Political changes were very slow in coming from 1750 to 1900. Those that did come in 1832 and 1867 were seen as not changing a great deal especially as neither gave women the right to vote.

From 1750 to 1832, no political changes of any note took place. Britain was ruled in the following way :

only men with money and property rights could vote

no women regardless of their wealth could vote

the House of Lords could overrule any law passed by the House of Commons

only men could be in the Houses of Commons and Lords

With Britain’s growing dependence on its working class to actually keep the Industrial Revolution going – without the workers factories and mines etc. would have simply ground to a halt – why was there no recognition of their importance in the political world ?

The answer is simple. Those who controlled society wished for that situation to remain. During the 1790’s, France had experienced a revolution in which many of the rich families that controlled France were executed by the guillotine including the King (Louis XVI) and his wife Marie Antoinette. France then descended into a period of total chaos. That was exactly what those in Britain wanted to avoid.

A guillotine on the march as the rich flee as depicted at the time

There was a fear of the working class but also a belief that they should be kept in their place. Men such as the Duke of Wellington did not want rail lines built as they would give the poor the ability to travel and in his mind the chance to cause trouble. He believed that only his ‘type’ knew how to govern and those not in his class would simply have to put up with it.

As a result of this attitude, some political absurdities occurred. The important cities of the Industrial Revolution were barely represented in the House of Commons – Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham etc) yet so-called rotten boroughs existed. These were ancient constituencies in which barely nobody could vote and yet they were a district of land which returned Members of Parliament (MP’s) to the House of Commons. The two most famous were Old Sarum and Dunwich

Old Sarum was, by a local joke, “one man, two cows and a field” – and it returned two MP’s !! In fact, it had three houses and fifteen people living there.  

Dunwich was arguably worse – this was a village on the coast of Suffolk which had all but collapsed into the sea and yet still returned two MP’s to the House of Commons. 

The village of Gatton in Surrey returned one MP yet only one man had a right to vote. The system had never changed and those in power worked to ensure this continued despite the obvious abuses in the system.

When it seemed as if the common people were about to revolt, the government encouraged the brutal treatment of them. In 1819, people in Manchester held a mass meeting at St Peter’s Field to listen to speeches demanding parliamentary reform. The main speaker was to be a man called Orator Hunt. The organisers wanted a non-violent event. Halfway through the gathering, the local magistrates declared that the meeting was illegal and sent cavalry in to break it up. Those nearest the mounted soldiers stopped them from doing this. General confusion broke out and the cavalry charged the crowd. Eleven people were killed and 400  were wounded. The magistrates were congratulated by Parliament. People called what happened “Peterloo” in mocking tones of the British victory at Waterloo.

A painting of the Peterloo Massacre

In the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820, some men known to be radicals planned to murder and overthrow the government. Despite the fact that the men had a very weak plan for this venture and their gang had been infiltrated by police spies, five were sentenced to death and duly executed while another five were transported to Australia for life.

Those who attacked machinery fearing that they would lose their jobs to machines were also harshly dealt with. In the so-called Swing Riots of 1830, nine men classed as machine wreckers were hanged. Those in power were unwilling to show any signs of weakness. Those considered to be trouble makers were transported to Australia.

Despite the government’s attempts to stop protests – or even because of them – the desire for political change grew and grew. More worryingly for those in power, the calls for change also came from the educated middle class – men who were lawyers, accountants etc. The upper class became seemingly more and more isolated.

In 1830, William IV became king. He did not like the idea of change but he felt that if change was to take place it should be controlled by Parliament and not forced on the country by revolutionaries. In 1832, the first political change in centuries took place – The Great Reform Act. What did it introduce ?

56 rotten boroughs were removed as constituencies

30 small constituencies which retuned two MP’s now only returned one

the large industrial cities were given more MP’s in keeping with their size and importance

in general, the middle class was given the right to vote

the number of those who could vote rose from 435,000 to 652,000

But for all these improvements there were still three major weaknesses :

no women could vote

only one in seven men could vote

there was no secret ballot which would allow people to vote in secret

Some people at the time saw this act as the start of a great new age of democracy while others saw it as a great lost opportunity. However, what no-one denied was that it was a start and that there was no going back. In fact, after 1832, the ‘new’ type of Parliament passed more reformist acts than any before it, including numerous factory and mines acts which forbade the abuse of child and women workers.

In 1837 Queen Victoria came to the throne. Many would have expected there to be an improvement in the rights of women but this did not occur for two basic reasons :

the powerful men in society did not want this

Queen Victoria did not want it as she believed that women should stay at home and look after children while it should be the men who worked and therefore kept the families and had political rights. Queen Victoria did not believe in women’s rights.

The working class was not represented by the Great Reform Act but a group called the Chartists developed in the late 1830’s which pressed for sweeping changes to the political system so that the working class was represented. Chartism came to an end in 1848 but it was a sign that the workers could organise themselves.

The workers also started to organise themselves at a work level. It became clear to them that industry would weaken if they did not play their part. Here was Great Britain celebrating its title as “workshop of the world” but the workers who played such a vital part in this industrial strength had no political rights. New Model Unions developed from 1851 on. These were for skilled men but by the end of the century, trade unions had developed which were for all workers – skilled or not. Their political power was to lead to the birth of what is now called the Labour Party.

The movement for change could not be resisted. In 1867 the Second Reform Act was passed. This act introduced :

better off workers from the industrial cities could vote

those who could vote increased to 2.5 million

45 constituencies were moved to towns and cities from small rural/countryside areas

But :

no women regardless of their wealth could vote

not all men could vote – there were still many poor men who were denied the right to vote

there was still no secret ballot

there were 30 million people in Britain so 2.5 million represented just a small percentage of those who could vote

The two main politicians of this time were Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Both men were completely different from men such as the Duke of Wellington. This showed that society itself was moving towards general reform as the aristocracy had less power than in bygone days.

In 1872 the Secret Ballot Act was passed. This was a very important development as up to 1872, elections had been in public and voters had to vote in public – as commented by Charles Dickens in “Pickwick Papers”. This left the system very open to abuse as the person voting might rent a house from a potential MP. If that person voted ‘incorrectly’ he might be evicted from the home he rented. Everybody would know who he voted for. The act of 1872 stopped this absurd abuse and brought in secret voting – men voted behind a curtain so no-one would ever know who he voted for. This law still exists to this day.

In 1884, the Third Reform Act was passed. This increased the number of working class men who could vote and a total of five million men could now vote but no women.

It was after this act that women started to organise themselves into a unit that demanded the right to vote (known as the right of suffrage). This movement was to develop into the Suffragettes.