This week in London radical history, 1831: riots break out as House of Lords reject the Reform Bill

The long campaign for reform of the British political system went through many phases, especially in the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1832 a powerful agitation for political change revived, following a decade in which post-Peterloo repression and a measure of economic stability had left pressure on this front relatively quiet. This period marks an almost unique phase in the evolution of the franchise, as the middle and working classes formed a brief alliance, a broadly shared goal – parliamentary representation for unrepresented towns.

A cartoon satirising upper class opposition to reform.

During the 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars, an upsurge of reform movements had been frustrated by government repression, leading to outbreaks of mass violence such as the Spa Fields Riot, attempts at insurrection like the Pentrich Uprising, vicious official responses like the Peterloo Massacre, and clandestine plots such as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Following these turbulent years, many radical energies instead went into the free thought ideas of Richard Carlile, into Owenite socialism and co-operation, into the ‘war of the unstamped press’. After 1830, though, campaigns for political reform grew up again, to become more powerful than even previous waves of battles for reform.

Many reform associations and political unions were launched, often by veterans of the 1816-20 reform wave. Many who had been seen as ultra-radicals then had become solidly liberal and respectable, seeking moderate reform and representation for newly-confident manufacturing towns, as well as free trade. In Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, for example, Whig-liberal merchants and manufacturers (predominantly from Dissenting religious backgrounds) had become increasingly wealthy and influential economically, because of massive growth in industries like textiles; they posed a more serious challenge to the power of the Tory-Anglican local elites, in a way that they had been unable to do in the 1790s or 1810s.

The early 1830s saw three main phases of agitation:
– the initial formation of political unions across the country, to support the introduction of Earl Grey’s first reform bill in March 1831;
– a wave of meetings, petitions and riots following the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill on 8 October 1831,
– finally, the tumultuous passage of Lord John Russell’s reform bill from March to the ‘days of May’ in 1832.

By 1830 two major constitutional changes affecting the franchise had already been made by the Tories: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had prevented members of non-conformist protestant churches from voting or holding office, and the passing of Catholic Emancipation, removing bars on Catholic participation in public life. Both these pieces of legislation were put through parliament by the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government with the assistance of Robert Peel, his leader in the House of Commons.

But after being re-elected prime minister in 1830, the Duke of Wellington made a speech early in November pledging not only not to introduce any measure for parliamentary reform but also to oppose any reform proposals. This enraged reformers:

“The Duke of Wellington made a speech in the Lords, and declared against Reform. I hear he was hissed, and hurt by a stone. I heard this evening that a very unpleasant feeling was rising among the working classes, and that the shopkeepers in the Metropolis were so much alarmed that they talked of arming themselves.” John Cab Hobhouse (diary entry, 4th November, 1830)

London saw an upsurge in pro-reform demonstrations, which erupted into rioting.

Wellington was forced to resign shortly after. Earl Grey formed a Whig ministry which pledged to introducing a Reform Bill and he asked Lord John Russell to prepare the legislation. On 1 March 1830 the Bill was presented to the House of Commons, passing its second reading by only one vote at the end of the month. The government was then defeated on an amendment to the Bill and Grey resigned. This led to more rioting. The ensuing general election was fought solely on the question of reform and saw the return of the Whigs with a massive majority. Grey took this to be a mandate for continuing with the reform proposals.

Since the first Bill had not passed through all the required stages of debate and vote, committee and discussion by the time the parliamentary session had ended in the summer of 1831, Russell had to introduce a new Bill in the new session. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill.

Reform Bill rally, Birmingham

However it was defeated by forty-one votes in the House of Lords on 8 October 1831. The House of Lords was dominated by the Tories, led by the Wellington; the Lords deliberately rejected the Bill because the legislation included curtailing the power that the Lords previously had exercised over the election of MPs.

The defeat of the Bill was greeted with dismay across the country: “On the morning of the 8 Oct. 1831 I was compelled to go down to Gravesend by the Steamer and thence to Chatham. Before I started I obtained in the City a copy of the Sun Newspaper published at half past 6 o clock, fringed with black, and announcing the loss of the peoples bill in the house of Lords by the frightful majority of 41. Never shall I forget the excitement which prevailed in the breast of every one at hearing the news. The morning papers were not out, the boat was crowded and the passengers were conversing in groups on the deck on rumours which had reached their ears. I was the only person on board who possessed anything like an authentic account, and, when the paper with a black border was seen in my hand, the passengers rushed towards me, I was instantly mounted on a chair and compelled to read the debate through from beginning to end. The excitement, the disapprobation, and approbation of the several speakers were as energetic as they could have been had they been the actual spectators of the scene which the report described…” (Mr Powell)

According to the Westminster radical tailor, moderate activist (and Home office informant) Francis Place, it spurred an immediate agitation in the capital:
“Meetings were held on the Saturday (October 8th) in many of the Metropolitan Parishes and many more were called for the Monday. The Parish of Mary-le-bone had taken the lead respecting parliamentary interference for the regulation of vestries, and had succeeded in inducing a considerable number of parishes to appoint deputies to confer together in their mutual interests, the persons who in that parish had assembled frequently appointed a committee to watch over their interests and this committee now considered themselves a political committee in respect to the reform bill. They assembled and being joined by a considerable number of the inhabitants they issued the following notice.

The Lords have rejected the bill. England expects every man will do his duty.

The parishioners of Mary-le-Bone will assemble at the Horse Bazaar at twelve o’clock on Monday next, to address the King, support his ministers and consult on the present state of affairs. Pursuant to a resolution passed at two preparatory meetings, the inhabitants are desired to devote Monday next solemnly to these objects, to suspend all business and shut up their shops.”

This call out became a huge demonstration on Monday 10th October, demanding reform, which marched in procession from Whitehall to Hyde Park:

“Long before the time appointed the capacious square of the Horse Bazaar was not only filled but an immense number of persons—said to amount to 30,000 could not gain admittance. A call became general to adjourn to Hyde Park and it was announced that Mr Hume who had agreed to take the chair would meet them there. An orderly procession of the people immediately took place and an immense number, estimated at 50,000 congregated in the open space north of the Serpentine River. They had come nearly a mile to this spot and had waited some time when two gentlemen on horseback rode among them and told them that Mr Hume thought the meeting would be illegal if held out of the Parish and as Mr Maberly had granted the use of a piece of ground in Regents Park they requested the meeting would assemble there as speedily as possible. ‘If any thing,’ observes the Chronicle (very justly)

could have cooled the ardour of the people, who however proved themselves as ardent as patriotic, it was this demand upon their patience after waiting above an hour at the Bazaar, and dragging through the Park for an hour more; but nothing daunted they proceeded in good humour, to the Regents Park and arrived there between one and two o’clock. Several waggons were placed at the lower part of the grounds and the assembled multitude which before the chair was taken must have amounted to 80,000 persons formed themselves on the rising ground into a sort of semi-circle and the wind being in their faces, the majority could hear the proceedings.

Mr Hume took the Chair..

Large Placards were exhibited, one was ‘Englishmen – Remember it was the Bishops—and the Bishops only whose votes decided the fate of the Reform Bill’

The other was—

‘England expects that every man will do His Duty’

Mr Hume—said it was no ordinary occasion which had called them together, and in the great and important measures they were about to discuss, every man from the King to the Peasant had a deep interest. He knew they would act peacably and orderly, and would not despair, as long as they had a Patriot King, a liberal ministry, and a majority in favour of the measure. They would tell the petty pitiful majority of the house of Lords that they had rights as Englishmen as sacred as their own and that an oligarchy which had usurped their rights should be compelled to relinquish their tyrannical power which they had so long exercised against the people. He respected the words of Lord Grey that he would stand by the people and the King so long as the King gave him his confidence, said he reposed confidence in his sincerity, and though ministers had not been so active in promoting the bill as they ought to have been, he hoped they would profit by experience and not coquet with the Tories, since it was vain to expect the tories could be induced to approve of measures favourable to the people. He said there must be either reform or revolution (immense cheering and cries of we will have it). It was because in case of a revolution the working and useful classes would be the greatest sufferers that he wished to effect a reform by constitutional means and hoped to avoid such a revolution as the Duke of Wellington wished should take place. He knew the people would not be drawn in to commit acts of violence (no—no) they would protect the property of the country (we will).”

Among those who had organised the procession were the leaders of the National Union of the Working Classes, the London-based radical organisation. 

Place estimated that around 70,000 people attended, many wearing the white scarves emblematic of manhood suffrage. Although these were impressive numbers, they compared poorly with larger a demonstration in the following days at Birmingham, drawn too from a smaller population.

The procession of October 1831 was mainly composed (it seems) of ‘shopkeepers and superior artisans’, and remained peaceful.

However, rioting broke out in London later in the week:

“It was in allusion to the rejection of the Reform Bill in the month of October 1831 by the House of Lords, that the popular feeling was most strongly exhibited. Many of the newspapers, which announced the result of the division in the House of Lords, were put into mourning, and a feeling of the deepest and most melancholy foreboding soon spread itself throughout the country. The fate of the Reform Bill became speedily known, and on the Monday following (10th) marks of unequivocal sorrow and disgust exhibited themselves. In the metropolis circulars were distributed in every parish, calling meetings; all business appeared suspended; and the shops in all directions were either partially or totally closed. Mourning flags were exhibited from the houses, accompanied by placards, in which the bishops, who had formed a considerable portion of the majority against the bill, presented a source of prolific censure. In King-street, Seven-dials, the effigy of the Duke of Wellington was burned; and, in Tottenham-court-road, a placard was exhibited at a shop, announcing that arms might be had, to be paid for by instalments. On the part of the government, every precaution was taken for the preservation of the public peace. Troops were marched into London, and stationed so as to be ready to be called into immediate activity in case of necessity; ball-cartridges were distributed, and everything was done which prudence could suggest for the maintenance of order. Numerous meetings were held in the course of the week, at which the most enthusiastic determination was exhibited; and every means was adopted by the people to throw disgrace and discredit upon those by whom their wishes had been opposed. The Duke of Wellington, and other noble peers who had distinguished themselves by their opposition to the bill, were roughly greeted, and were pelted on their way to the House of Lords. The Duke of Cumberland was also nearly receiving much ill-usage from a mob assembled in the Park.

On Wednesday (the 12th of October), the king held a levee at St. James’s Palace, at which an immense number of addresses was presented. The trades’ unions assembled in vast mobs in the neighbourhood of the palace, accompanied by their flags and other insignia, and some violence was done by the mob. The residence of the Marquis of Bristol, in St. James’s-square, was made the object of an attack by them. Many of the windows were dashed in, and a considerable quantity of valuable effects destroyed; but fortunately there were many well-disposed persons in the vicinity, by whom the police were assisted, and the rioters dispersed. The mob, however, had been no sooner driven from here, than they proceeded at once to the residence of the Duke of Wellington, Apsley House, Piccadilly. This was, in turn, made the object of an assault even more severe and determined than that of the Marquis of Bristol. At about half-past two o’clock in the day, several parties were seen to approach the residence of his grace, and the foremost of the gang threw a few stones at the windows, and sent forth the most horrible yells. Some of the servants belonging to the establishment came forward and presented pistols at the mob assembled; but this only served to increase their anger. A volley of stones was instantly hurled at their supposed assailants; and a cry being raised of “They are going to fire on us — now let us go to work,” an instant attack was commenced on the mansion. Stones flew in showers on the house, and not a dozen panes of glass were left undemolished, while many valuable pictures inside were utterly ruined, and the furniture was destroyed. The police at first were in small numbers upon the spot, but a reinforcement having arrived from the Vigo-street Station-house, a vigorous attack on the mob was commenced. The employment of their staves, and the determination which was exhibited by the constables, served, in a very material degree, to drive away the assembled crowd; and, of those who were taken into custody, all were of the lowest class — showing that their object was rather mischief or depredation, than the assertion of a principle, or the maintenance of a right. At about seven o’clock in the evening, a new attempt to get up a riot was made by a mob of two or three hundred persons, who were met on their way through Piccadilly towards St. James’s Palace; but a speedy stop was put to their proceedings by the police, who had assembled in large bodies to repel any such new effort as might be made.”

However, the trouble in London was piecemeal at best compared with the response to the defeat of the Reform Bill in other parts of the country. Serious rioting took place in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby.

Rioting in Bristol, October 1831

Rioting took place in Bristol after the arrival of anti-reform judge Charles Wetherell in the city for the annual assizes on 29 October. Wetherell’s carriage was attacked and civic and military authorities lost control of the situation. There followed two days of rioting and looting in which much of the city centre was burned and prisoners freed from the jails. The riots were brought to an end on 31 October by which time £300,000 of damage had been caused and up to 250 casualties incurred.  A dozen people were killed and hundreds wounded or arrested. The Bristol riot was probably the most violent and widespread outbreak of working class violence in 19th century British history…

At Derby violence also broke out, after apparent provocation by “indecent and insulting ebullition of joy manifested by a party of those who were opposed to the Reform Bill. The bells of the churches had been tolling during the whole of Saturday evening, the news having reached the town by express at an early hour on that day, and a number of persons, amounting to a considerable crowd, having assembled at the coach-offices, awaiting the arrival of the London coaches, in order that their fears might be set at rest, they were assailed with laughter and other uncalled-for insults by their political opponents. The consequence was a retaliation on their part, which terminated in an attack upon the houses of those who had made themselves unpopular by their conduct. The windows of many of these houses were demolished, and the persons of some of their owners subjected to violence; but at length a considerable number of the rioters were taken into custody. This served only to increase their anger, and an attack being made upon the jail, the whole of the prisoners were liberated. The mob in turn were assailed by the keeper of the prison and his assistants, with fire-arms, and the result was that three of their number were killed. The soldiery were then called out, and tranquillity was at length with some difficulty restored.” The Jail in nearby Markeaton was also attacked.

Rioting also broke out in Nottingham on 9 October upon learning of the defeat of the bill. This was initially directed solely against the private houses of known opponents of reform. On 10 October a public meeting turned to violence, the attendees marched on Colwick Hall, home of John Musters, which was damaged. The next day the mob burned Nottingham Castle, home of anti-reform peer Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle, who was away at parliament. Lowe’s Silk Mill in Beeston was burnt on 11 October, the same day the riots ceased. The Duke was able to gather yeomanry and his own tenants to successfully defend his residence at Clumber Park.

There were other violent incidents: the Manchester Chronicle noted that since the Manchester meeting, ‘symptoms of disorder and tumult have been manifested each evening in the vicinity of New Cross, by the assemblage of numerous bodies of men’. On the Friday evening a crowd ‘demolished the windows of the residence of Hugh Hornby Birley Esq, Mosley Street’ and the cavalry were called to suppress the riot. Birley, had been hated seen his involvement in the repression at Peterloo 12 years before.

There was also agro in Carlisle, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter, Bath and Worcester.

After this truculent response to the defeat of the Bill, Earl Grey was reluctant to provoke more division by ask parliament to discuss the issue of reform yet again; but Thomas Attwood and other leaders of the Political Unions organised a huge campaign to demand the passing of the legislation. Grey tried to defuse the situation by agreeing to the introduction of a third Reform Bill.
This third Bill again passed the Commons, and proceeded to the Lords on 26 March 1832. The Lords threatened to reject it again, so Grey resigned on 9th May 1832. Wellington attempted to form a ministry but was could not gain the support of leading tory MPs, including Robert Peel. King William IV sent again for Grey, who agreed to resume office but only on the condition that the king would create enough new Peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the passage of the Bill.

Whilst the politicians argued and bargained, there was further rioting. The Duke of Wellington eventually recognised the necessity of the Bill passing, and ordered the Tory Lords either to vote for the Bill or to absent themselves from the session when the vote was taken. Over two hundred Tory Lords didn’t turn up for the vote and the Bill passed through the House of Lords on 7 June 1832.

Although the legislation is often referred to as the “Great Reform Act” its terms – although far reaching at the time – were really quite moderate, and did not satisfy the huge demand for change that had been building for decades. A. L. Morton, the author of A People’s History of England (1938) argued that the most import change was that it placed “political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class followers.” Voting in the urban boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10; there were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. After the  Act, still only one in seven adult males had the vote. It added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales – an increase of about 50%. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority. Nor were the constituencies of equal size – another crucial demand for many reformers. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.

Caricature of the political situation in May 1832: John Bull (representing public opinion) helps Earl Grey against the Duke of Wellington and King William IV.

It has been suggested subsequently that Britain was close to revolution during the reform crises of the early 1830s, both in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘days of May’ of 1832. Could a British revolution anticipated the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune?

Contemporary commentators thought the country was on the tipping point. Edward Littleton, then a Whig MP, commented in his diary that the country was “in a state little short of insurrection”,while the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith later described a “hand-shaking, bowel-disturbing passion of fear”.(which should really be the bottom line for how the ruling classes should always be reacting to working class collective action…) Fears among the wealthy that a general uprising was imminent, triggered a rush of gold withdrawals from the Bank of England in May 1832.

This fear was apparently shared by the Queen, whose “fixed impression, is that an English revolution is rapidly approaching, and that her own fate is to be that of Marie Antoinette” Sadly not. Some historians agree: E. P. Thompson wrote that “in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘Days of May’ Britain was within an ace of revolution” and Eric Hobsbawm felt that “This period is probably the only one in modern history … where something not unlike a revolutionary situation might have developed.”

The more radical elements in the country had denounced the limited range of the Reform Bill from the beginning, and until

the winter of 1831-2, some had refused to engage in agitation around the Bill; lecturers in Carlile’s Rotunda labelled the Bill a ‘trap’ designed to split and betray the radical movement. The Poor Man’s Guardian ridiculed the whole Bill. But as the diehard reactionary establishment resisted any reform, it pushed the country to the threshold of mass upheaval, and the radicals became drawn in. The Poor Man’s Guardian adjusted its tactics and published a special supplement featuring extracts from Colonel Macerone’s Defensive Instructions for the People (a manual for street-fighting). By early 1832, National Union of the Working Classes ultra-radicals like William Benbow and Julian Hibbert were preparing for an armed struggle.

The Midlands and the north were in ferment: “Walk into any lane or public-house, where a number of operatives are congregated together,” wrote John Doherty “and listen for ten minutes to the conversation . . . In at least seven out of every ten cases, the subjects of debate will be found to bear upon the appalling question of whether it would be more advantageous to attack the lives or the property of the rich…”

In May 1832, during the ‘eleven days of England’s apprehension and turmoil’ which preceded the final passage, of the Bill through the Lords in May, Francis Place held his breath, anticipating uprising if the Bill did not pass and Wellington returned to power. On the evening of the day when it passed, he returned home and noted:

“We were within a moment of general rebellion, and had it been possible for the Duke of Wellington to have formed an administration the Thing and the people would have been at issue… There would have been ‘Barricadoes of the principal towns – stopping circulation of paper money’; if a revolution had commenced, it ‘would have been the act of the whole people to a greater extent than any which had ever before been accomplished”.

That none of the crisis points of the Reform Bill saga did lead to revolution, or even to any sustained revolt or uprising, probably boiled down at least in part to the unwillingness of a majority of reformist leaders to push that far. A large part of the Radical tradition (of which William Cobbett was the leading spokesman) was deeply constitutional, committed to peaceable methods of achieving change. The organised radicals prepared to use more direct tactics were in a minority. Whether or not riots could have been extended into insurrections if a more vocal leadership had been out there, in the various parts of the country, is unclear. Beyond a handful of cities the willingness of local populations to take to the streets was also limited. 

The spectrum within the reform movement, ranging from Parliamentary Whigs through middle class radicals to the NUWC, could bring temporary unity in demonstrations but little agreement as to methods and even ultimate aims. But leaders like Thomas Attwood wielded immense influence, and the middle-class Radicals cleverly assembled a program of reforms that offered a compromise which strengthened both the State and property-rights.

Influential radicals like Francis Place were as much concerned to prevent the NUWC and ‘extremists’ from gaining more traction and followers as they were to see the Bill pass. Place spent much effort undermining the NUWC and bolstering the National Political Union, by as underhand methods as he could get away with (including informing to the Home Office on radicals he considered ‘dangerous). How much did some of the moderate leaders exploit the threat of uprising and working class violence to get what they wanted, never intending to support anything wider?

But the adaptability of the British establishment was also a factor. The ability to cut the sails and compromise just enough to split the reform movement, to absorb and buy off the middle classes while giving nothing to the masses, marked the UK’s elite out of from the more rigid continental regimes. The ruling class bent so as not to break. Even the ultra-reactionary Wellington could see by May 1832 that some reform was inevitable.

The Reform Act left the many working class activists who had been arguing, agitating and rioting for change hugely disappointed. Unsurprisingly, many of the middle classes who had benefitted from the Act did not continue to campaign for an extension to the franchise. The growing working class political movements – radicals, Owenites, co-operators, trade unionists – reacted by beginning to rebuild their own movements for political reform, which was to give birth to Chartism.

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