Reform Act 1867

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Representation of the People Act 1867 [1]
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government).svg
Long title An Act further to amend the Laws relating to the Representation of the People in England and Wales
Citation 30 & 31 Vict., c. 102
Territorial extent United Kingdom
Royal assent 15 August 1867
Other legislation
Relates to Reform Act 1884
Text of statute as originally enacted
Contemporary cartoon of Disraeli outpacing Gladstone (left) at The Derby, parodying the perceived victor in debates in a split Liberal-led Commons while Disraeli's fellow Conservative, Lord Derby led as Prime Minister from the House of Lords. PunchDizzyReformBill.png
Contemporary cartoon of Disraeli outpacing Gladstone (left) at The Derby, parodying the perceived victor in debates in a split Liberal-led Commons while Disraeli's fellow Conservative, Lord Derby led as Prime Minister from the House of Lords.

The Representation of the People Act 1867, 30 & 31 Vict., c. 102 (known as the Reform Act 1867 or the Second Reform Act) is an Act of the British Parliament that enfranchised part of the urban male working class in England and Wales for the first time. It took effect in stages over the next two years, culminating in full commencement on 1 January 1869. [2] [3]


Before the Act, only one million of the seven million adult men in England and Wales could vote; the Act immediately doubled that number. Further, by the end of 1868 all male heads of household could vote, having abolished the widespread mechanism of the deemed rentpayer or ratepayer being a superior lessor or landlord who would act as middleman for those monies paid ("compounding"). The Act introduced a near-negligible redistribution of seats, far short of the urbanisation and population growth since 1832.

The overall intent was to help the Conservative Party, Benjamin Disraeli expecting a reward for his sudden and sweeping backing of the reforms discussed, yet it resulted in their loss of the 1868 general election.


For the decades after the Great Reform Act of 1832 (the First Reform Act), cabinets (in that era leading from both Houses) had resisted attempts to push through further reform, and in particular left unfulfilled the six demands of the Chartist movement. After 1848, this movement declined rapidly, but elite opinion began to pay attention. [4] It was thus only 27 years after the initial, quite modest, Great Reform Act that leading politicians thought it prudent to introduce further electoral reform. Following an unsuccessful attempt by Benjamin Disraeli to introduce a reform bill in 1859, Lord John Russell, who had played a major role in passing the 1832 Reform Act, attempted this in 1860; but the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, a fellow Liberal, was against any further electoral reform.[ citation needed ]

The Union victory in the American Civil War in 1865 emboldened the forces in Britain that demanded more democracy and public input into the political system, to the dismay of the upper class landed gentry who identified with the US Southern States planters and feared the loss of influence and a popular radical movement. Influential commentators included Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Anthony Trollope, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. [5] Proponents used two arguments: the balance of the constitution and "moral right". They emphasized that deserving, skilled, sober, thrifty, and deferential artisans deserve the franchise. Liberal William Gladstone emphasized the "moral" improvement of workingmen and felt that they should therefore have the opportunity of "demonstrating their allegiance to their betters". However the opposition warned against the low-class democracy of the United States and Australia. [6]

Palmerston's death in 1865 opened the floodgates for reform. In 1866 Russell (Earl Russell as he had been since 1861, and now Prime Minister for the second time), introduced a Reform Bill. It was a cautious bill, which proposed to enfranchise "respectable" working men, excluding unskilled workers and what was known as the "residuum", those seen by MPs as the "feckless and criminal" poor. This was ensured by a £7 annual rent qualification to vote—or 2 shillings and 9 pence (2s 9d) a week. [n 1] [7] This entailed two "fancy franchises", emulating 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". [8] </ref>

When it came to the vote, however, this bill split the Liberal Party: a split 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 were supported by Tories and the liberal Whigs were supported by radicals and reformists.[ citation needed ]

The bill was thus defeated and the Liberal government of Russell resigned.[ citation needed ]

Birth of the Act

The Conservatives formed a ministry on 26 June 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, Derby's Conservatives saw an opportunity to be a strong, viable party of government; however, there was still a Liberal majority in the House of 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 regarding reform of the House of Commons. Huge meetings, especially 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. However, wealthy Conservative MP Lord Cranborne resigned his government ministry in disgust at the bill's introduction.

The Reform League, agitating for universal suffrage, became much more active, and organized demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Manchester, Glasgow, and other towns. Though these movements did not normally use revolutionary language as some Chartists had in the 1840s, they were powerful movements. The high point came when a demonstration in May 1867 in Hyde Park 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.

A Punch cartoon from August 1867 portraying Disraeli as a horse, taking Britannia on a leap in the dark Reform bill1867punchJohn Tenniel into the dark125.png
A Punch cartoon from August 1867 portraying Disraeli as a horse, taking Britannia on a leap in the dark

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 Ewart Gladstone. An amendment tabled by the opposition (but not by Gladstone himself) trebled the new number entitled to vote under the bill; yet Disraeli simply accepted it. The bill enfranchised most men who lived in urban areas. 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 becoming much more radical. Having been given his chance by the belief that Gladstone's bill had gone too far in 1866, Disraeli had now gone further.

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

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

Provisions of the Act

Reduced representation

Disenfranchised boroughs

Four electoral boroughs were disenfranchised by the Act, for corruption, their last number of MPs shown as blocks:

Seven English boroughs were disenfranchised by the Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868 the next year, their last number of MPs shown as blocks:

Halved representation

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

Three further boroughs (Honiton, Thetford, Wells) were also due to have their representation halved under the 1867 Act, but before this reduction took effect they were disenfranchised altogether by the 1868 Scottish Reform Act as noted above.


The Act created nine new single-member borough seats:

The following two boroughs were enfranchised with two MPs:

The following two were enlarged:

Other changes

Reforms in Scotland and Ireland

The reforms for Scotland and Ireland were carried out by two subsequent acts, the Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1868 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) 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.


"Dishing the Whigs", Fun cartoon. Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli "dish" their Whig opponents by introducing more liberal reforms than they had contemplated; their heads are presented on a platter to Queen Victoria. Dishing-the-Whigs-1867.jpeg
"Dishing the Whigs", Fun cartoon. Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli "dish" their Whig opponents by introducing more liberal reforms than they had contemplated; their heads are presented on a platter to Queen Victoria.

Direct effects of the Act

The slur of local bribery and corruption dogged early debates in 186768. The whips' and leaders' decision to steer away discussion of electoral malpractice or irregularity to 1868's Election Petitions Act facilitated the progress of the main Reform Act. [9]

The unprecedented extension of the franchise to all householders effectively gave the vote to many working-class men, quite a considerable change. Jonathan Parry described this as a "borough franchise revolution"; [10] Overwhelming election of the landed class or otherwise very wealthy to the Commons would no longer be assured by money, bribery and favours, those elected would reflect the most common sentiment of local units of the public. The brand-new franchise provisions were briefly flawed; the act did not address the issues of compounding and of not being a ratepayer in a household. Compounding (counting of one's under-tenants payments and using that count as a qualification) as to all rates and rents was made illegal, abolished in the enactment of a bill tabled by Liberal Grosvenor Hodgkinson. This meant that all male tenants would have to pay the parish/local rates directly and thus thereafter qualified for the vote.

A flaw remained. The preparation of the local electoral registers (there has been no national register) was still left too easily manipulated by party organisers who could remove opponents and add supporters at will. Each local register was difficult to contest.

A 2022 study found that the Act reduced political violence in the UK. [11]

Unintended effects

The Liberal Party was worried about the prospect of a socialist party taking the bulk of the working-class vote, so they moved to the left, while their rivals the Conservatives initiated occasional intrigues to encourage socialist candidates to stand against the Liberals.[ citation needed ]

Reform Act in literature

Thomas Carlyle's essay "Shooting Niagara: And After?" compares the Second Reform Act and democracy generally to plunging over Niagara Falls. [12] His essay provoked a response from Mark Twain, "A Day at Niagara" (1869). [13] Trollope's Phineas Finn is concerned almost exclusively with the parliamentary progress of the Second Reform Act, and Finn sits for one of the seven fictional boroughs that are due to be disenfranchised. [14]

See also


  1. £131 per week or £569 per month in present terms based on CPI inflation
  1. This short title was conferred on this Act by section 1 of this Act.
  2. Smith 1966.
  3. "Notes Upon 'the Representation of the People Act, 1867' (30 & 31 Vict. C. 102.): With Appendices Concerning the Antient Rights, the Rights Conferred by the 2 & 3 Will. IV C. 45, Population, Rental, Rating, and the Operation of the Repealed Enactments as to Compound Householders", Thomas Chisholm Anstey, pp. 26, 169–172.
  4. Murray, Christopher John, ed. (2004). Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760–1850, Volume 1: A–K. p. 115.
  5. 1 2 Kinser, Brent E. (2011). The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy. Ashgate.
  6. Smith 1964, pp. 306–323.
  7. Himmelfarb 1966.
  8. Smith 1966, pp. 65–66.
  9. Rix 2017.
  10. J. Parry (1993). The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain, p. 221.
  11. Marcucci, Andrea; Rohner, Dominic; Saia, Alessandro (2023). "Ballot or Bullet: The Impact of the UK's Representation of the People Act on Peace and Prosperity". The Economic Journal. doi:10.1093/ej/ueac092. ISSN   0013-0133.
  12. Cumming, Mark, ed. (2004). "'Shooting Niagara: And After?'". The Carlyle Encyclopedia . Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 427. ISBN   978-0-8386-3792-0.
  13. Sorensen, David; Kinser, Brent E. (11 January 2018). "Thomas Carlyle". Oxford Bibliographies. Carlyle and America. doi:10.1093/OBO/9780199799558-0037.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. Halperin, John (1978). "Trollope's Phineas Finn and History". English Studies. 59 (2): 121–137. doi:10.1080/00138387808597881.

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