As part of our series reflecting on the recent ‘Politics before Democracy’ conference, Dr Martin Spychal, a Senior Research Fellow on the 1832-1868 Commons project, discusses the impact of the 1832 reform legislation on English electoral politics.
At the 2023 Politics before Democracy conference I discussed the 1832 reform legislation and its impact on English electoral politics between 1832 and 1868. The paper was based on research completed for my forthcoming book, Mapping the State: English boundaries and the 1832 Reform Act, and a preliminary survey of the research completed for the History of Parliament’s ongoing Commons 1832-1868 project.
Three major themes emerged from my paper. First, electoral organisation was an inescapable aspect of political life across England’s* constituency system after 1832. Second, franchise, boundary and registration reform in 1832 explicitly refocused constituency politics around the social, economic and political circumstances of England’s counties and boroughs, and was crucial in fostering the development of new political communities after 1832. And, third, while reformed elections were participatory, the electoral influence of non-electors after 1832 has to be understood subtly as a contributory feature of a complex political ecosystem.
As well as establishing a new system of registration and a range of new voting qualifications, the 1832 reform legislation redistributed 143 English seats across the UK and redrew, or formalised, the boundaries of every English constituency. The rotten boroughs of the unreformed system were replaced with 41 new English boroughs and 56 newly divided counties. The boundaries of around 50 boroughs were extended for miles into their surrounding countryside, and 90 or so boroughs had their limits enlarged or clarified.
Reform also maintained, and often amplified, many of the peculiarities of the unreformed system. Most constituencies continued to return two members, but after 1832, 53 constituencies returned one MP. Constituencies varied drastically in terms of electorate and area. At the 1852 election there were 200 electors at Thetford, and 23,500 electors in Tower Hamlets. Gloucester’s area was 0.6 square miles, while the borough of East Retford stretched to over 300 square miles.
Adult male enfranchisement in England fluctuated around 20% between 1832 and 1868. However, the retention of some ancient voting rights and national variations in property values meant that who could vote varied drastically from constituency to constituency. In 1865 45% of adult males could vote in Coventry, where ancient freeman voters continued to qualify alongside the £10 householders enfranchised in 1832. While at the same election under 9% of adult males could vote under Oldham’s exclusively £10 franchise.
England returned 468 MPs and elected a Whig-Liberal majority in 1832 and 1835, Conservative majorities between 1837 and 1852 and Liberal majorities from 1857. The foundation of England’s Conservative electoral strength was its 68 counties, which returned 142 MPs. During the 1830s, locally organised Conservative associations, and their candidates, thrived across England’s reformed county map due to their dedicated efforts to voter registration, and the division of counties. Conservative success was also bolstered by the enduring electoral popularity of agricultural protection and Protestantism.
It took until the 1850s for Whig-Liberal candidates to enjoy wider-spread success in the counties. This was thanks partly to increased Conservative division and apathy after 1852, but also a new generation of Whig-Liberal leaders, who were not as squeamish as their predecessors about organising electoral politics, and by the early 1860s, were willing to cede local influence to the formative, national Liberal Registration Society.
If the counties were the electoral foundation of Conservatism, England’s new boroughs in 1832 became the bedrock of Liberalism. In these boroughs political organisation was generally overseen by leading commercial figures, and sometimes landed elites, within a borough’s boundaries, usually with the co-operation of local chapels and churches. Reform overtly politicised the economic and social interests within the new boroughs, as their leading textile and metal manufacturers, ship-owners, mine-owners and potters, with the support of religious ministers, local bankers, lawyers and merchants, assumed responsibility for the leadership, funding and oversight of emerging local party machines.
That said, assuming a leading role in a local Liberal or Conservative party did not mean controlling opinion and votes. While employer, landlord and government influence was a feature of new borough politics, when a vested interest pushed too far, the enfranchised and unenfranchised found creative, if not always successful, means of challenging their authority. This could take the form of exclusive dealing (where constituents refused to patronise businesses that supported their political opponents), but was deployed most successfully via tacit coalitions between local Conservative, Liberal and radical electors and non-electors as they sought to overpower a vested electoral interest.
England’s ancient boroughs shared many of these electoral dynamics, but the impact of reform was more varied due to the continuation of some ancient franchise rights after 1832, the differing extent of post-reform boundary changes, the operation of the £10 householder franchise, electorate sizes, voter registration and the evolution of localised political culture in each constituency.
Some of the most marked changes took place in the 50 or so boroughs extended for miles into their surrounding countryside in 1832 due to the small number of £10 voters within their unreformed boundaries. These geographically extensive boroughs – or ‘miniature counties’ – provided landed proprietors with significant opportunities to maintain or establish influence in reformed borough politics. However, as in the counties, the path to establishing influence was rarely straightforward, and often took years of constituency nursing to achieve.
Reform in the remaining ancient boroughs had its clearest impact in the twenty or so that had operated under a restricted corporation, burgage or freeman franchise prior to 1832. While these boroughs technically had electorates and boundaries prior to 1832, the politics of the parishes, streets and individuals that constituted these boroughs became formal public knowledge for the first time after 1832, via election canvassing, annual voter registration and the publication of poll books following elections.
In the ancient freeman, ratepayer, or householder franchise boroughs, the impact of reform was more varied. While there were many continuities between pre and post-reform electoral politics, cases where reform had no major observable impact were in the minority. Registration, by its very nature, ensured that electoral politics was an annual feature of local political life after 1832. Where a borough’s boundaries had been extended in 1832 new pockets of political influence evolved that local parties seized on. And as ancient rights voters died out, the influence of the elite £10 franchise could lead to subtle shifts in party allegiance.
As my forthcoming book explores, and the History of Parliament’s 1832-1868 Commons project is discovering, it is the rich complexity of England’s reformed electoral map that needs to be embraced in any global analysis of post-1832 politics, rather than a narrative that seeks to identify any single defining feature.
*In keeping with M. Cragoe, Culture, Politics and National Identity in Wales (2004), this analysis categorises Monmouthshire and Monmouth Boroughs with Wales.
Martin’s book, Mapping the State: English boundaries and the 1832 Reform Act, is forthcoming in the Royal Historical Society New Historical Perspectives series
Draft versions of completed biography and constituency articles for the 1832-1868 Commons project are currently available through a password-protected website. For further details about this or about how to become a contributor please contact email@example.com
M. Cragoe, ‘The Great Reform Act and the Modernization of British Politics: The Impact of Conservative Associations, 1835-1841’, Journal of British Studies, xlvii (2008), 581-603
N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953)
A. Heesom, ‘‘Legitimate’ “versus” ‘Illegitimate’ Influences: Aristocratic Electioneering in Mid-Victorian Britain’, Parliamentary History, vii (1988), 282-305
E. Jaggard, ‘Small Town Politics in Mid Victorian Britain‘, History, 89 (2004), 3-29
J. Lawrence & M. Taylor (ed.), Party, State and Society: Electoral Behaviour in Britain since 1820 (Aldershot, 1997)
J. Phillips, The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs: English Electoral Behaviour 1818-1841 (1992)
D. C. Moore, The Politics of Deference (1976)
Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work Local Politics and National Parties 1832-1841 (2002)
P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW