An Ambiguous Act

The Great Reform Act

by Michael Brock
Humanities Press, 411 pp., $6.00 (paper)

Eighteen thirty-two, the year that saw the passage of the Great Reform Act, is one of those dates in English history—1066 and 1688 are others—whose significance has become nothing less than mythical. It is a boon alike to textbook writers and to those who set or take examinations. And the tenpound householder, whom the act enfranchised, resembles the spinning jenny and the water frame in being something that everyone talks about, usually without knowing exactly what or who it was. One student memorably defined him as “any member of a household weighing more than ten pounds”; but that was surely in jest. More frequent and more serious comments consist of statements such as: “The Reform Act of 1832 took power away from the aristocracy and gave it to the middle classes”; or “The Reform Act of 1832 put Britain squarely on the path to democracy.”

There is certainly no mystery about what happened in 1832. After a stormy period of fourteen months—which had witnessed not only one of the classic parliamentary debates of modern times but also a dissolution of parliament and a hard-fought election, the mobilization of public opinion on a hitherto unknown scale, a threat by the monarch to create more peers in order to force the bill through a recalcitrant House of Lords, as well as a certain amount of actual violence in the country and the prospect of much more—a Whig government under the second Earl Grey finally managed to get adopted by both houses of parliament a measure designed to correct ancient anomalies and abuses, which resulted in major changes both in the representative system and in the franchise.

One principal provision of the bill took away parliamentary seats from “rotten” boroughs, usually under aristocratic control, at worst consisting of a few hovels, at best of a population of one or two thousand, and gave some of those seats to large and hitherto unrepresented industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Leeds. Another provision abolished existing urban franchise qualifications often dating back by prescription to medieval times, limiting votes to closed corporations or absentee property holders in some towns while permitting almost universal male suffrage in some others, and substituted a uniform suffrage that gave votes to all adult males occupying (whether as landlords or tenants) premises with a minimum rentable value of £10 a year. These were the tenpound householders. Their social and economic status varied from place to place, depending on whether high or low rents prevailed; but they could generally be said to belong to the middle class. According to the latest estimate, the addition of these and other voters to the electorate helped to increase the total number of voters in England and Wales by nearly 80 percent, from 366,000 to 653,000.

Looking at those two provisions of the act in isolation, one might indeed be persuaded that it was clearly a liberal and progressive measure, a triumph for the new social and economic forces released by the industrial…

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