No period of British History has been as tense, as politially and socially disturbed, as the 1830s and early 1840s, when both the working class and the middle class, separately or in conjunction, demanded what they regarded as fundamental changes. From 1829 to 1832 their discontents fused in the demand for Parliamentary Reform, behind which the massses threw their riots and demonstrations, the businessmen the power of economic boycott. After the 1832, when several of the demands of the middle-class radicals were met, the worker's movement fought and failed alone. — Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, p. 55.

Decorative Initial T he three Reform Acts, of 1832, 1867, and 1884, all extended voting rights to previously disfranchised citizens. The first act, which was the most controversial, reapportioned representation in Parliament in a way fairer to the cities of the industrial north, which had experienced tremendous growth, and did away with "rotten" and "pocket" boroughs like Old Sarum, which with only seven voters (all controlled by the local squire) was still sending two members to Parliament. This act not only re-apportioned representation in Parliament, thus making that body more accurately represent the citizens of the country, but also gave the power of voting to those lower in the social and economic scale, for the act extended the right to vote to any man owning a household worth £10, adding 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000. Approximately one man in five now had the right to vote.

For many conservatives, this effect of the bill, which allowed the middle classes to share power with the upper classes, was revolutionary in its import. Some historians argue that this transference of power achieved in England what the French Revolution achieved eventually in France. Therefore, the agitation preceding (and following) the first Reform Act, which Dickens observed at first hand as a shorthand Parliamentary reporter,  made many people consider fundamental issues of society and politics.

The 1867 Reform Act extended the right to vote still further down the class ladder, adding just short of a million voters — including many workingmen — and doubling the electorate, to almost two million in England and Wales. 

On 15 August 1867 the Second Reform Act received the royal assent, bringing to an end a paradoxical series of events. Derby's minority government had sponsored legislation which expanded the franchise by approximately a million voters. The Act far surpassed the 400,000 proposed in the Russell-Gladstone Bill, which the Conservatives had helped to condemn some twelve months earlier. To the astonishment of his peers Disraeli incorporated a series of far-reaching amendments — maintaining an agenda in advance of Gladstone, and the Radicals. He recognised the desire of many MPs for the issue to be brought to a swift conclusion and with Derby's backing was able to defuse opposition from all sections of the chamber. [Bodleian Library site]

The 1867 act created major shock waves in contemporary British culture, some of which appear in works such as Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and Ruskin's Crown of Wild Olive, as authors debated whether this shift of power would create democracy that would, in turn, destroy high culture.

The 1884 bill and the 1885 Redistribution Act tripled the electorate again, giving the vote to most agricultural laborers.  By this time, voting was becoming a right rather than the property of the privileged.

As Roy Jenkins explains in his biography of Gladstone,

The 1884 Reform Bill, when eventually enacted, increased the size of the electorate from three to five million. Absolutely it produced the biggest increase in the numbers entitled to vote of the three nineteenth-century franchise measures, but it was not the biggest proportional increase. Ironically it was the ‘great Reform Bill’ of 1832 which did least from either point of view. In England and Wales that bill added 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000. The 1867 bill, after Disraeli’s committee-stage lurch to democracy, nearly doubled an electorate which had over the previous thirty-five years grown to a million. The 1884 bill, in comparison with these increases of just under 50 per cent and just under 90 per cent respectively, produced an overall growth of a little less than 60 per cent. Its effect, however, was qualitative as well as quantitative. It extended the limited town democracy of 1867 to the countryside, which was more of a shock to the remains of English feudalism than anything which had gone before, and the effect was magnified by the bill’s running-mate, a Redistribution of Seats Bill, giving the counties for the first time more seats than the boroughs. The coal miners, who mosdy lived in industrially scarred countryside rather than in towns, were also brought within the franchise, thereby opening the way to much the largest group of working men representatives in Parliament. [Gladstone 487-88]

Women were not granted voting rights until the Act of 1918, which enfranchised all men over 21 and women over thirty. This last bit of discrimination was eliminated 10 years later (in 1928) by the Equal Franchise Act.

Related Materials


Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Created 1987

Epigraph added March 2001

Last modified 12 May 2018