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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 bill 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 bill - 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.

Changes in the distribution of seats by the 1832 Act



Seats disenfranchised:


55 boroughs returning 2 MPs


Higham Ferrers


30 boroughs deprived of 1 MP


Weymouth and Melcombe Regis return 2 MPs not 4





Seats enfranchised:


22 boroughs to return 2 MPs


19 boroughs to return 1 MP


26 counties divided, each returning 2 MPs


Yorkshire split into 3, each returning 2 MPs


rather than 4 for the whole county


Isle of Wight made a county with 1 MP


7 counties to return 3 MPs





Net reduction in English seats




3 counties given an additional MP


2 new boroughs enfranchised




Additional MPs for Edinburgh and Glasgow


Perth, Aberdeen and Dundee to return 1 MP


Paisley, Greenock and Leith to return 1 MP



Additional MPs for Belfast, Dublin University, Galway, Limerick and Waterford


Net increase Ireland, Scotland, Wales 18

Voting Qualifications after 1832

English & Welsh Counties

  1. 40 shilling freeholders
  2. £10 freeholders
  3. £10 copyholders
  4. Tenants with a yearly rent of £50
  5. Leaseholders for 60 years at clear yearly value of £10
  6. Leaseholders for 20 years at clear yearly value of £50
  7. Freehold mortgagees with a clear yearly value of £10
  8. Leasehold mortgagees with a clear yearly value of £10
  9. Trustees in receipt of requisite rents
  10. Beneficed cleargymen
  11. Annuitants from freehold or copyhold
  12. Holders of life offices with emoluments arising out of lands worth at least 40 shillings
  13. Purchasers of redeemed land tax worth at least 40 shillings
  14. Irremovable schoolmasters, parish clerks and sextons
  15. Proprietors of tithes and rent charges worth at least 40 shillings
  16. Joint tenants whose separate interests amounted to 40 shillings freehold or £10 leasehold
  17. Owners of shares in mines, rivers, canals, fairs, markets etc.

NB. No person could vote in a county in respect of property which would confer on hima qualification to vote for a borough; but a freehold in a borough of the annual value of 40 shillings and under £10 entitled the owner to vote for the county. If a property was above £10 and occupied by a tenant, the tenant could vote for the county.

English & Welsh Boroughs

  1. The ancient franchise holders in boroughs not disenfranchised if their qualifications existed on the last day of July in the year for which they claimed, and if they had resided for 6 months in the borough or within 7 miles, and their names were on the register.
  2. Occupiers, either as owners or tenants of any house, warehouse, counting house, shop or other building, either with or without land, of the clear yearly value of £10 within the borough, providing they had been in possession 12 calendar months prior to the last day of July in the year of the claim and had paid before the 20th July all the poor rates and assessed taxes payable from them in respect of the premises previous to the April prededing.
  3. Lodgers if sharing with other lodgers and the value divided by the number of lodgers came to £10 each

Scotch counties

  1. Persons possessed of franchise before 1831, or who would have possessed it - tenants in chief of the Crown with lands of 40 shillings (old extent) or of £400 Scotch valued rent
  2. Owners of land of £10 annual value
  3. 57 years leaseholders and life holders with a clear £10 annual value
  4. 19 years leaseholders with a clear £10 annual value
  5. Yearly tenants at a £50 rent
  6. All tenants whose interest cost them £300

Scotch cities, burghs and contributory districts

  1. Occupiers of houses of £10 annual value with non-resident true owners
  2. Husbands jure uxoris after the deaths of their wives

Irish counties

  1. £10 freeholders
  2. Leaseholders for lives and copyholders of estates of £10
  3. 60 years leaseholders and their assignees of estates of the same value
  4. 14 years leaseholders of £20 estates

Irish cities and boroughs

  1. £10 occupiers
  2. Resident freemen if admitted before March 1831