Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 8

The passing of the 1867 Parliamentary Reform Act

Study Sources A to F and then answer the questions that follow.
Source A:

A speech by John Bright in 1866.

We now come to the Rochdale District Co-operative Corn Mill Society, which does a large business. It has a capital of £60,000 and turns over £164,000 per annum. It has also a committee, but neither the president, nor treasurer, nor secretary, nor any one of this committee has a borough vote. Now what is taking place in Rochdale societies is occurring in greater or less degree in all the societies, of which there are five or six hundred throughout the country...You have one million electors now, and there are eight million of grown men in the United Kingdom; can you say that only one million shall have votes and all the rest are to remain excluded? Is the thing possible?

Source: Quoted in D. G. Wright, Democracy and Reform 1815-1885, Longman, 1970.

Source B:

A speech by W. E .Gladstone in the House of Commons, April 1866.

An enormous benefit has been effected by the freedom of the press, when for the humble sum of a penny, or even less, newspapers are circulated by the million, carrying home to all classes of our fellow countrymen, accounts of public affairs, enabling them to feel a new interest in those affairs...And the working community has responded fully to all calls made upon it to improve itself. Take for example the Working Men’s Free Libraries throughout the country...Then again, Sir, we called upon them to be thrifty, and we started for them the Post Office savings banks; and what has been the result? There are now 650,000 depositors in those savings banks. Parliament has been striving to make the working class progressively fitter and fitter for the franchise; and can anything be more unwise, not to say more senseless, than to persevere from year to year in this plan, and then blindly refuse to recognise its logical upshot - namely, the increased fitness of the working class for political power.

Source: Quoted in L. Evans and P. J. Pledger, Contemporary Sources and Opinions in Modern British History,Vol 1, Warne, 1967.

Source C:

Extracts from speeches by Robert Lowe, a Liberal MP, in the House of Commons, May 1867.

The right hon. gentleman opposite [Disraeli] has adopted a course which is infinitely creditable to his dexterity as a tactician. He well knew that had he proposed the measure as it is now before us, and shown it to his party at first, they would have started back from it in horror...The right hon. gentleman has treated them as we treat a shy horse...take him gently up, walk him round the object, and then, when the process has been repeated often enough, we hope we shall get the creature to pass it quietly...clearly he was determined from the beginning that household suffrage was the principle he intended to introduce...

You are about to take away the management of affairs from the upper and middle classes, and you are about to place it in the hands of people of whose politics you know nothing, for the best of all possible reasons - because they do not know what their politics are themselves. But they will not always be without politics; and what will they be? Their politics must take one form - Socialism...

The first stage will be an increase of corruption, intimidation and disorder, of all the evils that happen usually in elections. The second will be that the working men of England, finding themselves in a full majority, will awake to a full sense of their power. They will say ‘We can do better for ourselves; we have our trade unions; we have our leaders all ready’.

Now, I ask the House again, with the example of America before us, is it wise to push forward in this direction? We see in America, where the people have undisputed power, that they do not send honest, hardworking men to represent them in Congress, but dealers in office, bankrupts, men who have lost their character and been driven from every respectable way of life, and who take up politics as a last resource.

Source: As Source A, also quoted in R. Grinter, Disraeli and Conservatism, Arnold, 1968.

Source D:

Conservative historian Robert Blake writes that there are three main theories to explain why Disraeli and the Conservatives, after rejecting a mild Liberal reform measure, themselves introduced a much more far-reaching Bill only a year later.

ONE - the Liberal theory: that the Bill in its final form was forced on Disraeli by Gladstone, as the price paid by unscrupulous Tories for remaining in office. The true facts were recognised by the newly enfranchised town householders who showed their gratitude to Gladstone by returning the Liberals with an increased majority in the first election after the new Act.

TWO - the Tory democracy theory: that the Reform Act was not forced on a reluctant Disraeli, but fulfilled an aim which he had held for many years - to further some kind of alliance between the aristocracy and the urban working class...The social reforms of 1875 and 1876 lend further colour to the view that the Conservatives were appealing to the working man. Far from yielding to pressure in 1867, Disraeli was educating his party. THREE - the Labour theory: that the politicians were subject to the pressure of mass working class agitation expressed through the activities of the Reform League. According to this theory, the really crucial event was the demonstration by the League in Hyde Park in May 1867, in defiance of the government’s ban. This, it is alleged, is the direct cause of Disraeli’s adding another 400,000 voters to the borough electorate.

Source: R. Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher, Fontana, 1985.

Source E:

A speech by Disraeli in the House of Commons during the Reform Bill debate, July 1867.

I think that the danger would be less, that the feeling of the larger numbers would be more national, than by giving the vote just to a sort of class set aside, looking with suspicion on their superiors, and with disdain on those beneath them. I think you would have a better chance of touching the popular heart, of evoking the national sentiment, by bringing in the great body of those men who occupy houses and fulfil the duties of citizenship by the payment of rates.

Source: As Source A.

Source F:

From a biography of Gladstone, written by John Morley, a Liberal politician.

It was at Mr Gladstone’s demand that lodgers were given the vote, and that the distribution of seats was extended into an operation of enormously larger scale.

Source: J. Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Vol.1, Macmillan, 1903.


  1. What methods do Bright and Gladstone use in Sources A and B to put over their case for more parliamentary reform? (6 marks)
  2. How successfully do you think Lowe (in Source C) puts the case against more parliamentary reform? (6 marks)
  3. Using the evidence of the Sources and your own knowledge, explain why you think Lowe’s views on parliamentary reform were so different from those of Bright and Gladstone, even though all three were members of the Liberal party. (5 marks)
  4. Judging by the evidence of the Sources and your own knowledge, which of the three theories mentioned by Blake (Source D) about the passing of the 1867 Reform Act do you think seems most plausible? (13 marks)
(Total 30 marks)