Parliamentary Reform In Britain 

  • The Representation of the People Act 1832 (or 1832 Reform Act, or Great Reform Act or First Reform Act) was an Act of Parliament which introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales.
  • 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 (depopulation also due to migrations to industrial areas after industrial revolution) and usually dominated by a wealthy patron.

(A) The unreformed House of Commons

 (1) Composition:
  • After the Act of Union 1800, the unreformed House of Commons was composed of 658 members, of whom 513 represented England and Wales.
  • There were two types of constituencies: counties and boroughs. County members were supposed to represent landholders, while borough members were supposed to represent the mercantile and trading interests of the kingdom. Counties were not merely parliamentary constituencies; many components of the government (including courts and the militia) were organised along county lines.
  • The members of Parliament chosen by the counties were known as Knights of the Shire. In Wales each county elected one member of Parliament, while in England each county elected two members until 1826, when Yorkshire’s representation was increased to four.
  • Parliamentary boroughs in England ranged wildly in size from small hamlets to large cities, partly because they had evolved haphazardly. Early boroughs were substantial settlements at the time of their original enfranchisement, but later went into decline, and by the early 19th century some only had a few electors, but still elected two MPs; they were often known as “rotten boroughs”.
  • In later centuries the reigning monarch decided which settlements to enfranchise, often with little regard for the merits of the place they were enfranchising.The parliamentarians of the 17th century compounded the inconsistencies by re-enfranchising 15 boroughs whose representation had lapsed for centuries. After Newark was enfranchised in 1661, no additional boroughs were enfranchised, and the unfair system remained unchanged until the Reform Act of 1832.
(2) The franchise:
  • Statutes passed in 1430 and 1432, during the reign of Henry VI, standardised property qualifications for county voters. Under these Acts, all (male) owners of freehold property or land worth at least forty shillings were entitled to vote in that county. This requirement, known as the forty shilling freehold, was never adjusted for inflation; thus the amount of land one had to own in order to vote gradually diminished over time. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people were not entitled to vote.
  • Furthermore, the sizes of the individual county constituencies varied significantly. The smallest counties had fewer than 1,000 voters each. Those who owned property in multiple constituencies could vote multiple times.
  • In boroughs the franchise was far more varied. Most boroughs had special rules and exceptions so many boroughs had a form of franchise that was unique to themselves.
  • The largest borough, Westminster, had about 12,000 voters, while many of the smallest, usually known as “rotten boroughs” had fewer than 100 each.
(3) Women’s suffrage:
  • The claim for the women’s vote appears to have been first made by Jeremy Bentham in 1817 when he published his Plan of Parliamentary Reform and was taken up by William Thompson in 1825, when he published, with Anna Wheeler, An Appeal of One Half the Human Race.
  • The passing of the Act seven years later enfranchising “male persons” was, however, a more significant event; it was the inclusion of the word “male”, thus providing the first explicit statutory bar to women voting, which provided a source of resentment from which, the women’s suffrage movement grew.
(4) Old Corruption:
  • Political corruption was endemic in election campaigns prior to the Great Reform Act. Many constituencies, especially those with small electorates, were under the control of rich landowners, and were known as nomination boroughs or pocket boroughs, because they were said to be in the pockets of their patrons.
  • Most patrons were noblemen or landed gentry who could use their local influence, prestige, and wealth to sway the voters.
  • Some noblemen even controlled multiple constituencies. A member who represented a pocket borough was expected to vote as his patron ordered, or else lose his seat at the next election.
  • Voters in some constituencies resisted outright domination by powerful landlords, but were still often open to corruption. Electors were bribed in some boroughs. Especially notorious for their corruption were the “nabobs”, or individuals who had amassed fortunes in the British colonies in Asia and the West Indies. The nabobs, in some cases, even managed to wrest control of boroughs from the nobility and the gentry.

(B) Movement for reform:

(1) Early attempts at reform:
  • William Pitt the Younger was a prominent advocate of parliamentary reform.
  • Oliver Cromwell, who became the leader of England after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649, refused to adopt universal suffrage; individuals were required to own minimum property in order to vote. He did nonetheless agree to some electoral reform but all reforms were all reversed after Cromwell’s death.
  • Following Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the issue of parliamentary reform lay dormant until it was revived in the 1760s by the Whig Prime Minister “Pitt the Elder”, who called borough representation “the rotten part of our Constitution” (hence the term “rotten borough”). Nevertheless, he did not advocate an immediate disfranchisement of rotten boroughs.
  • In 1783, William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister but was still unable to achieve reform.In 1786, the Prime Minister proposed a reform bill, but the House of Commons rejected it.
  • Support for parliamentary reform plummeted after the launch of the French Revolution in 1789. Reacting to the excesses of the revolution, many English politicians became steadfastly opposed to any major political change. Despite this reaction, several Radical Movement groups were established to agitate for reform.
  • Despite setbacks, popular pressure for reform remained strong. In 1819, a large pro-reform rally was held in Birmingham. Although the city was not entitled to any seats in the Commons, those gathered decided to elect Sir Charles Wolseley as Birmingham’s “legislatorial representative”. Following their example, reformers in Manchester held a similar meeting to elect a “legislatorial attorney”. Manchester Yeomenry suppressed the meeting by force. Eleven people were killed and several hundred injured, the event later to become known as the Peterloo Massacre.
  • In response, the government passed the Six Acts, measures designed to quell further political agitation. In particular, the Seditious Meetings Act prohibited groups of more than 50 people from assembling to discuss any political subject without prior permission.

(2) Reform during the 1820s:

  • Since the House of Commons regularly rejected direct challenges to the system of representation by large majorities, supporters of reform had to content themselves with more modest measures like proposing the disfranchisement of the notoriously corrupt borough and transferring seats to other boroughs. Most of the time these proposals were rejected.
  • Support for reform came from an unexpected source—a faction of the Tory Party—in 1829. The Tory government under Arthur Wellesley responding to the danger of civil strife in largely Roman Catholic Ireland, drew up the Catholic Relief Act 1829. This legislation repealed various laws that imposed political disabilities on Roman Catholics, in particular laws that prevented them from becoming members of Parliament. In response, disenchanted Tories who perceived a danger to the established religion came to favour parliamentary reform, in particular the enfranchisement of Manchester, Leeds, and other heavily Noncomformist cities in northern England.

(3) Disintegration of Tory Hegemony:

  • Complacency – they’d been in office for 20 years
  • Lord Liverpool had worked to keep the Tories together, his resignation was followed by a period of political uncertainty. In 1827-28 Tories split between two– Duke of Wellington, more conservative; Robert Peel, more liberal
  • Catholic Emancipation split them further. Catholic Emancipation allowed Catholics to become MPs and other positions
  • Alternative to Catholic Emancipation – Wellington believed civil war with Ireland
(4) The Working Class:
  • They had many grievances, including poverty, insecurity and poor working and living conditions. As a result, they were beginning to become conscious of themselves as an exploited class and so were becoming increasingly politically aware.
  • Working class support was due mostly to the idea that from the reform of parliament would arise much-needed social and economic improvements.

(6) Dissenters:

  • Middle and working class
  • Protestants outside the established Church of England: Presbyterians,Baptists, etc.Quakers. Their numbers were increasing rapidly. In 1820 – 30% of population and in some towns they were in majority. They were denied full civil rights, being excluded from corporations, universities and some state offices, while in addition they – like everyone else – were taxed to support the Established Church. For them, Parliamentary reform = better representation, chance to remove disabilities. It was later stated in parliament that they had been ‘the life of the agitation’ for the Reform Bill.

(7) Industrial and Commercial Middle Classes:

  • Parliament failed to represent their interests, and that it enabled an aristocratic parliament and government to get away with mismanaging the nation’s affairs.
  • Middle classes resented Corn Laws (explained in next topic)
  • There was also resentment at the exclusion of many middle-class from the borough franchise and at the non-representation of industrial towns such as Birmingham and Manchester, and with them of important economic interests such as cotton manufacture.
  • Middle-class hostility to the unreformed system was reinforced by Jeremy Bentham’s  philosophy of Utilitarianism.
  • Alongside their discontents and hopes existed fear. Businessmen, industrialists and professionals were generally men of substance, men with much to lose. The last thing they wanted was a violent revolution, with all the destruction that would accompany it.
  • The middle classes wanted the enfranchisement of men like themselves, ‘responsible citizens’ who owned property and thus had an economic stake in the country.

