The Peel Web

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The Background to the 1832 Reform Act

Middle class efforts to change government policy began long before the 1830s. Provincial merchants and manufacturers led by Thomas Attwood worked strenuously and successfully to end the 1807 Orders-in-Council, which were cancelled in 1812. Similar agitation forced the repeal of Income Tax in 1816 and Lancashire and Yorkshire merchants and manufacturers worked for lower import duties on raw cotton and wool. Some wanted free trade, but the landed government maintained the restrictions. This then led to an increase in demands for parliamentary reform in order for the opinions of the middle classes to be heard.

18-teens Some Whig MPs began to demand minor parliamentary reform
1820 Grampound was disfranchised and its two seats were given to Yorkshire in 1821 - not to Leeds as had been proposed initially
1820s Lord John Russell and others attempted to have other rotten boroughs disenfranchised and the seats redistributed to the industrial north
1822 Russell proposed more extensive reforms of parliament but was defeated by the Tories.

It was obvious therefore that piecemeal reforms of parliament would be unsuccessful but it did demonstrate the gulf between a landed parliament and middle class provincial opinion. Peel had noticed this in 1820. He complained that public opinion had never been so influential or so dissatisfied. He thought that public opinion might dissolve the traditional party lines over reform and he was not sure that resistance to reform would succeed. Peel wrote to Croker in March 1820, saying

Public opinion never had such influence on public measures, and yet never was so dissatisfied with the share which it possessed. It is growing too large f or the channels that it has been accustomed to run through ... the engineers that made them never dreamt of various streams that are now struggling for a vent.

Peel implied that parliamentary politics were irrelevant to the real politics of the time, and his attitude might well have been partly responsible for the economic reforms carried out by the 'Enlightened Tories', especially Huskisson and Robinson in the 1820s. Demands for parliamentary reform could not be kept at bay indefinitely, particularly from the middle classes, which wanted political representation so that they could protect their interests. This idea became commonplace in provincial newspapers like the Leeds Mercury and Manchester Guardian. The latter was established in 1821 by middle-class reformers. Michael Brock estimates that in 1829 each newspaper reached an average of twenty-five people. The press was becoming more influential.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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