The Industrial Revolution changed the face of Britain. It depopulated the countryside, spawned crowded cities, and gave real economic power to an ever-growing middle class. At last, Parliament realised that it had to represent these people to Government, and the Great Reform Act was passed.
IN 1832, the controversial Reform Act was pushed through by Prime Minister Lord Grey. It was a wide-ranging overhaul of the way Britain voted for her MPs, necessitated by persistent abuse, and by the industrial revolution.
Hitherto, each constituency or ‘borough’ had decided who was eligible to vote according to its own conventions, usually reflecting property ownership of some kind. The Act standardised the rules and property qualifications nationwide, and increased the electorate by around two thirds to one in five adult males.
Constituency boundaries, which had not kept pace with Britain’s rapidly growing industrial towns, were also redrawn, assigning 143 seats to populated areas. Parliament’s total membership of 658 MPs was maintained by abolishing ‘rotten’ and ‘pocket’ boroughs – constituencies notorious for bribery, favouritism or absenteeism – and rural boroughs with dwindling populations.*
However, the Act committed a scandalous error: it explicitly enfranchised ‘male persons’. This restriction by sex, though almost universally assumed, had never been stated before, and was not reversed until 1928.
* ‘Pocket boroughs’ took their name from the accusation that the candidate would be ‘in the pocket’ of some wealthy landowner. The term ‘Rotten boroughs’ came from a speech by Pitt the Elder opposing Parliament’s taxing of America, in the course of which he referred to abuses in the borough system as ‘the rotten part of the constitution’ (On the Stamp Acts, January 14th, 1766).