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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 22: Opposing the Reform Bill (November 1830–June 1832)

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Wellington bored and depressed after losing office:

In 1819 Wellington wrote, in relation to the conduct of the King of the Netherlands to Prince d’Aremberg, ‘I am afraid that it is true that, although we are all a little annoyed by the little troubles and duties of office, we are none of us comfortable without the occupation which they give us…’ (in Ellesmere Personal Reminiscences of the Duke of Wellington p 116).

In February 1831 Kitty, who had welcomed Wellington’s resignation, told her sister that without office he was ‘uncomfortable … Inactivity does not suit him … I look forward to some change which will place him in some situation of useful activity. Not Prime Minister. On being employed both his health & his happiness depend! We are all such creatures of Habit’. (The Duchess of Wellington to Bess Stewart 21 February 1831 quoted in Pakenham Soldier, Sailor p 202).

And according to George Gleig, writing many years later, ‘I never saw the Duke so depressed as he appeared to be during the few days he spent at Walmer prior to the reassembling of Parliament [in early 1831].’ (Gleig Personal Reminiscences of the First Duke of Wellington p 50).

Grey’s nepotism:

Newbould Whiggery and Reform p 333-4 lists the offices given to Grey’s relatives:

Grey’s son-in-law, Lord Durham, Lord Privy Seal and a seat in the cabinet

Grey’s son-in-law, Captain Barrington, a Lord of the Admiralty

Grey’s son-in-law, Charles Wood, Joint Secretary of the Treasury

Grey’s brother-in-law, Edward Ellice, Joint Secretary of the Treasury

Grey’s brother-in-law, Lord Ponsonby, Commissioner to the Belgian Government

Grey’s son, Lord Howick, Undersecretary at the Colonial Office

Mrs Arbuthnot seems to have been wrong in mentioning a third brother-in-law. There are more details in Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries p 25 where Ellenborough claims that between them the seven received £16,000 p.a.

Grey was also reported to have attempted to give a red ribband to his brother General Grey, which Hill as Commander-in-Chief blocked, because General Grey had not seen active service since the 1790s. This is mentioned by Ellenborough in November 1830 (Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries p 24-25) and again by Charles Arbuthnot in October 1831 in a context suggesting that a second attempt had been made. (Charles Arbuthnot to his son Charles, 31 October 1831 Arbuthnot Papers 3029/1/2/35).

Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries p 58 and 80 report further contests over the issue and include the statement that General Grey was to get the ribband – but this in April 1831. And he did get he Grand Cross of the Bath before the end of 1831.

Althorp’s Budget and failure of Grey’s government:

Newbould cites Hobhouse that the budget was ‘so “universally decried” that the government could not have stayed in office were it not for their anticipated reform of parliament’. (Newbould Whiggery and Reform p 66). This is probably an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the government’s reputation was at a heavy discount.

Newbould goes on to quote Baring: ‘Scarcely a debate without a blunder, or rather some dissatisfaction. Our Civil List was not defended, though certainly defensible without difficulty. Our budget was knocked to pieces without a blow, and our new taxes changed and patched … Palmerston makes an unfortunate speech on going into army estimates … Peel laughs at him and is unpunished.’ (ibid p 66).

Tory attempts to Influence the Press:

George Gleig, Peninsular veteran, clergyman and writer on miscellaneous subjects, gives some good material on his role, with guidance from Wellington, in trying to gain a voice for Tory views in the Kent country papers. (Gleig Personal Reminiscences of the First Duke of Wellington p 55ff).   On 6 April 1831 Wellington told him, ‘I have done everything in my power to awaken the public to a sense of the danger, but hitherto without much effect. Expense has not been spared to obtain some assistance from the press, and I believe that some progress has been made. But, of course, I can have but little, if anything, to say to these efforts.   If you should have no objection, however, I could put you into communication with some persons who have turned their attention to this subject…’ (ibid p 61).

Arguments in favour of Reform:

Mountstuart Elphinstone was a lifelong Whig, but his arguments for favouring Reform were distinctly defensive, and it is interesting to speculate how common such reasoning may have been:

The first expectations that present themselves for the future are that the Whig Ministry, which we may suppose will be formed, will be embarrassed by its pledge in favour of retrenchment, which to any great extent is impracticable; and of reform, which beyond due limits would be perilous in the extreme. Many well-intentioned but ill-informed persons, who may favour it at first, will be driven by this to join the Radicals, to whom the Whigs are always the objects of detestation. The Ministry will sink, and with it all confidence in moderate reformers; power will either pass directly into the hands of the violent reformers, or will come to them with more tumult and danger after having been for a time entrusted to ultra-Tories. Universal suffrage, vote by ballot, and the destruction of the constitution by the preponderance of Democracy, might be expected to follow, and to be accompanied by the annulment of the national debt, seizure of Church revenues, and by other revolutionary measures. From the extremity of those evils the good sense of the English people and their attachment to the Constitution will probably protect us; and the appearance of a man of commanding talents among our leaders, or some other unexpected piece of good luck, may save us even from the lower degrees of danger. No contingency can render it wise or safe to withhold reform, or to delay making the necessary alterations in parts of the Constitution, while there is still sufficient attachment to the whole to prevent its being subverted during the operation. (Elphinstone’s journal for 19 November 1830 in Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 2 p 297-8).

