Pressure for democratic reform up to 1884

Pressure for Democratic Reform up to 1884

Early demands for reform

  • Prior to the Great Reform Act of 1832, Britain’s electoral system was known for rampant corruption, lack of consistency, and unequal distribution of voting rights.
  • Only the landed gentry and wealthy bourgeoisie could vote, which was about 3-5% of the population, leading to a desire for a broader franchise.
  • Pressure for democratic reform emerged due to a growing middle class, influenced by the values of the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions, demanding political representation.
  • The burden of taxes without representation, particularly following the Napoleonic Wars, increased resentment towards the status quo.

Great Reform Act of 1832

  • The Great Reform Act of 1832 was a response to growing pressure and unrest, particularly the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where a pro-democracy and anti-poverty protest in Manchester was violently suppressed.
  • The Act abolished “rotten boroughs” (parliamentary boroughs with little population but controlled by a single person or family) and redistributed seats to the rapidly growing industrial towns.
  • While it extended voting rights to men owning property with a yearly rental value of £10, it only made a modest increase in the proportion of adult males who could vote, from 3% to 5%.


  • Following the 1832 Reform Act, there was increased disappointment among the working classes, leading to the emergence of the Chartist movement.
  • Chartism presented six demands including universal male suffrage, secret ballot, and no property qualification for MPs, encapsulated in the People’s Charter of 1838.
  • Despite massive support evidenced by three national petitions (with millions of signatures), all Chartist demands were rejected by Parliament, leading to the movement’s eventual decline by the mid-1850s.

Second Reform Act of 1867

  • The Second Reform Act, or the Reform Act of 1867, was a response to renewed agitation for change and the fear of revolution.
  • Compared to the First Reform Act, it was far more radical, doubling the electorate by including many urban working-class men within the electorate.
  • The Act aimed to appease the middle and industrial working classes, effectively moving Britain closer to a full democracy.

Representation of the People Act 1884

  • By 1884, demands arose to extend voting rights to rural workers, prompted by their exclusion in the 1867 Act.
  • The Representation of the People Act 1884, also known as the Third Reform Act, granted male householders in the counties the same voting rights as those in the boroughs - enabling an additional 2 million men to vote.
  • However, the Act still excluded large portions of the population, including all women and poorer men.


  • The period up to 1884 saw substantial pressure for democratic reform in Britain, with several major changes taking place.
  • While the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Reform Act of 1867, and Representation of the People Act of 1884 broadened the franchise, creating an electorate more representative of the population, they still fell short of full democracy.
  • The demands of Chartists and various political, social and economic factors were instrumental in advancing these developments.