Boundary Changes: the Victorian legacy

The recent report of the boundary commission, remodelling England’s constituency arrangements in line with population movements, serves as an important reminder of the prominent role played by boundary reforms during the nineteenth century. Every extension of the franchise – 1832, 1867, 1884 – was accompanied by a redrawing of old boundaries and redistribution of parliamentary seats, meaning that the geography of constituencies with well-known names changed significantly during the Victorian era.

The very first boundary act was one of the most dramatic and its legacy remains apparent today, not least in the physical layout of some boroughs and rural districts. Implemented in 1832 to accompany the Great Reform Act, the act added vast swathes of outlying parishes to many established towns, in an attempt to create an electorate that was large enough to justify electoral representation. Some of the expansions that took place were remarkable. The area comprising the Wiltshire borough of Westbury, for example, was increased by 500 times, from just 0.04 to 19.3 square miles. Altogether, nearly 1,000 square miles was transferred from the counties to the boroughs in this way, fundamentally altering the electoral landscape as well as helping to shape the direction of subsequent urban infill and development. In some places, most conspicuously in Ireland, towns were mapped and boundaries established for the very first time, often by simply drawing a large circle around the principal streets.

The commissioners responsible for the first boundary act were mostly royal engineers, hydrographers and relatives of MPs. All were volunteers. The constantly changing guidelines from the Whig ministers negotiating the passage of the reform legislation inevitably meant that their plans often had to be completely abandoned and redrawn. Many decisions, as a result, were left to the last minute. During one critical moment in the passage of the boundary bill through the Commons, E. J. Littleton, the only commissioner who was also an MP, recorded how:

Drummond and I were hunting all over the town for Lord John Russell this morning, to settle with him various alterations in boundaries, previous to the report on the boundary bill. We at last found him in a stable in a backyard in King Street, Westminster. Here with the groom’s ink bottle and pen, and lying down on straw in one of the stalls, we … made a great variety of amendments.

Much work remains to be done on the precise impact of boundary changes on local structures of political power, party performance in the constituencies, and the reshaping of the rural and urban landscape during the nineteenth century. With this in mind, the History of Parliament, in collaboration with Professor Miles Taylor at the Institute of Historical Research, recently appointed a PhD student to an AHRC funded collaborative doctoral award. Martin Spychal, formerly of King’s College London, started working with the 1832-68 project on this important topic this autumn.

Further info:

P. Salmon, ‘The English Reform Legislation, 1831-1832’, in The House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D. R. Fisher (2009), i. 374-412.

The Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UK’s Map of Parliamentary Constituencies ed. D. Rossiter, R. Johnston and C. Pattie (1999).

N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953).

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