1832 Reform Act

Between 1770 and 1830, the Tories were the dominant force in the House of Commons. The Tories were strongly opposed to increasing the number of people who could vote. However, in November, 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister. Grey explained to William IV that he wanted to introduce proposals that would get rid of some of the rotten boroughs. Grey also planned to give Britain's fast growing industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds, representation in the House of Commons.

In April 1831 Grey asked William IV to dissolve Parliament so that the Whigs could secure a larger majority in the House of Commons. Grey explained this would help his government to carry their proposals for parliamentary reform. William agreed to Grey's request and after making his speech in the House of Lords, walked back through cheering crowds to Buckingham Palace.

After Lord Grey's election victory, he tried again to introduce parliamentary reform. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill. However, the Tories still dominated the House of Lords, and after a long debate the bill was defeated. When people heard the news, Reform Riots took place in several British towns; the most serious of these being in Bristol in October 1831.

On 7th May 1832, Grey and Henry Brougham met the king and asked him to create a large number of Wigg peers in order to get the Reform Bill passed in the House of Lords. William was now having doubts about the wisdom of parliamentary reform and refused.

Lord Grey's government resigned and William IV now asked the leader of the Tories, the Duke of Wellington, to form a new government. Wellington tried to do this but some Tories, including Sir Robert Peel, were unwilling to join a cabinet that was in opposition to the views of the vast majority of the people in Britain. Peel argued that if the king and Wellington went ahead with their plan there was a strong danger of a civil war in Britain.

When the Duke of Wellington failed to recruit other significant figures into his cabinet, William was forced to ask Grey to return to office. In his attempts to frustrate the will of the electorate, William IV lost the popularity he had enjoyed during the first part of his reign. Once again Lord Grey asked the king to create a large number of new Whig peers. William agreed that he would do this and when the Lords heard the news, they agreed to pass the Reform Act.

Many people were disappointed with the 1832 Reform Bill. Voting in the boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10. There were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. As a result, only one in seven adult males had the vote. Nor were the constituencies of equal size. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.

Primary Sources

(1) John Cam Hobhouse, Recollections of a Long Life (1910)

Lord John Russell began his speech at six o'clock. Never shall I forget the astonishment of my neighbours as he developed his plan. Indeed, all the House of Commons seemed perfectly astounded; and when he read the long list of the boroughs to be either wholly or partially disfranchised there was a sort of wild ironical laughter. Baring Wall, turning to me, said, "They are mad! They are mad!" and others made use of similar exclamations - all but Sir Robert Peel; he looked serious and angry, as if he had discovered that the Ministers, by the boldness of their measure, had secured the support of the country. Burdett and I agreed there was very chance of the measure being carried, and that a revolution would be the consequence. We thought our Westminster friends would oppose the £10 qualification clause; but we were wrong, for we found all our supporters delighted with the Bill.

(2) Thomas Macaulay, letter to Thomas Flower Ellis on the vote in the House of Commons on the Reform Act (30th March, 1831)

Such a scene as the division of last Tuesday I never saw, and never expect to see again. If I should live fifty years the impression of it will be as fresh and sharp in my mind as if it had just taken place. It was like seeing Caesar stabbed in the Senate House, or seeing Oliver taking the mace from the table, a sight to be seen only once and never to be forgotten. The crowd overflowed the House in every part. When the doors were locked we had six hundred and eight members present, more than fifty five than were ever in a division before.

When Charles Wood who stood near the door jumped up on a bench and cried out. 'They are only three hundred and one.' We set up a shout that you might have heard to Charing Cross - waving our hats - stamping against the floor and clapping our hands. The tellers scarcely got through the crowd. But you might have heard a pin drop as Duncannon read the numbers. Then again the shouts broke out - and many of us shed tears - I could scarcely refrain. And the jaw of Peel fell; and the face of Twiss was as the face of a damned soul. We shook hands and clapped each other on the back, and went out laughing, crying, and huzzaing into the lobby.

(3) Princess Lieven to her brother Alexander, 2nd March, 1831.

I was absolutely stupefied when I learnt the extent of the Reform Bill. The most absolutely secrecy has been maintained on the subject until the last moment. It is said that the House of Commons was quite taken by surprise; the Whigs are astonished, the Radicals delighted, the Tories indignant. This was the first impression of Lord John Russell's speech, who was entrusted with explaining the Government Bill.

I have had neither the time nor the courage to read it. Its leading features have scared me completely: 168 members are unseated, sixty boroughs disfranchised, eight more members allotted to London and proportionately to the large towns and counties, the total number of members reduced by sixty or more.

(4) Charles Greville, journal, 10th October, 1831

Yesterday morning the newspapers (all in black) announced the defeat of the Reform Bill by a majority of forty-one, at seven o'clock on Saturday morning, after five nights' debating. By all accounts the debate was a magnificent display, and incomparably superior to that in the House of Commons, but the reports convey no idea of it.

The Duke of Wellington's speech was exceedingly bad; he is in fact, and has proved it in repeated instances, unequal to argue a great constitutional question. He has neither the command of language, the power of reasoning, nor the knowledge requisite for such an effort.

(5) John Cob Hobhouse, Recollections of a Long Life (1910)

In Bond Street I saw a large placard with this inscription: "199 versus 22,000,000!" and I went into the house to persuade the shopman to take it down. He was a shoemaker, and, though very civil, was very firm, and refused to remove the placard, saying he had only done as others had done. When I told him who I was, he said, "Oh, I know you very well", but he still declined to follow my advice.

(6) Thomas Creevey, letter to Miss Ord about the Duke of Wellington and the passing of the Reform Act (26th May, 1832)

One more day will finish the concern in the Lords, and that this should have been accomplished as it has against a great majority of peers, and without making a single new one, must always remain one of the greatest miracles in English history. He (the Duke of Wellington) has destroyed himself and his Tory high-flying association for ever. This (the Reform Act) has saved the country from confusion, and perhaps the monarch and monarchy from destruction.

(7) Thomas Creevey, letter to Miss Ord on Earl Grey and the passing of the Reform Act (2nd June, 1832)

In the House of Lords yesterday Grey, according to his custom, came, and talked with me. It is really too much to see his happiness at its being all over. He dwells upon the marvellous luck of Wellington's false move.

(8) Thomas Creevey, letter to Miss Old on the passing of the Reform Act (5th June, 1832)

Thank God! I was in at the death of this Conservative plot, and the triumph of the Bill! This is the third great event of my life at which I have been present, and in each of which I have been to a certain extent mixed up - the battle of Waterloo, the battle of Queen Caroline, and the battle of Earl Grey and the English nation for the Reform Bill.

(9) Sir Denis Le Marchant, journal (5th June, 1832)

There were very few peers in the House during the ceremony of the Commission of assent. Ministers had been very anxious to avoid the appearance of triumph, so the time had been kept secret. The Duke of Sussex did not enter the body of the House but remained behind the curtain. When the assent was given, he said, loud enough to be heard at some distance, 'Thank God the deed is done at last. I care for nothing now - this is the happiest day of my life.' An old Tory standing behind him, lifted up his hands in horror, and fervently ejaculated, 'O Christ!'