Reform, That You May Preserve

The Great Reform Bill of 1832 nearly sparked a revolution. Antonia Fraser's history tells the story with tremendous verve

Anne Somerset

The Great Reform Bill of 1832 aroused astonishing passions. This relatively modest extension of the franchise was passed after 18 months of almost continual political crisis, as Britain trembled on the brink of revolution. While the Bill’s opponents predicted that a “monster of gigantic strength” would be unleashed by tampering with the constitution, ultimately a majority of the political elite was persuaded to “reform, that you may preserve”. 

Its most fervent defenders could scarcely deny that the existing political system was deeply eccentric. While some seats had reasonably large electorates, in the “rotten boroughs” — the most notorious of which, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, comprised a lump of stone and a green field — a handful of voters returned two members to parliament. Depriving the aristocratic patrons who controlled these boroughs of their “property” was seen as “spoliation and robbery”. Meanwhile burgeoning industrial towns such as Manchester and Birmingham had no parliamentary representation at all. 

By 1830 industrialisation and population growth had transformed society, without any corresponding adjustments in the system of representation. Hopes that change could be peaceably effected were encouraged by the bloodless toppling of the Bourbon monarchy in France. Britain’s somewhat buffoonish new king, William IV, was less implacably against Reform than his late brother George IV, even if hardly progressive and married to a deeply conservative German wife.

It was assumed that the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, was contemplating some gesture towards reform, but when his Whig opponent, the tall and elegant Earl Grey, called for one, Wellington declared the British constitution unimprovable. At once the atmosphere in London became so febrile that theatres closed “for very fear”. Shortly afterwards the Tory government fell and was replaced by a Whig ministry headed by Grey and committed to reform.

With only one untitled member of the cabinet, the new ministers were hardly foaming radicals. Nevertheless, the Bill given its first reading in March 1831 caused stupefaction. In addition to establishing a lower property qualification for the franchise, it abolished rotten boroughs and reallocated seats to the industrial cities. As Robert Peel, Tory leader in the Commons, sat with his head in his hands, the Bill’s clauses were greeted with “wild ironical laughter”, while one Tory member repeated incredulously, “They are mad!”

After making early progress, the Bill was defeated in committee, whereupon Grey asked the king for an immediate dissolution. To his wife’s annoyance, the initially reluctant king became so eager that, on being told that the royal carriage could not take him to Parliament until the horses’ manes had been plaited, he shouted, “Then I will go in a hackney coach!” 

At the subsequent general election a pro-reform majority was returned, and after an exhausting struggle the Bill was piloted through the Commons. Yet the unelected House of Lords still posed a seemingly insuperable obstacle. When the Bill was defeated there on October 4, national resentment threatened to become uncontrollable. There were riots in Nottingham, Derby and Bristol, resulting in 400 deaths in the latter city. It was fortunate that the Birmingham Political Union, the main pressure group advocating Reform, remained against violence, counselling its supporters, “Patience! Patience!”

The Bill was resubmitted to parliament, but seemed doomed without a mass creation of peers. Grey understood that the king would do everything necessary. However, when — despite warnings that Britain was set to become “one scene of blood and terror” — the Lords rejected the Bill for a second time, the king reneged on his undertaking. In May 1832, he asked Wellington to form a government, albeit on condition of introducing mild Reform.

One leading politician later claimed that the ensuing “Days of May” were the only time of real peril he could recall in his lifetime. There was open talk of civil war and “every man you met seemed to be convulsed with rage”. The king was damned as “perfidious Billy”, and Queen Adelaide’s fears of being a Marie Antoinette in-the-making appeared less fanciful. The Birmingham Political Union held an open-air meeting attended by 200,000. Though the crowd was orderly, speakers warned that “violent revolution” was unavoidable if the Reform Bill was abandoned. Fortunately Wellington proved unable to form a government. With the Whigs back in power, the Bill passed a thinly-attended House of Lords on June 4.

Antonia Fraser relates these events with tremendous verve, admirably describing the exuberance and fury stirred up by Reform, and explaining complex issues with exemplary clarity. She is masterly at depicting the personalities involved, such as the Whig Lord Althorp, who toiled in parliamentary debates despite yearning for his prize bulls in Northamptonshire. Bringing out the drama of all-night sessions in the stifling Commons’ chamber, and massive public meetings animated by the reforming spirit, she vividly captures both the excitement and “bowel-disturbing” fear that only subsided when the Reform Bill became law. 

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