Skip to content

1867 Reform Act Essay Topics

The Reform Act Of 1832 Essay


Without external parliamentary pressure the reForm act of 1832 would never have been passed. To what extent do you agree with this view?

It could be said that the Great Reform Act was a piece of legislation that was wholly expected; after all, the age of the Tudors had seen the destruction of the medieval privileges of Church and Baronage, and so it was the natural scheme of events that reform would inevitably arise and modify the constitution. So the question to be dissected here is not 'whether', but 'why' - why was the Reform Act passed in 1832? Was it due to a modification of the type or intensity of external parliamentary events compared to before? Either way, whether it was 'great' as was claimed, or a "Compromise stitched together" (Evans), the Reform Act was the product of substantial popular demand and critical parliamentary events. It shall be evaluated here that pressing agitation for reform coincided with Whig ascension to power and the collapse of the Tories, thus inspiring the rigour and vigour of calls for reform.

The institutions being scrutinized for reform (parliament & the cabinet) were administered by a privileged group of borough owners, magistrates and members of close corporations in sympathy with the 'country gentlemen'. Protesting against the rotten boroughs and close corporations was "to utter seditious words against [our] matchless constitution", but since the industrial revolution, a fresh creative process emerged to adapt to the needs of the new type of society (an empowered economically powerful middle class) that would agitate for reform to synchronise parliament to its needs and desires. G.M Trevelyan predicted that "this new type of society was by its nature predestined to undergo perpetual change" - and so the flaw in the argument becomes apparent - "would never have been passed" is essentially misleading, as the focus of the question asks us for the significance of the date 1832.

It could be stated that external parliamentary pressure stemmed from the direct inspiration of middle class opinion and under compelling fear of working class revolt (the French Revolution was still fresh in people's memories and the 1830 Bourbon Revolution a recent reality). The movement for parliamentary reform, it could be argued, was revived first of all by working men, seeing as their economic misery was most acute. Discontent helped create a very palpable atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, which intensified the pressure for reform. Luddite revolts as early as 1812 demonstrated how the political system was largely ignorant of the plight of the lower classes, plunged in an economic and social cesspit by the onset of mechanisation; the Spafield Riots of 1816 led by Henry Hunt saw the active popular demand for parliamentary reform, to create a more just...

Loading: Checking Spelling


Read more

Why Disraeli Passed the 1867 Second Reform Act

957 words - 4 pages Why Disraeli Passed the 1867 Second Reform Act The 1867 Second Reform Act was an extremely intelligent piece of politics and demonstrated how clever Disraeli was as a politician, the act itself would enable Disraeli to the gain power amongst the Commons. With the death of Palmerston in 1865 the question of Reform was immediately back on agenda. Palmerston had been such a major political figure that while he was present,...

An example of The policy cycle in New Zealand using Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 as a case study

2653 words - 11 pages This essay will explore the Homosexual Law Reform Act as a case study of the "policy cycle". Through out this essay I will investigate the interactions which took place between actors such as politicians, interest groups, individuals which led to the emergence, formation and the implementation of the Homosexual Law Reform...

The Ineffectiveness of Education Reform

544 words - 2 pages On January 8, 2002 President Bush signed into law the Leave No Child Behind Act, which significantly changes how public schools receive federal funding. This bipartisan-supported attempt at reform, the first of this magnitude since the Elementary-Secondary Education Act of 1965, shows a dedicated concern to improving education. However, it is not plausible a punishment/rewards system will positively improve schools on a large scale as a...

The Importance of Prison Reform

1343 words - 5 pages In this world we live in many feel that prisons exist to punish, not counsel, offenders. That may be true that Prisons exist for punishment, but they also have an important contribution to make to reducing re-offending by engaging prisoners in rehabilitation programs and purposeful work. Society is flawed in its thinking that by putting criminals in a place away from society we would be better off. To make it worse I am sure that more...

The Abolishment of Monarchical Reform

1988 words - 8 pages Why did a Parliament that had set out to reform monarchical government end up abolishing it? The English Civil Wars were not always a certainty. They were never inevitable, especially at the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640. The same may also be stated for the demise of Monarchical Government, for it was neither any persons plan nor wish to be-head the King and create a Commonwealth State. In fact Howard Nenner argues that "Up to the eve...

The Era of Social Reform

1570 words - 6 pages The Industrial Revolution was a period of in which fundamental changes occurred in agriculture, factories, mining, transportation, machinery, economic policies, and in the social structure of England. Industrialization began in Great Britain and it was a major turning point in history. It changed the way countries produced its goods. England turned into an agricultural society to an industry and manufacturing society. During this era, there was a...

How far could the 3rd Reform Act be justifiably called a turning point?

592 words - 2 pages After the 1867 Reform Act the undemocratic features still continued. The limited redistribution of seats in the 1867 still left the midlands, London and the north underrepresented in Parliament. The uneven distribution of seats favoured the landowning classes who still tended to influence the representation of the smaller borough seats. The

Reform of the American Health Care System

926 words - 4 pages One of the major problems in America is the need for a new health care system. The number of uninsured Americans needing medical treatment is rising. Medicare, a major part of the American health care system, is projected to go broke in 2019 according to USA Today “Congress refuses to swallow cures for ailing medicare”. A public option will bring Americans their own pursuit of happiness. I believe that with a national health care system, similar...

Failure of the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform

2171 words - 9 pages Failure of the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform There were numerous reasons that accounted for why the campaign for Parliamentary reform failed in its objectives in the period 1780-1820, with arguably the most significant factor being that those in Parliament did not actually feel the need to reform the electoral system because of the lack of unified pressure from the British public. There was a substantial call for...

The Pros and Cons of Welfare Reform

2515 words - 10 pages The Pros and Cons of Welfare Reform There have been numerous debates within the last decade over what needs to be done about welfare and what is the best welfare reform plan. In the mid-1990s the TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Act was proposed under the Clinton administration. This plan was not received well since it had put a five year lifetime limit on receiving welfare and did not supply the necessary accommodations to...

The Insanity Defence, in Need of Reform?

1869 words - 7 pages Introduction 1. The concept of insanity and its possible use as a defence in the negation of criminal liability first appeared in R v Arnold. Tracy J put forward that if an offender is "totally deprived" of their "understanding and memory", then they should never be subject to punishment. The notion of criminal insanity was further developed in R v Hadfield. This case lead to The Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 being passed; to allow for...

The Representation of the People Act 1867, 30 & 31 Vict. c. 102 (known informally as the Reform Act of 1867 or the Second Reform Act) was a piece of British legislation that enfranchised part of the urban male working class in England and Wales for the first time.

Before the Act, only one million of the seven million adult males in England and Wales could vote; the Act immediately doubled that number. Moreover, by the end of 1868 all male heads of household were enfranchised as a result of the end of compounding of rents. However, the Act introduced only a negligible redistribution of seats. The overall intent was to help the Conservative Party, yet it resulted in their loss of the 1868 general election.


For the decades after the Great Reform Act of 1832, cabinets (in that era leading from both Houses) had resisted attempts to push through further reform, and in particular left unfulfilled the six demands of the Chartist movement. After 1848, this movement declined rapidly,[1] and elite opinion began to change[citation needed]. It was thus only 28 years after the initial, quite modest, Great Reform Act that leading politicians thought it prudent to introduce further electoral reform. Lord John Russell, who in 1861 became the first Earl Russell, attempted this in 1860; but the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, a fellow Liberal, was against any further electoral reform. When Palmerston died in 1865, however, the floodgates for reform were opened.

The Union victory in the American Civil War in 1865 emboldened the forces in Britain that demanded more democracy and public input into the political system, to the dismay of the upper class landed gentry who identified with the US Southern States planters and feared the loss of influence and a popular radical movement. Influential commentators included Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Anthony Trollope, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill.[2]

In 1866, the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, introduced a Reform Bill. It was a cautious bill, which proposed to enfranchise "respectable" working men, excluding unskilled workers and what was known as the "residuum", those seen by MPs as the "feckless and criminal" poor. This was ensured by a £7 householder qualification,[clarification needed] which had been calculated to require an income of 26 shillings a week [n 1]. This entailed two "fancy franchises," emulating measures of 1854, a £10 lodger qualification for the boroughs, and a £50 savings qualification in the counties. Liberals claimed that 'the middle classes, strengthened by the best of the artisans, would still have the preponderance of power'.[citation needed]

When it came to the vote, however, this bill split the Liberal Party: a split partly engineered by Benjamin Disraeli, who incited those threatened by the bill to rise up against it. On one side were the reactionary conservative Liberals, known as the Adullamites; on the other were pro-reform Liberals who supported the Government. The Adullamites were supported by Tories and the liberal Whigs were supported by radicals and reformists.

