The Rise of Democracy: The Passage of the Reform Act (1867) | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and writer based in Leeds, UK. He is currently researching the life and work of two Victorian writers: George W.M. Reynolds (1814–17) and Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80)

By the 1865 George W.M. Reynolds was nearing retirement. His last novel, a collection of short stories titled The Young Fisherman, had been published in 1860. He had largely handed over the editorship of Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper to his brother, Edward Reynolds, and he even took a backseat in the editing of his literary magazine, Reynolds’s Miscellany. He also had a number of grandchildren—nine in total—who no doubt occupied much of his time.

G.W.M. Reynolds in later life (c) Stephen Basdeo

But this former Chartist and Red Republican activist, who was ‘leader of that queer revolution of 1848’—and many other members of the ‘Old Guard’ of Chartists—would soon be called out of his retirement to help galvanise the masses again when the Liberal government in 1865 began seriously discussing extending the franchise.

Chartist Rally in 1848

Back in 1832 the Whigs had extended the right to vote to £10 copyholders, £50 renters, and £2 freeholders. The Whigs also created a number of new constituencies so that the ‘new’ industrial northern towns such as Manchester and Leeds gained representation—these measures which effectively enfranchised the middle classes but excluded the working classes. (In spite of these restrictions many people did try to vote even if they were ineligible. See my other post on electoral fraud in Victorian England).

Dissatisfied with the 1832 Reform Act, the Chartist campaign began which campaigned for

A vote for all men

Equally-sized constituencies

Annual parliaments

Abolition of the property qualification

Payment for MPs

The secret ballot

To some extent the history of Chartism is a well-told tale. Three petitions were mounted between 1838 and 1848 but each of these was rejected by the government. By the 1850s, the movement splintered into several smaller groups. Many of the movement’s newspapers were wound up, with Reynolds’s Newspaper surviving as the main organ of radical politics—a fact recognised by Karl Marx. In addition, the number of mass meetings diminished and politics began to look a bit more ‘settled’—one scholar calls this the ‘Age of Equipoise’. Unsurprisingly some people in the higher ranks of government began to think that the question of political reform was ‘settled’.

What, then, made several prominent statesmen in 1865 change their minds and begin to advocate for political reform? The answer to this lies across the Atlantic.

The American Civil War

When the American Civil War broke out in 1863, factory workers’ organisations signalled their public support for Abraham Lincoln’s Union army and his Emancipation Declaration. British workers’ support came in spite of the fact that the Union had blockaded the Confederacy’s ports, meaning that imports of cotton from America dried up, as did many jobs in Britain’s textile industry.

The working classes’ support of a noble cause abroad, even when it negatively affected their income, impressed the Liberal statesman William Ewart Gladstone who declared it

“a shame and a scandal that bodies of men such as these should be excluded from the parliamentary franchise.”[1]

William Ewart Gladstone

Gladstone’s opinion mattered, and he was ready to publicly support an extension of the franchise. Soon Edward Baines—an eye-witness to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819—brought a private members bill to parliament in 1864 which proposed lowering the franchise qualification in boroughs from £10 to £6 Gladstone finally and publicly signalled his willingness to support reform.

G.J. Harney

Baines’s bill failed to gather enough support in parliament but between 1864 and 1865 the ‘old guard’ of Anti-Corn Law Leaguers, and Chartist activists sprang back into action. Associations were formed and tracts were printed. John Bright, a major figure in the Anti-Corn League and now M.P. for Birmingham wrote an essay titled ‘Speech on Reform’, which was widely circulated.

In this essay Bright argued that it would be better for the authorities to extend the franchise in some way, rather than do nothing and risk violent class conflict, the likes of which were feared during the heyday of the Chartist era.[2] Bright and one of his associates from his Anti-Corn Law Leaguer days founded the National Reform Union whose aims were

To obtain such an extension of the Franchise as shall confer the Parliamentary Suffrage, in Counties and Boroughs, on every male person, householder or lodger, rated or liable to be rated, for the relief of the poor.

To secure the free exercise of the Franchise, by affording to the voter the protection of the Ballot.

To procure an equal distribution of Members of Parliament, in proportion to population and property.

To establish more frequent opportunities for the expression of national opinion, by shortening the duration of Parliament to three years.[3]

The middle classes dominated the Reform Union, and it was left up to the motley crew of old Chartists to establish the National Reform League in 1865. Its founders included Reynolds, Ernest Jones—who must by now have forgiven Reynolds for a libel against him a decade earlier—as well as the Red Republican George Julian Harney, and Edmond Beales who served as the League’s president.

As John Belchem notes, with such titans of the Chartist movement at its head, the League was Chartism’s true heir. And it was the League who were instrumental in securing the support of the London Trades Council (a forerunner of the Trades Union Congress) and the International Working Men’s Association.

Unlike some of the internecine squabbles that occurred between the Chartists and associated movements in the 1840s and 1850s, there was very little animosity between the National Reform Union and the National Reform League. In any case, both groups were in fact were aiming at a different demographic: the Union campaigned among the middle classes and the League targeted the working classes. The League was also willing to make trade-offs: although universal suffrage was the overall goal, its members initially agreed to support both household suffrage measures as well as more limited extensions to the franchise similar to those that were proposed by Baines in 1864. At mass meetings the two bodies were also willing to share platforms–this was in stark contrast to Reynolds’s and Harney’s abrupt resignation from the main Chartist association in 1851. The new, more co-operative outlook, is perhaps a result of the fact that the likes of Harney, Reynolds, and Jones had matured and become seasoned political campaigners, being willing to modify their idealistic goals with what was politically possible. It is likely that Reynolds returned to writing weekly editorials for Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper during this time, for many of the articles are similar in tone to those he wrote during the 1850s. However, none of them are signed by him so this cannot be stated with certainty.

Ticket to a pro-reform demonstration held by the LWMA (TUC)

But the establishment were listening. Gladstone had signalled his support for some kind of reform. Even some of Lord Derby’s Conservatives were in favour of extending the franchise—by this point they had been in opposition for so long that they had to support something to stand a chance of getting re-elected.

Yet a major obstacle remained: in 1865 Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister and he believed that the issue of parliamentary reform was settled for eternity in 1832. Luckily for pro-democracy campaigners—although most unluckily for the Prime Minister—Palmerston died in October 1865 which left the door wide open for a pro-reform prime minister to step in.

The Liberal Lord Russell succeeded Palmerston and, counting on support from some liberally-minded Conservatives, decided to bring a bill forward which would have extended the franchise. The bill aimed to enfranchise the ‘respectable’ working classes: under its terms, if you paid over £7 per year in rent, or if you were a lodger who paid out over £10 per year in rent, or if you had savings of over £50, then you would be entitled to vote.

But the bill failed.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli, who was the leader of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, had managed to convince his own back-benchers and even some in the Liberal Party to oppose the bill. The public was with the Liberals, however, and large protests against those who opposed the bill were held outside Houses of Parliament. Nevertheless, Lord Russell felt that he had no other choice but to resign and the Liberal government collapsed.

Disraeli’s actions were, unsurprisingly, purely political. He did indeed support an extension of the franchise, although for him it was never an ‘urgent’ issue, but most of all he wanted the Conservatives to be back in power. He knew that if Russell’s reform bill failed then his government would as well. When the Liberal government did resign the Conservatives stepped up to lead a minority administration—Lord Derby served as Prime Minister from the House of Lords and Disraeli, in the Commons, became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A cutting from a pro-reform demonstration poster (National Archives)

Campaigners feared that, with the Conservatives now in power, all hope of parliamentary reform would be lost. Both the Reform Union and the Reform League intensified their campaigning. John Bright began a nationwide speaking tour.

The Reform League organised several rallies. At one of the Reform League’s major rallies, held in Trafalgar Square and attended by old-school militant radicals, the speakers began calling on working men to organise a general strike. Another ‘monster meeting’ held in May 1867 was so large that, despite being banned by the government, the police did not dare to intervene. The prospect of violence and armed conflict was rearing its head and it was all beginning to feel like 1848 again.

The Conservatives now had to address the issue of parliamentary reform.

In the Commons, Disraeli decided to support the extension of the franchise. After all, if the franchise were extended, so Disraeli reasoned, the new voters would be exceedingly grateful to the Conservatives and vote them into power again, hopefully with a majority.

Thus, Disraeli introduced a reform bill into the Commons in 1867. Not having a majority in the lower house, the Conservatives had to accept all amendments tabled to the bill (but due to his personal animosity against Gladstone, he would not accept any that had personally been forwarded by him).

In the end, because of the several amendments that had been tabled by the opposition Liberals, the second Representation of the People Act that was passed in August was more far-reaching than what the Liberals had previously proposed. Now the vote was accorded not only to 40 shilling freeholders and £10 copyholders but was extended to all men living in towns who paid over £10 per year in rent, and to those who were paying £12 in rent per annum in the counties. Some towns containing fewer than 10,000 inhabitants were disenfranchised while major cities such as Manchester and Leeds were given extra seats in parliament.[4] 

The new act received royal assent on 15 August 1867.

In spite of the fact that it was Disraeli’s Conservatives who had introduced the Second Reform Act and got it passed, it was seen by many on the so-called ‘Liberal-labour’ coalition as a Liberal victory.

But reformers were also quick to point out the bill’s flaws, as the Beehive reported in their coverage of a banquet organised by the London Working Men’s Association in October:

What has the Bill done? Has it given manhood suffrage? No. It has given household suffrage, but it has coupled with that the condition that the enfranchised householders are to pay their own rates … What has it done for the working men of London? Do you think that such of you as pay 4s a week for your lodgings will get votes? No. You will not get votes unless you pay 5s a week … It only affects the boroughs … leaving out altogether more than half the whole country.[5]

From the reformers’ point of view, there was much work that needed to be done.

Disraeli’s prediction that new voters would remain grateful to the Conservative Party remained unfulfilled. In the 1868 General Election, the Liberals, now led by Gladstone, won a landslide over Disraeli’s party, gaining a majority of 100 seats.

Reynolds, Jones, Harney, and Beales’s National Reform League was disbanded in 1868. This is not to say that these men gave up their ideals of eventually securing universal suffrage—Reynolds and Harney certainly did not, and writers for Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper continued to campaign for it. But the task of campaigning for further extensions to the franchise would be left to the Labour Representation League, which was founded with the aim of getting greater numbers of working-class men into parliament to promote their own class’s interests.

Britannia takes a leap into the dark with the new reform bill.

The Labour Representation League was later replaced by the Labour Electoral Association. Both of these organisations, along with the Independent Labour Party founded in 1893, prepared the way for the modern UK Labour Party.

[1] Asa Briggs, Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851-67 (University of Chicago Press, 1955), 227.

[2] Angus Hawkins, Parliament, Party and the Art of Politics in Britain, 1855–59 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1987), 158.

[3] Leaflet issued by the National Reform Union (n.d.) [1866–67] cited in G.D.H. Cole and A.W. Filson, British Working-Class Movements: Select Documents 1789–1875 (London: MacMillan, 1967), 531–32 (p. 531).

[4] K. T. Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation: England, 1846–886 (Oxford University Press, 1998), 250.

[5] “Reform Fete and Banquet,” The Beehive, 5 October 1867, 1.

1 reply »