Parliamentary Reform

Parliamentary Reform

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  • Thomas Attwood
  • Jeremy Bentham
  • John Cartwright
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  • Duke of Richmond
  • Richard Sheridan
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Peterloo: the bloody massacre that led to parliamentary reform

The crowds had come from far and wide to hear Henry Hunt, the great orator, speak about parliamentary reform. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. In attendance were not just men and women of all ages, but also children as well. The horrendous events that followed would help change the course of British history. Some even argue that the Peterloo massacre was a necessary evil for the contribution it made to the country finally reforming its corrupt political system. But can anything that involves the deaths of innocent people really ever be considered necessary?

Mr Hunt arrived at around one in the afternoon and climbed aboard a hustings made from two wagons lashed together. Already on St. Peter’s Field in central Manchester were hundreds of special constables armed with wooden truncheons. The magistrates who ran the town were worried about this gathering. Very worried. They and their factory owning friends were quite happy with the status quo in Manchester. Sending no MPs to Westminster meant the town was theirs to do with as they pleased. These reformists would upset the applecart that kept them rich and in power, if they got their way. The reformists wanted representation in parliament and an end to the so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ – parliamentary constituencies such as the abandoned Medieval settlement of Old Sarum in Wiltshire which sent two MPs to Westminster despite having a population of just one person. Manchester, by contrast, had a large and ever-expanding population, yet sent no one to London.

This was a seditious meeting, and it had to be stopped.

As far as the magistrates were concerned, the meeting scheduled for August the 16th 1819 was nothing short of a seditious act organized by rabble-rousers determined to overthrow the status quo. The authorities agreed with them, and that’s why troops from the 15th Hussars regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery, the Cheshire yeomanry, the bully boys from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and 400 special constables had been drafted in to crush what the magistrates presumed would be a riot. Over one and a half thousand men were lined up against the ordinary folk who had come to hear Mr. Hunt speak. The fact that there were hundreds of children at the gathering meant nothing to the authorities. This was a seditious meeting, and it had to be stopped.

Hunt had barely begun to speak before the yeomanry were ordered into the field to facilitate his arrest. Resplendent in blue and white tunics, the yeomanry cantered down Cross Street towards the crowd on horseback, knocking over a young woman as they swept towards St. Peter’s Field. The toddler she was carrying in her arms tumbled to the ground and was crushed under the horses’ hooves. Little William Fildes was the first casualty of the day.

After saluting the watching magistrates, the yeomanry pushed into the crowd. When they arrived at the hustings, the yeomanry’s leader, Hugh Birley, attempted to arrest Hunt. He refused, saying he would only be arrested by a civilian. The arrest of Hunt was instead carried out by Joseph Nadin, a corrupt brute of a man who was much feared around Manchester in his capacity as a Deputy Constable and the town’s chief ‘thief-catcher’. Hunt was escorted down from the hustings and manhandled through the crowd, receiving a blow to the head as he was pushed towards the magistrate’s building.

Of the others on the hustings, the suffragette Mary Fildes jumped from the wagon and was beaten about the head by the constables. The Times correspondent John Tyas was arrested, as was the radical campaigner, Samuel Bamford.

While the arrests were being made, the yeomanry became stuck by the sheer numbers of people pressing in on them. Panicking, they began hacking away at the crowd with their sabres, causing hideous injuries to those unable to get away. Watching from their window, the magistrates quickly became convinced that the crowds were attacking the soldiers. Magistrate William Hulton shouted down to Colonel Guy L’Estrange of the 15th Hussars that his troops must step in and help the yeomanry. L’Estrange sent his men galloping into the crowd of screaming, terrified people, who were all trying desperately to get out of the way of the charging horses and the soldiers’ flashing sabres.

It was carnage. Crowds of men, women and children were easy pickings for battle-hardened troops on horseback. As the crowd tried to escape St. Peter’s Field, they were cut down, trampled by horses or crushed under the feet of the fleeing. Some tried escaping into nearby yards but were pursued and cut down as if they were enemy troops fleeing a battle. Others were crushed against walls of the buildings abutting St. Peter’s Field. Shouting and screaming could be heard many streets away as the people tried to get away.

It took twenty minutes to clear the crowds from St. Peter’s Field. As the smoke and dust cleared, an estimated 400-700 people had been injured, many severely. The numbers are vague because many people hid their injuries after the massacre for fear of reprisals by the authorities. 15 people would eventually be confirmed dead, either dying on the day or in the weeks that followed. Among the dead was Mary Heys, a mother of six from Manchester who had been pregnant with her seventh child when she was trampled by cavalry at Peterloo. Her injuries were horrendous, causing her to fit constantly in the agonizing days after the massacre. The premature birth of her child eventually sent her to an early grave.