The bill was thus defeated and the Liberal government of Russell resigned.

Birth of the Act[edit]

The Conservatives formed a ministry on 26 June 1866, led by Lord Derby as Prime Minister and Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were faced with the challenge of reviving Conservatism: Palmerston, the powerful Liberal leader, was dead and the Liberal Party split and defeated. Thanks to manoeuvring by Disraeli, Derby's Conservatives saw an opportunity to be a strong, viable party of government; however, there was still a Liberal majority in the House of Commons.

The Adullamites, led by Robert Lowe, had already been working closely with the Conservative Party. The Adullamites were anti-reform, as were the Conservatives, but the Adullamites declined the invitation to enter into Government with the Conservatives as they thought that they could have more influence from an independent position. Despite the fact that he had blocked the Liberal Reform Bill, in February 1867, Disraeli introduced his own Reform Bill into the House of Commons.

By this time the attitude of many in the country had ceased to be apathetic regarding reform of the House of Commons. Huge meetings, especially the ‘Hyde Park riots', and the feeling that many of the skilled working class were respectable, had persuaded many that there should be a Reform Bill. However, wealthy Conservative MP Lord Cranborne[n 2] resigned his government ministry in disgust at the bill's introduction.

The Reform League, agitating for universal suffrage, became much more active, and organized demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Manchester, Glasgow, and other towns. Though these movements did not normally use revolutionary language as some Chartists had in the 1840s, they were powerful movements. The high point came when a demonstration in May 1867 in Hyde Park was banned by the government. Thousands of troops and policemen were prepared, but the crowds were so huge that the government did not dare to attack. The Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, was forced to resign.

Faced with the possibility of popular revolt going much further, the government rapidly included into the bill amendments which enfranchised far more people. Consequently, the bill was more far-reaching than any Members of Parliament had thought possible or really wanted; Disraeli appeared to accept most reform proposals, so long as they did not come from William Ewart Gladstone. An amendment tabled by the opposition (but not by Gladstone himself) trebled the new number entitled to vote under the bill; yet Disraeli simply accepted it. The bill enfranchised most men who lived in urban areas. The final proposals were as follows: a borough franchise for all who paid rates in person (that is, not compounders), and extra votes for graduates, professionals and those with over £50 savings. These last "fancy franchises" were seen by Conservatives as a weapon against a mass electorate.

However, Gladstone attacked the bill; a series of sparkling parliamentary debates with Disraeli resulted in the bill becoming much more radical. Ironically, having been given his chance by the belief that Gladstone's bill had gone too far in 1866, Disraeli had now gone further.

Disraeli was able to persuade his party to vote for the bill on the basis that the newly enfranchised electorate would be grateful, and would vote Conservative at the next election. Despite this prediction, in 1868 the Conservatives lost the first general election in which the newly enfranchised electors voted.

The bill ultimately aided the rise of the radical wing of the Liberal Party, and helped Gladstone to victory. The Act was tidied up with many further Acts to alter electoral boundaries.

Provisions of the Act[edit]

Reduced representation[edit]

Disenfranchised boroughs[edit]

Four electoral boroughs were completely disenfranchised by the Act, for corruption:

Seven English boroughs were disenfranchised by the Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868 the subsequent year:

Three of these (Honiton, Thetford, Wells) had two MPs, but had been due to have their representation halved under the terms of the 1867 Act. However, the 1868 Act disenfranchised them altogether before the reduction in representation took effect. The other four boroughs had had one MP since 1832.

Halved representation[edit]

The following boroughs were reduced from electing two MPs to one:

  • Andover, Hampshire
  • Bodmin, Cornwall
  • Bridgnorth, Shropshire
  • Bridport, Dorset
  • Buckingham, Buckinghamshire
  • Chichester, Sussex
  • Chippenham, Wiltshire
  • Cirencester, Gloucestershire
  • Cockermouth, Cumberland
  • Devizes, Wiltshire
  • Dorchester, Dorset
  • Evesham, Worcestershire
  • Guildford, Surrey
  • Harwich, Essex
  • Hertford, Hertfordshire
  • Huntingdon, Huntingdonshire
  • Knaresborough, West Riding of Yorkshire
  • Leominster, Herefordshire
  • Lewes, Sussex
  • Lichfield, Staffordshire
  • Ludlow, Shropshire
  • Lymington, Hampshire
  • Maldon, Essex
  • Marlow, Buckinghamshire
  • Malton, North Riding of Yorkshire
  • Marlborough, Wiltshire
  • Newport, Isle of Wight
  • Poole, Dorset
  • Richmond, North Riding of Yorkshire
  • Ripon, West Riding of Yorkshire
  • Stamford, Lincolnshire
  • Tavistock, Devon
  • Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire
  • Windsor, Berkshire
  • Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Three further boroughs (Honiton, Thetford, Wells) were also due to have their representation halved under the 1867 Act, but before this reduction took effect they were disenfranchised altogether by the 1868 Scottish Reform Act as noted above.


