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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 October, 2003, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Building Britain: The Great Reform Act
Photo of Carole Walker walking the streets of London
Urban expansion triggered demand for universal suffrage
What impact did the Great Reform Act really have and what prompted the aristocracy to concede its centuries long grip on power?

In the third episode of Building Britain, Carole Walker examines the legislation that paved the way for genuine democracy in Britain.

Building Britain
When it was finally passed on 4 June 1832 the Times described the first Reform Act as "a triumph of intellectual and moral power, achieved over gross stupidity and brutal force."

It had taken 18 months, three bills, the resignation of a government and mass public protest to make it onto the statute books.

An elite electorate

Traditionally only land-owning men had the right to vote and when there were elections corruption was endemic.

The upper classes had a virtual monopoly on voting rights and neither the Tories nor the Whigs saw any reason to challenge the status-quo.

But with revolution in France and increasingly vocal working and middle classes in Britain, some politicians did begin to sit up and take notice.


Earl Grey's Whig Party quickly realised that some concessions might be wise and called for a lowering of the property qualification.

A re-distribution of Parliamentary seats would also give representation to the large northern manufacturing towns, many of which did not have an MP.

What followed was a bitter political fight between the Tories and Whigs, Lords and Commons.

The Tories, led by the Duke of Wellington, reacted with fury at what they saw as an outright attack on the constitution.

The measures only increased the electorate to 430,000 - still only one fifth of the male population - but that alone was enough to shake the aristocracy to its core.

Watch the latest part of this fascinating series on BBC Parliament on 23 February at 1330GMT.


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