The ‘moderation’ of the Bill:

Most accounts of the Reform Bill written in the last hundred years or so have stressed its ‘moderation’, because it led neither to democracy not to the destruction of the power and influence of the aristocracy. But this is both wrong-headed and deeply anachronistic, judging the bill by a much later agenda. This was a Whig bill, not a socialist bill, and arose as much from the political and constitutional struggles of the eighteenth century as the ‘class warfare’ of the later nineteenth century.

The bill was only moderate if you already take for granted all the changes it made.

Abolition of Pocket Boroughs:

Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 255-6. The government’s professed objective of ensuring a minimum of 300 voters was not achieved. In 1833 thirty-one boroughs had fewer than 300 voters and the number of voters in these constituencies actually fell as those with an existing franchise died or moved out of the electorate. A further 42 boroughs had 300-500 voters, so that 73 boroughs had 500 or fewer voters.

Cannon p 241 gives an impressive list of all the great politicians who had sat for pocket boroughs.

Grey’s role in framing the Reform Bill:

Newbould (Whiggery and Reform p 64, 335-6) says that Grey personally drew up a sketch which gave the cabinet committee a sense of the scope of the charges it should propose.

Sudden appearance of Reform as an issue in July–August 1830:

In 1827 Lord John Russell had opposed bringing in a reform bill because of ‘a great lukewarmness on that subject throughout the country’ (quoted in Newbould Whiggery and Reform p 56). As late as the end of June 1830, Reform was no more than an issue hovering in the background and ‘there was little discussion of it, and certainly no pressing of the point’. By the autumn ‘The issue on everyone’s lips was now Reform, and few doubted that the new parliament could avoid some changes in the system’. It was the election which brought it to the forefront especially the lack of deference to the Whig magnates for example Russell’s defeat at Bradford and the nature of Brougham’s success in Yorkshire. (Newbould Whiggery and Reform p 47-49).

Pressure for Reform in 1830–31:

Between October 1830 and April 1831 Parliament received about 3,000 petitions on the question, the overwhelming majority being in favour. At the same time a comparable number were sent to Parliament calling for the abolition of slavery. Yet the number concerning Catholic Emancipation in earlier years was greater than either, so it is hardly possible to argue that Parliament could not defy this opinion.

On the other hand the number of petitions does testify to the great growth in the political nation over the previous half century: in 1784 Pitt received no more than 200 Addresses in his favour, and this was regarded as an unprecedented demonstration of support. (All this from Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 214n).

Need for concession to the middle classes:

Holland told Grey in November 1831: ‘If the great mass of the middle class are bent upon that method of enforcing their views there is not in the nature of society any real force that can prevent them’. And Grey told the Knight of Kerry ‘A great change has taken place in all parts of Europe since the end of the war in the distribution of property, and unless a corresponding change be made in the legal mode by which that property can act upon the governments, revolutions must necessarily follow. The change requires a greater influence to be yielded to the middle classes, who have made wonderful advances both in property and intelligence’. (Both passages quoted in Newbould Whiggery and Reform p 57).

And Francis Jeffrey told Russell that, ‘any plan must be objectionable which, by keeping the Franchise very high and exclusive, fails to give satisfaction to the middle and respectable ranks of society, and drives them to a union founded on dissatisfaction with the lower orders. It is of the utmost importance to associate the middle with the higher orders of society in the love and support of the institutions and government of the century’. (Newbould Whiggery and Reform p 58-59).

But this needs to be set against the fact that the effect of the bill, at least in the first reformed Parliament, was to decrease representation of commercial interests; while Newbould argues (although I don’t find this convincing) that the Bill strengthened not weakened the influence of the landed interest (Newbould p 60-61).

Unrealistic expectations of Reform:

Mountstuart Elphinstone recorded that on a journey by public stage coach in May 1831:

In coming into Edinburgh we had a plain, vulgar, downright citizen of Edinburgh, a violent reformer, but as violent an admirer of the King, and seemingly sincere in his eagerness to destroy abuses without injuring the Constitution. This, indeed, seemed the general feeling, the anxiety for the Bill throughout the country far surpassing what one can fancy while in London. The vulgar seemed to expect great improvement in their condition from the Bill, which they did not at all understand. Our friend the yeoman [another passenger described earlier] asked what all this was about, disenfranchising rotten boroughs, avowing that he did not understand it at all, but thought as things had been going on so ill a reform could not but make them better. Even the well-informed seemed to expect more economy from a reformed Parliament. All the zeal seems for the King, except in Northumberland, where Lord Grey is also mentioned. (Elphinstone’s journal for 6 May 1831 in Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 2 p 303).


Wellington denies that he is opposed to all reform:

‘It is curious enough that I, who have been the greatest reformer on earth, should be held up as an enemy to all reform.   This assertion is neither more nor less than one of the lying cries of the day.

‘If by reform is meant parliamentary reform, or a change in the mode and system of representation, what I have said is, that I have never heard of a plan that was safe and practicable that would give satisfaction, and that, while I was in office, I should oppose myself to reform in Parliament.’ (Wellington to Gleig, 10 April 1831, Personal Reminiscences of the First Duke of Wellington p 66).

Lack of Compensation for Borough owners:

‘At no stage does the question of compensation to dispossessed borough patrons seem to have been discussed, though such compensation had been part of Pitt’s plan of 1785, and had, of course been given with the Union with Ireland. In part this was an indication of the extent to which public opinion had changed in the meantime – in part, also, perhaps the impossibility of finding funds on the scale needed’. (Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 209-10).

Given the virulence of the attacks on ‘borough managers’ in the press and prints any attempt to pay compensation would have roused a storm of protest and meant that the whole Bill would have alienated not conciliated opinion.

Tory arguments against Reform:

            Peel’s speech when the Bill was introduced included several arguments:

  • boroughs listed for abolition had been represented, among many others by Burke, Pitt, Sheridan, Canning, Tierney, Brougham and Romilly.
  • the uniform £10 franchise would actually deprive some poorer classes of any representation
  • reform would not be final:

No doubt you cannot propose to share your power with half a million of men without gaining some popularity – without purchasing by such a bribe some portion of goodwill. But these are vulgar arts of government; others will outbid you, not now, but at no remote period – they will offer votes and power to a million of men, will quote your precedent for the concession, and will carry your principles to their legitimate and natural consequences. (All this from Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 215).

Aspinall writes (in the introduction to Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries p xxxi).

They [the Tories] said, too, that the Reform Bill, by destroying the electoral influence of the Crown, would make government impossible. Wellington was no champion of the rotten boroughs as such. He himself had no borough influence to lose, and said that he hated the whole concern too much to think of endeavouring to gain any. But, he said, how was the country to be governed if Members of Parliament had to vote according to the instructions of their constituents rather than the directions of the Minister? How could a Government majority be got together without patronage? How could the Sovereign change his Ministers and get a majority for their successor? To these questions Lord Grey could give no answer. Melbourne himself admitted, “I do not see how the Government is to be carried on without them” [the rotten boroughs].

Wellington does not have or exercise any electoral influence of his own:

‘I have no borough influence to lose, and I hate the whole concern too much, to think of endeavouring to gain any. Ask the gentlemen of the Cinque Ports whether I have ever troubled any of them.’ (Wellington to Gleig, 10 April 1831, Personal Reminiscences of the First Duke of Wellington p 67).

Pocket boroughs allow other interests to be represented:

One of the superficially less plausible Tory arguments against the bill was that pocket boroughs enabled colonial, mercantile and other special interests to be represented by men who, expert in their field, were not professional politicians and had not the time or manners to seek election for a popular seat. But this gains some weight from Newbould’s statement (Whiggery and Reform p 69 based on a contemporary pamphlet) that of 39 merchants sitting in Parliament for boroughs in 1831 the Bill would unseat 16; 4 of 10 representing the West Indian interest, 10 of 20 connected with India, 14 of 31 bankers, 2 shipowners and 2 merchants).

Argument that the Bill would be a final measure ending pressure for Reform:

Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 242-3 thinks Grey certainly intended this, but quotes Althorp not pressing the secret ballot because ‘with such a reform as proposed, the people will have the power of taking what more they want’.

Grey’s assurances to the King:

Both Brock (Great Reform Act p 152-4) and Newbould (Whiggery and Reform p 65) insist that Grey was entirely sincere when he repeatedly assured the King that the Reform Bill would pass Commons and Lords without difficulty providing that the King was known to support it. If they are correct, it shows that Grey was remarkably out of touch with reality, and that the criticism of Wellington’s alleged blindness to the mood of parliament and the country in November apply even more strongly to Grey in January, February and March.

The King’s reluctance to dissolve Parliament in April 1831:

William IV had given Grey and his colleagues the same whole-hearted and cordial support that he had previously given Wellington, and it appears that the genuinely supported some measure of parliamentary reform, although he had some misgivings over the scale of the changes contained in the bill. He had been badly misled by Grey, who had repeatedly assured him that there would be strong support for the bill in parliament and that an election would not be necessary, providing that it was understood that the King supported the Bill. He had kept his side of the bargain and the Whigs had ruthlessly exploited his name, encouraging the press to present the King and the people as united in their demands for reform and being thwarted by self-interested Tory borough-mongers who were both corrupt and disloyal. This image as the people’s champion made the King very popular for the moment, but caused him considerable unease. After the defeat of the Timber Duties on 18 March Grey wrote to Sir Herbert Taylor, the King’s private secretary asking if the King would consent to a dissolution if it should become necessary. This was remarkably inept for a politician of Grey’s experience. The King was not a cipher and was most unlikely to pledge himself in advance in his way. Grey evidently realized his mistake for he attempted to withdraw the letter the next day, but by then it was too late, for the King had firmly refused to make any promise. Inevitably news of the exchange percolated through the political world and grew in the telling, so that the Opposition took comfort from the idea that the King refuse an election even if they emasculated the Reform Bill in committee. Grey tried to counter this by insisting that the King dismiss members of the Royal Household who had voted against the bill, but this made little impression outside the court. Before the vote on the Opposition amendment on 20 April Grey had warned the King that if the government was defeated ministers would probably ask for a dissolution, but in the same letter he had pointed an alarming picture of the state of Ireland and indicated that there might be a need for parliament to pass more coercive powers. In reply the King had indicated great reluctance to grant a dissolution while the public in Britain was agitated over reform and Ireland was so disturbed. He also knew that MPs of all parties would be unhappy to face the trouble and expense of the hustings only six months after the previous election, especially as it seemed probable that the ministers would wish to go to the polls again when the Reform Bill had been enacted. The prospect of three elections in eighteen months appealled only to journalists, and offered little prospect of quietening the public mood. (Brock Great Reform Act p 152-4, 171-5, 188-92).

The King’s arguments against an election:

On 20 March the King had written to Grey expressing his reluctance to dissolve Parliament and have an election on the question of Reform:

this country would be thrown into convulsion from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s house: miners, manufacturers, colliers, labourers, all who have recently formed unions for the furtherance of illegal purposes, would assemble on every point in support of a popular question, with the declared object of carrying the measure by intimidation. It would be in vain to hope to be able to resist their course or to check disturbances of every kind, amounting possibly to open rebellion. (Quoted in Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 218-19).


Newbould (Whiggery and Reform p 69) suggests that the Whigs had little organization or funds for the 1831 campaign, and contrasts this to the Tories who, he suggests, had lavish funds and an efficient organization – but this seems mostly based on idle talk, and I am deeply sceptical – clearly whatever the position it had no effect in this election (as Newbould acknowledges).

Tory losses in the Election:

John Cannon points out that after the election the Tories were left with only six English county members, and that of their 187 members who represented English boroughs, 165 represented boroughs listed on Schedules A or B or had fewer than 400 voters. Four more sat for universities. (Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 221).

Wellington on the Consequences of the Reform Bill:

Wellington told his brother Henry on 15 July 1831:

It is not denied that the object of the bill is to overturn every existing interest and influence in the country, and to establish something else instead, of the working of which we may judge, not alone by what we see in France and other countries, but by what we see in those places in this country in which the system now to be generally established throughout the country has long existed, such as Westminster, Southwark, Preston, &c. The King’s ministers in the House of Lords have never been able to state by what influence they expected to carry on the King’s business in Parliament, in the reformed Parliament; and I don’t believe that there is a man in England who does not think that this Reform must lead to the total extinction of the power and of the property of this country. Some, that is to say nine-tenths of all the proprietors whether of real or personal property, the members of the learned professions, the ecclesiastical, political, commercial and banking establishments, look with apprehension and dread at the consequences. Others, that is to say the mob, the Radicals, the Dissenters from the Church of all religious persuasions, hail the measure as the commencement of a new era of destruction and plunder. The ministers and their adherents in both Houses of Parliament alone deny its consequences. But they do so only in public discussion. In private many of those who vote and will vote for the measure lament its consequences; some even I know who are members of the Cabinet. (Wellington to Cowley 15 July 1831 WND vol 7 p 469-71).

Palmerston on opinion at Cambridge:

Palmerston to Grey, 25 April 1831: ‘I am constantly told by men, who have been reformers all their lives, that it [the Bill] goes much beyond what necessity required, or produced would have counselled’. They thought the Bill ‘too sweeping’ and carried disenfranchisement ‘too far’; they disliked the alteration of the number of seats and their balance between England Scotland Ireland and Wales; they also objected that the £10 franchise bordered upon universal sufferage in the large towns. ‘I am bound to say to you that I really doubt whether there are six men in university who do not feel strong objections to our Bill upon these grounds. These objections are felt by staunch & tried Whigs, and reformers of long standing; by men, not cloistered monks, but persons mixing in the world both in town & country, and likely to be expositors of the opinions of a class of men, among the public, whose opinions, though not loudly expressed in newspapers & at county meetings, is [sic] nevertheless a large ingredient in the formation of public opinion’. (Quoted in Bourne Palmerston p 508).

Pressure on the Lords to Pass the Bill:

Brougham published an anonymous pamphlet reminding the Lords that in 1649 their House had been voted useless and dangerous; another observer suggested that they be included in Schedule A. Macaulay pointed to the ruins of French chateaux in the Loire valley as a warning of the fate of an obdurate aristocracy – to which Croker responded ‘In what crisis of public affairs will it ever be permitted to the peers to exercise their deliberative functions if it be denied to them now? or are they the henceforth to understand that they must confine their independence to amending a Turnpike Act?’ (Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 224).

Ultra-radical demands:

The NUWC (National Union of Working Classes) called for the abolition of the Corn Laws, Church of England and House of Lords and the creation of a National Convention. (Prothero Artisans and Politics p 286). Others called for universal suffrage.

Wellington determined to keep politics out of the Yeomanry:

Wellington reacted strongly when Gleig and Sir Edward Knatchbull suggested using a meeting of the Kent Yeomanry to organize a series of petitions against the Reform Bill in July 1831:

As Lord-Lieutenant of Hampshire I have been under the necessity of desiring the commanding offices of some of the troops of yeomanry to refrain from addressing their troops as military bodies on political subjects, and even of talking politics to the men at all. I desired them to point out to the yeomanry that their duty is to obey; that the sphere of their service would probably be to preserve the peace of the country in aid of the civil powers, and that their duty must be performed whatever may be the policy of the Government and the legislation on any particular question, such as the reform of Parliament.’ (Wellington to Gleig, 17 July 1831, Personal Reminiscences of the First Duke of Wellington p 83-84).

The Army and the Reform Crisis:

In Dinwiddy’s article on the campaign against flogging there is a fascinating story of a private in the Scots Greys, Alexander Somerville, who, in May 1832, wrote a letter to the Weekly Dispatch saying that while he and his comrades would protect property if it was attacked, they would never raise their arms against the liberties of the country. Two days later Somerville was court martialled – ostensibly on a separate manner – and flogged. Somerville then wrote to The Times and the affair attracted much notice among reformers: Hume raised it in parliament, there were petitions for an inquiry and a public subscription was raised which enabled Somerville to purchase his discharge. Towards the end of 1833 Somerville became the editor of an unstamped paper founded by Richard Carlile The Political Soldier which aimed to establish a union of sentiment between the soldiers and the people.   The first issue contained a report of a speech by Somerville in which he asked ‘whether the aristocracy should be enabled, by means of keeping up a large standing army, to lord it over the industrious classes of the community as they had hitherto done’, and ‘whether their fellow-men were any longer to be flogged and degraded by the brutal punishment of the lash, until they were themselves rendered fit instruments to be employed against the people, if ever the people chose to resist the acts of a tyrannical government.’ However the radical impulse was fading by then and The Political Soldier lasted for only five issues. (J. R. Dinwiddy ‘The Early Nineteenth Century Campaign against Flogging in the Army’ in his Radicalism and Reform in Britain, 1780-1850 p 140-1).

Demands for a National Guard:

Some idea of the partisanship underlying this demand can be gleaned from an article in The Globe for 1 November: ‘There might probably be organized in Bristol and Clifton 15,000 men, all sincerely desirous of the preservation of tranquillity … We believe … to the organization of the people we must come. It may be gall and wormwood to the tory lords; … an organized nation may be as terrible in their eyes as in those of the lovers of disorder. The defence of the public peace and property must cease to be at their mercy. The people must not be left unarmed because their enemies dread their bayonets.’   And on the same day the Times proclaimed that ‘It is now obvious that the regular troops and peace officers are not … sufficient … on occasions of sudden and very general emergency. We say then to our fellow subjects – organize and arm’. (Both quoted in Brock Great Reform Act p 253).

Wellington dismisses danger of revolution if the Bill is not passed:

The crisis over the Reform Bill is unusual in that it was people on the left (both politicians at the time and historians subsequently) who talked up the threat of revolution, and those on the right who down played it (compared to 1819-20 where conservatives are often accused of exaggerating the danger to justify repressive legislation).

            Throughout 1831-32 Wellington was consistent in dismissing the danger. On 15 July he told his brother Henry

… we are told that the people are dissatisfied with the system of representation and that it must be changed, or we shall have a revolution by force.

Now it is one of the curious circumstances attending this country, and it shows in the strongest manner the power of Parliament as now constituted, that however frequent the changes, convulsions, and revolutions in this country, they have always been made by Parliament. For instance, the Reformation and all its conformations? Parliament. The Commonwealth? Parliament. The succession of the House of Hanover? Parliament. I don’t fear a revolution by force. I know that the government and the law are too strong for any combination of force by the people. We have daily examples of the defeat of such combinations …’ (Wellington to Cowley 15 July 1831 WND vol 7 p 469-71).

And in September he wrote:

… we are told of the consequences of rejecting this scheme. We are assured that there will be a revolution in the country. Produced by what? By force and violence. I defy those who would use such violence. History shows that a great change has never, since the wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster, been produced in England by any authority but Parliament. No individuals, however numerous or powerful, have ever been able successfully to resist the power of Parliament. We have instances, even lately, of resistance to the law of the largest masses of men who commenced their resistance under the most advantageous circumstances, but they soon found themselves powerless against the power of the government and of the law united. The House of Lords may be assured therefore that they can freely deliberate upon this measure, and decide it according to the best of their judgment …’ (‘Memorandum upon First Reading of the Reform Bill’ [by Wellington] 22 September 1831 WND vol 7 p 530-1).

In late November he wrote to Wharncliffe, ‘You say that the evils which I apprehend are remote and contingent; those which you fear are immediate. I positively deny the existence of the latter. The government has the power of preventing them or of putting them down. The whole country would support them’. (Wellington to Lord Wharncliffe, Walmer Castle, 26 November 1831 WND vol 8 p 98-100).

And in February 1832 he told Wharncliffe, ‘as for civil war or any confusion being occasioned by another rejection of the bill, I’ll answer for it that there will be no such thing if this government, or any government, will only perform the duty of discountenancing it’. ‘As for the consequences of the bill being lost again by the vote of the House of Lords, they are worse than ridiculous; they are contemptible’. (Wellington to Wharncliffe, Stratfield Saye, 3 February 1831 WND vol 8 p 205-10).

Tories distrust Peel:

George Gleig wrote to Wellington in July 1831 reporting the mood of the Tory (and ultra Tory) gentlemen of Kent: ‘Writing unreservedly to your Grace, as I venture to do, I feel bound to state that it is to you personally that the Tories of this county look as their head. Of Sir Robert Peel there is a decided distrust. I had almost said that the feeling bordered upon hostility, and, as far as I can learn, the same feeling prevails elsewhere than in Kent.’ Wellington replied that ‘I am aware that there exist great prejudices and strong dislikes against Sir Robert Peel.’ (Gleig to Wellington and reply, 22 and 23 July 1831, Gleig Personal Reminiscences of the First Duke of Wellington p 88-89).    Of course, Gleig was a Peninsular veteran, and his only connection to the world of high politics was through the Duke, so he was not an unbiased observer, but there is no reason to doubt that what he said was true.

Wellington at William IV’s Coronation:

Mrs Arbuthnot wrote in her journal that, ‘The Duke came here the day after the Coronation [8 September 1831]. He said that the ceremony in the Abbey was very fine, but what most particularly pleased me was that, when he did homage to the King, there was a general burst of applause from every part of the Abbey, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs & the cheers rung thro’ every part of the church.   The Ministers, as we heard, were evidently annoyed & an attempt was afterwards made to get up a cheer when Ld Grey & Brougham did homage, but it was so faint it only made the applause for the Duke appear the greater by the contrast.’ (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 23 October 1831 vol 2 p 428-9).

Cabinet split over whether to compromise:  

Brock describes the position as an essentially united cabinet with a few ministers having some misgivings but nothing that threatened the government (Great Reform Act p 259, 261) – essentially the glass half full.

Newbould is more inclined to the glass half empty. ‘Palmerston’s group, which included Lansdowne, Goderich, Richmond, Stanley, Melbourne and Carlisle, hoped to negotiate an altered bill with the Tory “waverers” Harrowby and Wharncliffe … Durham, Holland, Brougham, Ellice and Duncannon, on the other hand, argued that an early meeting of parliament was of the greatest importance if the people’s confidence were to be maintained’. (Whiggery and Reform p 72).

Grey lost the battle over whether Parliament should meet before or after Christmas, and Newbould suggests that he never fully recovered his confidence afterwards (ibid p 73-74).

The Government presses the King to promise to create more Peers if the Bill blocked in the Lords:

Even while the Reform Bill was slowly working its way through the Commons committee, the focus for political discussion and speculation had shifted to the Bill’s fate in the Lords, and possibility of a huge creation of peers to ensure that it passed. Cabinet discussed the question on 2 January and decided to ask the King to create another ten or dozen peers as sign of his commitment in the hope of intimidating wavering Tories, and to back this with a promise of more if necessary. The King balked at this demand, plausibly arguing that a small creation might simply drive the moderates into determined opposition. The ministers renewed the question on 13 January in a formal cabinet minute demanding that the King pledge himself to make enough peers to pass the bill, however large a number that proved. Faced with the implicit threat that a refusal would lead to the resignation of the government William gave ground, but limited his promise to elevating the heirs of existing peers to the Lords and Scottish and Irish peers in order not to dilute the aristocracy and ensure that most of the new creations would wash out of the Lords in a generation rather than permanently enlarge the House. Many Whigs, champions of aristocratic privilege as they were, appreciated this reasoning, and the ministers decided to accept this highly qualified pledge for the moment, even though they privately calculated that it would probably not amount to more than 20 or 21 peers, far short of the fifty or sixty they believed they might need. (Brock Great Reform Bill p 268-70).

Opposition motives in moving to defer the disenfranchisement clauses:

John Cannon writes: ‘Since it was inconceivable that the Whigs would allow their bill to be changed in this fashion, these amendments implied a readiness to form a Tory administration, pledged to moderate reform’, and supports this by citing Ellenborough’s diary: ‘Ellenborough’s diary makes it clear that the intention was “to put the ministers out”.’ (Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 233-4 and 234n; Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries p 240). However Cannon goes on to concede that Grey’s resignation ‘seems to have taken the Tories by surprise’ (p 234).   And while there are a couple of references in Ellenborough to the possibility of the ministers resigning (see also p 231, 12 April ‘If we beat them they go out’), the general tenor here and throughout is to the contrary, that the Tories did not view this as anything but a remote possibility, and confidently expected to be able to force the government to swallow some fairly significant changes to the bill while letting its principle and main body remain intact.

Cannon does however debunk Trevelyan’s claim that Grey’s resignation was an adroit manoeuvre showing that while it worked out like that, Grey did not anticipate this result. (Parliamentary Reform p 234n).

There is another significant entry in Ellenborough’s diary for 2 May: ‘The Duke declared he would act with good faith & try to make a Bill. His object is to make a Govnt possible; not his, but a Govnt, which the bill does not’. (Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries p 235).

Wellington hissed when he arrives at the Lords for the Second Reading of the Bill, April 1832

‘Walked to the House of Lords & saw the Lords coming down to the second reading of the Bill – The rascals hissed the Duke as he came down, in his old family state carriage, looking like the hero as he is…’ (Thackeray’s diary for Monday 9 April 1832 in The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray collected and edited by Gordon N. Ray vol 1 p 188-9).

Wellington argues that it is better to attempt to mitigate the evils of the Bill than walk away:

To another correspondent who seemed inclined to wash his hands of any connection with the bill, Wellington wrote with some impatience,

You say truly it will not give satisfaction. In our state of society nothing will give satisfaction. It would be best to remain as we are; but not being able to remain as we are, I think that we ought not to pay attention to the changes of responsibility for the real improvements and principles we may introduce into the bill.

I admit that nothing we can do will render the bill safe. The country will have to pass through a severe crisis, but let us meet that crisis on the best grounds that we can, rather than leave all to chance, or to what we know is as bad as possible. (Wellington to Gleig 2 May 1832 WND vol 8 p 294).

Precautions at Apsley House:

‘Is it not strange that the D. of W. has boarded with very thick planks all his windows upstairs to Piccadilly & the Park? The North back front is not closed. The work of darkness began on the day of the Coronation, & is now completed. He says, I hear, that it is to protect his plate glass windows against the mob, who will assail him on the Reform Bill! As it cannot really be for thrift, it looks like defiance; & the mob will be irritated when they discover his intentions.’ (Letters of Lady Holland to Her Son 23 September 1831 p 118).

The Lords defeat the Bill:

Richard Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 172-3 points out that 49 lords voted for the Second Reading but did not vote on Lyndhurst’s motion, including many Whigs who simply failed to attend. Indiscipline and apathy as much as the waverers and Lyndhurst’s skillful tactics, led to the government’s defeat.

Wellington and the May Days:

Wellington would not necessarily have been prime minister. He was willing to play whatever part would be of most use, serving or not serving.

Manners-Sutton was offered the position of prime minister – indeed he refused to serve under Wellington – and although there is a story that the King told him that Wellington would be PM and that this helped derail the negotiations, this does not seem very reliable (Croker Papers vol 2 p 161).

No one had much chance of success but the possibilities were:

  • a government led by Harrowby or possibly Palmerston, to hold office just for a few weeks and pass a compromise bill (but such a government would rely on tacit support from both sides and that would not come especially from the Whigs in the Commons)
  • a government led by Peel, strong enough to imitate Pitt in 1784 (unlikely to succeed given the state of the Commons, the country and the press).
  • a Wellington government to be joined by Peel and other moderate Tories as soon as a bill passed – again the Commons clearly would not tolerate this, and there was little hope appealing to the country.

Wellington was associated with unyielding opposition to Reform not just by his declaration of November 1830 and subsequent speeches, but by his formal protest against the bill which was reprinted in the papers as evidence that the essence of the bill would not be safe in his hands (Morning Chronicle 14 May 1832).

According to Croker, Manners Sutton declared that ‘His Grace’s avowed antipathy to all reform would afford an Opposition a colorable ground for suspecting all their propositions’. Baring took the same line, willing to serve under Manners-Sutton, but not under the Duke. (Croker Papers vol 2 p 161-2 quoted in Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 235).

The May Days:

John Cannon debunks the radical tradition of Britain on the eve of revolution quite convincingly and suggests that there was a good deal of bluff in the talk: ‘Place and Parkes were in something of the position of two ants, perched on top of an elephant’s head, and marveling that the jungle fled from them in terror’. (Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 240). Prothero Artisans and Politics p 292 says that the ultra radicals expected armed clashes, and took part in arming but did not want to provoke a clash, though they did hope that a Tory government would lead to much more radical reform. Support for them grew in the crisis but faded rapidly once the Bill was passed.

It is curious that Apsley House does not seem to have been stoned during the crisis. On 12 May Ellenborough wrote in his diary: ‘In London all is quiet. The meetings have been rather failures. In the country all is quiet, but there are the masses of manufacturers, & the Press against us, & a pledged Majority of the worst House of Commons that ever was known’. (Three Diaries p 250).

Lady Cowper wrote on 18 May ‘radicalism has made a frightful stride the last three days and a most dangerous state of things it is for the radicals to see no Governm[en]t can be formed in spite of them, and they have forced back Ld Grey on the King’. (Lady Cowper to Frederick Lamb 18 May 1832 Letters of Lady Palmerston p 190).

Reflections on the Crisis:

On 17 May Lady Cowper, sister of the Home Secretary and mistress of the Foreign Secretary, wrote that,

The Duke [of Wellington] made a very good straight forward speech and every body’s feelings went with him. He quite cleared himself for his conduct, that is to say not the wisdom of it, but as to the integrity of his intentions, and clearly showed that there was no concert in the large majority who beat Ministers. Oh, it’s a sad piece of business altogether, and I do not think our friends have behaved well, but who can blame them when they are a small party dragged on by a violent and unreasonable one? Ld Grey should never have resigned, or asked for the creation of Peers, he should have waited to see what came next, and have been prepared to make concessions to conciliate the adverse Peers. (Lady Cowper to her brother Frederick Lamb 25 May [1832] and 14 July [1825] Letters of Lady Palmerston p 125, 138).

Reaction to the attack on Wellington on Waterloo Day, 1832:

‘The Duke has been attacked in the streets – Bracy has just been here he and some few policemen fought for him – Bracy walked home with him – The Duke shook his hand & thanked him Bracy says he has lived four & twenty years, but never felt so happy as today – Bravo Bracy – I did not think you such a trump before.’ (Thackeray’s diary for Monday 18 June 1832 in The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray collected and edited by Gordon N. Ray vol 1 p 210).

The Scottish Reform Bill:

‘If the defeat of the Conservatives [in Scotland] in December 1832 was largely a consequence of the Reform Act, it was one intended by those who prepared the measure, for they set out to destroy an electoral system which had enabled their opponents to dominate Scottish politics for so many years’. (J. I. Brash ed Papers on Scottish Electoral Politics 1832-1854 p xi).

Argument that Tory opposition absorbed radical energy that would otherwise have demanded further concessions:

It is also possible to argue the opposite: that the struggle over the bill energized the radicals and gained them both organization and popular support which they used to press on to their objectives after the bill had passed. While this has some plausibility the fairly rapid decline of the radicals once the bill was passed tends to support the argument that the battle over the bill exhausted rather than strengthened the radical impulse.

