The First Step Towards a Universal Franchise
Among the reasons why eighteenth-century Britain became the pioneer of industrial capitalism, one of the most important was the fact that she had been heavily endowed with natural resources. The cotton industry flourished in the moisture-laden atmosphere; water-power was readily at hand in the north and north-west of England; while coalfields were not only larger than any as yet opened up in France and Germany but we’re close to iron deposits and to important seaports. On these resources, coal, iron, and cotton, Great Britain fashioned a civilization that in time was to become the model for other industrially minded nations similarly endowed.
Admittedly, these blessings could have gone unrecognized as such, but for centuries England had been a commercially minded country, never too proud to trade in any commodity that would turn an honest penny; always on the look-out for ways and means of increasing the national wealth by the exploitation of any object which could be made for sale.
In these circumstances it would have been virtually impossible for the British not to have turned their shrewd eye to the wealth that lay under their feet, and having appreciated its value to have set their minds to turning it to the best commercial account. This, in turn, called for inventive genius, and in this, too, the British were not lacking. That it stemmed from the realization that wealth was theirs for the picking, is supported by the fact that in the reign of George II there had been few notable inventions, whereas in the long reign of his successor, that is, after the discovery had been made, industry was so altered in character by the many inventions brought to its aid that the daily life of the great masses of the people was fundamentally changed, and all within the space of literally a few years.
The first great series of mechanical inventions began when Kay patented the flying shuttle in 1733. Hitherto the weft was passed through the warp by the weaver. It was now thrown across a much wider space by a mechanical device which greatly increased the weaver’s power of work. It was in the cotton industry that the next improvements were made, the need being for an adequate supply of yarn. (See “Spinning Jenny“.)
But these new machines, from Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny to Cartwright’s Loom, practically all of English origin, called for a new power. Horse power was not unknown, but the hand or the foot of the worker was still the chief motive power. It was the use first of water and then of steam that made the Industrial Revolution complete. Small sheds for the machines began to be built by waterfalls and rivers. The supply of water, however, was uncertain, and the ponderous steam-pump, which had long been used in the mines, was at last developed in 1766 into a practical engine to drive the machines of the spinners and weavers.
James Watt saw how the up-and-down stroke of the piston could best be applied to the rotary motion of the wheel and axle. His steam engine was first used in the cotton mills, and soon in all the textile industries. (See “James Watt’s Steam Engine“.)
The development of England’s vast mineral resources, checked in the seventeenth century by the lack of steam power, now went forward with a swing. Abraham Darby had already discovered that iron could be smelted with coke, and the new era was ushered in by the use of Smeaton’s blast furnace in the Carron Iron Works in 1760. This method was soon improved by the use of steam, and by Cort’s invention, in South Wales, of puddling, in 1783, and his use of rollers instead of sledge-hammers in the making of iron bars in 1784.
John Wilkinson, the first of the new iron-masters, was considered iron-mad because he believed that iron could be used for building bridges, ships and houses. An iron bridge cast by Darby was thrown over the Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779, and Wilkinson launched an iron ship on the same river in 1790.
There seemed to be no end to the uses to which iron and steel, the latter was first cast by Huntsman at Sheffield, could be put. Before this new age, England had scarcely exported any iron; in 1815 more than ninety thousand tons were sent abroad.
It was natural that the new vast iron-works should be established in the coal districts. Everywhere industries were shifting to be near the sources of power, leaving the old half-agricultural centres of industry for Lancashire and Yorkshire, the Midlands and the North. At the same time the steady drift into the towns from all the countryside, noted almost from the days when town life first began, was now proceeding on so large a scale that soon the majority of men were leading an urban rather than a rural life.
But the population was not only shifting; it was increasing by leaps and bounds. Since the cheapening of production created an ever-growing demand at home and in the new markets abroad, in the long run the demand for male labour, and also for female and child labour, since women and children could operate easily the light work of the new machines, increased so fast that all the old prudent checks to population, where they existed, were swept away. Wages might be low, but in large families there were many wage-earners to eke out the family income.
In 1750 there were perhaps six million people in England and Wales, but in the second half of the century the population seems to have increased to nine million, by fifty per cent, that is. The first census was taken in 1801. In 1811 an increase of fourteen per cent was shown, and in the ten years following a further increase of twenty one per cent.
The problem of feeding so large a population was a serious one, and before the end of the century it was becoming clear that the main supply of food would have to be imported. Side by side with the industrial changes, therefore, there were other changes taking place in agriculture.
A new husbandry was soon to change the face of rural England. With new grasses and winter feed roots, a scientific rotation of crops was at last possible, and the experiments of “Turnip” Townshend, Coke of Norfolk, and Bakewell, were copied all over the country. Lands were marled, manured and drained. New implements and machines lessened the labour of men and animals. Arthur Young’s almost continuous insistence that “without closure there can be no good husbandry”, eventually found an ear, and before the general enclosure Act of 1801 there were innumerable private Acts. Farmers could now do as they pleased with their land, and capitalists who invested in land made enormous profits. But the small farmers, who had no ready capital, were unable to compete with the great landowners, and the labourers suffered by loss of rights to graze their beasts on the commons.
The small farmers, who had been the backbone of England, gave up the struggle as hopeless, sold their farms, and found their way into the towns to seek their fortunes there, or sank into the position of agricultural labourers. Production was increased, and wealth accumulated in the hands of the few, but the “decay of men” of the lower class was a serious loss to the nation. Gangs of labourers worked the great estates, depending now almost wholly on wages.
Early in the nineteenth century the revolution was virtually complete. The economic structure of England was altered. The great majority in town and country had become wholly dependent on wages earned in the service of others. More and more they tended to become “hands” in the ill-built, ill-ventilated and insanitary uninspected factories. Industry was directed by the factory owner. Custom based on reasonable concepts of welfare, which had once regulated all industries, gave way altogether to competition. Government interference came to an end. Labour conditions were chaotic, and no new legislation seemed possible as long as the theories of the ever-hardening science of political economy were accepted by workers and owners alike.
Gradually the great economic gulf which was fixed between men and masters began to become a basis for popular agitation. It was the greed of the owners which was fundamentally responsible for the growing unrest which sprang up among the so-called working classes. Had the owners been content with smaller profits, and had shared out the proportion remaining to those who made their great wealth possible, the difficulties which confronted the working classes, mostly on the economic front, might have been smoothed out in a more peaceful transitional period. But the increase of money in their coffers seemed to generate a compulsive desire for more.
The law-abiding Englishman was naturally inclined to seek a solution by orderly legal means, but this automatically demanded new legislation. But any new legislation would react against the interests of the wealthy, and was just as automatically resisted by them. If there were to be any legal change effected, there would have to be an enlargement of the franchise and a redistribution of Parliamentary representation; and it was in this field exactly that there had been no changes comparable with those which had taken place in industry and the consequent new social structure.
No better example of the very unsatisfactory state of affairs can be given than that of Old Sarum. Old Sarum had long been a heap of ruins, yet it still returned two members to Parliament, while the ever-increasing industrial centres of Birmingham and Manchester, already swollen by tens of thousands of new inhabitants, were unrepresented. And Old Sarum was only one of a large number of these so-called “rotten boroughs”.
But the resistance to Parliamentary reform was strong, and in the first decade of the nineteenth century the hard-driven working classes could not contain their dissatisfaction any longer and riots broke out all over the country. These were firmly quelled by the authorities on an ad hoc basis; but they were quite unable to stem the rising tide of demand for a new deal.
The people were not, however, without support from one (action of their leaders. The Whigs had gone into a long eclipse when Pitt and the Tories had been returned to power in E784, and the latter had been in office ever since. It was the Tory landlords and factory owners who were against reform, though there were some even among them, including Pitt, who divined the lamentable condition of the industrial poor. The fact was that Whig and Tory alike were suckled on the religion of constitutional liberty, but the more liberal and far-sighted Tories were always prevented from, bringing in reforms, despite the pressures within their party, by the wars in which they became involved from time to time.
Among the most ardent of Whig reformers was Lord John Russell, a younger son of the sixth Duke of Bedford. Pie had entered Parliament in 1813, and was from the outset an outspoken critic of Lord Liverpool’s repressive legislation, and this, combined with an enthusiasm for reform, quickly brought him to the front. He declared for the repeal of the Test Act and for Roman Catholic emancipation, and when the Whigs were at last returned to power on a Reform platform in 1830, under the leadership of the aged Lord Grey, he joined the ministry as Paymaster-General.
By this time even the Tories had had borne in upon them the need for reform not only in the redistribution of representation, but in the enlargement of the franchise, but because the Whigs were now in power and because reform was the main Whig policy, for the time being, at all events, the Tories had to oppose it. As a result, and because there were certain of his own party who were also anti-reform, when Russell introduced his first Reform Bill in 1831 he had to drop it. Nevertheless, in the early autumn he introduced it again, and again it was rejected by the House of Lords.
Undaunted, in December, 1831, he introduced a new Bill, which was given Commons approval in March, 1832, but was thrown out by the Lords on 7 May. In protest, Grey and his cabinet resigned.
These events were signals for a formidable display of popular discontent, in which the whole country was involved. The king was shaken by the temper displayed by the people, and when the Tories failed to form an administration, chiefly because of the opposition of Sir Robert Peel who was at this time anti-reform, he assured Grey that if he would form a new administration a sufficient number of new peers would be created to make certain that his Reform Bill would be passed by the Lords. Grey accepted, and on 7 June, 1832, the Bill became law.
It gave the county franchise to occupants of lands and tenements of an annual rent of not less than £50; the borough franchise to occupants of houses and shops of £10 yearly value; it disfranchised fifty-six boroughs, reduced the members of thirty to one, created twenty-two new boroughs with two members and twenty with one member each.
Though the new position was an advance on the old, the Bill of 1832 was merely a step in the right direction. It was, however, an extremely important step, for after it was taken the way to further reform could not be permanently blocked, though for several decades to come there were serious and some successful attempts to do this. But in 1860 Disraeli carried through the second Reform Bill, which by various provisions increased the electorate from one and a quarter million to two and a quarter million; while Gladstone’s third Reform Bill of 1884 added another two and a half millions. But nearly a century was to elapse from the passing of the 1832 Bill before it could be claimed that representation was universal.
When this slow progress is noted, it is interesting to ponder on what might have been the situation to-day had not the rapid development of the Industrial Revolution virtually forced reform upon the administrators. It is fairly safe to say that the history of Great Britain since 1832 would certainly have included accounts of physical revolution such as upset the continent of Europe during that period, but from which these islands were saved.
- Full original text of the Act as passed: “Cap. XLV: An Act to amend the Representation of the People in England and Wales.”. The statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. 2 & 3 William IV. London: His Majesty’s statute and law printers. 1832. pp. 154–206.
- Bloy, Marjie. The Reform Act Crisis
- Spartacus. 1832 Reform Act
- The National Archives. “The Struggle for Democracy”
- BBC Radio 4, In Our Time podcast, The Great Reform Act, hosted by Melvin Bragg, 27 November 2008
- Image of the original act on the Parliamentary Archives website