On this day in 1832 the Representation of the People Act 1832, also known as the 1832 Reform Act, Great Reform Act or First Reform Act, gained Royal assent. The Act was a landmark step towards Britain becoming a more representative democracy, reforming the electoral system by abolishing tiny districts, giving representation to cities, giving the vote to small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers and to householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers.
The Act was designed correct abuses: to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament". Before the reform, most members nominally represented boroughs. The number of electors in a borough varied widely, from a dozen or so up to 12,000. Frequently the selection of MPs was effectively controlled by one powerful patron: for example Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, controlled eleven boroughs. Criteria for qualification for the franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a pot.
There had been calls for reform long before 1832, but without success. For example the demonstrators at Peterloo in 1819 and the workers participating in the Radical and Merthyr Risings, of 1820 and 1831 respectively, were amongst other things, all calling for the reform of Parliament. The Act that finally succeeded was proposed by the Whigs, led by Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. It met with significant opposition from the Pittite factions in Parliament, who had long governed the country; opposition was especially pronounced in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, the bill was eventually passed, mainly as a result of public pressure. The Act granted seats in the House of Commons to large cities that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution, and removed seats from the "rotten boroughs": those with very small electorates and usually dominated by a wealthy patron.
In all, the act:
Another change was the formal exclusion of women from voting in Parliamentary elections, as a voter was defined in the Act as a male person. Before 1832 there were occasional, although rare, instances of women voting.
The Act also increased the electorate from about 400,000 to 650,000, making about one in five adult males eligible to vote.
The Act applied only in England and Wales; the Irish Reform Act 1832 brought similar changes to Ireland. The separate Scottish Reform Act 1832 was revolutionary, enlarging the electorate by a factor of 13 from 5,000 to 65,000.
During the ensuing years, Parliament adopted several more minor reforms. Acts of Parliament passed in 1835 and 1836 increased the number of polling places in each constituency, therefore reduced polling to a single day. Parliament also passed several laws aimed at combating corruption, including the Corrupt Practices Act 1854, though these measures proved largely ineffectual. Neither party strove for further major reform; leading statesmen on both sides regarded the Reform Act as a final settlement.
There was considerable public agitation for further expansion of the electorate, however; the property qualifications meant that the majority of working men still couldn't vote. In particular, the Chartist movement, which demanded universal suffrage for men, equally sized electoral districts, and voting by secret ballot, gained a widespread following. The Chartists staged several risings in an attempt to force reform, the largest of which was the Newport Rising in 1839, which saw some 10,000 Chartists march on the town. But the Tories were united against further reform, and the Liberal Party (successor to the Whigs) did not seek a general revision of the electoral system until 1852. The 1850s saw Lord John Russell introduce a number of reform bills to correct defects the first act had left unaddressed. However, no proposal was successful until 1867, when Parliament adopted the Second Reform Act.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris and James Pegrum as part of a series of models on people and protest. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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