The Constitutional Revolution:

‘The age of parliamentary government had arrived, a transition which has been convincingly analysed by Angus Hawkins. Prior to about 1832 he describes a period of executive government, whereas after that date (and up to the 1870s) he argues that a period of parliamentary government took place. That is, after about 1832 the government was no longer primarily the choice of the monarch (a choice which then went on to construct a majority in parliament) but rather the government was formed from the leaders of the majority party in parliament. This latter situation required parties strong enough “to authorize an executive, without the Cabinet being reliant on the support of the royal prerogative” but also weak enough “to prevent the executive being merely the product of an electoral mandate”.’ (Stephen Lee George Canning and Liberal Toryism p 174 citing A. Hawkins ‘Parliamentary government and Victorian political parties, c. 1830 – c. 1880’ English Historical Review vol 1989 p 638-69).

Wellington on the change to the House of Commons:

‘“Formerly there were from one to two hundred gentlemen free to vote according to altered emergencies. Now, on the contrary, everybody is pledged down by his previous promise, and the result is that at any time after the general election public opinion can have no influence upon the House of Commons.”’ (Stanhope Notes 21 October 1837 p 106).

See the Commentary to Chapter 23 for the – probably apocryphal – story of Wellington’s reaction to the newly elected Commons (‘so many bad hats…’).

The Diminution of the power of the Lords:

Richard Davis A Political History of the House of Lords p 178-80 argues that the Lords did not lose any significant power in 1831-32, and that this is shown by its success in blocking government proposals in the following eight years.   There is a good deal of truth in this, at least for the period between 1835 and 1841, but Melbourne’s was not only an unusually weak government, conscious that it lacked the support of the country; its leader also was glad to find an excuse from embarking on further reforms, and welcomed the opposition of the Tories in both Houses as a defence against pressure from both the radicals and his own backbenchers (see chapter 26 of main text).   In other words Melbourne had neither the will nor the power to challenge the Lords; but this was a product of circumstances and rather concealled the damage done to the Lords by the crisis over the Reform Bill.   The fact remained, and Wellington was well aware of it, that the Lords could not challenge the power of a determined prime minister backed by a secure majority in the Commons unless it was quite sure that it had the unequivocal support of the monarch and the country at large.   The Lords accepted the weight of this argument when they passed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

On the other hand it is true that the Lords before 1832 had not been in the habit either of blocking government legislation, or challenging the King’s choice of ministers, and that its role as a stronghold of opposition to the government of the day between 1830 and 1841 was novel. So it can be argued that the power which the Lords seemed to have lost in 1832 was largely illusory or fictitious, while the decline of the influence of the Crown over the Lords, actually enabled it to take a more independent role in the politics of the decades after 1832 than it had done previously.   But this very independence revealed limitations on the power of the Lords which had not previously been recognized, and underlined its subordination to the Commons to a degree which was felt as a loss of power by Tory peers who were frustrated that the large majorities which they might be able to muster in the upper House counted for so little on any issue that attracted strong public interest on the side of the ministers.

And if it is true that the Lords successfully blocked more of Melbourne’s legislation than of any other government in the nineteenth century; it is also true that was repeatedly forced to swallow major legislation against the wishes of a majority of its members in the years after 1832, in a way that had not been true previously, and that this was felt as a deprivation of power by the Tory peers.   (It could be argued that this regime of swallowing unpalatable measures began in 1828 with the Test and Corporations Acts and was followed by Catholic Emancipation; but in these cases the Lords voluntarily if reluctantly submitted in order to uphold the authority of the government of the day, while in 1831-32 it was publicly humiliated, its submission gained by direct threats.)   But clearly there is ample room for intelligent disagreement on the subject, and Davis’s argument is both stimulating and useful.

Who benefitted?

Newbould’s argument (Whiggery and Reform p 60-61) that the ‘landed interest was the great gainer from the bill’ is unpersuasive, and is not supported by parliament’s subsequent handling of issues of greatest concern to the landed interest, most obviously the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Brock writes: ‘In some ways the new House was more oppressive than the old. This reflected the greater confidence which a broader basis of support provided, rather than exceptional harshness among new voters. … The Poor Law Amendment Act was harsher than anything which the old House would have dared to pass. On the other side of the account might be set the Factory Act of 1833 and the beginning in the same year of a state grant for education. It is impossible to say whether, on balance, working-class people were injured by the Reform Act. Their own belief that they were is not conclusive evidence’. (Great Reform Act p 334).   Perhaps the crucial point here is not the actual changes to parliament passed in the Reform Bill, but the confidence the victory over it gave to its proponents – who already had more than enough confidence, not to say intellectual arrogance – which encouraged them to impose their ideological theories on society with results which hindsight suggests included a fair mixture of both good and bad, although the Whig government’s handling of the Irish Famine may tilt the scales towards the latter.

Half a million new voters:

This is the figure that is commonly used, e.g. by Brock, however in Politics without Democracy p 88 Michael Bentley says ‘The total franchise probably expanded by about 300,000 or 80 per cent. This provided for a reformed electorate of just over 650,000 people, most of them still in England, out of a population of over 16 million (excluding Ireland)’. Citing Cannon Parliamentary Reform p 259 n 3, 290-2.






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Tags for Chapter 22: Opposing the Reform Bill (November 1830–June 1832)

© Rory Muir

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