Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 4

The campaign for parliamentary reform
Read Sources A to G and then answer the questions that follow.

Source A:

A speech by Lord John Russell in the House of Commons when he introduced his first Reform Bill, 1 March 1831.

What then would be the surprise of a stranger from afar if he were taken by his guide, whom he had asked to conduct him to one of the places of election, to a green mound, and told that this green mound sent two members to parliament. Or if he were shown a green park with many signs of flourishing vegetable life but none of human habitation, and told that this green park sent two members to parliament. But his surprise would increase to astonishment if he were carried into the North of England, where he would see large flourishing towns full of trade and activity, and were told that these places had no representatives in the assembly which was said to represent the people. Thus the confidence which the people used to have in the construction and constitution of the House of Commons is gone for ever. The whole people call loudly for reform.

Source: Hansard; quoted in L.Evans and P.J. Pledger, Contemporary Sources and Opinions in Modern British History, Vol I, Warne, 1967.

Source B:

Extracts from The Extraordinary Black Book, written to draw attention to the faults of the system; published 1831

The great fount of evil is the rotten boroughs, from which has flowered national calamities, ruinous wars, lavish expenditure and enormous debt. They are the obstacle to every social improvement - civil, commercial, legal and ecclesiastical. By means of them the nobility have been able to double their private incomes and to fill every lucrative office in the army, navy and public administration with their friends and dependants...Because of the boroughs, all our institutions are oppressive and aristocratic...The aristocratic spirit pervades everything...all is privilege.

At Nottingham, one gentleman confessed to having paid out in the election of 1826, above £3000 in bribery in a single day...At Hull, one of the sitting members dared not appear before his constituents because he had not paid ‘the polling money’ for the last election.

Source: Quoted in D. Holman (ed.), Portraits and Documents: Earlier Nineteenth Century, Hutchinson, 1985.

Source C:

A speech by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords, 2 November 1830.

He was fully convinced that the country possessed at the present moment a legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation, and this to a greater degree than any legislature had ever answered in any country whatever. He would go further and say that the legislature and the system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country...the representation of the people at present contained a large body of the property of the country and the landed interests which had a predominant place. Under these circumstances he was not prepared to bring forward any measure [of reform].

Source: As Source A.

Source D:

English boroughs and their electors in 1830
Number of electors Number of boroughs
Over 5000 7
1001-5000 36
601-1000 22
301-600 24
101-300 36
51-100 21
50 or fewer 56
Source: M.G. Brock, The Great Reform Act, Hutchinson, 1973.

Source E:

Analysis of the House of Commons elected in 1830; total number of MPs - 658.
Relations of peers 256
Placemen and pensioners 217
Officers in the army 89
Officers in the navy 24
Lawyers 54
East Indian Interests 62
West Indian Interests 35
Bankers 35
Agricultural interests 356
Miscellaneous 51
Source: The Extraordinary Black Book, 1831 (see Source B)

Source F:

Report of a meeting held on Hunslet Moor (near Leeds), 20 September 1819.

It was resolved that a reform in the Constitution of the Commons House is an absolute necessity, the present corrupt system having nearly produced a disruption of society. Therefore in order to put an end to these great and national evils, we deem it vital that the present System of Electing Members to Parliament should be abolished and the Elective Franchise be extended to all persons who are called on to contribute, either by taxes or labour, to the support of the State, and that Elections be taken by the ballot annually.

Source: Quoted in D.G. Wright, Democracy and Reform 1815-85, Longman, 1970.

Source G:

Speech by Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons, 21 September 1831.

This Bill [the Reform Bill] does not violate the forms of the constitution - I admit it, but I assert that, while it respects those forms, it destroys the balance of opposing powers; it is a sudden and violent transfer of an authority which has until now been shared by all orders in the state, exclusively to one.

Source: Hansard; quoted in D.G. Wright (see Source F).


  1. Using your own knowledge and the information in the sources, explain what the writer meant by the following phrases: (i) rotten boroughs (Source B); (ii) a disruption of society (Source F). (4 marks)
  2. In what ways does the evidence in Sources D, E and F support the criticisms of the existing parliamentary system made in Sources A and B? (10 marks)
  3. Compare the view of the old parliamentary system put forward in Source C with the one put forward in Sources A and B. How do you explain these differences? (8 marks)
  4. Using your own knowledge and the evidence of the sources, explain: (i) Sir Robert Peel's reaction to the Reform Bill (Source G); (ii) How far you think the Reform Act of 1832 would have satisfied the people at the meeting on Hunslet Moor (Source F). (8 marks)
(Total 30 marks)