Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The Great Reform Act - 1832


Reform was part of 18th century radical agenda and several bills had been introduced to House but all defeated. At start of 19th century mood changed, radicals organised uniting around single banner of reform. In Commons were led by Francis Burdett and known as Insurgents or Patriots. In country was a petitioning movement and in 1820 rotten borough of Grampound was disenfranchised and its seats redistributed to Yorks. Late 1820s radical cause was taken up by political heavyweights such as Grey, Russell and Brougham and Russell introduced bill in 1828 to disenfranchise Penryn and East Retford. They were passed in Commons but thrown out in Lords an early warning of what lay ahead.

July 1829 London Radical Association founded and Dec 1829 Birmingham Political Union. 1830 election impressed on MPs the powerful support for reform in country. John Marshall a Leeds mill owner was elected for Yorks. Wellington's ministry fell on eve of motion for parliamentary reform and thus on 17th November 1830, for the first time a minority ministry pledged to reform took office.

Proposals of Grey's reform committee - 50 boroughs to lose all seats; 54 were to lose one MP; 6 towns were to be given 2 MPs and 22 towns 1 member; 6 more seats were to be given to London; 22 counties with populations over 200,000, were to have 2 extra seats; 7 with a population between 150,000 and 200,000 were to have one extra seat; Scottish representation would be remodelled on this system but the Irish and Welsh systems would be little changed. The committee was in favour of the secret ballot, but also agreed to recommend the higher qualification of 20 to mitigate the affects of the ballot and increase the chances of the bill being accepted by the Commons. Five year parliaments were also to be introduced. Non residents should lose their right to vote; more polling places should be provided and voters should be registered.

24th Jan 1831 cabinet approved draft - striking out secret ballot proposals and lowering franchise to 10 householders. King supported bill if 5 year parliaments were dropped. In the country there was great excitement with political unions formed weekly.

1st March - introduced to Commons,

22nd March passed second reading by 302-301,

18th April defeated at third reading by 299-291

May 1831 general election and Whig landslide.

Second reform act won second reading by 367-231 and emerged unscathed from committee.

21st September was introduced to Lords - defeated by a majority of 41 votes. Led to mass unrest

Third reform act - differences the number of towns losing 1 MP was reduced from 41 to 30 and 10 of the newly enfranchised towns were awarded a second seat. In committee stage Lord Chandos introduced a clause enfranchising 50 tenants-at-will - introducing a class of dependent voters

12th December passed Commons

13th April 1832 rejected in Lords by 184-175. Ensuing period known as 'May days', Britain was close to revolution. Grey threatened to flood Lords with new peers

Sept 1832 Reform Act as passed by 9 votes.

First election on new franchise was held in December 1832

Electorate was increased from 435,000 to 652,000 or 3.13% of total population to 4.69%


1) Traditional 'Whig' view

Act paved way for introduction of democracy, was linear progression to universal suffrage, one reform act led to another. Country was on verge of revolution and Reform was the only way out.

2) DC Moore's view

Reform Act was an aggressive measure by ministers wishing to limit rise of middle class by separating urban and rural interests, moved urban voters out of counties, those who were left were counterbalanced by the 'Chandos clause' voters

3) Counters to Moore's view

Hennock argues that urban voters were not excluded from county electorates and indeed that the final version admitted more urban voters than had been originally intended

Cannon attacks whole basis of Moore's argument that government wished to divide country into constituencies of distinct interests. Aristocracy conceded some power to middle classes but made best possible settlement for themselves - final result was compromise not surrender.

Cannon argues urban freeholders had not penetrated county electorates in most cases eg in many counties where the number of urban voters seemed high eg Dorset the towns were small, market towns not sprawling industrial cities. 16 towns had county status in their own right before 1832 and thus residents could not vote in their adjoining counties after 1832 this was changed and the urban voters now voted in the county elections. Cannon argues that the middle class were not brought into the system to be contained and controlled as Moore alleges but to restore credibility in the electoral system, they could no longer leave them out.

Effects of Reform Act

System was not swamped by hordes of unruly voters as the Tories feared, new voters were conservative, materialistic and wanted to sustain the new status quo and avoid further reform.

Landed influence remained as did the anomalies over representation. The number of contested elections did rise dramatically m 1832 but the novelty soon wore off.

The registration of voters meant that organisation was now imperative but that system had been in place before 1832

Some [eg Gash] would argue national issues and party voting were introduced by the Reform Act