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Great Reform Act 1832 and the riots that preceeded.

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Law and Democracy
This entry is part 9 of 13 in the series Reformers and Radicals
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Great Reform act 1832 and Riots that Preceded the Law

A debatable title for this act it set out the basis of electoral reform and for the first time enshrined in law the prohibition of womens rights to vote. The title might lead us to assume this was an Act designed to lead social change but in reality in it was a minimalist approach led by Lord John Russell aiming to appease the masses. Nicknamed Finality Jack for a reason, he had intended to quell the clamour for change and render further reform unnecessary.

Fortunately the tide had already turned and the changes would ultimately come but it took nearly another century before all Men and Women would finally have the vote.

The Act was a response to the unfair electoral system and sought to resolve  some of the inherent problems caused by unfair boundaries and rotten boroughs but it tacitly set back the emancipation of women, excluding them completely in law.

Riots In the Streets and Radical Direct Action Brought the Change not Reasoned Parliamentary Debate

In 1831 the Reform Act passed in the Commons but the Tory dominated House of Lords defeated it. There followed much civil unrest with serious disturbances and rioting in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter and Bristol.  The riots were the worst seen in the 19th century. They were sparked when Sir Charles Weatherall who opposed the earlier act opened the Assize Court. Public buildings and private houses were arsoned. 102 people were arrested and 12 sentenced to death.

Serious fear of Revolution and Disorder with the backdrop across the Channel of the French Revolution

The Great Reform Act of 1832 was an attempt to head-off (having witnessed the revolution in July 1830 in France) the possibility of a similar revolt in England. The King, William IV, had also lost popularity because he had opposed reform, eventually giving way to creating new Whig Peers which then led to the Lords conceding and approving the 1832 Bill.

But the rights established were still very limiting as to who could vote:

  • only men who owned property worth a minimum of £10 could vote
  • this excluded most of the working people
  • and candidates for parliament had to be able to afford to pay for such a right
  • women were excluded by the specific use of the word man as opposed to person
  • these reforms did not go far enough and in itself the act inspired further future campaigning against the limited rights it granted
So was it such a GREAT Reform Act? Certainly not if you were a woman or a poor young man working for a miserly living with no prospect of owning property assets.
Increased Electorate and Geographical Representation
The voting electorate was increased from around 435,000 to 652,000 largely property owning middle classes who were already disgruntled as they emerged and began to own capital of their own, but this stopped very short from representing the wider demographic of the entire population.
The Midlands and the North were given seats but still only to the Nobility and Aristocrats. We should balance that view with the fact that maybe the Act was enough to hold-off a working class revolution, the destruction of the Monarchy and Government? Was France in a great shape Post the Revolution?
To some degree it did create a holding position and it would take more reform and radical thinking and action to claw our way to one person one vote system with more needless suffering and pain, loss of lives along the way.
Full Democracy, was a long road we had yet to travel to, it would take about another 35 years before the next step was achieved and almost a century and a World War for all Men and Women to have the right to elect their own government. Maybe we should think along these lines when we are so quick to judge developing and emerging democracies.
The next major Reform Act to hit the statute book would take another 35 years to be passed by Parliament it was the Reform Act 1867 (2nd Reform Act.)
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