On 7 June 1832 King William IV reluctantly gave his assent to the Reform Act (which extended the parliamentary franchise in England and Wales), marking the end of a period of high political tension across the country. Three years previously, in 1829, the Tory party had been split by the decision of Wellington (Prime Minister) and Home Secretary Robert Peel to grant Catholic Emancipation. Faced with the danger of civil war in Ireland, they chose to bow to popular pressure. The sanctity of “the Protestant Constitution” had been breached and Catholics could now sit at Westminster.


In July 1830 a revolution in France raised the spectre once again of disorder at home while violent disturbances among agricultural labourers in the South East between August 1830 and December 1831, the so-called Captain Swing riots when machines were smashed and burnt, terrified landed society. In Birmingham the banker Thomas Attwood had formed the Birmingham Political Union, an organisation that mobilised middle- and working-class support, demanding parliamentary reform. The townspeople of places such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds sought representation, an end to corrupt patronage, and a wider electorate – though there was little agreement as to who should be included.

Attwood wanted “an army not less formidable than that legally exhibited in Ireland, before which ministers were compelled to bend”. Wellington, however, a firm believer in aristocratic power and privilege, was convinced, despite much evidence to the contrary, that Britain “possessed at the present moment a legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation, and this to a greater degree than any legislature ever had answered in any country whatever” and that “it possessed the full and entire confidence of the country”. His confidence was misplaced and the Whigs came into power knowing that some measure of reform was essential.

In March 1832 the Whig proposals for reform were presented to the House of Commons and met with uproar: they were far more radical than had been expected. A £10 household franchise in the boroughs would secure the representation of many middle-class men while excluding working men. This was the kind of “safe and practical reform” envisaged by the leading Whig reformer, Lord John Russell. It was clear to some of the more prescient radicals such as Henry Hetherington that the bill would not meet working-class demands.

1832 in context

War with France ended in 1815, popular radicalism returned to Britain and an increasingly powerful middle class began to make its presence felt 

The late 18th century saw the loss of American colonies, new ideas about forms of government associated with the American Revolution and European Enlightenment, and economic and social changes associated with industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth.

It was a period of change on many fronts; the 1790s was a decade of both radicalism and reaction. New divisions of labour and the spread of industrial capitalism meant that discontent was widespread. Many artisans and labourers sought better working conditions and understood that parliamentary representation might be one way to secure them. Merchants, manufacturers, and professional men, many of them Dissenters, faced with civil disabilities, wanted more say in political processes. First reactions to the Revolution in France in 1789 were enthusiastic.

Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791–2) with its argument for universal manhood suffrage as the only legitimate basis for government had been greeted with huge enthusiasm. Societies of working men had been established across England and Scotland seeking constitutional reform. But the execution of the French king and queen and the onset of the Terror shifted opinions dramatically, while war with France made criticism an unpatriotic action. Middle‑class reformers retreated and the government embarked on a programme of repression, designed to crush radicalism at home.

It was only after the defeat of France in 1815 that popular radicalism re‑emerged, led by figures such as the orator Henry Hunt and brilliant journalist and publicist William Cobbett whose bitter critique of “Old Corruption”, a metaphor for the systematic political oppression associated with heavy taxation, fiscal abuse, sinecures and monopolies, combined with his defence of  “Old England” made him one of the most powerful voices of the period. The Tory government, alarmed at the mobilisation of the “industrious classes” (artisans, cotton spinners, handloom weavers, small masters and tradesmen) cracked down again and the Peterloo massacre in 1819, when an unarmed crowd was fired upon, shocked middle-class reformers.

During the 1820s working men and women in the areas of the new factory system, whether in Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Lanarkshire, struggled to come to terms with different forms of exploitation while in other urban centres such as London or Birmingham it was the decline of old patterns of skill and the spread of semi-skilled work done by women and children that disrupted established ways of living and working. As EP Thompson argued in his book The Making of the English Working Class a sense of identity and shared consciousness gradually emerged, rooted in the experience of industrialisation and urbanisation, expressed through trade unions, radical press, reading rooms, and a culture of autodidacticism, and increasingly focused on the struggle for the vote for men. Women were expected to support the claims of husbands, fathers and brothers.