Another of the dead was John Lees from Oldham in Lancashire. Lees had fought at the Battle of Waterloo and like many soldiers had returned home to find no hero’s welcome, only squalid living conditions and poverty wages. He received two deep cuts to the head at Peterloo and was refused medical treatment when he told a doctor that Peterloo had not put him off attending political meetings. He died three weeks later.

Peterloo was the first big political meeting to be attended by journalists outside of the local area, which meant journalists such as Edward Baines from the Leeds Mercury, Charles Wright from the London Courier and John Smith from the Liverpool Mercury were there to witness the carnage. Thus, news of the massacre spread rapidly across the country.

It was the editor of the Manchester Observer who gave the massacre its name, combining the name of St. Peter’s Field with that of the Battle of Waterloo, which had been fought and won just four years before. For this, Wroe would be imprisoned for a year and fined the huge sum of £100 for running a seditious newspaper. Court cases against the Observer were rushed through, causing huge financial difficulties, and a number of police raids on the newspaper led to the Observer permanently shutting down in 1820. Out of the ashes of the Observer would rise the Manchester Guardian, which today is simply The Guardian – Britain’s preeminent liberal newspaper.

The authorities’ reaction to the massacre was to lay the blame not on the magistrates, the yeomanry and the soldiers, but on the people who had been slain and crushed by them. The journalists and newspapers who covered the story were also targeted. The crowd struck first was the official line, attacking the yeomanry with stones and cudgels concealed about their persons. This, the authorities argued, was why the Riot Act had to be read it was why Hunt and the other speakers had to be arrested and it was the reason why the crowd needed to be dispersed quickly. Many people, horrified by the massacre, did not swallow the official line.

Why the Need for Reform?

  • 3 The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, Strengthening Parliament, London: The Conservative Party, (. )

9 In the view of many commentators, the House of Commons is a relatively weak policy-influencing legislature and one that is getting weaker. Why? In July 2000, the Commission to Strengthen Parliament published its report, Strengthening Parliament. 3 The Commission was established in July 1999 by the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, “to examine the causes of the decline in the effectiveness of Parliament in holding the executive to account, and to make proposals for strengthening democratic control over the Government”. I chaired the Commission and it took evidence from informed witnesses drawn from several political parties and from none. I focus here on its analysis of ‘decline’.

10 Decline denotes a fall from some higher point. The Commission rejected the notion that there had been a ‘golden age’ of Parliament. Nonetheless, it did accept that there had been several developments, often independent of one another and occurring at different times, which had served to weaken Parliament in challenging the executive. It identified three long-term developments and a number of more recent ones. The long-term developments were:

th e growth of party , ensuring an aggregation of views, the growth of party loyalty and cohesion (both outside and inside Parliament), and normally providing the government with a party majority to carry its measures

th e growth of government business , both in quantity (the volume of legislation) and quality (the complexity of legislation), creating a massive burden of business to be transacted by Parliament and

the growth of organised interests, with information and sanctions (withdrawal of co-operation) at their disposal, both of which a party-dominated House of Commons lacked or was unwilling to employ.

11 These have been compounded by more recent developments:

partisanship, creating a sharp clash between parties and a greater negativism in debate

the rise of the career politician, creating an increase in consumption of parliamentary resources and squeezing out of the institution people with experience of sectors other than politics

concentration of power in Downing Street, with the Prime Minister becoming more ‘presidential’ and hence detached from his own party and government as well as from Parliament

constitutional change, with law-making powers being passed to other institutions, such as the institutions of the European Union and elected assemblies in different parts of the UK

the media revolution, with 24-hours news and a government capacity to exploit the developments that cannot be matched by Parliament and

de-politicisation with some elements in society opting for direct action rather than debate and also with some issues being hived off to non-elected bodies.

12 There are two essential points arising from the Commission’s analysis. First, there is no single development that accounts for the limited viscosity of the House of Commons. Second, these developments are, in many cases, irreversible. Consequently, if Parliament is to be strengthened in calling the executive to account, one has to look beyond the developments themselves.


Science supplies some of the novelist&rsquos choicest metaphors for the scrutiny of human behaviour, as if an age of scientific advance were to be matched by a new kind of fiction. Analysing Mrs Cadwallader&rsquos endeavours to make a match between Celia Brooke and Sir James Chettam, the narrator asks us to imagine looking through a microscope at a water-drop. A weak lens seems to show tiny creatures swimming obligingly into the mouth of a larger creature a stronger lens will reveal &lsquocertain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom&rsquo (ch. 6). From a distance, Mrs Cadwallader&rsquos behaviour looks inexplicable examine her more minutely and you will see that she lives to exert her interest on her neighbours. It is typical of Eliot that, even while we notice what the scientific metaphor means, we also notice that the idea of Mrs Cadwallader like a voracious species of pond life is comic.

Questioning progress

So in Middlemarch George Eliot seems both to display a confidence in science and show how it is subject to human whims and illusions. While she was an intellectual who was au fait with all the most modern ideas, she used fiction to stand at an ironical distance from hopes of progress. As a woman, Eliot lived a life of brave independence and unconventionality: she made her own living she wrote and argued alongside men, as an equal she lived openly, for many years, with a man, George Henry Lewes, to whom she was not married. Yet Middlemarch is rueful in its depiction of female aspiration. Rosamond is encumbered with feminine appetites that destine her for an unhappy marriage. High-minded Dorothea, who has something in common with her author, is doomed to disappointment by her very ideals. It is her entirely unbookish but shrewder sister, Celia, who is likeliest to win contentment. Some contemporary reviewers were rather perplexed as what lessons about the &lsquofemale lot&rsquo to draw from the novel, while others saw it as a clear indictment of the restrictions faced by women. Dorothea has to suffer bitter self-correction before she can contribute anything to &lsquothe growing good of the world&rsquo (Finale). It is Eliot&rsquos genius as a novelist to use fiction to question most of what she herself believed.

John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

Parliamentary Reform under Pitt

[Ed. This short section covers William Pitt the Younger's attempts to reform the political system and deal with the ramifications of King George III's mental illness]

While Pitt was still an independent member of the British parliament, outside the Government, he had constituted himself the champion of parlia­mentary reform of which his father had been a strong advocate. The system had ceased to be representative but while the demand for recon­struction became periodically insistent outside parliament, so that Chatham had pronounced that if parliament did not soon reform itself, it would be reformed "with a vengeance " from outside, the members themselves were not reformers.

Electoral Reform
Too many of them sat for pocket boroughs to be willing for the abolition of pocket boroughs, and the controllers of pocket boroughs were equally adverse to a change. Pitt's plan now was to extinguish thirty-six of these constituencies, and to increase the representation of the counties correspondingly. London and Westminster were also to have an increase, a share in the seventy-two seats provided by the abolition of thirty-six constituencies.

So far Fox and his followers were ready to support Pitt against the vested interests which were opposed to reform but Pitt proposed to recognise those vested interests by buying them out, and to this Fox would not consent. The result was that Pitt was unable to carry the measure, and parliamentary reform was driven off the field of practical politics for forty years by the anti-democratic reaction born of the French Revolution.

In spite then of this defeat on sundry measures of first-rate importance, to which may be added his failure to carry parliament with him in his desire to abolish the slave trade, Pitt remained Prime Minister nor did the theory and practice of the constitution call for his resignation. Yet at the end of 1788 it seemed exceedingly probable that his ministerial career would be brought to an abrupt conclusion. The king was again attacked by the brain malady with which he had been threatened twenty-two years before.

The regency question
At once the question of the regency became acute. The Prince of Wales and his brothers, in accordance with the family tradition, were on bad terms with their father, and the prince himself was on intimate terms with the leaders of the Opposition, Fox and Sheridan. Obviously he was the natural person to assume the regency.

The Opposition claimed that it belonged to him by constitutional right that if the king were incapacitated, it followed that the heir-apparent should discharge the monarchical functions unless it had been otherwise decided by the king in parliament. Pitt, on the other hand, claimed that it rested with the Estates to appoint the regent and to define his powers, although it was admitted that the Prince of Wales was the person who would naturally be appointed.

The Regency Bill
The power of the Crown, however, was still so great that it was assumed on all hands that, if the prince became regent, Pitt would be dismissed and the government would pass to a Fox ministry. The curious spectacle was seen of the Whigs, led by Fox, asserting the hereditary prerogative in a most uncompromising form, while Pitt and the Tories were the champions of the rights of parliament, the paradox being partly accounted for by the suspicion that if the Whig doctrine were carried and the prince became in effect king, the king himself would not recover power even if he recovered his health.

English public opinion was with Pitt, and demanded the limitation of the powers which should be conferred upon the prince as regent, and the recognition of the principle that he could not claim the regency as a constitutional right. There was no precedent for the situation, but in any case it was felt that the regency of the prince would involve Pitt's retirement. The position, however, was saved by the king's recovery before the Regency Bill had passed through the Lords. Pitt, instead of being driven into private life, was more firmly established in power and in the royal favour than before.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

The Politics of parliamentary reform

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Parliamentary Reform under William III, part 2

. continued from the previous article .
The plain fact was that at the end of 1693, William, though he very much disliked the idea of placing himself in the hands of the chiefs of one party, still saw the necessity for having on his Council a body of men who would work in harmony together, and of having the solid support of one great party in the face of the great war on the continent. Later, when the war was over, he sought to revert to the principle of taking ministers from both sides. But now he had to choose one party or the other, and the balance was definitely in favour of the Whigs.

Both Whigs and Tories as he knew, were intriguing with the Court of St. Germain but while many of the Tories were Jacobites at heart, the Whigs intrigued mainly as an insurance against accidents they did not want to see James back, but they wanted to secure a locus standi in case he should chance to come back. The Whigs were more definitely in favour of the war and this was what William had most of all at heart.

The Admiral in whom the country had most confidence was a Whig. If Marlborough, who was reckoned as a Tory, had been trusted by the king, he might have counterbalanced Russell but William knew too well that the brilliant soldier was not to be trusted. The result was that in the ministry of 1693 the only Tories retained in office were Danby and Godolphin. The changes had a beneficial effect on the temper of the House of Commons, which granted adequate supplies, and the financial reforms of the reign were crowned by the creation of the Bank of England.

The campaigning in the Netherlands in this year was uneventful. With the combatants so equally matched as they were, it was becoming more and more obvious that the victory in' the long run would fall to the side whose treasury held out longest and the strain was already becoming too severe for Louis. A joint naval and military expedition against Brest met with disaster, attributed almost with certainty to the treachery of Marl­borough, though information of the design had reached the French from other sources as well.

The military command was given to Talmash, the only English soldier with a reputation which at that time rivalled Marl­borough's and jealousy of Talmash is generally supposed to have been the motive of Marlborough's treachery. Talmash was killed before Brest, but Russell was despatched with a fleet to the Mediterranean where the French fleet took shelter at Toulon.

In spite of his own protests, the English admiral was ordered to winter in the Mediterranean, with the result that naval action on the part of the French was completely paralysed, and the control of the inland sea became a permanent feature of English naval policy.

Altogether, when William met parliament at the end of the year, the progress of the war was more satisfactory than at any of the earlier stages except immediately after La Hogue. King and parliament found them­selves harmoniously disposed, and William was at last persuaded to accede to the favourite demand of the Whigs, a Triennial Act, which required not only that parliament should meet at least once in three years, but that the life of a parliament should not extend beyond three years.

The Whigs gained too by the retirement of Danby, now Duke of Leeds, consequent upon charges of corruption in connection with the East India Company. The charges could not be actually proved, but, on the other hand, Danby was not able to clear himself too much suspicion attached to him to allow of his continuing to take an active part in politics.

Queen Mary's death
Before Danby's fall William had suffered a very serious blow both politically and personally by the death of Mary. Tories who had been able to reconcile themselves to the joint rule of King James's eldest daughter and her husband found it less easy to reconcile their consciences to the solitary rule of William. She, moreover, had been personally popular.

William might inspire admiration and respect, but he had no hold on the affections of 'the English people. Moreover, he had always been able to trust the control of affairs to the queen during his own absence on the continent there was now no one in whom he could repose a like confidence.

Again, however, it was fortunate that the campaigns of the following summer told heavily in William's favour. The value of the English control of the Mediterranean was manifested, since practically the whole of the French fleet was shut up at Toulon and William himself, as well as the English troops with him, won a new prestige by the recapture of the important town of Namur, which the French had taken in the first year of the war.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Parliamentary and Commercial Reform (1783-1785)

834. The Irish parliament, which was now free, was unhappily, as it stood&mdashunreformed&mdashas bad a type of parliament as could well be conceived: and the government resisted all reform. The house of commons consisted of 300 members, of whom only 72 were really returned by the people: all the rest were nominated, or their election was in some way influenced, by lords or other powerful people.

One noble lord commanded sixteen seats, a money making possession, for he sold them all in election times another had fourteen, another nine, and so on. Twenty-five individuals owned about 116 seats. At one election the proprietor of Belturbet received £11,000 for the seat. The spurious boroughs fabricated in the time of the Stuarts (528) still existed , and all sent to parliament nominees of the government. The numbers of electors in many of these were not more than a dozen, who could in most cases be easily bought off. In some places, as at Swords near Dublin, every adult Protestant had a vote: an arrangement imitated from some constituencies in England. Under these circumstances it was always easy for the government to secure a majority by merely spending money. The house was thoroughly corrupt, with of course many noble individual exceptions.

835. Lastly the Roman Catholics, who formed four fifths of the population, were totally shut out: a Catholic could neither be a member nor vote for a member. It did not represent the nation: and it did not represent even the Protestant people. It contained within itself the elements of decay and dissolution There was never a parliament more in need of reform and reform would have saved it.

836. Two great questions now lay before the country:&mdashParliamentary reform and the removal of restrictions on Irish commerce. A third question was Catholic emancipation, which however was, for the present, kept much in the background. Flood was for immediate action on reform Grattan also was for reform, but thought the time had not come for pressing it, and left the matter in Flood's hands. Grattan was for emancipation Flood was against it.

837. Flood felt keenly the loss of his influence and Grattan's brilliant career and unbounded popularity had thrown him into the shade Between these two great men there was gradually growing up a feeling of rivalry and estrangement.

838. The volunteers took up the question of reform. A meeting of delegates was held in Dungannon in September, and there were other meetings in other parts of Ireland. In all these the subject was discussed, and a general convention in Dublin of delegates from all the volunteer corps of Ireland was arranged for the 10th of November 1783. These proceedings were very alarming to the government, who wanted no reform.

839. The earl of Northington was appointed lord lieutenant in June 1783, in place of lord Temple. The new parliament met in October, and the government, though fearing the volunteers, had a vote of thanks passed to them, probably to conciliate the country.

Flood brought in a motion in favour of retrenchment as a beginning of reform, in which the opposition were voted down by the government. In the debates that followed occurred a bitter and very lamentable altercation between Grattan and Flood, which terminated their friendship for ever. Yet subsequently, each bore generous testimony to the greatness of the other.

840. The 10th of November came, and 160 volunteer delegates assembled, first in the royal exchange in Dublin, and this being not large enough, afterwards in the Rotunda. Their commander was James Caulfield, earl of Charlemont, a man universally respected, of refined tastes and scholarly attainments, and moderate in his views. He was elected chairman.

841. Within the volunteers were men of more extreme views, who were for Catholic emancipation, and some even for total separation from England: these found a leader in an eccentric character, Frederick Augustus Hervey, earl of Bristol and Protestant bishop of Derry. He assumed great state: dressed out in gorgeous robes, he drove through the streets of Dublin, escorted by a company of dragoons, and followed by great mobs who idolised him.

842. The delegates held their sittings during the sitting of parliament. They discussed plans of reform, and after much labour certain propositions were agreed to, which however did not include any proposals for the relief of Catholics. This omission was the result of a discreditable manoeuvre on the part of the government, by which the convention was divided, and the ultra Protestants had the consideration of Catholic relief put aside.

843. In parliament Flood introduced a bill embodying the demands of the convention, which brought on a stormy debate. Barry Yelverton, now attorney general, afterwards lord Avonmore, led the opposition to the bill, at the same time denouncing vehemently the attempt to coerce the parliament by an armed body of men and John Fitzgibbon and others followed in the same strain.

Flood, in a powerful speech, advocated the bill and defended the action of the volunteers. The scene in parliament is described as "almost terrific." Grattan supported the bill, but not very earnestly and John Philpot Curran who had been elected for Kilbeggan this same year&mdash1783&mdashmade his first parliamentary speech in favour of it. But the government party were too strong, and it was rejected by 159 against 77.

844. There were now serious fears of a collision between the volunteers and the government: but the counsels of lord Charlemont prevailed and on the 2nd of December the convention was adjourned without any day being fixed for next meeting. This was the death blow to the influence of the volunteers, and they never afterwards played any important part in the political affairs of the country. Thus the efforts of the popular party to reform a corrupt parliament ended for the present in failure, through government opposition.

845. After this defeat of his party Flood resolved to play a part elsewhere, and entered the English parliament in December 1783, still retaining his Irish seat. He was now a member of both parliaments and spoke and voted in each.

846. In the following year he made another effort in Ireland at reform, but the Irish government successfully resisted all attempts to improve the representation. Napper Tandy a prominent member of the volunteers, Flood, and some others, made an attempt to have a series of meetings convened through the country but the movement was put down by the government.

847. The duke of Rutland succeeded lord Northington as lord lieutenant in February 1784. The volunteers, deserted by their leaders, formed democratic associations and held secret meetings. In Dublin, Belfast, and elsewhere, they began to drill men in the use of arms, Catholics as well as Protestants whereupon the government increased the army to 15,000 men, and took measures to revive the militia, a force in the service of the crown.

But the people hated the militia, and the country became greatly disturbed. Scenes of violence occurred everywhere. Even in Dublin the mobs paraded the streets, attacked and maimed soldiers, broke into shops and ill used the shopkeepers for selling English goods It was a time of trouble and alarm.

848. The next movement was an attempt to regulate the commercial relations with England, which were all against Ireland: and here the Irish government were on the side of reform, though their ideas fell short of those of the opposition. There were enormous prohibitory duties on Irish goods exported to England, but little or none on English goods brought to Ireland: this repressed Irish commerce and manufactures, and helped to keep the country in a state of distress and poverty.

849. To remedy this state ol things&mdashto equalise English and Irish duties&mdashMr. Thomas Orde chief secretary brought down from the castle, on the part of the government, eleven propositions. One of the provisions was that all Irish revenue beyond £650,000 should be applied to the support of the British navy, which drew forth considerable opposition. The whole of the propositions were however passed through parliament in the shape of resolutions, 12th February 1785.

850. The eleven propositions were transmitted to England for adoption there for as the restrictions had been the work of the English parliament, it was only in England they could be removed. But when they were proposed in England by William Pitt, then chancellor of the exchequer, there arose violent opposition petitions against them poured in from companies, manufacturers, and merchants, in all parts of England, who insisted on maintaining the monopoly that enriched themselves and impoverished Ireland. Whereupon Pitt, fearing to face the storm, brought down to the English parliament twenty propositions of his own. much less favourable to Ireland&mdashcontaining several injurious restrictions&mdashand had them passed.

851. These on being transmitted to the Irish government and introduced by them to the Irish house in August 1785, were received by the opposition with an outburst of indignation. Flood led the opposition with all his old fire and energy. Grattan denounced the propositions in one of his finest speeches and after an all-night stormy debate, the government had so small a majority&mdashonly 19&mdashthat they thought it more prudent to withdraw the bill. Thus the whole scheme of commercial reform fell through, and matters remained much as they were till the time of the Union.

As we prepare to commemorate the bicentenary of Peterloo Massacre this Friday – 16 August – we hear from editor of our 1832-68 project for the second time in our Peterloo blog series. Dr Philip Salmon discusses the aftermath of the Massacre, and the public protest and parliamentary reform that followed in the nineteenth century…

Public opinion was shocked by the murder of so many pro-reform protesters, including three women, at the rally held on St Peter’s Field 200 years ago. Lurid accounts of sabre-wielding cavalrymen slashing their way through the crowd filled the newspapers. The press, mocking the patriotic memory of Waterloo, dubbed it the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. Vigils and protest meetings were organised across northern England and the Midlands, some of them leading to yet more clashes with local authorities. A new cottage industry in commemorative prints, songs, medals and trinkets expressing sympathy and solidarity for the victims of Peterloo was soon flourishing.

The Tory government, however, doggedly backed the use of force, to the fury of their Whig opponents in Parliament. The Prince Regent even thanked the cavalry for preserving the ‘public peace’ and refused to receive radical petitions, prompting a delightful satire showing him breaking wind in the face of Hunt and other radicals. Many of those involved in the Peterloo demonstration were rounded up and put on trial. Henry Hunt was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for sedition.

‘Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions’, published by T. Tegg (1819)

Under pressure to stop more incidents, the Tory government recalled Parliament and imposed one of the biggest clamp-downs in British political history. The Six Acts of 1819 banned all ‘unofficial’ large public meetings. Magistrates were given extra powers to arrest people and search for guns. It became illegal to criticise the state in print and punitive taxes were imposed on all newspaper sales.

The foiling of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1820 seemed to justify these actions, even though it turned out that a government spy or agent provocateur had encouraged the plans. Five members of the so-called ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ were found guilty of treason, including Arthur Thistlewood and William Davidson, a black Jamaican activist. On May Day 1820 they were publicly hanged and beheaded outside Newgate prison in front of vast crowds, many of whom had paid three guineas for a good view.

Government repression combined with improved harvests limited the number of mass outdoor political demonstrations over the next few years. But the movement for political change did not go away. In 1820 the Tory government reluctantly agreed to help the newly enthroned monarch, George IV, divorce his estranged German wife Queen Caroline. Whig and radical politicians rallied to her side, whipping up a wave of anti-government protest and public support for her ‘constitutional rights’, which was difficult to suppress. Her trial in the House of Lords for adultery with an Italian manservant captivated the nation, prompting a petitioning campaign that mustered over a million signatures. Realising they would be unlikely to get a divorce bill through the newly elected House of Commons, the government abandoned the attempt, much to the fury of the King.

Awful Execution of the Conspirators (1820)

Using revitalised constitutional methods such as petitioning and election campaigning, reform groups were able to bring a new sort of pressure to bear on the Tory government during the 1820s. In Manchester, for example, the ‘Little Circle’ avoided provocative outdoor rallies and began infiltrating the structures of local government and county administration, acquiring influence in electoral politics. Legal challenges to the way ancient municipal corporations were being run, organised by radical reformers like Joseph Parkes in Warwick, resulted in many boroughs having to admit swathes of new freeman voters and abandon their traditional control over parliamentary elections. Many previously ‘closed’ constituencies became increasingly open to public opinion, enabling new types of MP to be elected.

This focus on electoral tactics was taken to the extreme in Ireland. Here Daniel O’Connell and his pioneering Catholic Association eventually acquired so much electoral power, as shown in the results of the 1826 general election, that the Tory government, led by the Duke of Wellington, was forced to concede Catholic emancipation in 1829. Coming only a year after the government’s repeal of laws discriminating against Nonconformists, this act marked a key turning point in British politics. It seriously undermined the ancient Protestant constitution, it recognised the legitimacy and necessity of responding to popular pressure, and above all it helped to split the long-dominant Tory party into warring factions.

Shortly after the 1830 election, which saw more gains for reformers, Wellington’s ministry lost a crucial vote and resigned. Lord Grey became prime minister, heading the first Whig government for 25 years. After 18 months of political turmoil, which brought the nation to the brink of revolution with reform riots in Bristol and Nottingham, the Whigs eventually passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, overhauling the ancient electoral system. The new voting qualifications increased the electorate to almost a fifth (18%) of the adult male population.

Like many other northern industrial towns Manchester benefited from the Reform Act’s redistribution of seats confiscated from ‘rotten boroughs’. It now had its own MPs. Nearly 7,000 of its wealthier male householders and shopkeepers qualified for the new £10 household franchise. Respectable working men, though, had to wait until 1867 to get the vote – a right that was only extended to all men (and women aged 30 and over) in 1918. Within a few years of the Reform Act the Chartists launched a new campaign demanding far more democratic reforms on behalf of the people, which again involved mass public protests and outbursts of disorder. Forty years later the campaign for women’s votes began its lengthy and often tortuous course, which was commemorated in last year’s Vote 100 celebrations.

Click here for other posts in our Peterloo blog series. Special thanks to our partners, the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, UoL and the Parliamentary Archives.

The Citizens Project have launched their free Massive Open Online Course, From Peterloo to the Pankhursts. Click the link for further information on how to get involved and what the course entails.

In today’s blog we resume our Local and Community History Month focus on the historic constituency of Exeter. This week Dr Martin Spychal, research fellow for the Commons 1832-68, uses polling and voter registration data to explore the 1832 Reform Act’s impact on elections in Exeter…

A handbill for the unsuccessful pro-reform candidate at the 1831 general election, Edward Divett. Exeter’s Whigs, Reformers and Liberals looked to parliamentary reform as the only way to eradicate ‘church and chamber’ influence. © Devon Heritage Centre

Exeter Cathedral and the city’s long history of loyalty to the crown loomed large over its politics during the 1820s. To be returned for one of Exeter’s two seats in the Commons, whether as a Whig or as a Tory, candidates had to secure the confidence of the Anglican-controlled council chamber, the cathedral and the parish clergy. The political influence of ‘church and chamber’, as it was known locally, was apparent even to the most casual of onlookers. At the 1820 election, for instance, the mayor of Exeter ran the Tory candidate’s campaign and in 1830 the incumbent liberal-Tory was forced to retire after his vote for Catholic emancipation incensed the dean and chapter of Exeter Cathedral.

This state of affairs was not to everyone’s liking, particularly Exeter’s smaller tradesmen and shopkeepers who predominated in the city’s Baptist, Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian and Catholic chapels, as well as its synagogue. Their collective efforts during the 1820s to return a MP for the city proved fruitless, meaning that as the decade wore on parliamentary reform was seen as the only means of shifting power in the city. As the Liberal Western Times, and its outspoken editor, Thomas Latimer, protested in 1831, church and chamber used their joint influence in Exeter ‘as much as is exercised in a rotten borough’.

It therefore came as little surprise that the anti-Church and council faction of Whigs, Liberals and Reformers celebrated the 1832 Reform Act as the dawning of a new era. This optimism appeared to be confirmed when two Whig-Liberal candidates were returned at the 1832 election, prompting the Western Times to declare that ‘the power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’.

This Liberal confidence proved short-lived. In 1835 Exeter’s Conservatives regained one of the borough’s two seats. From then on it was the Conservatives, rather than the Liberals that came closest to assuming complete control of the borough. Exeter’s Liberal MP narrowly avoided losing his seat at the 1841 and 1852 elections, and a second Liberal candidate was roundly trounced at two by-elections in the 1840s. And for a brief period, following the 1864 by-election, the Conservatives returned both of Exeter’s members. The retirement of an incumbent Conservative ahead of the 1865 election led to the unopposed return of a Liberal and Conservative in 1865.

Polling results detailing plumps, straights and splits at the 1835 Exeter general election. The Conservative candidate topped the poll, and the incumbent Whig-Liberal, Edward Divett, was returned in second place. Western Times, 17 Jan. 1835

Due to the complex changes to voting rights and extensive boundary reforms that took place in Exeter in 1832, the constituency provides an excellent case study of the unintended consequences of the 1832 Reform Act. As well as revealing the continuation of ‘ancient’ freeman and freeholder voting rights in the reformed electoral system, the constituency offers some stark examples of how, in the long run, the finer details of the 1832 Reform Act actually proved favourable to Conservative candidates.

The rules surrounding who could vote in Exeter after 1832 were some of the most complex in the country. The borough’s ancient freeman qualification continued to enfranchise freemen of the borough who lived within seven miles of Exeter Guildhall, and had been entitled to vote on 1 March 1831 or had become freemen ‘by birth or servitude’ since then. As Exeter had the administrative status of a county, all men who owned a 40s. freehold within its newly extended parliamentary limits also qualified to vote, so long as the freeholder’s primary residence was within seven miles of Exeter’s new boundaries. In addition, all men who occupied a house with an annual rental value of £10, and who were not in arrears on their parish rates for the previous twelve months, were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act.

To make matters more complicated Exeter’s list of registered voters was pored over each year by party lawyers who sought to disfranchise their opponents’ supporters for all manner of technical reasons in the annual registration court. As with many other constituencies across England, in Exeter it was the Conservative lawyers and election agents who proved most adept and ruthless at removing their opponents from the rolls.

Exeter’s ancient rights freeman and freeholder franchises comprised a significant portion of Exeter’s voters after 1832, while the freeholder voters continued to grow in number after the 1867 Reform Act © Martin Spychal

One of the technicalities raised consistently in Exeter’s registration court related to the annual 1s. voter registration fee introduced by the 1832 Reform Act. While it was clear that all £10 householders had to pay this fee, ancient rights freemen and freeholders successfully challenged parish officials and revising barristers throughout the 1830s to secure an exemption from the annual charge.

The lack of a 1s. registration fee for this group meant that the freeholder franchise, in particular, continued to grow in popularity after the 1832 Reform Act, and even continued to do so following the 1867 Reform Act. In 1835 833 voters were registered under Exeter’s freeholder qualification, by 1865 that figure had increased to 1013, and by 1881 it had risen to 1181.

By contrast, Exeter’s ancient freemen declined in number from 586 in 1832 to 224 in 1865. At every election during this period, polling data revealed that at least 70% of freemen supported Conservative candidates. This led to constant complaints from Liberals that Exeter’s freemen were propping up ‘church and council’ influence in the borough, as they had done before 1832.

Conservative candidates were able to secure support from over 50% of Exeter’s 40s. freeholders and £10 householders at each contested general election in Exeter between 1835 and 1852. The Conservative candidate at the 1864 by-election required the support of freeman voters to secure his election © Martin Spychal

In reality, however, the votes of freemen on their own only swayed one election to the Conservatives between 1832 and 1868 – the 1864 by-election. Exeter’s polling data actually reveals that Conservative candidates enjoyed consistently high levels of support among the more popular freeholder and £10 householder franchises, a majority of whom voted for Conservative candidates at the three-way contests of 1835, 1841 and 1852, whether by splitting with the Liberal candidate or casting a partisan plump or straight votes.

The expansion of Exeter’s boundaries in 1832 proved beneficial to Conservative candidates at every election from 1835. PP 1831-2 (141), xxxviii. 1

As well as franchise changes, in 1832 Exeter’s boundaries were extended to include the parishes of St Leonard, St Thomas and Heavitree. At the time, these changes were welcomed by Whigs, Reformers and Liberals, and opposed by the forces of Exeter Conservatism, who unsuccessfully petitioned the House of Lords against the ‘great injustice’ of the boundary commissioners’ proposals.

However, polling data for each of the contested elections between 1832 and 1868 reveals that these initial Conservative fears were misplaced. While around 60% of voters in St Thomas supported Liberal candidates throughout the period, voters in Heavitree and St Leonards proved consistently pro-Conservative from 1835. This meant that if Exeter’s boundaries had remained unchanged in 1832 as the Conservatives had wanted, Liberal candidates would have performed better – topping the poll at the 1852 election and winning the 1864 by-election.

The next major change to Exeter’s electoral conditions came with the 1867 Reform Act, when the franchise was extended to include all male householders. As in 1832, Exeter’s Liberals again looked to reform as the best means of finally toppling the influence of ‘church and chamber’. As in 1832, Liberal candidates secured both seats at the 1868 election. However, the Liberal’s triumph again proved short-lived. At the 1874 election the enduring popularity of Conservatism among Exeter’s electors ensured the return of two Conservative candidates at the first general election after the introduction of the secret ballot.

Further Reading

T. Jenkins, ‘Exeter’, Commons 1820-32 (2009)

Robert Newton, Eighteenth-Century Exeter (1984)

Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work Local Politics and National Parties 1832-1841 (2002)

Philip Salmon, ‘The mathematics of Victorian representation’ Part 1 & Part 2, Victorian Commons (2014)

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