1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Classroom Activity)

Between 1780 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.

Earl Grey warned King William IV that unless the government made changes to the way the House of Commons was elected, Britain faced the danger of revolution. Grey argued that Britain should get rid of some of the rotten boroughs. Grey was also in favour of Britain's fast growing industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds, being represented in Parliament.

In March 1831 Grey introduced his reform bill. It was passed by the House of Commons. The following month the Tories blocked the measure in the House of Lords. Grey asked William IV to dissolve Parliament so that the Whigs could show that they had support for their reforms in the country. 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.

Polling was held from 28th April to 1st June 1831. In Birmingham and London it was estimated that over 100,000 people attended demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform. William Lovett, the head of the National Union of the Working Classes, gave his support to the reformers standing in the election. The Whigs won a landslide victory obtaining a majority of 136 over the Tories. After Lord Grey's election victory, he tried again to introduce parliamentary reform. Enormous demonstrations took place all over England and in Birmingham and London it was estimated that over 100,000 people attended these assemblies. They were overwhelmingly composed of artisans and working men.

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 on 8th October by forty-one votes. When people heard the news, Reform Riots took place in several British towns; the most serious of these being in Bristol in October 1831, when all four of the city's prisons were burned to the ground. In London, the houses owned by the Duke of Wellington and bishops who had voted against the bill in the Lords were attacked. On 5th November, Guy Fawkes was replaced on the bonfires by effigies of Wellington.

Grey attempted negotiation with a group of moderate Tory peers, known as "the waverers", but failed to win them over. On 7th May a wrecking amendment was carried by thirty-five votes, and on the following day the cabinet resolved to resign unless the king would agree to the creation of peers. On 7th May 1832, Grey and Henry Brougham met the king and asked him to create a large number of Whig 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 Lord 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 bill.

Most people were disappointed with the 1832 Reform Act. 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

George Cruikshank, The System Works So Well (1831) The House of Commons is shown as a water mill. The water wheel bear the names of rotten boroughs. Underneath lies the corpses of the poor, and from the mill pours a stream of benefits of being MPs, which they stuff in their pockets, while praising the system and opposing reform.
(Source 1) George Cruikshank, The System Works So Well (1831)
The House of Commons is shown as a water mill. The water wheel bear the names of rotten
boroughs. Underneath lies the corpses of the poor, and from the mill pours a stream of benefits
of being MPs, which they stuff in their pockets, while praising the system and opposing reform.


(Source 2) Princess Dorothea Lieven, letter to her brother Alexander von Benckendorff (November, 1830)

Just now there is a belief in universal suffrage... It is quite certain that the wrongs of the lower classes need a remedy. The aristocracy rolls in wealth and luxury while... the highways of the country, swarm with miserable creatures covered with rags, barefooted, having neither food nor shelter. The sight of this contrast is revolting, and in all likelihood were I one of these poor wretches I should be a democrat.

(Source 3) Harriet Arbuthnot, diary entry (4th November, 1830)

Parliament was opened by the King on the 2nd. He was very well received by the people who, however, were very disorderly, hooted and hissed the Duke wherever they could see him. People complain that the Duke did harm by declaring publicly he would not lend himself to any reform and that he thought, in its results, no form of representation could be better than ours. I don't believe there will be any disturbance. The wretched state to which Belgium is reduced by their desire for reform is a pretty good lesson for sober and reflecting people such as we are.

(Source 4) John Cab Hobhouse, diary entry (4th November, 1830)

The Duke of Wellington made a speech in the Lords, and declared against Reform. I hear he was hissed, and hurt by a stone. I heard this evening that a very unpleasant feeling was rising among the working classes, and that the shopkeepers in the Metropolis were so much alarmed that they talked of arming themselves.

(Source 5) Harriet Arbuthnot, diary entry (7th November, 1830)

We hear the radicals are determined to make a riot. The King gets quantities of letters every day telling him he will be murdered. The King is very much frightened and the Queen cries half the day with fright.

