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“Reform was the dynamic that drove the political process in Britain up to 1850”. Discuss with reference to more than one movement for political, social or economic reform in this period.

This essay was written by Kenneth Broderick. I am grateful to him for allowing me to include it on this web site.

Between 1831 and 1850 Britain experienced a number of economic, political and social problems that threatened to tear the country apart. Pressure to reform the political and social system came mainly from the new middle class who campaigned for economic betterment. Their main aim was to win the right to vote thus giving them a say in the running of the country. Certain reforms had actually been proposed in the late 1700’s. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, tried to remove some of the smaller boroughs and transfer their seats to the larger counties. However this particular Bill was defeated. Pitt never proposed parliamentary reform again.

The House of Commons comprised wealthy land owners; these people were able to maintain their positions because of the existence of ‘rotten boroughs’ and ‘pocket boroughs’. These uneven constituencies were basically villages or small towns and by 1790 most were in decline. They had very few eligible voters and could be controlled easily by the land owners, through threats and bribery. Because of the absence of secret ballots, it was easy for this intimidation to continue. The fact that these areas qualified to be parliamentary boroughs was a matter more of history than that of any economic or commercial significance. Examples of these ‘rotten boroughs’ were Old Sarum near Salisbury which was nothing more than a field but still had two MPs and Dunwich in Suffolk which by 1832, due to coastal erosion only half of it existed, but still continued to send two MPs to parliament. It was becoming clearly evident that a north/south divide was in existence; evidence of this was the booming town of Manchester, which did not have any representatives in Parliament at all. The Industrial Revolution had brought on a new class system and an industrial middle class began to emerge i.e. mill owners, factory owners, entrepreneurs etc. In addition to these new middle classes, were the urban working class, who were rapidly becoming aware of their difference in interests to the landed and middle classes? Nevertheless the lower and the middle classes were calling out for a bigger say in how the country was to be governed.

1830 saw the death of King George IV, to be succeeded by William IV. This change in monarchy also brought about a change in government and the Tory party led by Wellington was replaced by the Whig administration led by Lord Grey who gave assurances to introduce parliamentary reform. Earl Grey proposed to thoroughly reshape the parliamentary constituencies and disfranchise the rotten boroughs and to introduce an easily understood list of qualifications to vote in parliamentary elections. This was the fundamental nature of the Great Reform Act 1832 as it was to become to be known. Many pro- reformists especially from the lower classes were incensed that they did not benefit at all from the Reform Act, as only modest changes were made to the parliamentary system; Earl Grey had stuck to his promises of the re-distribution of constituencies and the abolition of the rotten boroughs but he fell short at giving all men the vote, as only the middle class male householders were franchised. Few Whigs at the time supported the idea of a full franchise. Thomas Babington Macaulay a senior Whig spokesman for the case of reform but against universal suffrage said,

“The right of suffrage should depend on upon a pecuniary qualification---- I oppose universal suffrage because I think it would produce a destructive revolution. I support this measure because I am sure it is our best security against a revolution”.

The Whigs argued that the Reform Bill was the first step on road to full democracy but the Tories feared ‘chaotic consequences’. In a letter from the Duke of Wellington to the Duke of Buckingham, Wellington makes known his fears as he states

“It is not in my power to prevent the consequence of the mischief which has been done. The government of England is destroyed...”

He was not alone in the condemnation of the Bill, as Tory John Wilson said “The Reform Bill is a stepping stone in England to a republic”.

But what did the Great Reform Act actually achieve? What changes did it make? And was it the pre- curser for countless other reforms to emerge. Arguably, it totally transformed the political system of Britain and the manner in which elections were to be held. Moreover, the reformers successfully managed the transition from a rural to an industrial and commercial state without violent revolution as was the case in France. It’s claimed by many historians that the lower classes were cheated out of representation by the 1832 Bill. It is difficult to see what they actually gained from the Bill, as only a few of them came in under the £10 franchise. However the Reform Bill had reapportioned representation in Parliament in a way which was fairer to the industrial cities of the north, which were experiencing enormous growth.

Because of the dissatisfaction felt by the lower classes at the 1832 Reform Act, many working men’s associations started to form around Britain, various radical associations started to form especially around the textile mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire. 1837 saw the appearance of the news paper, Northern Star. The ‘Chartists’ as they were known were founded back in 1835 by London cabinet maker William Lovett. Their main aim was to reform Parliament even further. In 1836 the organisation issued the Peoples Charter which was publicised in 1838. This Charter had six demands, which were: annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, electoral districts of equal size, MPs paid a salary, abolition of the property qualifications for MPs and universal manhood suffrage. Two petitions were handed into parliament one in May 1839 and the other in May 1842; these petitions were defeated in the Commons on both occasions. These defeats led to much discontent, demonstrations and mass rallies were commonplace.

In South Wales 3,000 armed colliers and iron workers marched on Newport in protest over arrests made, although their main intention may have been to occupy the town itself and hold a rally. More direct industrial action was followed, which led to the ‘plug plot riots’ this action involved the knocking out of the drainage plugs of the boilers of industrial steam engines. Because of these actions the movement attracted the more militant element of the public, some favoured violence or strikes to achieve their aims and there was even talk of a ‘peoples parliament’ The Chartists motto was ‘Peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must’ the latter part of the motto was said to have scared many of the middle class supporters away. Much of the unrest and disturbances were quickly quelled with the advantage the new railways, the authorities were able to move troops and police to the troubled areas fairly rapidly. Chartism, it could be argued, led to developments in the Police force (Constabulary Act 1839).

The passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 further incensed the Chartists and working class. At the setting up of the Poor Law Commission in 1833 in which certain recommendations were made, some of these were quite radical. Outdoor relief was to be abolished and relief was only to be given to the poor of the workhouses. The conditions in these workhouses were made to be worse than the lowest paid labourer outside. This was done to discourage people from seeking help. Moreover, if a man claimed relief, then all of his family had to enter the workhouse and then they would be split in accordance with the rules of separation. Despite protests from the working class and varying sections of the public including back bench Tories, this harsh regime lasted for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Was Chartism a real threat to authority? The aims of the Chartists by today’s standards may seem tame, but to a government of the nineteenth century, they represented a potential for anarchy and an overthrow of political and social institutions. The French Revolution was still fresh in the memory of many a politician. Instead of being swayed by the rational demands of the Chartists, many reacted in fear at the potential possibility of aggressive overthrow, moreover, the fear of losing their own positions. The reasons for the movement's failure could have been its lack of support from those in Parliament, but considering the threat it posed to the self interests of those in power this was not surprising. Much of its middle class support drifted away, many of whom regarded some of its members too radical or militant and were frightened off. Poverty and hunger was one of the reasons why people were pushed towards the Chartists, but in times when conditions improved support drifted away. An example of this was the repeal of the Corn Laws; this helped improve the economic climate of Britain. Some of the supporters were to divert their attentions to other popular movements such as the Ten Hours Factory Reform Movement. Although the Chartist movement initially failed in its aims, a good case can be made that the movement was not a failure at all, but a powerful force that increased the awareness of social issues and created a structure for future working-class organisations. Many of the demands drawn up in the peoples Charter were eventually met in the Reform bills of 1867 and 1864. Chartism was undoubtedly a short-term failure, but was along term success?

The Corn Laws of 1815 were passed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. During the war imports had been difficult to obtain and prices were high, landowners and farmers had benefited because of this. However at the end of the French wars, grain prices halved causing panic amongst the farmers. The Corn Laws that were passed in 1815 were designed to restrict imports, keep prices artificially high and prevent the fear of an agricultural depression. The landed interest who dominated Parliament was able to pass these laws with ease. Although they were apparently beneficial to agriculture the downside was that bread prices rose and the working class suffered. The new wealth of Britain, the middle class industrialists and manufacturers, regarded the Corn Laws as contrary to their interests. Many of the middle classes supported the ideas of Adam Smith and free trade, and frowned upon the Corn Laws. They resented the landed interest and their apparent monopoly of political power.

The ‘Manchester School’ emerged in the 1820’s and newspapers such as the Manchester Times and the Manchester Guardian were founded and spread the doctrine of the middle class industrialists. The idea of free trade was particularly strong in this area because of the cotton industry. October 1837 saw the Anti Corn Law Association form in Manchester it was changed to the Anti Corn Law League (ACLL) by two leading industrialists Richard Cobden and John Bright who later became MPs. The ACCL started a national campaign for reform of the Corn Laws. During the general election of 1841 the ACCL managed to get eight of their supporters including Cobden elected into Parliament. Robert Peel’s government was under pressure and was split in its views over the Corn Laws. Members of the party consisted of farmers and landowners who felt that agriculture needed protecting, the party also included industrialists and merchants who thought the Laws were a stranglehold on free trade. Because of the fear reform would split his party Peel resigned, however he was recalled because the opposition could not form a government. With his position stronger Peel was able to abolish the Corn Laws in 1846.

Opponents of the repeal had predicted a slump in agriculture and it would be ruined by free trade, on the contrary, agriculture entered a particularly successful period. The ACCL was considered very successful in its aims; the repeal of the Corn Laws was important because the interests of industry and industrialists had been placed before the interests of the landed classes and agriculture. This phase of reform reflected the transformation of the British economy from rural, agricultural to an urban, industrial and reflected the triumph of free trade.

The reforms brought about by the British government between 1830 and 1850 contributed greatly to the dynamic changes in the economic and political areas. Many of the reforms were set in motion due to outside influence, such as the rise of the new wealth i.e. the industrial middle class who now had the vote, the persistent actions of the lower classes who were not content with their lot. The events of the American and French revolutions and the need to avoid similar events in Britain. And finally the rise of laissez-faire and liberalism. These reforms brought about major changes in the development of the country making it stronger and more structured and to maintain its position as world leader through to the twentieth century.


Evans, Eric. The Birth of Modern Britain 1780-1914 (Longman1997)
Evans, Eric J, The Forging of a Modern State 1783-1870 (Longman, London and New York 1983
Evans, Eric J. Parliamentary Reform 1770-1918 (Longman 2000)
O’Gorman, Frank. The Long Eighteenth Century, British Political and Social History 1688-1832 (Arnold 1997)
Robinson Robb, Dr. Senior History Lecturer. Hull College
Victorian Web: Chartism
Victorian Web: Poor Law

Other works consulted:

Brock, Michael. The Great Reform Act (Hutchinson University Library 1973)
Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation1707-1837 (Pimlico 1992)
Floud, Robert and McCloskey, Donald. The Economic History of Britain since 1700. (vol I) 1700-1860 (Cambridge University Press 1994)

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