(C) Passage of the Reform Act:

Reform Crisis 1930-32

Political Unions and the Revival of Reform

  • 1829-1830: slump in economy, poor harvests – caused higher bread prices, unemployment and distress for working classes
  • Parliamentary reform movement revived by veterans such as Hunt Cobbett
  • 1829 – Thomas Attwood, Birmingham banker, formed pressure group ‘General Political Union between the Lower and Middle Classes of the People’ (BPU). Unions saw massive co-operation between the middle and working classes”. The class alliance which the Tories feared seemed to be coming about.
  • Reform movement continued to gain support with July 1830 revolution in France

First Reform Bill

  • The death of King George IV on 26 June 1830 dissolved Parliament by law, and a general election was held. Electoral reform, which had been frequently discussed during the preceding parliamentary session, became a major campaign issue. Across the country, several pro-reform “political unions” were formed, made up of both middle and working class individuals. The most influential of these was the Birmingham Political Union, led by Thomas Attwood. These groups confined themselves to lawful means of supporting reform, such as petitioning and public oratory, and achieved a high level of public support.
  • The Tories won a majority in the election, but the party remained divided, and support for the Prime Minister  was weak. When the Opposition raised the issue of reform in one of the first debates of the year, PM made a controversial defence of the existing system of government.
  • The Prime Minister’s absolutist views proved extremely unpopular, even within his own party. He was defeated in a motion of no confidence and was replaced by the Whig reformer Charles Grey.
  • Lord Grey Had experience, prestige and parliamentary following Championed reform as early as 1790.  The Whigs had no intention of accepting radical proposals for universal male suffrage. The reform bill was thus designed to harm the Tories and benefit the Whigs.
  • On 1 March 1831,Reform Bill was brought in the House of Commons. Due to many objections progress on the Reform Bill was difficult. During the committee stage also objections were made.These divisions indicated that Parliament was against the Reform Bill, the ministry decided to request a dissolution and take its appeal to the people.

Second Reform Bill:

  • Pro-reform Whigs won an overwhelming House of Commons majority in the general election of 1831. The Reform Bill was again brought before the House of Commons and passed. The Bill was then sent up to the House of Lords which voted against the Bill.
  • When the Lords rejected the Reform Bill, public violence ensued.  The mob broke into prisons and freed prisoners and destroyed several buildings.
  • Meanwhile, the political unions, which had hitherto been separate groups united only by a common goal, decided to form the National Political Union. Perceiving this group as a threat, the government issued a proclamation pursuant to the Corresponding Societies Act 1799 declaring such an association “unconstitutional and illegal”.

Third Reform Bill:

  • Because parliamentary rules prohibited the introduction of the same bill twice during the same session, the ministry advised the King to prorogue Parliament.
  • As soon as the new session began in December 1831, the Third Reform Bill was brought forward. The bill was in a few respects different from its predecessors; it no longer proposed a reduction in the total membership of the House of Commons, and it reflected data collected during the census that had just been completed. It was passed and sent to House of Lords.
  • Realizing that another rejection would not be politically feasible, opponents of reform decided to use amendments to change the bill’s essential character.
  • Lord Grey then resigned, and the King invited the Duke of Wellington to form a new government but due to inability to form the government, Lord Grey was recalled.
  • The ensuing period became known as the “Days of May“, with so great a level of political agitation that some feared revolution. Some protesters advocated non-payment of taxes, and urged a run on the banks, some demonstrations called for the abolition of the nobility, and some even of the monarchy.
  • Eventually the King consented to fill the House of Lords with Whigs; and he circulated a letter among Tory peers, encouraging them to desist from further opposition.They allowed the legislation to pass in the House of Lords.

(D) Results:


(1) Abolition of seats:

  • The Reform Act’s chief objective was the reduction of the number of nomination boroughs. There were 203 boroughs in England. The 56 smallest of these were completely abolished. The next 30 smallest boroughs each lost one of their two MPs.
  • In addition Weymouth and Melcombe Regis’s four members were reduced to two. Thus in total the Act abolished 143 borough seats in England .

(2) Creation of new seats

  • In their place the Act created 130 new seats in England and Wales. 65 new county seats and 65 new borough seats were created in England and Wales. The total number of English members fell by 17 and the number in Wales increased by four.
  • The boundaries of the new divisions and parliamentary boroughs were defined in a separate Act, the Parliamentary Boundaries Act 1832.

(3) Extension of the franchise:

  • In county constituencies, in addition to forty-shilling freeholders, franchise rights were extended to owners of land in copyhold worth £10 and holders of long-term leases on land worth £10 and holders of medium-term leases on land worth £50 and to tenants-at-will paying an annual rent of £50.
  • In borough constituencies all male householders living in properties worth at least £10 a year were given the right to vote – a measure which introduced to all boroughs a standardised form of franchise for the first time.They were to be resident in the boroughs in which they were electors.
  • The Act also introduced a system of voter registration and a system of special courts to review disputes relating to voter qualifications. It also authorised the use of multiple polling places within the same constituency, and limited the duration of polling to two days. (Formerly, polls could remain open for up to forty days.)
  • The Reform Act itself did not affect constituencies in Scotland or Ireland. However, reforms there were carried out by the Scottish Reform Act and the Irish Reform Act. While no constituencies were disfranchised in either of those countries, voter qualifications were standardized and the size of the electorate was expanded in both.


  • Local Conservative Associations began to educate citizens about the Party’s platform and encouraged them to register to vote annually, as mandated by the Act. Press coverage of national politics in the local press was joined by in-depth reports on provincial politics in the national press. Grass roots Conservatives therefore saw themselves as part of a national political movement during the 1830s.
  • Before the 1832 Reform Act, 400,000 English subjects were entitled to vote, and that after passage, the number rose to 650,000, an increase of more than 60%.
  • Many major commercial and industrial cities became separate parliamentary boroughs under the Act. The new constituencies saw party conflicts inside the middle-class, and between the middle-class and working-class.
  • Having the vote encouraged many men to become much more active in the political, economic and social sphere.
  • Increased the prestige of the Commons, more middle men became MPs

Tenant voters:

  • Most of the pocket boroughs abolished by the Reform Act belonged to the Tory Party. These losses were somewhat offset by the extension of the vote to tenants-at-will paying an annual rent of £50. The tenants-at-will thereby enfranchised typically voted as instructed by their landlords, who in turn normally supported the Tory party.
  • Traditional landed interest “suffered very little”. They continued to dominate Commons, while losing a bit of their power to enact laws that focused on their more parochial interests. By contrast, the 1867 Reform Act caused serious erosion of their legislative power and the 1874 elections saw great landowners losing their county seats to the votes of tenant farmers in England and especially in Ireland.


  • The Reform Act did very little to appease the working class, since voters were required to possess property worth £10. This split the alliance between the working class and the middle class, giving rise to the Chartist Movement.
  • Although it did disenfranchise most rotten boroughs, a few remained. Also, bribery of voters remained a problem.
  • The Reform Act strengthened the House of Commons by reducing the number of nomination boroughs controlled by peers. Some aristocrats complained that, in the future, the government could compel them to pass any bill, simply by threatening to swamp the House of Lords with new peerages. The subsequent history of Parliament, however, shows that the influence of the Lords was largely undiminished. They compelled the Commons to accept significant amendments to the Municipal Reform Bill in 1835, forced compromises on Jewish emancipation, and successfully resisted several other bills supported by the public.
  • Total number of franchise was still very less.

Further reform:

  • Acts of Parliament passed in 1835 and 1836 increased the number of polling places in each constituency, and reduced polling to a single day.
  • Parliament also passed several laws aimed at combating corruption, including the Corrupt Practices Act 1854, 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. In particular, the Chartist movement gained a widespread following. 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. However, no proposal was successful until 1867, when Parliament adopted the Second Reform Act.


  • Reform Act 1832 launched modern democracy in Britain and “‘the sovereignty of the people had been established in fact, if not in law” though grave defects still remained to be considered” and genuine democracy began only with the Second Reform Act in 1867, or perhaps even later.
  • In 1829–31, it was the Ultra-Tories or “Country Party” which pressed most strongly for Reform, regarding it as a means of weakening Wellington’s ministry, which had disappointed them by granting Catholic emancipation and by its economic policies.
  • The Reform Act “opened a door on a new political world”. Although Grey’s intentions were conservative and the 1832 Act gave the aristocracy an additional half-century’s control of Parliament, the Act nevertheless did open constitutional questions for further development. It was the 1832 Act, not the later reforms of 1867, 1884, or 1918, that were decisive in bringing representative democracy to Britain.
  • Reform Act marked the true beginning of the development of a recognisably modern political system.


  • The debate over the benefits of free trade versus the need for protectionism intensified during the early part of the nineteenth century. In Britain, vested interest groups sought to protect their enterprises from foreign competition and assure access to inputs via tariffs and export restrictions.
  • In 1815, the British legislature passed the Corn Law, restricting grain imports. The export of machinery and skilled workers was also prohibited during this time.
  • But during 1820s through the 1840s, a number of voices in Britain, stimulated by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, began to promote economic policy changes in favor of free trade. Those voices included Thomas Tooke, William Huskisson, Robert Peel, Richard Cobden, John Russell and James Wilson.
  • In 1820, Tooke presented the Merchant’s Petition to the House of Commons demanding free trade and the end of tariffs protecting domestic producers.
  • Cobden, a merchant from Manchester, began to write against the Corn Law. He observed that the Corn Law resulted in higher grain prices for the British workers causing British enterprises to pay higher wages to British workers as a result. British merchants wanted to liberalize external trade to bring grain prices more into line with those on the European continent.
  • As President of the Board of Trade in Britain, Huskisson promoted free trade policies from 1823 to 1827 during Lord Liverpool’s time as Prime Minister.
  • During the 1830s, free trade economic liberalists were said to “burst forth as a crusading passion,” winning over political sentiments of the day. Wilson was another voice from Manchester. He established The Economist in 1843 as a means to promote free trade policies. By 1846, England passed a law that phased in the dismantling of tariffs on imported wheat.
  • As free trade ideas gained more traction among thinkers and policy makers, other European nations began to implement free trade economic policies. In France, a number of voices continued to champion the cause of free trade. By 1828, a commission of enquiry into the effect of import duties on British iron, indicated that French industries were having to pay fifty million francs yearly in additional costs. The French government responded by reducing tariffs on coal, iron, machinery, and horses.
  • During the 1850s, various French government proposals were advanced to reduce trade barriers. Finally, in 1860, the Cobden-Chevalier Commercial Treaty was signed between France and Britain, reducing import tariffs between the two nations. The result was a doubling of exports between the two countries and significant industrial growth in France, which helped to greatly advance the development of France’s industrial revolution. Among the nations that began to move toward free trade were Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Piedmont, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.
  • The 1860 Cobden-Chevalier Commercial Treaty precipitated more free trade policies and agreements. Reciprocal trade agreements were negotiated by Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. The economies of western European nations began to expand, assisted by industrialization and this liberalization of trade, and the nineteenth century free trade movement in western Europe reached its peak in 1873.
  • Free trade and free market advocates have contended with the forces of regulation and protectionism. Revolutions and wars seemed to favor the protectionists. When free trade was able to prevail for a short period in the nineteenth century, it brought broad economic growth and it limited the protection of private interests, providing more competition and leveling the playing field. In this sense, one could make the case that free trade has been fairer than the mercantilist and protectionist policies with which it has had to contend.

The Debate over British Laissez Faire

  • Great Britain in the nineteenth century was a great bastion of individualism where principle of the political economists – laissez faire – dominated public opinion, and Parliament vanquished the last vestiges of an overweaning, Mercantilist state.
  • Captivated by two allied and seemingly indomitable intellectual forces, the radically individualist, antistatic philosophy of the Benthamite Utilitarians and the rigidly free market economics of the Classical School, in its fanatic embrace of self-interest, self-help, and atomistic individualism, the period can only be characterized as an “age of laissez faire.”
  • Laissez faire emerges as in practice the most potent and vital principle of Benthamite reform. Bentham’s principle that the individual is the best judge of his own happiness cast a legislative shadow aimed at the removal of encumbering restrictions.
  • Smith’s contributions was the theoretical refutation of the mercantilist argument for the promotion of exports and discouragement of imports, especially manufactured imports. For instance, high duties on imports that were produced more cheaply elsewhere tended to diminish domestic competition and promote expansion of an inefficient industry. Full analyses of the economic benefits of the division of labor and the public benefits of private self-interest were among Adam Smith’s foremost contributions to free trade economics. Nations that specialize in industries in which they are most competitive in unregulated conditions make the most efficient use of their labor and productive resources; thus both the specializing nations and the nations with which they trade will benefit.
  • David Ricardo was credited with the theory of comparative advantage–the idea that even nations that lacked absolute advantage (producing goods at the least possible cost) could still realize gains by concentrating on production of goods of the greatest market competitiveness relative to other goods.
  • James Mill (1773–1836)—father of another great and influential economist, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)—developed the most comprehensive explanation of comparative advantage among the classical economists.
  • In response to a vigorous public debate regarding Britain’s protectionist Corn Laws, Mill explained that protectionist tariffs led to an absolute economic loss. Taxes on imported corn led to increases in the price of corn in Britain, which in turn led to an increase in the cultivation of less-productive land, which in turn increased the value and rent costs of land, which finally led to necessary wage increases. Thus, in protecting an inefficient product, a widespread set of increased costs ensued, netting a general or absolute loss. Resources would have been far better invested in sectors of the economy that did not need to be protected because they were already competitive i.e. national comparative advantage already existed.

The Corn Laws (1815)

  • During the Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 Britain could not import large amounts of grain from Europe. That all changed in 1815. British landowners feared that cheap foreign grain would be imported so they passed the Corn Laws.
  • Import duties would be charged on imported wheat unless the average price of British wheat reached £4 a quarter and unless the price of British barley reached £2. Landowners favoured the measure, while political economists such as David Ricardo were adamantly opposed to it.
  • However from 1828 a sliding scale was used. Import duties were gradually increased as the price of British grain fell.
  • In 1839 John Bright and Richard Cobden, both cotton textile manufacturers , formed an Anti-Corn Law League. Prime Minister Peel finally abolished the corn laws in 1846. As the representative of the landed classes, the Tory Party traditionally favoured agricultural protection, while the Whigs supported free trade; it is the paradox of Peel, a Tory, repealing the Corn Laws as Peel was concerned primarily with preserving the institutions of government (status quo), and he considered reform as an occasional necessary evil to preclude the possibility of much more radical action by popular unrest.
  • British Corn Laws was an attempt by landlords to retain the high agricultural prices they had enjoyed during the war. The decision by Sir Robert Peel’s government to abolish them in 1846 symbolizes Britain’s decision to move unilaterally to free trade, and was the precursor to a period of Europe-wide trade liberalization which lasted from roughly 1860 to the late 1870s.
  • By the 1840s public opinion changed in favor of free trade. Most people believed that government should interfere in the economy as little as possible. They also believed that countries should trade without import duties. So in the early 1840s Peel abolished many tariffs.
  • The doctrine of comparative advantage did much to establish free trade.


  • Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain which existed from 1838 to 1858. It took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838 and was a national protest movement, with particular strongholds of support in the north of England, the east Midlands, the Potteries, the Black Country and south Wales.
  • Support for the movement was at its highest in 1839, 1842 and 1848 when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons.
  • The strategy employed was to use the scale of support which these petitions and the accompanying mass meetings demonstrated to put pressure on politicians.
  • Chartism relied on constitutional methods to secure its aims, though there were some who became involved in insurrectionary activities, notably in south Wales and Yorkshire.

The People’s Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age
  2. The Secret Ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament
  4. Payment of Members, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual Parliament Elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since as the constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
  • Chartism can be interpreted as a continuation of the 18th century fight against corruption and for democracy in an industrial society but attracted considerably more support than the radical groups for economic reasons including wage cuts and unemployment.

(1) Background and Reasons:

  • After the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property.
  • This sense that the working class had been betrayed by the middle class was strengthened by the actions of the Whig governments of the 1830s. Notably, the hated New Poor Law was passed in 1834, depriving working people of outdoor relief and driving the poor into workhouses, where families were separated. It was the massive wave of opposition to this measure in the north of England in the late 1830s that gave Chartism the numbers that made it a mass movement.
  • Working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organisation of the country like voting rights,parliamentary reforms etc.
  • Both nationally and locally a Chartist press thrived in the form of periodicals. They reached a huge audience.The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s, dealt with questions of class solidarity, manhood suffrage, property, and temperance; and condemned the Reform Act of 1832. Other Chartist periodicals included the Northern Star (most popular and radical), Northern Liberator, English Chartist Circular.
  • The papers gave justifications for the demands of the People’s Charter, accounts of local meetings, commentaries on education and temperance and a great deal of poetry. Readers also found denunciations of imperialism – the First Opium War (1839–42) was condemned – and of the arguments of free traders about the civilizing and pacifying influences of free trade.

(2) People’s Charter of 1838:

  • In 1837, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett (from the London Working Men’s Association) formed a committee, which in 1838 published the People’s Charter. This set out the six main aims of the movement. None of these demands were new, but the People’s Charter was to become one of the most famous political manifestos of 19th century Britain.

(3) Chartist riot:

  • Chartism was launched in 1838 by a series of enormous meetings in Birmingham, Glasgow and the north of England. In a huge meeting, speaking in favour of manhood suffrage, Joseph Stephens declared that Chartism was a “knife and fork, a bread and cheese question. These words indicate the importance of economic factors in the launch of Chartism.
  • There were associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on. When, however, the People’s Charter was drawn up … clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, a real bond of union was created.
  • The movement organised a National Convention in London in early 1839 to facilitate the presentation of the first petition. Delegates used the term MC, Member of Convention, to identify themselves. In June 1839 the petition, signed by 1.3 million working people, was presented to the House of Commons, but MPs voted, by a large majority, not to hear the petitioners.
  • At the Convention there was talk of a general strike or ‘sacred month’. Underground preparations for a rising were undoubtedly made.

(4) Newport Rising:

  • Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to arrests and trials. There are no surviving letters outlining plans for insurrection, but physical force Chartists had undoubtedly started organising. Secret cells were set up, covert meetings were held and weapons were manufactured.
  • On the night of 3–4 November 1839 ,Frost led several thousand marchers through South Wales to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, Monmouthshire, where there was a confrontation.
  • The result of the Newport Rising was a disaster for Chartism. The hotel was occupied by armed soldiers.The Chartists were forced to retreat in disarray and many were killed.
  • Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising. Despite this significant setback the movement remained remarkably buoyant, and remained so until late 1842.
  • Whilst the majority of Chartists, under the leadership of Feargus O’Connor, concentrated on petitioning for Frost, Williams and William Jonesto be pardoned, significant minorities planned their own risings in response.These attempted risings were easily quashed. Frost and two other Newport leaders, Jones and Williams, were transported. Holberry and Peddie received long prison sentences with hard labour; Holberry died in prison and became a Chartist martyr.

(5) Second Petition (1842):

  • In early May 1842, a second petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, and was yet again rejected by Parliament.
  • The depression of 1842 led to a wave of strikes, as workers responded to the wage cuts imposed by employers. Calls for the implementation of the Charter were soon included alongside demands for the restoration of wages to previous levels.
  • Typically strikers resolved to cease work until wages were increased ‘until the People’s charter becomes the Law of the Land’. How far these strikes were directly Chartist in inspiration ‘was then, as now, a subject of much controversy’.
  • These disputes were collectively known as the Plug Plot as in many cases, protesters removed the plugs from steam boilers powering industry to prevent their use.
  • The strikes had begun spreading in Lancashire (where at Manchester a meeting of the Chartist national executive endorsed the strikes), Scotland and West Yorkshire. There were outbreaks of serious violence.
  • It was the practical problems in sustaining an indefinite stoppage that ultimately defeated the strikers.
  • The state hit back. Several Chartist leaders, including Feargus O’Connor, George Julian Harney, and Thomas Cooper were arrested. None were convicted of the serious charges, and those found guilty of minor offences were never actually sentenced.

(6) Mid-Forties:

  • Despite this second set of arrests, Chartist activity continued. Beginning in 1843, O’Connor suggested that the land contained the solution to workers’ problems. This idea evolved into the Chartist Co-operative Land Company, later called the National Land Company. Workers would buy shares in the company, and the company would use those funds to purchase estates that would be subdivided lots, built on, and then settled by lucky shareholders, who were chosen by lot. Unfortunately for O’Connor, in 1848 a Select Committee was appointed by Parliament to investigate the financial viability of the scheme, and it was ordered that it be shut down.
  • Candidates embracing Chartism also stood on numerous occasions in general elections. O’Connor was the only Chartist to be elected an MP and it was a remarkable victory for the movement. More commonly, Chartist candidates participated in the open meetings, called hustings, that were the first stage of an election. They frequently won the show of hands at the hustings, but then withdrew from the poll to expose the deeply undemocratic nature of the electoral system.

(7) Third Petition (1848):

  • With Feargus O’Connor elected an MP and Europe swept by revolution, it was hardly surprising that Chartism re-emerged as a powerful force in 1848. On 10 April 1848, a new Chartist Convention organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present a third petition to Parliament.
  • The meeting was peaceful. The military had threatened to intervene if working people made any attempt to cross the Thames, and the petition was delivered to Parliament by a small group of Chartist leaders.
  • The Chartists declared that their petition was signed by 6 million people, but House of Commons clerks announced that it was a lesser figure of 1.9 million. In truth the clerks could not have done their work in the time allocated to them; but their figure was widely reported, along with some of the pseudonyms appended to the petition, forged signatures and the credibility of Chartism was undermined.
  • After the defeat of April 1848, there was an increase rather than a decline in Chartist activity. In Yorkshire, a group of ‘physical force’ Chartists led by Isaac Ickeringill were involved in a huge fracas at the local magistrates’ court.
  • The high-point of the Chartist threat to the establishment in 1848 came in June when there was in the West Riding, widespread drilling and arming and, in London, the devising of plots.
  • The banning of public meetings, and new legislation on sedition and treason (rushed through Parliament immediately after 10 April) drove a significant number of Chartists (like William Cuffay) into the planning of insurrection. Cuffay was to be transported, dying in Australia.

(8) Causes Of  Failure:

  • O’Connor’s egotism and vanity have been identified as causes in the failure of Chartism however he had the indispensable contribution to Chartism. The causes of the movement’s decline are too complex to be blamed on one man.
  • The main problem was how to achieve a revolutionary goal by constitutional means.
  1. It failed to obtain parliamentary support for the Charter.
  2. The middle-classes either ignored, shunned or condemned Chartism due to sometimes violent protest and other socio economic reasons.
  3. Chartists were divided among themselves.
  4. Government handled the movement firmly and calmly.
  5. Chartist demands were too drastic.
  6. There was too much diversity in the intellectual and ideological aims of Chartism.
  7. Other movements offering more immediate and tangible benefits attracted chartists.
  8. The socio-economic position improved after 1842. Prosperity eliminated mass support.
  9. Chartism and the Chartists were made to look ridiculous after Kennington Common, and the failure of the Land Plan.
  10. The changing sociology of England after railways fragmented the ‘unity’ of the working classes.
  11. Chartism tore itself apart
  12. Forged signatures undermined their credibility
  • Charles Jones became a leading figure in the National Charter Association during its years of decline, together with George Julian Harney, and helped to give the Chartist movement a clearer socialist direction. Jones and Harney knew Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels personally.

(9) Christianity:

  • During this period the Christian churches in Britain held that it was ‘wrong for a Christian to meddle in political matters.
  • Some Christian Chartist Churches were formed where Christianity and radical politics were combined and considered inseparable. Pamphlets made the point and vast audiences came to hear lectures. Political preachers thus came into prominence.
  • The Chartists were especially harsh on the Church of England for unequal distribution of the state funds it received resulting in some bishops and higher dignitaries having grossly larger incomes than other clergy. This state of affairs led some Chartists to question the very idea of a state sponsored church, leading them to call for an absolute separation of church and state.
  • Facing severe persecution in 1839, Chartists took to attending services at churches they held in contempt to display their numerical strength and express their dissatisfaction.

(10) Legacy:

  • Chartism did not directly generate any reforms. It was not until 1867 that urban working men were admitted to the franchise under the Reform Act 1867, and not until 1918 that full manhood suffrage was achieved. Slowly the other points of the People’s Charter were granted except demand for annual elections.
  • Participation in the Chartist Movement certainly filled some working men with self-confidence: they learned to speak publicly, to send their poems and other writings off for publication, to be able, in short, to confidently articulate the feelings of working people. Many former Chartists went on to become journalists, poets, ministers, and councillors.
  • Political elites feared the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s as a dangerous threat to national stability. In the Chartist stronghold of Manchester, the reform movement undermined the political power of the old Tory-Anglican elite that had controlled civic affairs.
  • After 1848, as the movement faded, its demands appeared less threatening and were gradually enacted by other reformers. After 1848 middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for an extension of the franchise
  • Chartism was also an important influence in some British colonies. Some leaders had been transported to Australia, where they spread their beliefs. Within two years of the military suppression of the revolt the first elections of the Victorian parliament were held, with near-universal male suffrage and by secret ballot. In the African colonies after 1920 there were occasional appearances of a ‘colonial chartism’ which called for improved welfare, upgraded education, freedom of speech and greater political representation for natives.

Q. “The Roots of Chartism are Partly Political and Partly Economic.” Elaborate.

  • (See the section of previous years solved paper for answer)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s