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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
The Great Reform Act

The first steps toward democracy

At the start of the nineteenth century, Britain's parliamentary system was far from democratic.

The right to vote rested only in the hands of upper class males. The working classes, the middle classes and women had no say in the government.

This situation was not considered a source of shame. On the contrary, many of the nation's elite considered it the ideal state of affairs.

Democracy, or government by the people, was seen by those in power not as an ideal to be aspired to, but as an evil to be avoided.

This distrust of democracy, often characterised as 'mob rule', was so prevalent that the constitutional historian, Walter Bagehot, writing after Britain's first reluctant reform of Parliament in 1832, could insist that democracy was in fact "fatal to the purposes for which government exists."

But pressure was growing from radicals outside Parliament like William Cobbett and Orator Hunt and those inside the House, who decried the horrendous state of patronage which kept unpopular and ineffective governments in power.

Eventually a reform movement emerged, which by the 1830s was on the brink of achieving its aims.

Not only was Parliament corrupt but the distribution of seats across the British Isles was hopelessly out of step with the new centres of population thrown up by the industrial revolution.

And the qualification to vote had no uniform basis in the borough, or town seats, leading to massive regional differences in those who could qualify to vote.

Rotten boroughs

The great industrial power houses of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and Sheffield were the hives of activity on which British wealth in the nineteenth century rested.

Yet they had not a single MP to represent them in Parliament, prior to the 1832 reform act, although their combined population was well in excess of 500,000 people.

At the other end of the scale there existed 50 borough seats where the electorate barely exceeded 50 voters. These 'rotten boroughs' as they were known had been in existence for centuries.

Many of them had been thriving communities at one time, often as long ago as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, but they had by the nineteenth century been overtaken by the growth of the industrial towns and the passage of time.

One notorious rotten borough, Dunwich in Suffolk, had practically ceased to exist, having fallen into the sea over the centuries leaving its 32 voters with two MPs.

This unwieldy state of affairs was the result of centuries of parliamentary evolution. While the county franchise changed little over the centuries (the qualification to vote in county elections had been set in 1430 as the ownership of freehold land worth 40 shillings (2) a year) the franchise for borough, or town seats, enjoyed a much more colourful evolution.

Some monarchs, Edward IV and Elizabeth I for example, anxious to see Parliament bend to their will, often created small "pocket" boroughs where a tiny electorate would be certain to return the monarch's preferred candidate to Parliament.

Once there, the newly created MP would of course do the right thing and vote in the interest of the monarch.

Just as the distribution of borough seats was often arbitrary so was the qualification to vote.

In some boroughs every male head of a household was eligible to vote, while in others the franchise was restricted to the payment of local taxes or the possession of property.

Perhaps the strangest borough voting qualification was occupancy of a room in which it was possible to boil a pot of water on a fire - these were called "Potwalloper boroughs".

All in all about one adult male in five could vote before the Great Reform Act.

The Great Reform Act

The Commons chamber
The unreformed Commons on the eve of the Act
On June 7 1832 King William IV finally gave royal assent to the Great Reform Act.

The Bill's passage through the House in its various forms had taken over two years (during which time Britain existed on the verge of revolution) and was only finally passed after the King threatened to alter the composition of the House of Lords in order to put the supporters of the Bill in a majority.

Once passed the Reform Act enfranchised the upper middle classes, expanding the electorate from approximately 450,000 to over 700,000.

Fifty-six rotten boroughs were abolished and in total more than 100 seats were re-distributed from the over-represented rural south to the industrial north and Midlands. Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham were all give two seats.

In addition, order was finally brought to the borough franchise which was made uniform, for householders paying an annual rent of 10. In the counties, the 40 shilling franchise for freeholders was retained and expanded to leaseholders.

Although many of the great and good, including the King and the future Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, hoped this would be the final settlement between Parliament and the people, they had started a process of democratisation that they had no power to control.

The Second and Third Reform Acts

The next major step on the way to achieving universal suffrage took place in 1867. The Second Reform Act extended the franchise, enabling an additional 2.5m men to vote.

By the time of the Third Reform Act of 1884, which equalised voting restrictions between counties and boroughs, over 50% of the adult male population was able to express its opinion through the ballot box.

Links to more Talking Politics stories are at the foot of the page.


Links to more Talking Politics stories