The Great Reform Act of 1832

Robert Pearce introduces the First Reform Act and asks why parliamentary reform succeeded in 1832 when earlier reform bills had failed.

The Terms of the Act

To the Whig historians of the nineteenth century, the Great Reform Act of 1832 was a far-sighted and generous measure. It was a symbol of Britain’s success in achieving peaceful and progressive change, while the countries of continental Europe were either politically backward, and still dominated by the aristocracy, or subject to violent revolutionary upheaval. Yet in recent decades historians have been more likely to stress the Act’s limitations and its continuities with the old, unreformed political system. 

The terms of the First Reform Act seem mild, even cautious, today. The vote in the boroughs was to go to the ‘Ten-pound householder’, as well as those who had qualified for the vote before 1832. In the counties, the old 40-shilling freeholder qualification continued but now a number of tenant farmers could also vote. In the boroughs, the electorate was virtually doubled; in the counties it was increased by about half. In total, the proportion of adult males enfranchised in England and Wales increased from roughly 11 to 18 per cent, while in Scotland and Wales even fewer people could vote. After 1832 roughly one in five men had the vote, almost all being property-owners.  

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