The Act created a number of new boroughs in Parliament. The following boroughs were enfranchised with one MP:

  • Burnley, Lancashire
  • Darlington, County Durham
  • Dewsbury, West Riding of Yorkshire
  • Gravesend, Kent
  • Hartlepool, County Durham
  • Middlesbrough, North Riding of Yorkshire
  • Stalybridge, Cheshire
  • Stockton, County Durham
  • Wednesbury, Staffordshire

The following boroughs were enfranchised with two MPs:

In addition, the Act adjusted the representation of several existing boroughs. Salford and Merthyr Tydfil were given two MPs instead of one. Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester now had three MPs instead of two.

Other changes[edit]

  • The West Riding of Yorkshire divided into three districts each returning two MPs.
  • Cheshire, Derbyshire, Devonshire, Essex, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Somerset, Staffordshire and Surrey divided into three districts instead of two, each returning two MPs.
  • Lancashire divided into four two-member districts instead of a three-member district and a two-member district.
  • University of London was given one seat.
  • Parliament was allowed to continue sitting through a Demise of the Crown.
  • MPs exempted from having to seek re-election upon changing offices.

Reforms in Scotland and Ireland[edit]

The reforms for Scotland and Ireland were carried out by two subsequent acts, the Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1868 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868.

In Scotland, five existing constituencies gained members, and three new constituencies were formed. Two existing county constituencies were merged into one, giving an overall increase of seven members; this was offset by seven English boroughs (listed above) being disenfranchised, leaving the House with the same number of members.

The representation of Ireland remained unchanged.


Direct effects of the Act[edit]

The unprecedented extension of the franchise to all householders effectively gave the vote to many working class men, quite a considerable change. Jonathan Parry described this as a 'borough franchise revolution';[3] the traditional position of the landed gentry in parliament would no longer be assured by money, bribery and favours; but by the whims and wishes of the public. However, to blindly consider the de jure franchise extensions would be fallacious. The franchise provisions were flawed; the act did not address the issues of compounding and of not being a ratepayer in a household. The compounding of rates and rents was made illegal, after it was abolished in a bill tabled by Liberal Grosvenor Hodgkinson (this meant that all tenants would have to pay rates directly and thus qualify for the vote). The preparation of the register was still left to easily manipulated party organisers who could remove opponents and add supporters at will. The sole qualification to vote was essentially being on the register itself.

Unintended effects[edit]

  • Increased amounts of party spending and political organisation at both a local and national level—politicians had to account themselves to the increased electorate, which without secret ballots meant an increased number of voters to treat or bribe.
  • The redistribution of seats actually served to make the House of Commons increasingly dominated by the upper classes. Only they could afford to pay the huge campaigning costs and the abolition of certain rotten boroughs removed some of the middle-class international merchants who had been able to obtain seats.[2]

The Reform Act in fiction[edit]

Trollope'sPhineas Finn is concerned almost exclusively with the parliamentary progress of the Second Reform Act, and Finn sits for one of the seven fictional boroughs that are due to be disenfranchised.

See also[edit]


  1. ^£113 per week or £491 per month in present terms based on CPI inflation
  2. ^Later Cranborne became Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury
  1. ^ed. Christopher John Murray, "Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850: A-K", Fitzroy Dearborn Pub. (2004), p 115.
  2. ^ abBrent E. Kinser, The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy (Ashgate, 2011)
  3. ^J. Parry, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain, pg 221, (1993)


  • Foot, Paul "The Vote: how it was won and how it was undermined" Viking Press London 2005
  • Scott-Baumann, British History 1815-1914
  • Smith, The Making of the Second Reform Bill
  • McCord, British History 1815-1906
  • Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Major.
  • Cook, British Historical Facts 1830-1900

Electoral reform in the United Kingdom

Reform Acts
Representation of
the People Acts
Other related Acts
Related topics
A Punch cartoon from August 1867 portraying the bill as a leap in the dark