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Contemporary cartoon of Disraeli outpacing Gladstone.

The Reform Act 1867 (also known as the Second Reform Act, and formally titled the Representation of the People Act 1867), 30 & 31 Vict. c. 102, was a piece of British legislation that enfranchised the urban working class in Englandmarker and Walesmarker. Before the bill, only one million of the five million adult males in England and Wales could vote; the act doubled that number. In its final form, the Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised all male householders and abolished compounding (the practice of paying rates to a landlord as part of rent). However, there was little redistribution of seats; and what there was had been intended to help the Conservative Party.


For many years after the Great Reform Act of 1832, governments resisted attempts to push through further reform, in particular in rejecting the claims of the Chartist movement. After 1848, this movement declined rapidly, and elite opinion began to change. It was quite a number of years later that it was thought prudent to introduce further electoral reform. Lord John Russell attempted this in 1860, but the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was against any further electoral reform. When Palmerston died in 1865, however, the floodgates for reform were opened.

Once Prime Minister, Earl Russell (as he became) introduced a Reform Bill in 1866. It was a cautious measure, which proposed to enfranchise "respectable" working men, excluding unskilled workers and what was known as the "residuum," that is, seen by MPs as the "feckless and criminal" poor. This was ensured by a £7 householder qualification, which had been calculated to require an income of 26 shillings a week. There were also two "fancy franchises," originating from measures of 1854, a £10 lodger qualification for the boroughs, and a £50 savings qualification in the counties. Liberals claimed that 'the middle classes, strengthened by the best of the artisans, would still have the preponderance of power'.

When it came to the vote, however, this bill split the Liberal Party: this was partly engineered by Benjamin Disraeli, who incited those threatened by the bill to rise up against it. On one side were the reactionary-conservative Liberals, known as the Adullamites; on the other were pro-reform Liberals who supported the Government. The Adullamites, though, were supported by Tories and the liberal Whigs were supported by radicals and reformists.

The bill was thus defeated and the Liberal government of Russell resigned. The Conservatives formed a ministry on June 26, 1866, led by Lord Derby as Prime Minister and Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were faced with the challenge of reviving Conservatism: Palmerston, the powerful Liberal leader, was dead and the Liberal Party split and defeated. Thanks to manoeuvring by Disraeli, the Conservatives had this one chance to prove that they were a viable party of government. However, there was still a Liberal majority in the Commons.

The Adullamites, led by Robert Lowe, had already been working closely with the Conservative Party. The Adullamites were anti-reform, as were the Conservatives, but the Adullamites declined the invitation to enter into Government with the Conservatives as they thought that they could have more influence from an independent position. Despite the fact that he had blocked the Liberal Reform Bill, in February 1867, Disraeli introduced his own Reform Bill into the House of Commons.

By this time the attitude of many in the country had ceased to be apathetic as regarding Reform. Huge meetings held by the radical MP John Bright, the 'Hyde Park riots' and the feeling that many of the skilled working class were respectable had persuaded many that there should be a Reform Bill. The Conservative Lord Cranborne resigned in disgust.

The Reform League, agitating for universal suffrage, became much more active and organized demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Manchestermarker, Glasgowmarker and other towns. Though these movements did not normally use revolutionary language like some Chartists had in the 1840s, they were powerful movements. The high point came when a demonstration in May 1867 in Hyde Parkmarker was banned by the government. Thousands of troops and policemen were prepared, but the crowds were so huge that the government did not dare to attack. The Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, was forced to resign.

Faced with the possibility of popular revolt going much further, the government rapidly included into the bill amendments which enfranchised far more people. Consequently, the bill was more far-reaching than any Members of Parliament had thought possible or really wanted; Disraeli appeared to accept most reform proposals so long as they did not come from William Gladstone. An amendment tabled by the opposition trebled the new number eligible to vote under the bill, yet Disraeli simply accepted it. The bill enfranchised most men who lived in urban areas.

Disraeli was able to persuade his party to vote for the bill on the basis that the newly enfranchised electorate would be grateful and vote Conservative at the next election. Despite this prediction, in 1868, the Conservatives lost the first general election in which the newly enfranchised voted.

The final proposals were as follows: a borough franchise for all who paid rates in person (that is, not compounders); and extra votes for graduates, professionals and those with over £50 savings. These last "fancy franchises" were seen by Conservatives as a weapon against a mass electorate. However, Gladstone attacked the bill; a series of sparkling parliamentary debates with Disraeli, resulted in the bill being much more radical. Ironically, having been given his chance by the belief that Gladstone's bill had gone too far in 1866, Disraeli had now gone further.

The bill ultimately aided the rise of the radical wing of the Liberal Party and helped Disraeli to victory. The Act was tidied up with many further Acts to alter the electoral boundaries.

Reduced representation

Disenfranchised and rotten boroughs

Two electoral boroughs were completely disenfranchised by the Act:

Other disenfranchisements

Although not part of the Act, these are listed for continuity.

The following were disenfranchised individually for corruption:

Seven English boroughs were disenfranchised by the Representation of the People Act 1868 the subsequent year:

Halved representation

The following boroughs were reduced from electing two MPs to one:


The following boroughs were enfranchised:

One MP

Two MPs

Salfordmarker and Merthyr Tydfilmarker were given two MPs instead of one.Birminghammarker, Leedsmarker, Liverpoolmarker and Manchestermarker now had three MPs instead of two.

Other changes

Scotland and Ireland

The reforms for Scotlandmarker and Irelandmarker were carried out by two subsequent acts, the Representation of the People Act 1868 and the Representation of the People Act 1868.

In Scotland, five existing constituencies gained members, and three new constituencies were formed. Two existing county constituencies were merged into one, giving an overall increase of seven members; this was offset by seven English boroughs (listed above) being disenfranchised, leaving the House with the same number of members.

The representation of Ireland remained unchanged.

Effects of the Second Reform Act

The unprecedented extension of the franchise to all householders effectively gave the vote to the working classes, a quite considerable change. JH Parry described this as a 'borough franchise revolution'; the traditional position of the landed gentry in parliament would no longer be assured by money, bribery and favours; but by the whims and wishes of the public. However, to blindly consider the de jure franchise extensions would be fallacious. The franchise provisions were flawed; the act did not address the issue of compounding (Gladstone had to remove this practice in 1868) and the preparation of the register was still left to easily manipulated party organisers who could remove opponents and add supporters at will. The sole qualification to vote was essentially being on the register itself.

Unintended effects

  • Increased amounts of party spending and political organisation at both a local and national level—politicians had to account themselves to the increased electorate.

  • The redistribution of seats actually served to make the House of Commons increasingly dominated by the upper classes. Only they could afford to pay the huge campaigning costs and the abolition of certain rotten boroughs removed some of the middle-class planter merchants that had been able to obtain seats.

Extra pressure was added to the upper class and the lower and middle classes expected more. Also constituencies such as Leeds and Manchester became slightly more "upper class places."

See also


  • Foot, Paul "The Vote: how it was won and how it was undermined" Viking Press London 2005
  • Scott-Baumann, British History 1815-1914
  • Smith, The Making of the Second Reform Bill
  • McCord, British history 1815-1906
  • Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Major.
  • Cook, British Historical Facts 1830-1900

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