conditions. “It was not by merely selling and buying that these elections were distinguished; tumults also riots occurred in several places. The cause appears to have been the high price, which still continued, of provisions, and the consequent resentment of the people, though they scarcely knew against what or whom.” (p. 191,192)

Political and Historical Context

Outside of England, the French Revolultion :(1789-1799)

The French Revolution, as well as other revolutionary movements of the time (i.e. American Revolution), had set an influential tone on the global environment. In the early years of the war, Englishmen expected the French to establish a political structure based on that of Britain’s. As violence continued to grow in France, Parliament and the governing class began to take note. Soon they began to realize the proposed outcome of the radical democratic ideals on the forefront of the French Revolution. Witnessing another country in the midst of an upheaval and possible removal of social and class distinction was frightening to those who enjoyed the luxury of governmental representation. The launch of the French Revolution caused a large decrease in the number of proponents of parliamentary reform. In what was already an uphill battle, now many politicians became firmly against any significant social reform.

In the midst of the French Revolution and a growing population of the impoverished working class, England’s wealthy class feared a revolution may come about. Legislation by Parliament was the only democratic way to assuage the fears and doubts of the working class on their current economic and social position. It was also the only way these undeserved economic handicaps would be alleviated. In Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons competed for political control. Aided by the French Revolution, many members from both Houses were opposed to significant Parliamentary reform. Yet proponents of reform established themselves in groups.

The Tories are well known for being a the long standing conservative party in England. They are known for their support of traditional political and social institutions and the determined retention of these institutions against the forces of democratization or reform. The Tories had been restraining against the proposed legislation for almost the entire first decade of the nineteenth century. The proposition of the bill by Grey and his Whigs met with discernible defiance from the Twigs, most overwhelmingly in the House of Lords.

Aside from the short-lived Talents Ministry of 1806-7, the Whigs had no living memory in office. When the Grey Administration took office in 1830 the party was given the test of time for a whole generation of Whigs. Here, they emulated themselves at a pivotal opportunity to regain power: under the light of proposed social reform in 1830. Foxite Whigs, led by Prime Minister Charles Grey, had always advocated parliamentary reform as the only way for the tyranny of the monarchy of be controlled by the people. They were the most resolute advocates of the Reform Bill of 1832 (Mitchell, 1)

Details of the Reform

The amount of enfranchised counties or boroughs in the UK led to mass corruption between the Members of Parliament who represented these counties. One term of the Reform Act was to dissolve many of these counties by combining them with other larger counties.

Map representing the change in the number of representatives in each of the boroughs.
Map representing the change in the number of representatives in each of the boroughs.

    • Following the Reform, the boroughs of Old Sarum, Newton, St.Michael or Midshall, Gatton, Bramber, Bossiney, Dunwich, Ludgershall, St. Mawe’s, Beeralston, West Looe, St. Germain’s, Newport, Blechingley, Aldborough, Camelford,Hindon, East Looe, Corfe Castle, Great Bedwin, Yarmouth, Queenborough, Castle Rising, East Grinstead, Higham Ferrers, Wendover, Weobly, Winchilsea, Tregony, Haslemere, Saltash, Orford, Callington, Newton Ilchester, Boroughbridge, Stockbridge, New Romney, Hindon, Plympton, Seaford, Heytesbury, Steyning, Whitchurch, Wootton Bassett, Downtown, Fowey, Milborne Port, Aldeburgh, Minehead, Bishop’s Castle, Okehampton, Appleby, Lostwithiel, Brackley, and Amersham ceased to return any Members to serve in Parliament (William IV 1).
    • The boroughs of Petersfield, Ashburton, Eye, Westbury, Wareham, Midhurst, Woodstock, Wilton, Malmesbury, Liskeard, Reigate, Hythe, Droitwich, Lyme Regis, Launceston, Shaftesbury, Thirsk, Christchurch, Horsham, Great Grimsby, Calne, Arundel, St. Ives, Rye, Clitheroe, Morpeth, Helston, North Allerton, Wallingford and Dartmouth returned only one Member to serve in Parliament. (William IV 2)
    • The places Ashtonunder-Lyne, Bury, Chatham, Cheltenham, Dudley, Frome, Gateshead, Huddersfield, Kidderminster, Kendal, Rochdale, Salford, South Shields, Tynemouth, Wakefield, Walsall, Warrington, Whitby, Whitehaven and Merthyr Tydvil were converted into boroughs. The five towns of Swanses, Lougher, Neath, Aberavon, and Ken-fig were compiled into one borough and all of these boroughs returned only one Member to serve in Parliament. (William IV 3)
    • The places Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Greenwich, Sheffield, Sunderland, Devonport, Wolverhampton, Tower Hamlets, Finsbury, Mary-le-bone, Lambeth, Bolton, Bradford, Blackburn, Brighton, Halifax, Macclesfield, Oldham, Stockport, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Stroud were converted into boroughs. These new boroughs along with the boroughs of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis returned Two Members to serve in Parliament.(William IV 4)

In total, 56 of these “rotten boroughs” along with their Members of Parliament lost their representation and 30 more MP’s were removed from counties with a low amount of population. In return, over 100 representatives were distributed among the counties and 21 small towns were given one representative each. In addition, Scotland was given eight extra seats and Ireland was given five more seats.

It was also a provision that nobody in holy orders, nor any churchwarden or overseer of the poor, could be nominated as a returning officer. And, no appointed officer could be appointed as a churchwarden or overseer of the poor. (William IV 5) This was to ensure that there was no religious or social bias in the Parliament.

Since the times of Henry VI, only males who owned land worth 40 shillings or more were eligible to vote in their respective counties. The Reform Act granted enfranchisement to a much larger amount of landowners. Owners of land worth 10 pounds or more were granted the right to vote, as well as leaseholders and tenants who paid an annual rent of 50 pounds or more.

Passing of the Reform

The First Attempt
Public support for Britain’s Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, in 1830 was weak. To make the matter worse, the Duke made a controversial statement regarding opposition raised to the issue of reform. Two weeks after the controversial statement, defending the merits of the existing merits of government, an adverse vote in the House of Commons on a confidence motion occurred and he was forced to resign; Earl Grey, a Whig, replaced Wellesley and vowed to make parliamentary reform to allow the Whigs a larger majority in the House of Commons.
Grey’s first reform bill, brought to the House of Commons in1831, disfranchised sixty of the smallest boroughs, and reduced the representation of forty-seven others. Under the bill, some of the seats were completely abolished, while others were redistributed to the London suburbs, large cities, the counties, and Scotland and Ireland. The House of Commons passed the Reform Bill, but the bill failed to make it out alive in the House of Lords-which was still dominated by the Tories. Public outcry ensued and riots broke out.

The Second Attempt
After the Whigs won an overwhelming House of Commons majority in the general elections of 1831, the Reform Bill was brought before and passed by the House of Commons for a second time.

The Third Attempt
The Lords allowed the Reform Bill through on 4 June 1832.

1832 Political cartoon depicting the British public helping Earl Grey against William IV and the Duke of Wellington.
1832 Political cartoon depicting the British public helping Earl Grey against William IV and the Duke of Wellington.

Outcome and Impact

Historical Map of England and Wales: Parliamentary Representation in 1832 - After the Reform Bill
Historical Map of England and Wales: Parliamentary Representation in 1832 – After the Reform Bill

Disenfranchisement of corrupt boroughs
The Reform Act of 1832 did away with boroughs that were disproportionately represented, and hence were unfair compared to the larger districts in the north who needed those seats in Parliament. The growing districts in the north, due to the Industrial Revolution, now had a fairer amount of seats represented in Parliament. The smaller and more diminutive boroughs lost representatives, as they were reassessed elsewhere.

Importance of Middle Class
The middle class was now able to share the power with the upper class because they were better represented in Parliament due to the effects of the Reform Bill. The right and power to vote was now extended to members of the middle class (still only white men) who were worth £10. Parliament had a more accurate presentation of representation.

Historical Criticism
The Reform Act greatly divided the Whigs and the Tories. However, the House of Commons did appear to become more powerful with the passing of this bill. Although the Reform Act gave more power to the middle class, they were not entirely satisfied if they could not fulfill the requirement of £10. This led to the Chartist Movement, which demanded universal suffrage for men.

*Note: This map exhibits the outcome of the Reform Bill of 1832 and the impact that it had on the British boroughs. The yellow areas on the map illustrate the counties that return at least one or two members each. The pink areas on the map illustrate the counties that return at least three members each. The green areas on the map (the most prevalent areas) represent the counties that were divided into two constituencies and that return at least four members each. The final blue areas represent the big county of Yorkshire that was subdivided into three constituencies and who also returned at least six members. This map illustrates the great change that the Reform Bill of 1832 had offered to the English people.

William IV. Abstract of an Act to Amend the Representation of The People of England & Wales. Dean and Munday, London, 1832

Mitchell, L (April 1993). Foxite politics and the great reform bill. The English Historical Review, 108, n427. p.338(26). Retrieved May 11, 2010, from General OneFile via Gale:

Stanhope, Philip Henry, (Earl), History of England Little Brown, and Company, Boston, 1853

University of Texas at Austin. From the Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912.