Class, signifying new relations between masters and men that operated in a market economy, was the key axis of politics in this period. Middle-class men had also been articulating their claims as propertied men, denizens of the new commercial and manufacturing order, to be represented in parliament. James Mill sang his paean of praise in his influential Essay on Government (1819) to the rational and responsible middle-class men who would secure the right kind of polity for a modern world. These men championed families with industrious patriarchal husbands and fathers and domesticated wives, engaged in voluntary associations, and secured authority in their towns and cities with the Municipal Reform Act of 1835.

His assessment was sharp. The Whigs, he argued, knew “that the old system could not last and desiring to establish another as like it as possible, and also to keep their places, they framed a Bill, in the hope of drawing to the feudal aristocracy and the yeomen in the counties a large reinforcement of the middle class. The Bill was, in effect, an invitation to the shopocrats of the enfranchised towns to join the Whigocrats of the country, and make common cause with them in keeping down the people, and thereby quell the rising spirit of democracy in England”.

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Drama in the House of Commons

Other radicals, however, including key figures such as William Cobbett whose hugely influential Political Register played a vital part in popular politics, believed that the bill would make a difference and they must support it. It was the alliance from “outside”, of pressure from both middle and working-class reformers across town and country, that ensured the success of reform. But Westminster still held the key and in the 1830s the House of Commons was at the political heart of Britain and its empire. A dramatic second reading in the Commons secured the bill by one vote as Thomas Babington Macaulay (later to be celebrated for his History of England) described to a friend, “Such a scene as the division of last Tuesday I never saw, and never expect to see again. If I should live 50 years – the impression of it will be as fresh and sharp as if it had just taken place. It was like seeing Caesar stabbed in the Senate House, or seeing Oliver [Cromwell] taking the mace from the table, a sight to be seen only once and never forgotten”.

Macaulay’s speeches – arguing for “reform in time”, claiming that the particular genius of the constitution was its capacity to reform itself, and explaining why Britain unlike its continental neighbours escaped revolution – were powerfully persuasive. “All history is full of revolutions”, he argued, “A portion of the community which had been of no account, expands and becomes strong. It demands a place in the system, suited, not to its former weakness, but to its present power. If this is granted, all is well. If this is refused, then comes the struggle between the young energy of one class, and the ancient privileges of another”.

Britain on the brink of revolution

In the Commons there was sufficient support for reform, but the Lords with their Tory majority and strong contingent of bishops was a different matter. In September they threw out the bill and there were riots of workers in Derby, Nottingham and Bristol. As one Whig peer understood all too clearly, “the bill at last must be carried by force or fear, not from conviction or affection”.

In May 1832 the Prime Minister Earl Grey, faced with the intransigence of the Lords, made the shocking demand that the king should create 50 new peers as the only way to secure a majority. The king refused, Grey resigned and the Duke of Wellington attempted unsuccessfully to form a government. These were the celebrated Days of May when Britain came very close to revolution. Petitions poured in from all parts of the country; the novel idea of a run on the banks – “To stop the Duke go for Gold” was the slogan – was proposed, and the banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild had to come to the rescue; 200,000 delegates met in Birmingham and heard Attwood hint that armed insurrection might be necessary. The king had to return to Grey and the bill went through.

Why did it matter? The Reform Bill, as John Bright the Quaker reformer put it, was “not a good bill, though a great bill when it passed” for its implications were substantial. The same people went on ruling Britain, the aristocracy maintained their dominance in government until the 1870s, patronage did not disappear and nor did deference. Few middle-class men went into the Commons. Yet something very important had happened. An aristocratic Whig government had to bow to popular pressure, just as the Tories had done in 1829. They had opened a door, which they would have much preferred to keep closed. They hoped the business was finished but of course it was not.

Strictly men only

Many of those working-class reformers who had been bitterly disillusioned by the betrayal of their hopes with the 1832 Act were pivotal to the formation of the Chartist movement which sought universal male suffrage and played a vital part in the politics of the later 1830s and 1840s. The Reform Act specified for the first time that it was men who could vote. In August 1832 a petition to the House of Commons from Mary Smith of Stanmore asked for the vote for “every unmarried woman having that pecuniary qualification whereby the other sex is entitled to the said franchise”. Smith was a wealthy Yorkshire lady and saw no reason why those who paid taxes should not have a share in the election of their representatives. She had no success but her petition was symptomatic of new claims being made by women, claims that would not be met for more than a century.

Meanwhile the newly enfranchised middle class did flex their muscles on the slavery question. In the election that followed the Reform Act supporters of antislavery organised on a large scale to ensure that candidates would pledge to vote for emancipation. In the new session of Parliament slavery was abolished, though apprenticeship, a system of forced labour, remained.

Meanwhile, decisions about the character of the nation had repercussions far beyond. In 1833 in debates over the new Charter Act for India it was made clear that while representative government was appropriate for white Britons, a benevolent despotism was the most suitable form of government for India while in Ireland, that “metropolitan colony”, new forms of coercion were introduced that would not have been tolerated on the mainland. The year 1832 stands for a critical moment in the history of both nation and empire.

History facts: 1800–1849

The Reform Act in Britain: four nations, but not treated the same…

In England and Wales the electorate increased from one in eight adult males to just short of one in five

In Scotland one in eight adult males had the vote

In Ireland only five per cent of adult males could vote

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 19th century

1800Act of Union. This was forced through the Irish parliament by British Prime Minister Pitt after the failure of the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798. The Irish were now represented at Westminster. Pitt promised Catholic emancipation would follow but the entrenchment of the Protestant ascendancy meant that this was long withheld.

1807 – Abolition of slave trade on British ships. 1807 finally saw the abolition of the British slave trade after campaigns on an unprecedented scale had been waged on and off from 1787, led by Clarkson and Wilberforce. “The sense of the nation has pressed abolition upon our rulers” was the judgement of the influential Edinburgh Review.

The declaration of the Republic of Haiti also played a part, for French competition in the Caribbean sugar trade was much reduced.

1815 – Battle of Waterloo. The year saw the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the triumph of Britain as a world power. Conquests in the Caribbean, India and the Cape meant that the Empire had expanded greatly and Britain ruled approximately a quarter of the world’s population.

1819 – Peterloo massacre. The end of the French wars saw extensive demobilisation and unemployment. Political demands first articulated by radicals in the 1790s were revived and a mass meeting in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, addressed by the great orator Henry Hunt and demanding political reform, turned into the massacre of Peterloo when the militia fired on unarmed protestors.

1829 – Catholic Emancipation. This was finally granted after years of agitation in Ireland led by Daniel O’Connell. “We are men and deserve to be free” was the cry of the Catholic Association which mobilised huge numbers of men with the support of “their” women across Ireland and forced the civil equality of Catholics on an unwilling Tory administration. A struggle for repeal of the Union soon began, however, for emancipation did not solve Ireland’s grievance.

1833 – An end to slavery. A rebellion of the enslaved in Jamaica in 1831 and a popular campaign across Britain led to the abolition of slavery from 1 August 1834. Forced apprenticeship (brought to an end in 1838) and 20 million pounds in compensation convinced the West Indian interest to accept this.

A Charter Act for India increased the role of the British government in India and reduced the power of the East India Company.

1846 – Repeal of Corn Laws. Another popular campaign, this time spearheaded by middle-class free traders, resulted in the Repeal of the Corn Laws, long regarded as a symbol of the continuing power of the landowning classes. Prime Minister Peel’s decision split the Tory party opening the way for Disraeli’s rise to power.

1848 – Revolution in Europe. Revolutions erupted across continental Europe and there were extensive fears in Britain that Chartist demands for parliamentary reform including a universal male franchise could not be contained. On 10 April London was barricaded with troops at the ready but in the event the demonstration on Kennington Common presented no threat.

1849 – Advancement for women. Bedford College was opened, initially to train women teachers, and among its pupils in the years to come were Barbara Leigh Smith and George Eliot. This was one of the signs of the development of the women’s movement that emerged in the 1850s, committed to education, employment and suffrage for women alongside an end to the sexual double standard.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1851: The Crystal Palace

Go back: 1776: The year of American independence

Catherine Hall is professor of modern British social and cultural history at University College London. Publications include Civilising Subjects. Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and At Home with the Empire (CUP, 2006) edited with Sonya Rose

Further reading: The Making of the English Working Class by Edward Palmer Thompson (Penguin, 1968); The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain by Eric Evans (Longman, 1983); The Great Reform Act by Michael Brock (Hutchinson, 1973); “The Rule of Difference: Gender, Class and Empire in the Making of the 1832 Reform Act” by Catherine Hall in Gendered Nations. Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century by Ida Blom et al (eds) (Berg, 2000)


This article was first published in the August 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine