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Getting the vote

Voting rights before 1832

In early-19th-century Britain very few people had the right to vote. A survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people - less than 3% of the total population of approximately 8 million. In Scotland the electorate was even smaller: in 1831 a mere 4,500 men, out of a population of more than 2.6 million people, were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Large industrial cities like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester did not have a single MP between them, whereas 'rotten boroughs' such as Dunwich in Suffolk (which had a population of 32 in 1831) were still sending two MPs to Westminster. The British electoral system was unrepresentative and outdated.

Great Reform Act, 1832 - opens new window
Great Reform Act, 1832
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Address to the people of Lambeth, 1839 - opens new window
Address to the people of Lambeth, 1839
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Pressure for reform

During the late 18th century and the early 19th century, pressure for parliamentary reform grew rapidly. Some of it came from men who already had a large say in how Britain was run: country gentlemen angry about the use of patronage at Westminster, or manufacturers and businessmen keen to win political influence to match their economic power. However, the issue of parliamentary reform reached a wider audience, particularly after the French Revolution. Influenced by works such as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791-2), radical reformers demanded that all men be given the right to vote. Reform groups such as the Sheffield Corresponding Society (founded in December 1791) and the London Corresponding Society (founded in January 1791) were committed to universal 'manhood' (i.e. adult male) suffrageGlossary - opens new window.

Two decades later, the radical public speaker Henry Hunt spoke at numerous political meetings on the same theme. During August 1819, at one such gathering in St Peter's Field, Manchester, local yeomanry attacked the crowd, killing 11 people. After the 'Peterloo Massacre', as this incident became known in radical circles, the government passed a series of repressive measures, and parliamentary reform still seemed a distant prospect.
Peterloo Massacre, 1819 - opens new window
The Peterloo Massacre, 1819
'A leap in the dark'  (cartoon) - opens new window
'A leap in the dark' (Punch cartoon)
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The Reform Acts

The three parliamentary reform Acts introduced in 19th-century Britain (in 1832, 1867 and 1884 respectively) satisfied moderate reformers rather than radicals. The Prime Minister, Lord Grey, supported reform to 'prevent the necessity of revolution' and was responsible for the first (or 'Great') Reform Act of 1832. However, the Act gave the vote in towns only to men who occupied property with an annual value of £10, which excluded six adult males out of seven from the voting process.

The Tory politician Lord Derby described the second Reform Act (1867) as 'a leap in the dark'. And yet only two in every five Englishmen had the vote in 1870. Even the third Reform Act (1884) - which enfranchised all male house owners in both urban and rural areas and added 6 million people to the voting registers - fell some way short of introducing universal manhood suffrage.
Third Reform Act: Gladstone writes to the queen - opens new window
Third Reform Act:
Gladstone writes to the queen
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Chartist demonstration in Birmingham (poster), 1848 - opens new window
Chartist demonstration in Birmingham, 1848
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Campaigns for universal suffrage

Radical reformers pressed for more extensive parliamentary reform throughout the 19th century. The six-point programme of the ChartistsGlossary - opens new window included demands for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and voting by secret ballot. During the 1830s and 1840s, when Chartism was at its most influential, meetings to discuss 'constitutional reform' took place in towns and cities across Britain.

In the mid 1860s the Reform League - though less clearly committed to universal suffrage than the Chartists had been - also mobilised support outside Parliament for electoral reform. Throughout this period, election campaigns were sometimes disrupted by unrest and rioting.
Reform League poster, 1867 - opens new window
Reform League poster, 1867
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Election violence in Carlisle, 1841 - opens new window
Election violence in Carlisle, 1841
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For many people, 19th-century parliamentary reform was a disappointment because political power was still left in the hands of the aristocracy and the middle classes. Universal suffrage, with voting rights for women (though not for those under 30), did not arrive in Britain until February 1918. By the time of the third Reform Act in 1884, Britain was less democratic than many other countries in Europe.

The changes made in the British political system between 1832 and 1884 were nevertheless important. The electorate increased substantially in size from approximately 366,000 in England and Wales in 1831 to slightly fewer than 8 million in 1885. Parliamentary seats were redistributed to give greater weight to larger towns and cities. Also, the Ballot Act of 1872, which introduced secret ballots, made it far more difficult for voters to be bribed or intimidated.
Bribery at Tamworth elections, 1854 - opens new window
Bribery at Tamworth elections, 1854
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Ballot regulations, Dover, 1872 - opens new window
Ballot regulations, Dover, 1872
Document (164k) | Transcript
Moreover, Britain - unlike much of continental Europe in the 19th century - managed to introduce reform without revolution. This achievement contributed greatly to Britain's political stability in the 20th century.

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