How far was popular discontent the most important reason for the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832?



The 1832 Great Reform Act remains a pivotal occurrence in British political history, and was the result of the coalescing of a variety of factors. Though all contributed to the eventual passing of the Act, popular discontent was more important a reason for the passing of this than the Tory split and the actions of political unions.

One could argue that the disunity and weakening within the Tory party was the primary reason for the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832.  As the party holding firm to more Conservative views, the Tories, on the whole, were staunchly anti-reform. They dominated the House of Commons and they professed themselves broadly satisfied with the existing system. To them, the political system was of a standard that did not merit undergoing reform as was being espoused by the Whigs.[1] As things stood, the Tories were in a political system that allowed them to produce excellent orators and administrators as well as allowing for wealthy young men of talent to rise up into parliament early. [2]To reform in a way that changed this would be to open the floodgates and commence a downward spiral into a world of politics grossly far from that which they were comfortable with. Quoting Wellington after the Act was passed, one can see the immense animosity the Tories possessed against reform: “The government of England is destroyed.”[3] It was this view of reform utterly undermining the foundational principles of parliament that spurred on Tory hostility to the eventual Act.  Where the Whigs sought to maintain an effective and prosperous political system through mild reform (on the whole), the Tories seemed to opt for repression as the means through which to secure this. Thus it stands to reason that for any meaningful reform to occur within parliament, this opposition force would either have to be weakened or wooed over to support it. This was made possible by the question of religious liberties being brought to the foreground of political discussion.  With the bulwark that was Lord Liverpool no longer leading the party, the Tories were already weakened.[4]  This was then heightened by how the Tory party was divided over the issue of whether the Roman Catholics should be given political rights. Wellington took over as Prime Minister at the beginning of 1828, but his hardline stance divided the party even more. Hence the Liberal Tories transferred their support to the Whigs. Viscount Palmerston became head of the Liberal Tories, actually joining a Whig administration as Foreign Secretary in 1830.[5] There was essentially no real way for Wellington to emerge successful regarding the matter of Catholic Emancipation. On the one hand, Wellington’s opposition to reform would agitate the more liberal Tories who were more closely linked with the Whigs as a result of Canning’s choice to form an alliance with them[6] ; on the other hand, Wellington’s ultimate concession of Catholic emancipation in 1829 alienated a group of right-wing Tories (the ‘Ultras’) so much so, that they began to seek parliamentary reform to go in the opposite direction of that which the likes of the Whigs were proposing. [7] As if this was not enough, other factors further weakened the Tory party. There were gradual, unofficial changes in the political system over the previous five decades leading up to the reform act that hindered popular Tory tools for getting their way in Parliament. For example, Wellington assumed he would gain seats in the General Election of 1830 by the judicious employment of government patronage, but such patronage had been decaying since the 1780s.[8] The Tories were increasingly finding themselves in a political world that was turning against them.  The Whig party was using this to spur them on in unity for reform. Despite the fact that the Whigs too were divided over reform to some extent, they allowed the deterioration of the Tory party to function as the catalyst to unite them. [9] The likes of Earl Grey had been campaigning for Parliamentary reform since the late 18th century seen in how he introduced a petition calling for reform in April 1792 and a reform bill in 1793.[10] He had been relatively unsuccessful in his pursuits until the 1830s. Once Wellington had announced his failure to form a ministry, parliamentary opposition to Grey collapsed[11] with not a few Tories deferring to be allied with Grey, and he took over the government as Prime Minister on the 22nd November 1830, to pioneer the reform.[12] The fact that himself and many other Whigs had been campaigning for reform for such a long time, yet were never successful until 1832 can only be explained by the Tory governmental split over Catholic Emancipation and the Huskissonite defection weakening the Tories that afforded the Whigs the opportunity within which to carpé diem in bringing about reform.  This was Earl Grey capitalising on the weakness of his opponents to, thus, ensure reform would be implemented.


In spite of the immense importance Tory failure played in the implementation of the Great Reform Act of 1832, it seems that popular discontent actually was the more important factor at hand. Much of the population were becoming increasingly aware of the corruption within the Government during the early to mid 1800s in Britain. In 1818 there had been blatant bribery in the election in Grampound so extreme that 23 voters were put on trial in 1819. When Lord John Russel intervened, calling for Grampound and three other corrupt boroughs to be barred from admitting MPs to Parliament, he was prevented by the Government in 1820. Russel then tried to send the voting rights to the underrepresented town of Leeds but they went instead to Yorkshire. Additionally, in the 1818 and 1820 general elections in East Retford, Nottinghamshire, the 20 MPs sold their votes for 20 guineas each. [13] These function as clear examples of how professional misconduct was endemic to Parliament and how attempts to rectify this were often prevented by those in control. Despite the seeming extremity of such occurrences, this was not uncommon practice nor unbeknownst to the population. There were 658 MPs and parliamentary seats were offered for sale in the London newspapers.  There were also no secret ballots and when the crowds went to the hustings, they could be beaten up, intimidated, bribed, rendered drunk and threatened with the loss of their jobs, businesses or homes to ‘persuade’ them to vote for a particular candidate.[14] Furthermore, there was the far-reaching problem of political representation and voting. Somewhat similar to the famous mantra of the 1775–1783 American Civil War, ‘no taxation without representation’ , the people of Britain objected vehemently to the fact that their liberties were not taken into consideration when executive, political decisions that directly affected them were instigated. There was a voting scheme of ‘burgage boroughs’ in 29 places whereby the right to vote was granted to those who owned certain significant property as dictated by ancient custom; there was a voting scheme based upon ‘scot and lot’ [those who paid local taxes] in 37 boroughs; there was a voting scheme in some cases where voting was restricted to the ‘potwallopers’; there was a voting scheme in 92 boroughs in which the vote was only open to ‘freemen’. [15] Thus, on a person-specific level, there remained gross political under representation, with only a minute fraction of the population having the liberty of dictating how they were to be governed. However, disproportional representation was not confined simply on a person by person basis: underrepresentation was also occurring on a much larger scale for entire boroughs, towns, and even cities.  Taking Birmingham as an example, its population was at 144,000 and it was also the third largest provincial town in England, yet it remained underrepresented in Parliament. The same applied for industrial locations like Leicester and Leeds.  Again on top of this was the fact that the national predicament for the average person was taking a downturn.  The economic boom of the 1820s came to an abrupt halt in 1829. By February, the Whig leader, Earl Grey, was talking of ‘a state of general distress as never before pressed upon any country.’  As radical leaders and opponents of reform alike knew, only high prices and unemployment could translate an intellectual case for constitutional change into a mass movement of incalculably threatening aspect.[16] Thus there were a plethora of reasons behind the huge discontentment among the population at this time. This sentiment was, thus, directed as pressure against the government to reform the system. Although the government at this time did have a capacious amount of power, the MPs still depended upon the people to engage in the voting, albeit a highly corrupt process, to designate who would govern. The MPs also depended upon the population in the sense that they could not hope to stand against a large proportion of the citizenry if a violent revolution were to be pursued.  It would make sense for the government to instigate the ‘Great Reform Act’ in 1832 since this was when public disgruntlement reached fever pitch. One can see this with the examples of the ‘Swing Riots’ spreading around England from summer 1830, the 1831 Bristol Riots,  the unrest in Nottingham in October 1831 and so on. These seemed to resemble the flavour of the events that were found in revolutionary France. [17] With such a prospect as what happened in France happening in Britain, the government had to seek a route of appeasement to some extent, and therefore instigate a Reform Act, even if it didn’t really accomplish much deep down.  Simply stated, it was clear to many politicians of the time that “if Reform is refused, Revolution is inevitable” [18]


Notwithstanding the fact that the popular discontent and Tory divide were fundamental factors in bringing about the Great Reform Act when it occurred, it can also be seen how the political unions/ organisations were the main reason in causing the passage of it. The separation between the middle and lower classes had been continually diminishing over the years since Pitt’s time in office so that, through the early 1800s leading into the 1830s, numerous political unions and activist groups were formed between middle and lower class citizens looking for change. Christopher Wyvill set up the Yorkshire Association in 1780[19], in 1780 John Cartwright set up the Society for Constitutional Information, in 1792 the Whig party founded the Friends of the People Society, Thomas Hardy founded the London Corresponding Society in 1792 [20], in 1812 the first Hampden Club was formed by major John Cartwright[21], in July 1829, a Radical Reform Society was launched[22], in April 1831 a National Union of Working Classes was forged in London from disparate radical elements by William Lovett and Henry Hetherington[23]… and so on. Each of these groups campaigned for political reform in some form or another, and so we can see clearly how their influence could accumulate over many years to eventually push forward the Act. In accordance with the views of the historian Norman McCord, Whig enthusiasm for reform should be seen as the culmination of long-term support for change. [24] Individuals or small groups, however committed they may have been, they were unable to gain significant governmental attention to evoke the clear cry for reform. The cumulative effect of reform agitation via the Political Unions, however, was more important than any differences of social composition and specific objective. They attracted huge crowds to political rallies; they were organized and generally disciplined; and, most of all, they served notice on Westminster that the middle classes were prepared to labour mightily in the reformers’ vineyard.[25] One could use the BPU as an example. The Union was founded in 1830; its first meeting was attended by approximately 15,000 people. Its stated aim was to campaign for reform of the House of Commons, ‘to be achieved by a general political union of the lower and middle classes of the people’.[26] The BPU gained support rapidly, it used non-violent means (such as coherent and intellectual arguments) to make its points, and it was very well-organised. [27] Within two years of its existence the Reform Act was passed. This can only go to show how the amassment of pressure for reform over the years was finally pushed over the edge by such political unions in the late 1820s to early 1830s, making the Act inevitability.


Each factor of political unions/organisations, the compromised Tory predicament and the contribution of the population expressing their discontent all played vital role in the eventual implementation of the 1832 Great Reform Act. However, the notion of popular discontent trumps the others in regards to importance for several reasons. Firstly, it seems somewhat untenable to divide the actions of political unions and reformist organisations when they are made up of individuals who were expressing their discontent at the status quo. Political unions are, thus, a medium through which popular discontent is expressed. Secondly, a weakened Tory position in no way necessitates a parliamentary Act on reform being passed. It was the fact that the Whigs capitalised on this that allowed for the Reform Act’s passage.  One must then question what the Whig motivation was to implement this, and it seems evident that the main principle was to appease the desires of the people and those within their own party who sought after reform. Ergo, the discontentment of the British people was the main reason for the passage of the Great Reform Act in 1832.




  • The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce


  • From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells


  • The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832


  • The term ‘Cobbett and Hunt’ was shorthand for radical politics in the early 19th century, but the petty hatred that developed between the two men had a devastating effect on the outcome of the 1832 Reform Act, says Penny Young


  • D.H. Pennington on the man chiefly responsible for passing the Reform Act


[1] The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce

[2] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.103

[3] The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce

[4] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832

[5] The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce

[6] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832

[7] The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce

[8] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832

[9] The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce

[10] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.101

[11] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832

[12] The Great Reform Act of 1832 – Robert Pearce

[13] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.104

[14] The term ‘Cobbett and Hunt’ was shorthand for radical politics in the early 19th century, but the petty hatred that developed between the two men had a devastating effect on the outcome of the 1832 Reform Act, says Penny Young.

[15] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.94

[16] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832

[17] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.106-107

[18]  Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform with a plan for the Restoration of the Constitution (October 1830) quoted in R. Quinault, ‘The French Revolution of 1830 and Parliamentary Reform’ History 257 (1994), p. 392.

[19] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.97

[20] D.H Pennington on the man chiefly responsible for passing the Reform Act

[21] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.40

[22] The term ‘Cobbett and Hunt’ was shorthand for radical politics in the early 19th century, but the petty hatred that developed between the two men had a devastating effect on the outcome of the 1832 Reform Act, says Penny Young.


[23] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832

[24] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.102

[25] The Crisis of Reform, 1827-1832


[27] From Pit to Peel: 1783-1846 – Mike Wells – pp.105


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