1832 Great Reform Act

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56 rotten and pocket boroughs returning 111 MP's lost their representation in the House of Commons.

  • Old Sarum
  • Dunwich

30 boroughs with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants lost their MP representative.

The disenfranchisement of the boroughs was the most dramatic change after the 1832 Reform Act was passed. It ultimately meant that the boroughs that were disfranchised had no right to send a representative MP in the House of Commons.

Yet the Whig party did leave some small boroughs alone - This left approximately 60 - 70 MP's directly dependant on support from their borough for their seat in the Commons.

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65 seats were given to the counties.

44 seats were given to the more industrial boroughs without a representing MP.

  • Manchester 
  • Leeds
  • Sheffield 

21 smaller towns were given one MP each (They represented intrests; Wool, Iron & Steel)

Scotland was given 8 more MP's.

Ireland was given 5 more MP's.

There was a sizeable increase in the number of MP's who represented the English counties. This was favourable to the Whigs and Tories as county representatives were less likely to be bribed and corrupt (unlike those from the boroughs)

Many industrial towns from the North of England were previsouly without a representative as their intrests as a whole were under-represented. But now with seats available, they could finally have an MP in the House of Commons. 

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In the counties, adult men were given the right to vote if they had certain qualifications;

  • Owning property worth at least £2 a year.
  • Holding a copyhold (a special type of lease) on land worth at least £10 a year.
  • Leasing/Renting land worth at least £50 a year.

In the boroughs, adult men were given the right to vote the had certain qualifications;

  • Owning/Living in property worth at least £10 a year, providing they have lived there for at least a year and did not owe any taxes for the property and had not receievd poor relief the previous year.
  • Those who had the vote with the old property qualifications but do not qualify with the new ones.


It would appear that with these new requirements, the number of men eligible to vote rose from 1/10 to 1/5 after the Reform Act was passed.

After 1832, voting had increased by 500% because elections were more contested.

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The Reformed House of Commons

There was no sudden increase in the number of MP's from middle-class backgrounds. 

After 1832 roughly 70 - 80% of MP's represented the landed interest.

  • Many were the sons of peers.

The dominance of the aristocracy continued well into the 1850's 

  • This would suggest that the 1832 Reform Act had limited amounts of reform in order to calm the masses.

The 'treating' of voters did remain a vital part of electioneering as did tricks to undermine other candidates.

  • Many complained that the 1832 Reform Act made voting worse.
  • Politicians and land owners were still corrupt.


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The Parliamentary System Before 1832

The government was concerned with raising taxes, dealing with disorder, maintaining the military, foreign policies and war.

  • It was not the role of the government to deal with education, poverty, unemployment and health servies for the people.
  • Parliament had control over finances, but any changes had to be supported by the ruling monarch and Parliament.

The monarch appointed the ministers of state so he/she had plenty of influence in Parliament. 

  • The King had control over Parliament with his 100 'placemen'.
  • Yet there was insufficient men for the King's policies to be carried if they were oppossed.

Most government ministers sat in the House of Lords along with leaders of the army C of E and civil servicemen.

Not only did these men own vast estates, they also controlled many of the constituencies that sent MP's to the House of Commons.

About 111 MP's owed their seats to the aristocracy, even with such numbers, there was never enough for support for the Lords.

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The Parliamentary System Before 1832 (2)

The House of Commons constsited of MP's who were elected one way or another.

  • Electors did not vote for a political party or national programme, they instead voted on personal and local issues.

There were two primary MP groups: Whigs and Tories.

  • Each group organised themselves through family, friends and general ideas and attitudes.
  • Yet the vast majority of MP's were independant and did not fall into either party so their support was never certain.

MP's in this outdated system were never paid, as they were rich enough through other ways, that payment was not necessary. 

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Constituencies & Boroughs Before 1832

All MP's represented one of two types of constituency: country or borough.

  • Each County in England and Wales (no matter the size) returned 2 MP's except Scotland who could only return 1 to the House of Commons.
  • Many counties contained towns and had some significance in interests and made 'parliamentary boroughs' - This meant they could send 2 MP's.

There were however, some boroughs that used to be (in their prime) parliamentary boroughs but have now dropped in either population or importance to Parliament.

  • Old Sarum - by 1831 it had 11 voters and none lived there.
  • Dunwich - by 1831 it had only 44 houses and lost its importance.

These were called 'rotten boroughs' and they still had the right to send 2 MP's. 

This caused a heavy impact on the larger, newer, industrial towns like Manchester and Leeds, who had no representative MP, because they had only just begun to raise in importance.

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Franchise: Who Could Vote Before 1832?

The right to vote had certain qualifications: property laws. Whether or not a man was allowed to vote depended on where he lived and what he owned.

If he lived in a county the qualification was:

  • He had to own freehold land/property that was worth at least £2 a year.

For boroughs the qualification to vote was more complicated:

  • To vote, the right to vote depended on the ancient rights and customs of that specififc borough.
  •  In 'pot walloper' boroughs you could vote if you owned a hearth and not to be claiming 'poor relief'.
  • In 'burgage' boroughs voting rights were passed down from father to son.
  • All this variety mean that in some boroughs, nearly all the men could vote; in others, only 1 man out of 100 could do so.
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Elections Before 1832

There had to be an election every 7 years. However, in some constituencies if there were as many candidates as seats then there was no need to vote.

If a landowner supported a candidat then there was no point in running for election for a seat.

  • In some 'pocket boroughs' where one landowner owned enough to control the election, it would be futile to go agaisnt him. 
  • Some landowners would either bribe, kidnap or evict a voter who went against his wishes.

Many candidates chose to 'treat' voters so as to gain more votes.

  • This could be through buying their lodgings, drinks, clothes, food etc just to gain support.
  • It was always the richest candidate who would win the elections.

The vote was never a secret.

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Pressure for Reform: The Manufacturing Interest

The manufacturing towns of the North and Midlands were well established by 1815.

Gradually, the realisation grew that their interests were not being represented by an MP in Parliament.

  • Industrilaists previosuly tried to influence elections and were unsuccessful, yet the idea stayed.

It became clear that reform for the whole system was needed.

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Pressure for Reform: Distress in the Towns and Cou

Bad harvests in 1829 and 1830 along with a trade slump in the same year hit the rich and poor alike.

And the cholera epidemic in 1831 -32 made it worse.

Throughout 1830 - 32, there were reports of high poor rates, unemployments, bad trade and low wages. 

  • The system was in desperate need for reform and Earl Grey along with the Whig party were the ones to solve it.
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Pressure for Reform: Political Unions

Birmingham Political Union, founded by Thomas Attwood in 1829 was intended to operate as a ginger group, (a small pressure group within a large organisation that strongly wants action on a single issue) a lead refom movements through petitions and public meetings.

The worse the political situation became, the more members the political unions had.

  • There were peaks and troughs within politics, so membeship to unions fluctuated.
  • 1830 - 15,000 people attended the first meeting.
  • 1832 - 100,000 people attended the meeting.

Political unions sprang up all over the country, but some had failed to unite masters and men (unlike the BPU).

Clearly, each of the political unions wanted different kinds of parliamentary reform.

What united the unions was that they all focused on pubic reform, and in doing so, helped to create a public opinion; the unions helped show that the public's view can be expressed without breaking the law and keep the enthusiasm for reform alive.

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Pressure for Reform: Whigs and Tories

Reform had to be wanted by either the Whig or Tory party for it to truly happen.

After the death of Tory leader, Lord Liverpool, they became divided.

  • This made them easier to defeat in Parliament by the Whig party.

Both parties wished to preserve the power and status of the landed gentry and prevent revolution. 

  • The Whigs believed that in order to preserve this, there must be some reform, much to the agitation of the Tories. 
  • "Reform in order to preserve." - Earl Grey
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Pressure for Reform: Whigs In and Tories Out

Whilst the new Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington was making a speech, he began defending the current electoral system: he seemed to be ignoring the political unions, the reform rallies and articles in the press.

  • The Duke wanted to maintain the current system and attempted to rally his supporters against the reformation of Parliament.

This resulted in the Tories joining the Whigs and the collapse of the government was imminent.

No other Tory leader could form a government that would have the support of the majority of MP's: the new King, William IV asked Whig leader Earl Grey to become the Prime Minister.

From 1830-32 the House of Lords strongly opposed parliamentary reform along with the King, however, due to the riotous state of the country he finally agreed to Grey's demand.

  • Grey needed more Whig peers in order for his Reform Bill to pass the House of Commons and into the House of Lords.
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The First Reform Bill

The government's proposals were introduced into the Commons by Lord John Russell. The proposals were an attempt to shift the balance of representation away from the landed gentry and towards the middle classes. 

The proposals were welcomed but it was on one instance rejected, by Henry Hetherington and warned the working people to oppose the proposals.

Many people of the working class believed that the Reform Bill was the first step towards electoral reformand urged people to support it.

The debate in the House of Commons was heated: Tories and Whigs spoke for and against the Bill. By the end it, the Bill was passed by 1 vote.

  • Earl Grey was uneasy as a majority of one was not enough.
  • Those who opposed the Bill would be able to get amendments agreed that would cripple it.
  • Grey was right - The first amendment was passed.
  • Grey persuaded the King to dissolve parliament and hold a general election.
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The Second Reform Bill: Commons vs Lords vs People

Earl Grey after the 1831 Election held the majority of 130 seats in the House of Commons.

  • He did not fear defat nor, any possible amendments to his legislations.

With the second reform bill passed through its third reading in the Commons, it was sent to the House of Lords and rejected by 41 votes. 

This led to national outrage and violence:

  • Riots occured in Bristol, Derby, Nottingham and other cities, along with smaller towns like Dorset and Devon.
  • New political unions were formed and the older ones were strengthened.
  • There protest marches throughout the country.
  • Homes of the anti-reformist Lords had windows smashed.
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The Third Reform Bill

Lord John Russell presented a third reform bill to the House Commons that was passed through to the House of Lords.

Grey became exasperated as the Lords began stalling in their decisions.

Many believed that in order for the bill to pass: more Whig peers had to be created by the King, since they supported reform.

  • The King refused, and Grey's Whig government resigned.
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The Days of May

The country began rioting and starting rallies again.

Men like Thomas Attwood and Francis Place were amongst many who wanted to stop the Tory leader (the Duke of Wellington) from forming a new government.

Westminister was full of anti-Tory propaganda.

  • The BPU (Birmingham Political Union) announced that 200,000 men would march on London and stay until the reform bill became law.
  • Francis Places suggested that everyone should withdraw their money from the banks in order to create a financial crisis.
  • 'Stop the Duke!' and 'Go for gold!' were slogans posted around London and constituencies.

In desperation, the King asked Wellington to form a government that pleged limited reform: Sir Robert Peel (Leader of the Tories in the Commons) refused to serve under this as it was impossible.

William IV, asked Grey to take over again and promsied to created the Whig peers needed to pass the third reform bill in the House of Lords.

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The Third Reform Bill Becomes Law

The threat to create new Whig peers was enough to pass the bill.

  • The House of Lords' majority was now held by the Whig party and the Tories could not contemplate this.

When the bill was in its final reading, many of the Tory Lords stayed away from Parliament and the Third Reform Bill was finally passed by 106 votes and signed by the King to make it law.

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