The Duke is greatly affected by all this state of affairs. He feels that beginning reform is beginning revolution, and therefore he must endeavour to stem the tide as long as possible, and that all he has to do is to see when and how it will be best for the country that he should resign. He thinks he cannot till he is beat in the House of Commons. He talked about this with me yesterday.

(Source 6) Duke of Wellington, letter to Harriet Arbuthnot (29th April, 1831)

I learn from my servant John that the mob attacked my House and broke about thirty windows. He fired two blunderbusses in the air from the top of the house, and they went off.

I think that John saved my house, or the lives of many of the mob - possibly both - by firing as he did. They certainly intended to destroy the house, and did not care one pin for the poor Duchess being dead in the house.

(Source 7) Duke of Wellington, letter to Harriet Arbuthnot (1st May, 1831)

Matters appear to be going as badly as possible. It may be relied upon that we shall have a revolution. I have never doubted the inclination and disposition of the lower orders of the people. I told you years ago that they are rotten to the core. They are not bloodthirsty, but they are desirous of plunder. They will plunder, annihilate all property in the country. The majority of them will starve; and we shall witness scenes such as have never yet occurred in any part of the world.

(Source 8) Duke of Wellington, letter to Mr. Gleig (11th April, 1831)

The conduct of government would be impossible, if the House of Commons should be brought to a greater degree under popular influence. That is the ground on which I stand in respect to the question in general of Reform in Parliament.

(Source 9) Charles Greville, diary entry (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.

(Source 10) Earl Grey, speech in the House of Commons (31st November, 1831)

There is no one more against annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the secret ballot, than I am. My object is not to favour but to put an end to such hopes.

(Source 11) Reform Riots in Bristol in October, 1831
(Source 11) Reform Riots in Bristol in October, 1831


(Source 12) Thomas Macaulay, speech in the House of Commons (31st November, 1831)

It is not by mere numbers, but by intelligence, that the nation ought to be governed... I support (the Reform Bill) because I am sure that it is our best security against a revolution.

(Source 13) The Observer (13th May, 1832)

At a quarter past twelve o'clock, the Royal carriage in which their Majesties were seated, without attendants, reached the village of Hounslow. The postillions passed on at a rapid rate till they entered the town of Brentford; where the people, who had assembled in great numbers, expressed by groans, hisses, and exclamations, their disapprobation of his Majesty's conduct with respect to the Administration. The Duke of Wellington had entered the Palace in full uniform about a quarter of an hour before the Majesties, and had been assailed by the people with groans and hisses. The Duke of Wellington, after remaining more than three hours with his Majesty, left about a quarter-past four, amidst groans and hisses even more vehement than when he arrived. Lord Frederick Fitzclarence was received with the same disapprobation, and loud cries of "Reform".

(Source 14) John Doyle produced this cartoon during the reform debate. Left to right: Earl Grey , the British population, William IV and Duke of Wellington (May, 1832)
(Source 14) John Doyle produced this cartoon during the reform debate. Left to right:
Earl Grey , the British population, William IV and Duke of Wellington (May, 1832)

(Source 15) 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.

(Source 16) 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.

(Source 17) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984)

The overall effect of the Reform Act was to increase the number of voters by about 50 per cent as it added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Study source 1. Is George Cruikshank a supporter or opponent of parliamentary reform?

Question 2: Why was the Duke of Wellington so unpopular in 1830-1832? It will help you to read sources 3-8 before answering this question.

Question 3: Earl Grey (source 10), Thomas Macaulay (source 12) and Thomas Creevey (source 15) were all Whigs, who advocated passing the 1832 Reform Act. Use the sources to explain if this meant they supported universal suffrage (votes for all adult men)? If not, explain why the Whigs believed it was important for Parliament to pass the 1832 Reform Act.

Question 4: Explain why some members of the House of Lords changed their mind about parliamentary reform between 1830 and 1832.

Question 5: Explain the meaning of source 14.

Question 6: Why were so many people disappointed with the 1832 Reform Act?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.